George W. Bush and Barack Obama both attempted to transform the Middle East. Neither of them found the kind of success they were looking for.
But as the United States shrunk its regional footprint and ambitions, the Middle East began to change on its own. One of the most recent signs of its metamorphosis has been Saudi Prince Bandar’s fierce criticism of the Palestinian leadership for their decades of poor decision-making. His words are underlined by his kingdom’s decision to open its airspace to commercial flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai. Considering the UAE’s shift from not recognizing the Jewish state to building warm peace and economic partnerships with Israel, it’s clear that the region is moving away from the predictable sterility of the past. towards something truly new.
President Trump’s peace plan, which many longtime Middle Eastern pundits have called a horrific blunder that would destroy America’s role in the Middle East peace negotiations, has proven relatively popular on the Arab street. Zogby inquiry found majorities in favor of ‘deal of the century’ in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates
When asked to identify the countries that had increased their influence the most in the Arab world over the past five years, more young Arabs in the survey cited the United States than any other country. (Only 16% named Russia.) Fifty-six percent saw America as their country’s “ally”, up from 35% in 2018.
On other issues, 67% of young Arabs surveyed agreed that “religion plays too big a role in the Middle East”. Seventy-six percent of young women and 70% of young men support the idea of married women working outside the home.
If the attitudes in the Arab street change, the attitudes in the suites change even more. The image that emerged from my conversation with Mr. Otaiba, which was highlighted in a subsequent conversation with National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, was that key Arab leaders embraced the idea that better relations with Israel are essential to the security of their states and even survival.
It is even more Turkey than Iran that keeps some Arab leaders awake at night. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional Islamist movement that Mr. Obama once hoped could tame terrorism by introducing a moderate and democratic form of Islamist politics to the region. That dream died with Mr. Erdogan’s shift to a more authoritarian approach, the incompetence of the government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the continued support for violence by Hamas, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Arab leaders fear that Turkey is using the brotherhood’s networks to bolster support for Ankara’s regional ambitions. Iran can only call on the Shiite minority for religious support, but Turkey can attract supporters of the Sunni majority.
Ironically, the current Arab nightmare is that the next US administration will not support Israel enough. Regional leaders fear that the Biden team will ignore Israeli and Arab objections, embracing Turkey, an ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite Erdogan’s ambitions, and dropping sanctions against Iran in as part of a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Close Arab cooperation with Israel, some in the Gulf seem to hope, will help keep this specter at bay. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to postpone annexations of West Bank territory in exchange for the relationship with the United Arab Emirates was a gift to both American political parties. Republicans could hail a foreign policy victory for Mr. Trump. For Democrats, this meant that Biden’s campaign and a President Biden would not be distracted by a bitter inter-party fight over the US response to Israeli annexations. Aligned with Israel, the Arabs hope that their voices will be heard more clearly and that their interests will be taken more seriously no matter what happens in the November elections.
Meanwhile, Otaiba believes that bringing Gulf capital into the Israeli economy and Israeli technical expertise in the Gulf can help Arab countries achieve economic results that will satisfy the restless young generation. It is suspected that Washington would like to see US Gulf allies replace China as a major source of foreign investment in Israel.
The Middle East has changed; American thought will have to adapt.
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