August 31, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8914

Pakistani Columnists Examine The Implications Of UAE-Israel Relations

August 31, 2020
Pakistan, United Arab Emirates | Special Dispatch No. 8914

In two recent articles, Pakistan's major liberal newspaper Dawn examined the implications of the United Arab Emirates' establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. Excerpts from both the articles, which stress the need for change, are given below.

In the first article, titled "The Celestial Dance," former civil servant and columnist Irfan Husain questioned the Islamic countries for being dogmatic and failing to take note of changes in international politics. He wrote: "the idea that Arab policies towards Israel would remain frozen in time unsurprisingly turned out to be a huge fallacy."

In the second article, titled "Changes in the Muslim World," noted counter-extremism analyst Muhammad Amir Rana examined, among other points, how Al-Qaeda is "hamstrung" due its ally the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Afghan Taliban) signing a deal with the U.S.. He also noted how Islamic clerics, who favor Saudi leaders, are caught in a bind with regard to their promotion of antisemitism.

Following are excerpts from Irfan Husain's article:[1]

"The Notion That The 'Arab Street' Would Explode If Israel Were To Be Recognized Was Punctured Once And For All"

"The one constant in life is that nothing is permanent, and everything is in perpetual motion. From sub-atomic particles to the giant spheres that float silently across the skies, we are all part of the great celestial dance. So, the idea that empires, dogmas, and beliefs are carved in stone that will last forever is a delusion created by puny humans, who think a few generations are an eternity.

"But as the ruins of dead civilizations across the world attest, nothing we create is forever. Against this background of change and evolution, the idea that Arab policies towards Israel would remain frozen in time unsurprisingly turned out to be a huge fallacy. Firstly, the notion that the 'Arab street' would explode if Israel were to be recognized was punctured once and for all.

"In fact, this has been a much-overrated concept ever since the first Gulf War in 1990. But apart from a few scattered demonstrations, the response was tepid. Saddam Hussein had certainly not helped his cause by first invading Kuwait. But for Americans to enter Saudi Arabia and use it as a base for launching its attack was not seen by most Arabs as a very big deal.

"So, if the common reaction was not going to be a deterrent, what would stop Arab rulers from recognizing Israel? After all, they are nasty towards their own people, so why would they care about Israeli repression of Palestinians?"

"It Is Tehran's Apparent Determination To Produce Nuclear Bombs That Causes The Greatest Concern, Especially In Saudi Arabia"

"Why would Arabs care about Israeli repression of Palestinians? One reason the support for the Palestinian cause has diminished in the Middle East is that the younger generation has greater concern for their own education and employment than whatever the Palestinians are going through. They want their leaders to focus on them and their needs, rather than fight distant battles.

"Iran is another factor that drives many Arab states to side with Israel. Tehran's aggressive use of proxies to gain support across the Middle East has angered many. But it is Tehran's apparent determination to produce nuclear bombs that causes the greatest concern, especially in Saudi Arabia. So, when the UAE urged the U.S. to 'cut off the head of the snake' in a bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities, it was enunciating official policy.

Columnist Irfan Husain (source:

"The recent recognition of Israel by the UAE is driven by its reading of the evolving American policy towards the Middle East. The new approach, first taken by [U.S. President Barack] Obama, was to reach out to Iran through an agreement that would freeze its nuclear ambitions for a time in return for a lifting of sanctions.

"Obviously, such a policy was anathema to Israel, which convinced [U.S. President Donald] Trump to dump it in when he came to power in 2016. But even Trump refused to bomb Iran although American Special Forces have, apparently, conducted covert operations against Iranian targets."

"The Palestinians Have Dreamed That The Righteousness Of Their Cause Would Keep The Arabs... On Their Side... And That One Day, They Would Get Their Own State; Dream On"

"In return for UAE recognition, Israel says it will 'suspend' its planned annexation of much of what remains of Palestinian territory. Although the UAE claims this to mean a cancellation of the annexation policy, we all know that when it comes to land, the Israelis will grab all they can and then negotiate for more.

"Thus far, Saudi Arabia has refused to follow the UAE's lead. But once the Crown Prince, the thuggish MBS [Muhammad bin Salman], takes over completely — and it won't be long before that happens — my guess is that he will join the American-led pro-Israel, anti-Iran alliance.

"For decades, the Palestinians dreamed that the righteousness of their cause would keep the Arabs — and much of the world — on their side, and that one day, they would get their own state, albeit on a much reduced scale. Dream on. As time went on, more and more land was grabbed by Israeli settlers.

"Now, well over half a million of them live in houses built on land handed to them by the state. These settlements are connected by roads only they can use; these, together with the vast wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, has cut off ancient Palestinians towns, villages, and farms from each other."

"Turkey, Despite All The Fuss Erdogan Has Made About The UAE Initiative, Has Had An Embassy In Israel For Decades"

"Our prime minister [Imran Khan] has announced that Pakistan will not recognise Israel until it returns occupied land to the Palestinians. While this will hardly enter Israel’s calculations, it does raise questions about what recognition implies. Is it a prize for good behavior? If so, half the countries in the world would not recognize the other half.

"Turkey, despite all the fuss Erdogan has made about the UAE initiative, has had an embassy in Israel for decades. Egypt and Jordan have had full diplomatic relations with the Zionist state since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. Many other states have traded with Israel for years.

"India has built up its relations with Israel mainly so it can buy high-tech weaponry that is unavailable elsewhere. So, each state has its own reasons for moving on. When a deadlock occurs, it is usually the stronger party that imposes change. There is no morality or justice in the great celestial dance."

