Cheap Seats 2020
One for the History Books - 08/26
By Rich Trzupek
Every once in a while, in the midst of madness, there’s a flicker of light that offers hope to a troubled world. We had such a flicker a couple of weeks ago, one that originated in the most unlikely of places: the Middle East.
The United Arab Emirates recognized the state of Israel and agreed to establish normal diplomatic relationships. Such a move would have been unthinkable even a very few years ago. Any leader of an Arab nation, even one as relatively westernized as the UAE, would be slitting its own throat. The Israelis and we Americans have been so routinely vilified – identified as the root of all evil – for so long that it’s ingrained in the national psyche of the Arab states. One doesn’t make deals with the devil.
Yet, there has long been a flip side to that coin for the leaders of the states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. While each continued to more or less stick to the officially recognized anti-Israel playbook, attitudes began to change as Iran became the dominant power in the region.
It’s complicated of course. Everything in that part of the world is complicated. One can never discount the religious element, but nor does faith alone determine policy choices. Western powers have been stumbling around in the minefield that is middle eastern politics since Laurence of Arabia’s heyday.
Iran is predominantly Shia, extremely authoritarian and its leaders are religious fanatics bent on imposing their beliefs on the rest of a sinful world. Saudi Arabia is almost exclusively Sunni and extremely authoritarian. Its leaders are not nearly as fanatic about religion as their Irani counterparts and while uniting Arab power was once a dream of the Royal House of Saud, it has faded into misty memory as a succession of more pragmatic kings have climbed the throne.
The UAE, Oman and Bahrain are also predominantly Sunni, but each is more or less westernized in terms of social mores. Non-Muslim women can dress how they like in these countries – within reason – and one can enjoy a cool beer on a hot day when visiting. I was once served by a waiter who was obviously and flamboyantly gay when in Bahrain, something that would never happen in strict Islamic nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar? It’s a special, case. While part of the GCC it is not a Sunni state, strictly speaking. There is a strong Shia influence in Qatar as well, even though it is about as socially liberal as the UAE, Oman and Bahrain. This leaves Qatar with something of a split personality in the Gulf. Officially they are a strong US ally, hosting an important Air Force base among other forms of support. At the same time, the rulers have a bad habit of looking the other way when some of the rich Shia support Iranian-backed troublemakers.
With all of the caveats listed above, and a bunch more we don’t have time for, the GCC states, plus Jordan and Egypt are more or less on one side and Iran is on the other. Though the GCC states have been publicly critical of Israel, it’s different behind closed doors. They recognize that Israel is the most powerful deterrent to Iranian aggression in the region. Should the mullahs in Iran ever succeed in obtaining nuclear weapons, the GCC states (like America) would expect Israel to take them out and support their efforts to do so.
With the UAE now crossing the line into full diplomatic relations with Israel, it opens the door for the rest of the GCC to follow. Oman and Bahrain will probably be next. Assuming there’s no serious backlash in the Arab world, we might see Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia following suit.
That’s great news for a troubled world. It’s not peace in the Middle East. That’s still a long way off. But it is a huge step in isolating Iran and settling the Palestinian problem. Hat’s off to everyone involved.