Emerging Islamic geo-political landscape

by Editorial

Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have agreed to sign an accord for peace, making UAE the third country in the Middle East to do so. Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) are the other two countries. What are its implications on the Middle East, rest of the world and India, are few questions that beg answers. To answer these questions, we need to read between the lines and also glean what has not been said in the proposed agreement. The agreement was brokered by the US president in a tri-parte telephonic conversation between US President Donald Trump, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Prince Mohammad Bin Zaid (MBZ) of the UAE on 13 August 2020. The agreement envisages full normalization of relations between Israel and UAE in exchange for Israel suspending annexation of occupied West Bank territory.

 International reactions

Palestine has opposed the agreement and recalled its ambassador to UAE. Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, stated, “Palestinian people have not authorized anyone to make concessions to Israel in exchange for anything.” In Israel too, certain sections are not happy as they feel let down that Netanyahu has forgone its claim over the West Bank. Netanyahu however, is taking the cover that the agreement envisages suspension of annexation of West Bank territories only for the time being and not a final commitment. Given the deep divide over the Palestine issue, chances of sustainability of the agreement in the long run appear improbable. Although President Trump is hoping that the rest of the world will follow suit. President Trump’s initiative is also seen by many as a pre-election move to raise his popularity levels in the run up to the ensuing US presidential elections.

 Saudi Arabia was expected to follow suit in the steps of UAE for which the Saudi Crown Prince was expected to fly down to the US on 31 August. However, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has cancelled the visit since the information of the visit got leaked. Saudi Arabia spoke positively of the deal. Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, described the normalization deal as a potential contribution to peace in the region. It may merit noting that there are extensive but close door contacts between the two countries on various matters including collusion in defence equipment and technology.

 Turkey has strongly condemned the UAE-Israel deal. Taking on indirectly even the United States, it has said, “History and the collective conscience of people in the Middle East will not forget and never forgive the ‘hypocritical behaviour’ of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in agreeing to normalise ties with Israel.” Are we seeing a third pole in the offing in the Islamic world with Saudi ArabiaUAE combine and Iran being the other two? It appears that Turkey is keen to restore its old glory of Ottoman Empire under the leadership of its current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Reaction of Iran has been on the expected lines. President Hassan Rouhani has lashed out at UAE in a nationwide broadcast warning the Emirates not to throw open the region to Zionists. From the speech, it is evident that the Iranians will do their level best to exploit the situation and back the Palestinians and other countries like Syria and terror groups such as Hezbollah and Houthis to strike at the UAE-Saudi interests in the region. However, given the traditional anti-Iran sentiments in the Arab World (read Shia-Sunni conflict), it is unlikely that Iran will be able to extend its influence beyond its current reach. Reaction of Pakistan at best can be described as torn between the need to denounce it but given its Sunni orientation, it has been neutral. Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri has said that the deal has far reaching consequences for the region. It recognizes the two-nation theory as a solution for the Palestinian problem and at the same time has also supported the need for peace and stability in the region. Pakistani reaction has prompted an unfavourable response from Saudi Arabia led OIC to refuse  any discussion on the Kashmir issue in the OIC besides MBS refusing an audience to the Pakistani Army Chief Bajwa.

The Indian reaction has also seen a marked change. Unlike Pakistan,  which placed the Palestinian concern as its main focus and peace and stability in the region as its major concern, India has clearly articulated its support for the agreement while hoping for an early solution to the Palestinian problem. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava further added that UAE and Israel are India’s key strategic partners. This approach was expected given India’s relations with UAE and Israel and our gradual disenchantment with Iranians over their recent bonhomie with China.

