Observations of an expat: Shifting Arabian sands

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The recent establishment of diplomatic relations and business ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates raises a host of questions, hopes, problems, issues and consequences.

Is it good or bad?  In the constant shifting sands of the Middle East where tribal loyalties overlap with religious and ethnic rivalries it is probably best to say that it is a bit of both, and the need for a supreme balancing act will continue to be the order of the day.

The UAE has at least partially opened the diplomatic floodgates and other Arab countries are expected to soon follow. It is reckoned that the next Arab country to establish links with Israeli will be the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was among the first to congratulate both Israel and the UAE on their bold move. The reason? Sunni king Al Khalifa is terrified of Iran. The Persians have long claimed the island as part of their territory, and 60 percent of the population is Shia.

Next on the likely list is Oman. The late Sultan Qaboos regularly acted as a mediator between Arab and Israeli interests. In 2018 he hosted a visit to Muscat by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Omanis have been praised for their regional diplomacy, not only between Israel and the Arab world, but also between Iran and Arabia.

Sudan is another possibility. The Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah Al-Barhan and Netanyahu recently met in Sudan. Relations have slightly cooled since then, but cash-strapped Sudan is most likely to follow the money and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dropped unsubtle hints that cash is available in return for diplomatic recognition.

The biggest question mark hangs over Saudi Arabia. Its long-standing enmity with Iran has pushed it into cooperation with Israel on intelligence and related issues. But at the same time, the kingdom’s role as custodian of the Islamic holy places and banker to the Arab and wider Muslim world, constrains their room for diplomatic manoeuvre. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has the additional problem of large Shi-ite population in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

The Shia versus Sunni conflict is these days running neck and neck and at times surpassing the Arab-Israeli clash. The quarrel is as much about ethnic, historic and cultural differences as it is religious. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution the differences have been complicated by Iran’s diplomatic volte face from staunchly pro-American to rabidly anti-American, and the regional leader of the anti-Israeli forces. The realpolitik truism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a driving force behind Arab recognition of Israel.

It is also the reason why certain key Arab states will be last in line to accept accommodation with Israel. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon all have large Shi-ite populations. Shia dominance in southern Iraq led to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and Iran has strongly backed Syria’s Alawite President Assad (Alawites are a Shia offshoot) in the civil war. In Lebanon, Iran provides a wide range of support to the Shia Hezbollah Party which now controls the border area with Israel and several key cabinet posts.

Diplomatic recognition of Israel by Arab governments does not necessarily mean acceptance by the general population. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was assassinated because he established relations with the Jewish state. None of the Arab states are democracies or have adequate political structures that allow the views of the general population to be heard. The UAE’s decision to recognise Israel was made by a Western-educated, business-driven elite who are largely isolated from the fundamentalist populations they govern. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and could lead to an Arab Spring-type instability.

Establishing Arab-Israel relations, does, however, provide the Arab world with a potential brake on Israeli policies. The UAE made it clear that its recognition was dependent on Netanyahu shelving plans for the annexation of the West Bank; which he has done although he refuses to abandon the project.

But at the same time, recognition also pushes both Iran and the Palestinians into progressively radical positions.  They are increasingly being ignored by the guiding hand of American diplomacy. The long-held two-state solution has been jettisoned by the Trump Administration and Iran ranks alongside China as international public enemy number one. But neither the Palestinians nor the Iranians will disappear. Sweeping them under a Persian carpet will only create dangerous lumps to trip over at a later date.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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26 Comments

  • richard underhill. Y 4th Sep '20 - 8:36pm

    Tonight is SITAR NIGHT: BBC4 8.00, Make a new friend.

  • richard underhill.,. 4th Sep '20 - 8:58pm

    The West–Eastern Divan Orchestra will hopefully be playing again at the proms.
    We should learn words of wisdom from their co-founder / conductor and develop peace with Argentina.
    I like it when one party says SALAAM and another says Shalom. It has happened and could happen again given wiser government/s.

  • richard underhill.,. 4th Sep '20 - 9:59pm

    Thanks to liberal minister
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans-Dietrich_Genscher
    for advising James Callaghan MP (Labour)
    Source: my friend, Enid Lakeman

  • John Marriott 5th Sep '20 - 7:29am

    Another digression alert! I can’t allow Mr Underhill to monopolise this thread. However his mentioning the West-East Divan makes me realise that I still haven’t read Goethe’s late collection of poems of the same title.

    Back to reality. The Middle East is still a powder keg. Add COVID to the mix and, God forbid, another four years of Trump in the White House and that explosion in Beirut could pale into insignificance in terms of magnitude.

