After returning home from a weeklong seminar in the Gulf and reading The New York Times, I might have thought I had just returned from meetings with the world’s greatest human rights abusers. There is no doubt that the Gulf states are authoritarian regimes – where the daughter of the leader of Dubai mysteriously disappeared, the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing of a journalist, and American arms shipments were transferred to Salafists in Yemin to fight the Iranian-supported Houthis.
However, if this is the only way you look at it, you may miss a window of opportunity to truly effect change in the Middle East and the behavior of the Gulf nations. The Gulf nations are trying very hard to show their value to America, and this creates some leverage to advance American interests at this time.
Within the last year, Israelis and Arabs have been speaking and doing business together in the open. They are tired of Palestinian intransigence and are less concerned about that never-ending conflict than the greater existential threats posed to them by Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, make no mistake: all Arab leaders do still worry about getting too close to Israel, arousing the ire of the Islamic “street.”
There are no democrats in the Middle East except for Israel. We are currently negotiating with the fundamentalist misogynists of the Taliban; sending laser-guided missiles to the Lebanese government that is under the thumb of Iranian-controlled Hezbollah; facilitating Qatari money going to the terrorists in Gaza; and pretending Turkey is a NATO asset despite its getting into bed with Russia and Iran. We work with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but in reality he is the Muslim Brotherhood in Ottoman garb.
We engage with these less-than-stellar players to advance our interests and lower the flames of conflict, trying to make sure that American soldiers are not again forced to go to war in the region.
THROUGH THE misleading lens of selective media coverage, one can miss the seedlings of change in the conservative Sunni Gulf states – and yes, even tolerance for Jews and Israel – which are nearly completely absent from the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan, where outright Jew hatred predominates in the public sphere.
Joseph Braude of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writing in Mosaic Magazine, said, “In the Arab Middle East, known, deservedly, as a global hub and disseminator of antisemitism, something is astir of immense interest and importance... Across the region, seeds of an effort to challenge Arab rejectionism and antisemitism have unmistakably been sprouting... A growing number of Arabs not only view Israel and Jews in a positive light but also espouse, openly, a peace between peoples... This is an opportunity begging to be seized.”
In Congress, many want to cut off funding and to sever America’s relationship with the Gulf states. That would be fine except for the hypocrisy. Many of those people choose to ignore the profound human rights abuses in Iran and the Palestinian Authority, two entities that have shown greater hostility to America and Israel, while the Gulf countries for their interests seek America’s, and now Israel’s, friendship.
We share common interests, not values, with the Gulf states, because they oppose the most destabilizing threat in the region, Iran, and the often forgotten but equally dangerous Muslim brotherhood. The last US administration incomprehensibly believed the Brotherhood would be an instrument for moderate Islam, but in reality it is the most dangerous threat emanating from the Sunni world. We need a redline with these states not to transfer American weapons to Sunni extremists, even if they are confronting Iran.
The Europeans, in the name of saving the fatally flawed Iran deal, have immorally created a sanction-busting system to allow Iran to trade in oil rather than dollars. Their avarice is surpassed only by their willful failure to participate in the creation of consequences for Iranian misbehavior, from its targeted assassinations on European soil to its horrific human rights abuses.
They seemingly do not understand that Iran is unlikely to leave this deal, despite their bluster. Why should they? They will legally be able to buy offensive weapons next year from these same Europeans, while they are allowed to legally work on the most advanced uranium centrifuges (IR-8), and have no international inspectors of their military facilities where they do their R&D.
AMERICA CANNOT easily choose its friends in the Middle East, as all are problematic. But there are shared interests and glimpses of real change in the Gulf states. I saw the word “tolerance” advertised in public places in Arabic, something you never see in the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq or Iran.
The selective outrage against the Gulf states may be more about the fact that US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu see a path forward, cooperating with the Gulf states on economic and security issues, and as a key to resolving the conflict.
Many in the media and the EU reflexively oppose anything that Trump is in favor of, even if it advances desirable goals for the region.
This is not to suggest that we ought to stop putting pressure on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia or the other Gulf leaders to change some of their ways, but abandoning the Gulf states is dangerous on so many levels.
The key to Middle East stability is to keep your one true friend (Israel) in the region strong and secure, and ally with those who share common interests. In 10 years our Gulf friends may become our enemies – but until then we need to take advantage of any openings to stabilize the region and look for some moderation.
If we abandon the Gulf states, it could turn those currently stable regimes into Egypt in the Morsi era, creating the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist uprising.
Imagine the Muslim Brotherhood in control of Saudi Arabia and the UEA, with trillions of dollars to wage a jihad on the world.
Let’s work with our friends in the Gulf with open eyes, and not make the horrific Khashoggi affair a defining moment to end relations with Gulf states, which would wreak havoc on the world for generations.
This is the Middle East as it is, not as we would like it to be.
The writer is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisers. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.