Following are excerpts from Muhammad Amir Rana's article:[2]

"[Saudi Arabia And Its Allies] Are Worried About The Other Contenders For [The] Leadership [Of The Muslim Ummah], Mainly An Alternative Bloc Led By Turkey, Iran, Qatar, And To Some Extent Malaysia"

"Most Muslim-majority nations are enduring yet another phase of the 'politics of ummah.' However, heedful of their domestic challenges, they are also striving to readjust their geopolitical priorities in accordance with their own economic and political realities. The concept of ummah has always remained central to the Muslim world, mainly as a religious ethos of unity. At the same time, it has been undergoing a process of deconstruction, where states, as well as non-state actors [i.e. terrorists,] have been shaping its new contours.

"Recent developments in the Middle East, especially the agreement between Israel and the UAE for the normalization of bilateral relations, and the reported tensions between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are merely the undercurrents of the brewing political crisis in the Muslim world. Apparently, it seems that the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have already made some hard decisions linked to their geostrategic realignment, which could entail their desertion of the custodianship of the Muslim world or ummah.

"Many would argue that the fast-changing geopolitical realities, growing economic upheavals, increasing socio-political disquiet, and the mounting grievances of the youth in these countries are forcing the Gulf leaders to transform their geostrategic and political approaches. Still, it is hard to presume that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have lost their belief in the concept and the politics of ummah.

"Leadership of the ummah confers huge political and strategic value in regional and global politics, which will make it hard for these countries to withdraw their claim to it. Rather, they are worried about the other contenders for leadership, mainly an alternative bloc led by Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and to some extent Malaysia.

"However, religious institutions and clergy have nurtured an altogether different worldview among ordinary Muslims in many parts of the Muslim world, which, though it may not be compatible with the narratives promoted by their respective states, usually resonates with the sentiments of non-state actors of both the violent and non-violent varieties."

"The Saudis Are Not Going To Abandon The Idea Of Leading The Ummah, Because That Would Mean Losing Enormous Strategic Value In Their International Relations"

"The 'ummah' is a religious concept, used to describe the worldwide community of Muslims. The pan-Islamist and brotherhood movements have constructed a political delusion around the concept, and the Muslim world (states and societies) have been fantasising about the concept for decades. They have tried to build a political community of Muslims: the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is one such manifestation.

"The Gulf states have effectively manoeuvred the notion: they blended it with Arab nationalism during the socioeconomic transition period from the 1960s to the last decade. Many Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, narrowed the scope of the ummah to Wahhabi Islam and made a huge investment in exporting it across the Muslim world and Muslim diaspora communities, and [thus] extracted political support for their regimes.

Security affairs expert Muhammad Amir Rana

"The Saudis are not going to abandon the idea of leading the ummah because that would mean losing enormous strategic value in their international relations. While the 'influence' they wield by being leaders of the ummah makes them an important global player, their strong alliance with the U.S. makes them 'potent' among Muslim countries. To further consolidate this two-pronged strength, Saudi Arabia formed an alliance of 40 Muslim countries called the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition.

"Many would argue the Saudis' real aim in doing so was to raise troops for Yemen and counter Iran in the region. Of course, Saudi Arabia was not doing this as a religious service, or to serve the ummah's collective interests, yet many small Muslim countries joined the Saudi-led 'Muslim Nato' for their own economic interests. However, the alliance was bound to fail because it had a very narrow focus and revolved around the interests of a particular state."

"Pro-Saudi Religious Leaders Are Faced With A Major Dilemma Over How To Stand Firm On Their Antisemitism While Supporting Their Arab Mentors"

"For the ordinary Muslim, visualizing politics separately from religion is not an easy task: the pan-Islamist and Brotherhood movements have changed the worldview of many Muslim societies. By targeting the education sector, they have transformed Muslim societies' political views to the extent that it will take a long time to rediscover the lost religious value of the concept of ummah.

"The Palestinian issue has remained on top of the OIC agenda. While the Gulf states have maintained solidarity with the Palestinians, non-state actors have developed their narratives around the Palestinian-Israel issue and their allegedly corrupt regimes, who they believe are not taking the issue seriously. Interestingly, the public has largely consumed the narrative of 'corrupt regimes' that is promoted by non-state actors and like-minded religious leaders, but the educated classes still refuse to borrow the idea of an alternative state system which undermines democracy and associated freedoms.

"Non-state actors also failed to sell their models of alternative state systems after the Arab Spring uprisings. But they still remain relevant in the political and religious discourses of their societies. Non-state actors could exploit the emerging political developments to their advantage. The major violent groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State [ISIS] have not reacted to the UAE-Israel deal yet. Both groups have been significantly weakened and might not be able to launch big attacks immediately, but they could use the situation to support their argument against the Muslim regimes and Israel.

"Destruction of Israel and opposing 'apostate' regimes in the Muslim world remains at the top of Al-Qaeda's agenda. ISIS and Al-Qaeda differ on the strategic and tactical level, but both share certain political objectives. They are desperately trying to make a comeback, but their political compulsions have made them weak. For instance, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is hamstrung, because it is an ally of the Afghan Taliban, who have successfully made a deal with the U.S. and entered into negotiations with the Afghan government and with civil society. This is the scenario unless Al-Qaeda breaks ties with the Taliban.

"However, other non-violent religious groups and leaders have become vocal critics of the recent development in the Middle East. This is dangerous turf for Muslim countries like Pakistan, which has a diverse sectarian landscape. The Saudi and Iranian blocs have made huge investments in their respective religious communities, and the time has come to reap the dividends. Pro-Saudi religious leaders are faced with a major dilemma over how to stand firm on their antisemitism while supporting their Arab mentors."


[1] Dawn (Pakistan), August 23, 2020. The original English of both the articles in this dispatch has been lightly edited for clarity and standardization.

[2] Dawn (Pakistan), August 23, 2020.

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