  • richard underhill.,. 5th Sep '20 - 8:00am

    Turkey is not an Arab country, but should be considered in terms of relations with Israel and the supply of water. A pipeline from northeast Turkey to the sea of Galilee should be considered, the US is hinting that money is available if there are peaceful circumstances. Israel has technology which allows it to draw large quantities of water from the Med for her own purposes and should not therefore need to compete with Palestinian farmers for irrigation of their crops. Perhaps Layla could take a look?

  • richard underhill.,. 5th Sep '20 - 8:11am
  • richard underhill.,. 5th Sep '20 - 8:23am

    If there is a large aquifer under the Negev Israel should be able to provide enough water for its own farming independently of West German reparations and export top quality grapefruits to Marks and Spencer as an alternative to Florida product. Perhaps Israel could expand/resume its aid programme to black African countries planting trees in river beds. The right trees of course, not too thirsty.

  • John Marriott 5th Sep '20 - 9:17am

    I wonder whether, if Messrs Sykes and Picot were to re-emerge today, what they would think of the unholy mess their slicing up of the Ottoman Empire back in WW1 has created.

  • The 1995 Interim Agreement as part of the Oslo Peace Process provided certain quantities of water to the Palestinians, but prevents them from drilling any new wells in the Mountain Aquifer. The surface water of the Jordan River remains disputed with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Only with Jordan was Israel able to reach an agreement on the sharing of water resources in 1995 as part of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.

  • The Red Sea–Dead Sea Conveyance, sometimes called the Two Seas Canal, is a planned pipeline that runs from the coastal city of Aqaba by the Red Sea to the Lisan area in the Dead Sea. It will provide potable water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, bring water with a high concentration of salts resulting from the desalination process (reject brine) to stabilise the Dead Sea water level, and generate electricity to support the energy needs of the project. The project is going to be carried out by Jordan and is entirely in Jordanian territory. The project will be financed by the governments of Jordan, Israel, and a number of international donors.

  • John Marriott 5th Sep '20 - 3:46pm

    @Joseph Bourke
    Thanks for the history lesson. As usual with your interventions you haven’t really told us what you think. I’m not sure what you mean by “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform”. Yes, we all want ‘peace’. If, by ‘retrenchment’, you are referring to Trump’s deal, then you are surely ignoring the Palestinians, whose fate was effectively sealed by the controversial appointment in 1920 of Zionist sympathiser, Liberal, Herbert Samuel, as the first Commissioner for Palestine. If you want ‘reform’ then you won’t get very far while Netanyahu is still Israeli PM nor while certain Palestine and other Middle Eastern governments and parties insist on trying to annihilate the state of Israel.

    I checked out what you wrote about the Treaty of Sèvres. You omitted to mention that it was rejected by the new Turkish government and it took the Treaty of Lausanne two years later to get agreement from the Turks, certain aspects of which I believe the current Turkish administration is now disputing.

    However, you do not seem to have taken account that one of the main reasons, in my opinion, that the UK, France and initially Tsarist Russia wanted to carve up the Middle East was to get their hands on much of its oil reserves, by creating a series of what they hoped would be vassal states.

  • John Marriott 6th Sep '20 - 8:57am

    @Joseoh Bourke
    Yes, yes, yes. I know you know your history (and never hesitate to demonstrate that you do). BUT have you learned anything from it and, if so, what do you think we should do to unravel the mess in whose creation we in the West have played a major part? Is ‘Peace, Retrenchment and Reform’ all you have to offer as a solution? By the way, in that French phrase you quoted, you missed out the final word (very important from a grammatical/ syntactical point of view). Wikipedia informs me that it came from French journalist, Jean-Baptiste Karr, but I’m sure you knew that.

    Now MY solution to the Middle East problem would be to stop trying to pretend that it was a more exotic version of the West, stop trying to ram Western style democracy down its throat and stop selling arms to oil rich states, many of whom are basically fiefdoms, and artificially created largely by the treaties you have mentioned. However, unless the USA, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia are prepared to play ball, there’s not much point in the U.K. taking a stand. Mind you, with oil declining in importance in the coming decades, some of those rulers might have to think again. As for Israel, let’s pray that both Trump and Netanyahu and his Likud Party bite the dust and that Countries like Iran and Syria can be corralled. Let’s make sure we differentiate between Anti Semitism and Zionism unless we want to get into further trouble. Of course Israel has a right to exist, but within boundaries agreed after WW2 and, until this right is recognised by the Arab world as a whole and the two state solution properly supported by the international community, conflict will continue. Finally, let’s do something positive to sort out the refugee and economic crisis both there and in Africa as a whole, before it overwhelms us. And then there’s a little matter of COVID-19.

