Battle and bloodshed in a dozen places across the region, a breakdown of law, order and normal existence in large areas, hordes of terrified refugees fleeing from conflict and from the brutal oppression of Islamist extremists, hundreds of thousands of people subsisting in temporary camps, thousands risking their very lives on board unseaworthy vessels attempting to reach European shores – this represents the present grim reality in the Middle East.
The current chaos can perhaps be traced back to the Tunisian spark in 2010 that kindled the so-called Arab Spring, which then, as uncontrollable as a forest fire, leaped from state to state. At the start it was a rejection by the Arab masses of the repression, human rights abuses, state censorship and other trammels of the dictatorships or absolute monarchies under which most existed. As the revolutionary fervor raged, one by one the autocrats fell – Tunisia’s Zine Ben Au, followed by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, then Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and finally Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (though he seems intent on regaining power, and is a key player in the turmoil that has engulfed Yemen).
Elsewhere, if popular discontent did not result in the overthrow of governments, it certainly produced civil uprisings across the region from Algeria to Saudi Arabia. Syria’s story encapsulates subsequent developments elsewhere in the region. What began in Syria as popular demonstrations against the tightly controlled police state of President Bashar Assad, soon assumed broader proportions. Islamist jihadi groups, each with its own agenda, joined the fray – those from the Sunni persuasion opposing Assad (and sometimes each other as well); Iran and its puppet organization Hezbollah supporting the Assad regime.
The most disciplined and successful of Assad’s opponents was Islamic State (IS), pursuing its aim of establishing a Sunni Caliphate across Syria and Iraq as the base for expanding ever further into the Middle East and from there across the world. Syria and Iraq remain in turmoil, and the hand of IS is now apparent in other areas of open conflict – Yemen, Sinai, Libya, Nigeria.
States seeking to maintain stability in the midst of this maelstrom not surprisingly began re-examining historic relationships, and it is right that they should. Autres temps, autres moeurs, as the old French proverb runs ((other times, other customs). Unhappily, one major destabilising element on the Middle East scene has been the underlying policy of the US – consistent since President Obama’s assumption of office, but only now, in the final two years of his second term, becoming clearer by the day. Apparently beguiled from the start by the prospect of some sort of working alliance with Iran aimed at overthrowing al-Qaeda, Washington is pressing ahead with negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, America’s declared enemy and the world’s leading state sponsor of terror – a deal that will enable it eventually to acquire atomic weapons.
For decades most of the Gulf States, and especially Saudi Arabia, have been at the receiving end of Iranian efforts to destabilise their governments. They are aware that Iran has ambitions to dominate the region and impose its Shi’ite version of Islam. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that they oppose current US policy and are determined to acquire a nuclear capability of their own should the current negotiations end as predicted. One plausible outcome of the nuclear deal with Iran is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
As the London Daily Telegraph observed recently, so tangled has American policy become that US diplomats spend days at a time closeted in bilateral talks with their opposite numbers from Tehran, while Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is shunned by the White House. Meanwhile, when President Obama hosted a summit at Camp David in support of his nuclear deal with Iran, King Salman of Saudi Arabia – a US ally for 70 years – absented himself, while King Hamad of Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, preferred a visit to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in the UK.
The stable Sunni Arab states now find themselves in an extraordinary meeting of minds with Israel – a country they do not recognise. Obama sees Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rohani as pragmatic leaders, prepared to abandon their military nuclear ambitions in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. Once that is achieved, Obama believes that Iran and America can together openly combat IS.
The Sunni powers of the Gulf reject this complacent assessment, just as Israel does. The Arab leaders, just like Israel, perceive Iran as an implacable foe. They know that Iran is hell-bent on overthrowing their regimes and establishing political and religious dominance in the Middle East; Israel knows that Iran has as its stated aim the elimination of the Jewish state. Both view with genuine alarm the prospect of a nuclear Iran – the Arab states because it would totally destabilise the current balance of power; Israel because it would provide terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, whom Iran supports, with a nuclear capability.
Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi finds himself of one mind with Israel about Hamas, and indeed about Obama’s persistent support for the Muslim Brotherhood – both organizations that el-Sisi regards as deadly enemies. Egyptian and Israeli forces are, indeed, collaborating pretty openly in the Sinai peninsula against ruthless jihadi terrorists, supported by Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose aim is to overthrow the Egyptian government.
Hamas, which was once funded by Saudi Arabia and enabled by Egypt, is now viewed by both states as part of a Sunni jihad that threatens not only Israel, but them as well. It is no surprise, therefore, that el-Sisi visited Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago to discuss, in the words of Al Arabiya News, “the depth of strategic relations between the Kingdom and Egypt.” In a subsequent interview, el-Sisi emphasised the need for the two countries to work together, considering the “difficult condition” the Arab region is in.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states and Israel – they now share a community of interest never before recognized. Yet even now it would be politically impossible for the Arab world to cooperate formally with Israel against common foes – unless a clearly understood and openly acknowledged justification was available to placate Arab public opinion. That justification lies in wait, buried in the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Arab recognition of Israel and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations in exchange for the resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute.
Perhaps this explains the appointment of a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Israeli government charged with overseeing the renewal of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.