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.
Pope Francis recently visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His trip is historic, not just because it’s the first by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He will also lead an outdoor mass, the first to be held, according to the new coverage, in the Arabian Peninsula. Additionally, the Pope signed an accord of “human fraternity” with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, the top center of religious learning for Sunni Muslims. This all sounds good, but I have mixed feelings.
The UAE has been putting a lot of effort into promoting interfaith dialogue and a “moderate Islam.” One example is this Foreign Policy article by the UAE’s ambassador to the US, presenting a “vision for a moderate Muslim world.” There is undoubtedly a strategic element to this, but I don’t doubt the UAE’s sincerity. I’m sure they really do want peaceful relations with the Christians nations they interact with, and are very concerned about the spread of extremism among their population.
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