Reasons for winds of change

 Emergence of the MBZ– MBS duo: The Arab world is witnessing a dynamic phase under the leadership of the two giants Prince MBZ of UAE and Prince MBS of Saudi Arabia. It is a wellknown fact that the UAE under Prince MBZ, has built up  a powerful armed force with the help of the US. Although he is known as a pro-US leader in the Arab world, he has also built a reputation of being of an independent mind in matters related to safeguarding and promoting his country’s national interests. He has been involved in resolving many issues in the Arab world intervening in the succession struggle in Saudi Arabia. It is interesting to note that Saudi Arabia was involved in constant border disputes with UAE till 2013. When an unfavourable successor was about to be installed as the ruler of Saudi Arabia, MBZ manoeuvred to get Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), a relatively lower in the Saudi hierarchy but his close friend, installed as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Since then the MBZ and MBS have been working together to shape the Arab World as per their vision. The two have jointly installed a pro Saudi-UAE ruling dispensation in Yemen and pressurized Qatar to abandon the Muslim brotherhood and its supporters.  Contrary to common belief that it is Saudi Arabia which calls the shots, it is the UAE leader who is the brain and power behind most of the happenings in the Arab world such as installation of a military-backed regime in Egypt following the Arab Spring revolution. MBZ considers, and now by corollary MBS too, consider Iran and the Muslim brotherhood supporters as their arch enemies. Both stand for a progressive Arab world but under an autocratic dispensation as they feel the Arabs are still not ready for democracy essentially due to the influence of Muslim brotherhood which is the ideological fountainhead of all terror movements in the region and the world.

 Turkey’s new found Interest in the Islamic world: It is fast emerging as a key player in the Islamic world. It overlooked the US in Syria by attacking the Kurds immediately upon their withdrawal from Syria. Following differences with the US over the Kurd issue in Syria, Turkey is charting an independent path in international geopolitics. It has also started wowing other Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia. Its strong statement against the UAE–Israel deal despite the fact that it was mediated by the US and the recent action of converting the world famous Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul (originally founded as a cathedral) into a mosque appear as strong signals of willingness of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to assume the leadership of the emerging Islamic world order. The conduct of military exercise in the East Mediterranean Sea by Turkey up to 11 September in response to border and gas drilling rights disputes with Greece despite support of the EU and France to Greece, will be viewed by the Islamic world as a mark of a leader capable of taking on the Christian dominated western world. The row over Greece’s strong objection to Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque further adds strength to this argument.

Contours of future Islamic world

Tri-polar Islamic world seems to be emerging over the horizon with Turkey, Saudi Arabia-UAE combine and Iran as the three poles around which the various Islamic nations are gravitating. Further, Pakistan having been rebuffed by the Saudi leadership is pitching as a pivot country to build an alternate Islamic world order probably with Turkey as the proposed leader. Also Pakistan, since it has recently developed proximity with Iran through the Chinese manoeuvring, feels confident of taking Iran on board this grouping there by trying to restrict the Islamic world into a bipolar configuration. However, Iran may not follow suit and will remain stuck to its existing paradigm of regional geo–politics. It is most likely to continue its Shia-Sunni politics in the region and attempt to assume leadership of the majority of the Islamic Shia countries. Therefore, a more realistic assessment of the future Islamic world being divided into three poles appears more logical.

 Policy recommendation for India

The development in the overall analysis may be favourable to India. Firstly, UAE and Saudi Arabia are the undisputed power houses of the Arab world. They are favourably disposed to India as of today. Given our current relations with Iran, moving closer to a UAESaudi Arabia grouping, which in the likely future may extend to UAE-Saudi Arabia-Israel would act as a counterweight to ChinaPakistan-Iran polarization. Secondly, a tri-polar Islamic world augurs well for India as it would be able to freely work with various power blocks to meet its energy needs. The intransigence of Turkey can be neutralised by our deft moves Thirdly, India can now freely deal with Israel for our strategic needs in the defence sector without unduly annoying the Arab world barring a few inconsequential countries aligned with Iran. Fourthly, MBZ and MBS are highly opposed to radical movements such as Muslim brotherhood and global jihadists such as AQ and ISIS. Their support can be garnered in obtaining intelligence besides seeking financial and material curbs on such groups. The aim being to reduce their influence so that their capacity to promote groups such as AQ Hind and “Wilayah of Hind”, the ISIS branch in India. India is showing signs of becoming pragmatic in its foreign policy orientation especially following the Galwan incident with China. Such moves will build on India’s comprehensive national power through our soft power instrument of “diplomacy.” We need to pursue our approach along these lines and not abandon them in midway.

 The author has served in varied terrains and theatre of operations in India and in the UN as a military observer and is currently professor emeritus, Defence Studies at Gujarat Raksha Shakti University.

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