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Qatar’s Dilemma for Normalization with Israel: Opportunities and Constraints



The UAE and Bahrain signed a normalization agreement with Israel in September 2020 before the final days of the Trump administration. It has been the first time Israel officially established business relations and open embassies in the Gulf. The critiques draw our attention to the unofficial dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the constraints of such relations on the domestic context of Saudi Arabia. Eli Cohen, Israeli Intelligence Minister, recently emphasized that Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Niger are very close to reaching a normalization agreement with Israel. While there are controversies on who will be the next to join this normalization trend, Qatar differs from the other Gulf countries due to its significance in Israel’s regional and domestic security, particularly in Hamas. For the Qatar decision-makes, Qatar’s foreign policy’s enhancement to the Gaza strip, with the acknowledgment of Israel, strengthens Qatar’s mediation role between the interfering parties in the region and consolidates Qatar’s status irreplaceable for Israel, even without a normalization agreement, in the post-GCC crisis period.        

One needs to note that the normalization decisions of the UAE and Bahrain came at a moment of the end of the GCC crisis that resumed in June 2017. Although the first signals of rapprochement began towards the end of 2020, the reconciliation happened in January 2021 in the al-Ula city of Medina with the attendance of the GCC members and the Trump administration’s senior adviser Jared Kushner. It appeared to be an endeavor of Israel coordinated with the Trump administration to ensure peace and dialogue among the GCC countries, which would ease their possibility of establishing a diplomatic dialogue with Israel later on. It is a calculated step of Israel’s foreign policy given the unpredictable regional dynamics and the US foreign policy during Joe Biden’s presidency. 

Although Qatar does not have official diplomatic ties with Israel yet, it was the first Gulf country where Israel opened a trade office following a visit of Simon Peres, the President of Israel, to Doha in 1996. The office was closed in 2009 following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 but, later on, Qatar offered a deal to Israel by inviting Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the head of the Israeli trade office, to reopen the office with the condition of allowing Qatar to import construction materials to Gaza. The offer was regarded as a national security threat to Israel and rejected due to its civilian-military threat, which showed the potential of Israel’s hand in initiating or terminating a dialogue with the Gulf countries.

For Israel, the blockade of the Gaza strip is obligatory to prevent Hamas from getting military and financial aid from outside to arms itself. On the other hand, agreeing with Qatar in the reconstruction of Gaza and sending financial aid to the Gaza people helps Israel reduce Iran’s hand to maneuver and weaken Iran’s influence on Hamas and the Gaza Strip. For Iran, the normalization process between Israel and the Gulf neighbors constitutes an existential threat to Iranian security, bringing the eternal enemy to its door. As Iran helped Qatar during the blockade on Qatar in 2017 by opening the Iranian airspace, the Qatari side clearly announced its intention to continue diplomatic and economic relations with Iran without asking the consent of any regional states given the right of sovereignty of Qatar. It particularly disturbs the Saudi and Israeli decision-makers and somehow brings them together against Iran. At this point, Qatar differs from Saudi Arabia and the UAE owing to the balancing strategy of its relations with Israel, Turkey, and Iran. 

The relation between Qatar and Israel over the Gaza strip is far from unofficial cooperation if one remembers Israel’s decision to expel the Al-Jazeera channel from the country in the 2017 crisis. However, the decision of Egypt to reject goods and raw materials from Qatar through the Rafah border crossing after the 2017 Gulf crisis made Israel Qatar’s only means of transferring aid to Gaza. Qatar tightened its links with Gaza in 2012, after Qatar’s previous ruler, Emir Sheikh Hammad bin Khalifa visited Gaza. In tandem, Qatar has appeared to be the major actor working for the reconstruction of Gaza, and a channel between Israel and Hamas, especially after the 2014 Gaza war or Operation Protective Edge. Qatar funded construction project ‘Hamad City in Khan Yunis, constructed around 3000 housing in the southern Gaza Strip, built Salah al-Din highway, and opened Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Hospital for rehabilitation and prostheses. In 2019, Qatar invested $150 million in fuel subsidies in the Gaza Strip to help the Gaza people to overcome the power shortages. In January 2021, Hamas announced that Qatar would continue to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and allocate $30 million for low-income families and build a $60 million natural gas pipeline from Israel into the Strip, which will ameliorate Gaza’s energy problem and economy.

Qatar is not in a hurry like the UAE and Bahrain to agree with Israel because it already has some specific dialogue with Israel over Gaza. Qatar does not aim to have a normalization with Israel with a motivation of getting closer to the US, particularly after the end of the Trump administration. A normalization process would not have economic reasons, too, despite Qatar initiating some Israeli investments like constructing the $6 million Doha Stadium for the Israeli-Arab soccer team Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin in 2005. Qatar’s wealth consolidates its role in Israel’s regional security policy and domestic security until a better option emerges for Israel. Both parties are aware of the significance of their unofficial coordination; for instance, Muhammad al-Emadi, the Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip in charge of the Gaza rehabilitation project, stated Qatar’s helps to Gaza prevents the next war but “without Israel, sending aid to the Strip would not be possible”. Hassan al-Thawadi, the head of the Qatari committee of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, already announced Qatar would not make any problems for the Israelis like the other nationalities for watching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, Qatar feels responsible for avoiding presenting itself as an economic partner for Israel because it does not want to be a betrayer in the perception of the Palestinians. In tandem, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani already declared Qatar’s commitment to the Palestinian people’s right to establish their state following the 1967 borders and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative of Saudi King Abdullah.

Qatar legitimizes its dialogue with Israel in relation to humanitarian and reconstruction matters concerning the Palestinians. Qatar’s grand access to the Gaza strip, in comparison to other GCC countries, has helped Qatar to flash its regional role as a mediator in the regional conflicts during and after the 2017 Gulf crisis. Qatar’s closeness to the Hamas and Palestinian authority which the UAE or Bahrain cannot offer, given the mistrust of the Palestinian side to both, makes Qatar an irreplaceable Gulf actor for Israel. Qatar understands that the best way to reassert its decisive role as a mediator actor is to be a peacebuilder of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which its GCC neighbors cannot easily propose after the 2017 Gulf crisis.

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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal



Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?



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“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility



Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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