Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 8 March 2024

Opinion | Amid the horror in Gaza, it’s easy to miss that the Middle East has changed

The flags of the United Arab Emirates and Israel are seen on a bridge in Netanya, Israel, in August 2020. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
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As we watch the horrors of another war in the Middle East, it is easy to get gloomy and depressed. It seems that the region as a whole continues to be violent and unstable. But that misses an important shift that has taken place in recent times, one that provides some cause for optimism about the future: The Arab states that are now the Middle East’s leaders are playing an important and constructive role in stabilizing the situation and are working for peace. This is a sea change from decades past.

The country that for decades defined the Arab world’s agenda was Egypt, especially under charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s core ideology was Arab nationalism with a strong anti-Israeli component. The other large Arab states, Syria and Iraq, were equally fiery in their condemnations of Israel. They often embraced a policy of “rejectionism” that opposed any concessions toward Israel. Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, joined in giving the struggle against Israel a religious tone. In 2002, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia authorized a telethon to aid the relatives of Palestinian “martyrs” killed by Israel, including those of terrorists. It raised roughly $100 million.

Today, Iraq and Syria are mired in dysfunction, and the attitude of the other leading Arab states could not be more different. First, there has been a reshuffling of what countries are seen as the region’s leaders. While it used to be that the large Arab countries were dominant — because of history, size, armies, etc. — today it is the incredibly wealthy gulf states that set the agenda. Countries such as Egypt regularly depend on their wealthy Persian Gulf neighbors for bailouts and handouts. Second, there has been a broad shift of attitude — against Arab terrorism and toward some kind of reconciliation with and recognition of Israel.

The gulf states are now so rich that it has redefined their orientation toward the world. On a recent trip to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, I was struck by how these countries’ elites predominantly worry about war and instability, are constantly looking for economic opportunities, and increasingly see Israel as a potential economic partner. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has huge ambitions for modernization. Violence and terror in the region can only upend these plans.

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The shift in Egypt is particularly important. President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi came to power jailing thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with affinities for and ties to Hamas. Sisi is deeply hostile toward Hamas and all such militant movements, and is eager to partner with Israel to crush them. The backdrop to Egypt and the gulf Arabs’ positions is their joint opposition to the rise of Iran and its army of proxies, from Hezbollah to the Houthis to Hamas.

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Of course, there are complexities and nuances. Qatar has managed to play a role as an intermediary between Hamas and Israel because it has friendly relations with Hamas and has also long had ties with Israel (which were officially severed in 2009 after Israel attacked Gaza). Qatar’s support of Hamas has often been criticized, but the truth is that, without a go-between, no cease-fires or peace deals would be possible. And the Qatari government has, by all accounts, been extremely constructive and responsible in helping broker negotiations.

Arab governments are not the same as the Arab people, and public opinion in the Arab world has turned sharply against Israel and the United States — and gets more critical by the day. But even here, there is a silver lining. As Carnegie Endowment scholar Amr Hamzawy noted in November, Arab attitudes since the war began have been far more moderate than in the past, condemning violence against civilians on both sides, rejecting terrorism and urging a two-state solution. Hamzawy pointed out that this is part of a broader turn away from political violence, with an average of more than 90 percent of Arabs surveyed by one source in recent years rejecting extremist organizations and condemning terrorism.

That backdrop might explain why, despite their vehement opposition to the scale and scope of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, no Arab country has suspended its relations with Israel. Even the denunciations have been somewhat muted. Instead, the focus has been on practical ways to help the Palestinians, such as cease-firesaid corridors and postwar reconstruction — all on the path to a Palestinian state. U.S. officials who deal with them have told me that they find the leadership of these Arab countries eager, constructive and helpful in searching for solutions. The Saudi-led plan for a path to a two-state solution is, according to these officials, practical and workable.

This change in both the composition of the leading Arab states and the attitudes of the leaders will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But it does suggest there is some support for peace, stability and moderation in a region that desperately needs it.


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