Opinion

After Israel-UAE deal, whither the Arab and Muslim world?

A Saudi-Pakistani spat over Kashmir, Gulf state feuds and strife between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates put to the test the notion that the Arab and Muslim world shares common interests.

The Middle East as seen from 250 miles above in this April 14, 2016 photo from the International Space Station. Countries seen, from left, along the Mediterranean coast include Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
The Middle East as seen from 250 miles above in this April 14, 2016 photo from the International Space Station. Countries seen, from left, along the Mediterranean coast include Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
James Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.

The UAE-Israel agreement weakens the Palestinians’ efforts to create a state of their own, but their criticism of the UAE’s move to become the third Arab country after Egypt and Jordan to officially recognize the Jewish state is based on a moral rather than a legal claim.

The UAE and Israel see their relations with the United States and the perceived threat from Iran as bigger fish to fry. Both countries hope an upgrading of their relations will keep the United States engaged in the Middle East, particularly given that it puts pressure to follow suit on other Gulf states that have similar concerns and have engaged with Israel (if not to the UAE’s degree).

The UAE and Israel further worry that a possible victory by presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the U.S. presidential election this November could bring to office an administration more willing than President Donald Trump’s to accommodate Iran.

The establishment of diplomatic relations strengthens the UAE’s position as one of Washington’s most important partners in the Middle East and allows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to argue that his policy toward the Palestinians does not preclude a broader peace between the Jewish state and Arab nations.

Netanyahu is, however, concerned that his argument may resonate less with a Biden administration that could be less sympathetic toward Israel’s sovereignty aspirations in parts of the West Bank—as well as with parts of the right-wing in Israel, which may not feel that peace with the UAE is worth surrendering historical Jewish land.

Ironically, the price of suspending the extension of sovereignty in exchange for diplomatic relations with the UAE gets Netanyahu off the hook in the short term.

Netanyahu had pledged to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, but then dragged his feet because the Trump administration, while endorsing the principle, opposed any tangible move on the ground. Trump feared that sovereignty would preempt his ability to claim some success for his controversial Israel-Palestinian peace plan.

Emirati officials made clear that the formal declaration of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, would scupper the establishment of formal relations with Israel.

The question now is whether the UAE will put paid to that notion by opening its embassy in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv.

It is also unclear what the UAE, as well as Jordan and Egypt, will do if and when Israel legally incorporates West Bank lands sometime in the future.

The UAE’s willingness to formally recognize Israel was the latest nail in the coffin of Arab and Muslim solidarity—an always dubious notion that has been trumped by the hardnosed interests of states and their rulers.

As Trump, Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan were putting the final touches on their coordinated statements, traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were locked in an escalating spat over Kashmir.

India last year revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and imposed a brutal crackdown.

Muslim countries, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the lead—as in the case of China’s ruthless crackdown on Turkic Muslims—have been reluctant to jeopardize their growing economic and military ties to India, effectively hanging Pakistan out to dry.

The two Gulf states, instead of maintaining their traditional support for Pakistan, feted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as developments in Kashmir unfolded.

In response, Pakistan hit Saudi Arabia where it hurts. In rare public criticism of the kingdom, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi suggested that Pakistan would convene an Islamic conference outside the confines of the Saudi-controlled Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after the group rejected Islamabad’s request for a meeting on Kashmir.

Targeting Saudi Arabia’s leadership and quest for Muslim religious soft power, Qureishi issued his threat eight months after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, under Saudi pressure, bowed out of an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur convened by the kingdom’s critics, including Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

Riyadh fears that any challenge to its leadership could fuel demands that it sign over custodianship of Mecca and Medina to a pan-Islamic body.

The custodianship and Saudi Arabia’s image as leader of the Muslim world is what persuaded Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman to reach out to Israel—primarily to use that as well as his embrace of dialogue with Jewish and Christian groups to bolster his tarnished image in Washington and other Western capitals.

The UAE’s recognition of Israel puts Riyadh more than any other Gulf state on the spot when it comes to establishing relations with Israel, and it puts Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed in the driver’s seat.

That is all about interests and competition. It has little to do with Arab or Muslim solidarity.

Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.

This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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