WARNING: Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 ahead
Like many Americans, I ended my Christmas day by paying $15 to subscribe to HBO Max and watch Wonder Woman 1984. The much anticipated sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman promised to make the horrors of 2020 fade for awhile. And it did, but only by replacing them with frustration and confusion. It…wasn’t a great film. You can read why, or just watch it yourself. But what really stuck out to me was the particular sort of Orientalism it contained, a lazy Orientalism oblivious to its political implications but still problematic.
Wonder Woman 1984 tells the story of Wonder Woman fighting against a super villain (sorry for the spoilers). But what caught the attention of this Middle East scholar was a sequence in which the villain meets with a deposed (I think) Egyptian King who wishes to return to power and kick the “heathens” out of his land. The villain helps him, but the guy already sold his oil to the Saudis (I guess he pumped it all out?) Then the villain raises a wall, cutting off the poorest people of Egypt from their water sources.
In September, the UAE and Israel signed “the Abraham Accords,” normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel. The Trump Administration presented this as if it was equivalent to the Camp David Accords, a ground-breaking peace agreement that would transform the world. Much of the Middle East policy community, however, met it with a shrug. I’m not sure I’m joining in on that shrug. While it’s true Trump exaggerated and misrepresented the deal, as he is wont to do, I worry a sneaky “common wisdom” has developed among observers that may obscure the significant impacts of this agreement.
The deal came together over the summer, although there have been signs of a potential shift among Gulf Arab states towards Israel. They share a common enemy in Iran. Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018, while the UAE’s US Ambassador wrote an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper hinting at possible normalization. Billed as a peace deal (even though they weren’t really at war) the two states agreed to normalize diplomatic ties and expand economic cooperation. While some saw it as a betrayal, other seem to see it as a relatively inconsequential event.
We’ve all spent the weekend processing the killing of Iranian official Qassim Suleimani by a US airstrike. While this is obviously very important, we should think about a secondary implication of this act–how this undermined the apparent Middle East analyst consensus that America was pulling back from tensions with Iran, and how this consensus even emerged in the first place.
A few months ago I noticed something interesting. Saudi Arabia, after adopting a hostile foreign policy on Qatar and Yemen–motivated by its fears of Iran–seemed to be getting nervous. They’d issue warning signs about the impact of a war, and their UAE allies actually seemed to be trying to calm things down. I noted this on Twitter (I’m not going to look up my tweets, but you can find them), and thought I was onto something.
I feel like I should say something about the disappearance—and likely assassination—of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This tragedy was enabled by America’s permissive stance towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US support for other horrific Saudi policies (like its bombing of Yemen). I’ve expressed concern on Twitter and in personal conversations, and have been writing about Yemen for years.
But to be honest, I don’t think I have anything new to say at this point. Most Duck readers will already know, and be upset, about this situation. Instead, I want to raise another concerning human rights abuse by one of our Persian Gulf allies: the detention of UK graduate student Matthew Hedges by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A few months ago, reports spread of a UK man detained in the UAE on espionage charges; he was rumored to be an academic doing research in the country. These reports were later confirmed as the UAE announced it had charged Hedges with espionage for trying to obtain classified information and gain access to confidential archives. Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Durham, and was studying the UAE’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy. He has been held in rough conditions and there are concerns about his physical and mental health. Continue reading