  • John
    “but within boundaries agreed after WW2”
    The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was rejected Arab leaders and governments. There were no agreed borders.

  • John Marriott 6th Sep '20 - 12:35pm

    @Manfarang
    I didn’t say by whom. The fact that the Middle East was carved up after WW1 and the state of Israel established after WW2 without agreement with the majority of those living in the region is surely one of the reasons why we are where we are. Hubris has a lot to answer for, wouldn’t you agree?

    On the other hand, either you have international law or you don’t. Haven’t we in the West always thought that we knew what was best for the less ‘developed’ regions of the world, often to our cost? If you look at the first couple of sentences in the second paragraph of my last post you might understand what I mean.

  • John
    Having lived in the Gulf I would say it was not less developed than in the West in any economic sense because of oil of course. The Arab Spring certainly revealed the aspirations of many young people throughout North Africa and the Levant.

  • John Marriott 6th Sep '20 - 3:41pm

    @Joseph Bourke
    So, you would be prepared to abandon the Palestinians to their fate, because that’s what appears to be happening? Palmerston would probably have dispatched a gun boat by now! However, we no longer live in the middle of the 19th century. As for the U.K. being a ‘permanent member’ of the UN Security Council, one wonders, once we cut ourselves adrift from the EU, whether that situation might continue.

  • Miranda Pinch 6th Sep '20 - 3:47pm

    John Marriott, bravo
    and Joseph, as so often happens you are generalising about Arabs as if they are one population. Arabs are as different in culture as Europeans are. The Palestinians have rights under international law and human rights etc, all of which Israel is flouting. Making arrangements with an Arab state is not addressing the wrongs committed against them now and in the past. Until the Palestinian people are properly recognised and given the same rights that others in the region are, especially those who are currently occupying their land and oppressing them, international law and human rights are not being addressed at all. The treaty with the UAE may or may not be beneficial to them in the future, but how can we speak of human rights and international law as applying to some and not others? There lies the whole nub of the issue.

  • Miranda
    Whose land? Territory which had it fact been part of empires for centuries.
    Israel and Kosovo have agreed to establish diplomatic ties and Kosovo will open an embassy in Jerusalem. To the Serbs Kosovo is “Jerusalem” an occupied land.

  • Miranda Pinch 7th Sep '20 - 7:29am

    Manfarang. Well the land is not part of Israel and, let’s face it, international law and human rights apply to everyone everywhere, don’t they? Yet again, you seem to be making excuses for denying these basic rights to the people who have livind in what has been called Palestine for a very long time. Just because the Palestinians have been betrayed by those governing previously does not deny them their basic rights, or are you suggesting otherwise? East Jerusalem has been illegally annexed by Israel under International law, or does that not count?

  • Miranda Pinch 8th Sep '20 - 12:06pm

    Joseph. I am not going to keep on responding. All I will say is that Hamas was a product of Israeli policy, not the cause of it. Whatever you may believe about Hamas, what Israel is doing in and around Gaza is collectively punishing 2 million people in a tiny area, 70% of whom are refugees from Israel, 50% of which are under 18, with over 46% unemployment and an infrastructure destroyed by Israel, with little, electricity, useable water, or anything else, all caused by the actions of Israel, with the help of Egypt. I could go into the whys and wherefores, but I have other things to do.
    Everything that Israel does regarding Gaza is not in any way proportional. As said, Hamas is a product, not the cause. Israel helped to create them and then did not like what they achieved as Hamas won a fully democratic election. They have never been allowed to govern under anything other than a war footing. Maybe a different tactic should be tried in keeping with international law? In regard to Gaza as with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel flouts all international law and human rights. The Palestinians living under occupation are as entitled as Israelis to self-determination, equal rights etc.

  • John Marriott 8th Sep '20 - 5:34pm

    @Joseph Bourke
    “Israel is a modern democracy”. You are the past master at sweeping generalisations. So was the Weimar Republic once and its Reichstag indeed had a similar voting system with, like the Knesset, a veritable plethora of parties. However, that didn’t stop it being taken over by a chancer and his right wing ideological crew. In fact the same could be said of a great number of “modern democracies”, look at the USA or some of the Eastern European countries for example. What about our own? As Miranda Pinch has written, that surely doesn’t justify what has happened to the Palestinians’ cause. As for your portrayal of groups like Hamas as being the aggressors, surely even you with your superior knowledge of history would admit that it takes two to tango!

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