The US-brokered peace deal between Israel and the UAE has not surprised those who have followed developments in the region. As loyal allies of the US, the Gulf states have long shifted their position on Israel. The UAE and Israel have been in secret talks for some time. The Americans have stepped in to formalise the arrangement and make it public.
The Gulf kingdoms had changed their position on Israel as they perceived a greater threat from Iran. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and Tehran’s emergence as a major Shia power in the region changed the threat perception of the Gulf Arab states. As Iran reached out to Shia minorities living in the Sunni-dominated countries, it gradually replaced Israel as the number one enemy of the Gulf kingdoms. Israel viewed Iran and its power play in the Persian Gulf as a threat to its interests.
Saudi Arabia, which regards itself as a leader of the Islamic world, by virtue of being the custodians of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, regards Iran as a threat to the Sunni domination of Islam. So does fellow Sunni power, the United Arab Emirates.
The Palestinian cause was sacrificed as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE – all three now have a common foe in Iran. A precedent had already been set by Egypt in 1979 when it recognised Israel and the two countries buried the hatchet. In 1994, Jordan and Israel had a similar deal.
Some of the fiercest opponents of the nuclear deal between Iran, the five permanent members of the UNSC and Germany were Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. When US President Donald Trump walked out of the Obama-era Iran deal, Israel and the two Sunni powers of the region rejoiced.
Today, the de-facto rulers of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed or MBZ and the infamous Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS of Saudi Arabia, are fast friends. They have developed a great rapport with President Trump’s powerful special adviser Jared Kushner, the young man appointed by his father-in-law to negotiate a peace deal in West Asia. Saudi Arabia is expected to be next on the line to have an agreement with Israel. Riyadh is likely to wait and watch how the people of the Gulf State, long used to regarding Israel as the enemy of Islam take the public endorsement of Israel by their ruler. There is no doubt that the Saudi Crown Prince, is in favour of following the UAE lead. It will happen sooner rather than later.
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The US administration, as well as the UAE, is selling the agreement as a deal which will halt the further expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many Palestinians have already been disposed of their land by the Israeli settlers, there is little more that can reasonably be annexed. Yet it is being tommed- tommed as a way to secure Palestinian interests. The Palestinian State has refused to regard this as a concession by the Benjamín Netanyahu government. There are grounds for disquiet among the Palestinians. While American officials including President Trump insists there will be a halt to further settlements, Netanyahu himself has remained tight-lipped, possibly not to embarrass President Trump ahead of the November elections. But the US ambassador to Israel, David Freidman, says the word “suspend” used in the agreement refers to a “temporary halt” to absorbing more Palestinian land.
India, a friend of both Israel and the UAE, has welcomed the agreement. Significantly, the UAE foreign minister was on the phone to his Indian counterpart a day after the signing of the deal with Israel to brief New Delhi on the peace deal. In a readout of the telephone conversation, the MEA said that India continues its traditional support for the Palestinian cause and hoped that direct talks between Israel and Palestinians would resume soon.
One of the achievements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been strengthening ties with the Gulf countries. Not that India did not have friendly ties with the Gulf regimes earlier, but it has accelerated in recent years. The process which began with Atal Bihari Vajpayee was forwarded by Manmohan Singh and vigorously promoted by Modi. The fact that the PM’s ties with US President Donald Trump is excellent and he, in turn, is close to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE further the connections.
So the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status or the lockdown that followed did not get the Gulf states up in arms. Unlike Pakistan, Turkey or Malaysia, the Saudis and the emirates made no public statements. Pakistan’s efforts to get Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) group of 57 Islamic nations to hold a special session of foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Kashmir has been aborted by Riyadh. A frustrated Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke of Saudi Arabia’s reluctance and said that Prime Minister Imran Khan may then be forced to call a meet of Islamic nations outside the OIC.
That angered the Saudis, who asked Pakistan, already in dire financial straits, to repay a loan earlier forwarded by Riyadh. Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa rushed to Saudi Arabia on a damage-control mission. According to reports, the general did not succeed in meeting the Crown Prince MBS, and instead, had to be content with a meeting with the deputy defence minister, a younger brother of the Crown Prince. While the army chief tried to repair ties with Saudi Arabia, foreign minister Qureshi headed to China for talks with his Chinese counterpart. To get Beijing to condemn India’s moves on Kashmir was easy as China and Pakistan are on the same page.
On Kashmir, Pakistan’s views get resonance in both Malaysia and Turkey. However, it will be difficult for Prime Minister Khan to jeopardise Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia for the sake of Kashmir. At best, he can hope to do a tight rope walk.
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