The past two months have unveiled the beginning of a strategic revolution in the Middle East – a diplomatic triumph years in the making. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and moderate Arab leaders such as UAE Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayyed al Nahyan are now, through the efforts of Pres. Donald Trump, openly fortifying diplomatic, economic and potentially military cooperation against two virulent radical regional threats. That Arab states have come to see Israel as part of the answer to these threats, not as an enemy, marks an historic shift in the framework of regional political forces.
The foremost of these virulent threats is the radical Shiite Islamist regime of Iran, long-recognized and growing ever more worrisome to Gulf Arabs. The second, less noticed, is the radical Sunni Islamist regime of Turkey, and the increasingly bellicose ambitions of its president Tayyip Erdogan. The rapid advance of Chinese and Russian involvement, and America’s declared desire for reducing its military presence, only adds to the swirl of new calculations and risks that have fostered a tectonic shift in Middle East diplomacy.
On August 13, the UAE, Israel and the United States made a dramatic announcement: the UAE and Israel had agreed to normalize their relations and thus regard themselves as at peace with one another. It was known that over the past few years, Israel and the UAE had drawn close to some degree. But the announcement took this to an altogether higher, more decisive and more significant level. On Sept. 11, this was followed by Bahrein’s announcement that it too would sign a peace treaty with Israel. In between, an Arab League meeting rejected a Palestinian request to condemn the UAE Israel deal. Decades of Palestinian leaders’ rejectionism and corruption have taken their toll on moderate Arab states’ patience. Several other Gulf Arab countries have given their tacit approval to these warming Israeli-Arab trends.
In the US, almost predictably, large amounts of commentary on the Israeli-UAE deal focused first on its implications for the Palestinian issue. A longstanding American preoccupation with this issue, amounting to a dogma, had seen everything in the Middle East through its prism.
But for the region itself, the deal’s most crucial aspect was the “integration” of Israel into its “neighborhood.” Such integration had been sought by Israel’s leaders from its founders down to its present leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The UAE deal represented a vindication of his statesmanship. It also amounted to a vindication of the statesmanship of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayyad who had his own agenda: countering revisionist regional threats.
The radical Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran’s long term efforts to “export” its revolution had managed to create the so-called “Shiite Crescent,” composed of a variety of proxies and allies, that stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. The Arab states, particularly those that have been termed the “Sunni pragmatic camp,” had found themselves unable to meet on their own the challenge of this major bloc. Indeed, the power and role of the Arab states, had been in decline for many years from the era in which they once dominated Middle Eastern politics. Worse yet, long-term, active, hands-on American support to bolster Arab weaknesses, so long a fixture in Arab calculations, seemed increasingly suspect.
In these circumstances, aligning with Israel offered some remedy. Israel, too, was threatened by Iranian aggression, indeed existentially so, as Iran regularly proclaimed its intention to destroy it. Moreover, Israel had become the most successful and powerful country in the region. Joining with Israel offered the prospect of a more successful resistance to Iran, including a second anchor for American involvement, and even a revival of the importance of the Arab state bloc generally. In this sense, the UAE’s enlightened leadership acted not only in its own interest but those of other Arab states.
But the UAE, as well as the Arab states, has a second great enemy in the region, the Republic of Turkey under the leadership of Pres. Tayyip Erdogan. Here too Israel is in a similar boat. As a result, Erdogan was swift to denounce, along with Iran, the UAE-Israel deal. It is an obstacle to Erdogan’s objectives as well.
Erdogan has been pursuing the creation of his own Middle East “crescent” from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, including North Africa. He does so partially in the name of Turkey and its alleged just deserts as the heir to the great Turkish empires of the past: not only of the Ottomans, but of the 11th century Seljuk invaders from Asia. He never misses an opportunity to celebrate the Seljuk victory at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 over Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Christian forces that led to the conquest of Anatolia. But he also does so in the name of the restoration of Muslim glory generally. In this he embodies the spirit and direction of radical Sunni Islamism, an analog to Iran’s radical Shiism. This he has pursued both in the form of an internal Turkish revolution aiming to raise up a “pious generation” and through his patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey is now the de facto headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. On both these bases, Erdogan asserts a claim to be the leader of the Sunni Middle East, not to mention the wider Muslim world, rather than the Sunni Arab states.
In these pursuits, Erdogan has been increasingly bellicose both in deeds and words. His military interventions are now widespread: in Qatar, whose support for the Muslim Brotherhood made it a natural ally, Turkey now has 5,000 troops and has recently established two military bases; in the Syrian Civil War, he supported both the Brotherhood and Salafi forces up to and including the Islamic State and followed that up with Turkish troops; in Libya, he is supporting the Islamist led government in Tripoli, flying in arms and Syrian mercenaries. This intervention is meant to serve a variety of purposes: to threaten the Egyptian regime of Pres. Sisi, whom he has denounced for its overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013; and to support his recent claim that Turkey is by right the sovereign of the entire Eastern Mediterranean.
In his words, Erdogan is even more bellicose and aggressive. In a speech on Aug. 30, Erdogan declared, “We are not a society that has an army; we are a nation that is itself an army.” Erogan proclaimed, “Our civilization is one of conquest, ” adding “[W]e say to our enemies: ‘bring it on.’” For Turkey, “will not hesitate to sacrifice martyrs in this fight.” These words were, on this occasion, particularly directed to a number of countries that now form a bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean – Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel – as well as other European countries – France, Italy, Malta and Spain – that do not accept Erdogan’s claims. But they apply to its Middle Eastern enemies as well.
Thus, for the non-revisionist Arab regimes who seek evolutionary, not revolutionary shifts in the region, Turkey represents another grave challenge. The UAE has felt obliged to contest Turkish efforts in several places, including in Egypt and Libya. In particular, it regards the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, both internally and externally, and has pursued a very active campaign against it. This is augmented by the fact that Iran is the only major power of which Erdogan speaks favorably and with which it pursues a partnership, sometimes more; sometimes less.
In meeting the Turkish threat, not to mention a combined Turkish-Iranian threat, the UAE and like-minded Arab States share a strong interest with Israel. Erdogan has been extremely hostile to Israel, especially in the last decade. He has supported Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood; confronted Israeli interests and ships in the Mediterranean; and more recently, announced his intention to “liberate” the Al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Many in American policy circles hope that the revolutionary Iranian regime and Erdogan’s aspiring neo-Ottoman Turkey may yet be induced by an open hand and financial rewards to turn from their aggressive regional ambitions. So far, such hopes have crumbled against Iran’s steadfast will, and will likely prove equally futile so long as Erdogan and his progeny invoke dreams of Seljuk glory over regional cooperation and compromise.
Thus the UAE and Bahraini deals with Israel, mid-wifed by the United States, amount to the opening proposal of a new, stabilizing bloc that may resist these revisionist forces in the region. This success vindicates the Trump Administration’s firmer line against both Iranian aggression and Palestinian rejectionism, as well as its firm support of friendly states that share our interest in a less threatening, more prosperous region. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will accept these lessons and build on the progress won, expanding and strengthening a reinforced alliance structure, or revert, once again, to hopes so often betrayed.
A strong dose of reality fueled today’s diplomatic revolution. For American policy to reach the full promise, both for itself and its allies, of the new regional framework so hard won, it will have to keep its lessons and new realities close at hand.