Could peace in the Middle East be achieved through business? – opinion

The United Arab Emirates is emerging as Middle East's power broker

PEOPLE WATCH the fountains in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE WATCH the fountains in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After years of conflict, could a broker finally be emerging with a unique approach to mending ties in the region?
In the Middle East, politics run deep. Unlike in the West where party inclinations dictate policy, in this region of the world, all political decisions - whether foreign policy or health - are peppered with religious connotations, ethnic allegiances and historical complexities. Yet the biggest tensions in the Middle East today revolve around a triad of complex interests, the first of which concerns Israel.
Since coming into existence over 72 year ago, Israel has been involved in no less than five wars with its neighbors. The international community has invested enormous effort into arranging peace deals and arbitrating agreements between the Jewish state, the Palestinians and surrounding countries.
Then comes Iran. Decades of seemingly never-ending conflict and attempted “peace processes” have culminated in Israel staring down the Islamic Republic, perhaps its fiercest enemy, and certainly the one that poses the most plausible threat.   
As many can recall, Iran was not always on bad terms with Israel. For the first 30 years of its statehood, Israel enjoyed very close ties with Tehran. In those years, it was economic and security cooperation that defined the relationship, not threats of war. That all changed in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed the Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The new Islamist regime abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Israel and began shortly after conducting an all-out proxy war against the West and Israel.
Iran’s aggression in the Middle East is not limited to the Jewish state. Tehran installed Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shi’ite militant group that considers itself the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp. To this day, the Islamic Republic pumps millions of dollars each year into Hezbollah, allowing it to operate against its enemies and within other regional countries such as Syria, as well as in Latin America.
Iran’s natural position as leader of the Shi’ite world in the region and its aspiration to solidify a coalition of support - the so-called Shiite crescent strategy - has brought nations into direct armed conflict with Iranian-funded proxies.
Which brings us to the third element: the Sunni coalition.
From the Arabian Peninsula to the Gulf, Sunni monarchies have long been concerned about Iran’s expansionist policies. Nearly 40 years ago, Sunni states in the region created the Gulf Cooperation Council as a direct response to the 1979 revolution in Iran, and as an attempt to counter the ayatollah’s regional aspirations. Today, many GCC states, including the group’s de facto leader Saudi Arabia, are in active armed conflict with Iranian proxies in areas ranging from Yemen to Syria. 
This complex list of intertwined regional interests has produced interesting bedfellows. Due to its common interest to contain Iran, Israel has found a place for cooperation and common ground with several gulf nations - many of which have no official diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.
WHILE MANY regional countries actively oppose Iranian aggression, the biggest stakeholders would like nothing more than to bring normalcy back to relations with the Iranian regime.  
The pressing need to bring about reconciliation between the two factions has produced some interesting solutions by some unexpected actors. In today’s Middle East, real brokerage opportunities for peace exist between Israel and the region’s Sunni states based on economic and security cooperation.
Years ago, hopeful people had pointed to Qatar as a potential broker. The Sunni Gulf monarchy has a foreign policy independent enough to oppose Israel on many issues. At the same time, Qatar can foster relations with Israel, while simultaneously solidifying ties with Tehran and the Palestinian authority.  
In the past, Doha’s unconventional approach may have shown that such contradictory foreign policies are manageable. However, Qatar’s lurch toward Iran and its quarrels with its fellow Gulf States mean it can no longer be a stable regional broker.
On the other hand, the Dubai Expo 2020 is scheduled to take place in October and will last through April of 2021. Already 192 nations have announced their participation. (As of this writing, it is not certain whether the Expo will be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
At the regional level, market observers have projected the Expo to be a trigger for economic cooperation among Middle Eastern countries. This collaboration is expected to express itself in a multitude of sectors. On Dubai’s part, it has made cooperation between Middle East countries and a so-called “peace-development” nexus as two of the prime goals of the upcoming event.
Israel, despite having no official diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, was quietly invited to the Dubai Expo. The Jewish nation has jumped at the opportunity to set up a pavilion at a major regional event. An Israeli presence at an Arab-hosted exposition offers a unique opportunity to speed up the normalization of relations and reach out to Arab society. The diplomatic implications of Israel’s participation could be immense. As Elazar Cohen, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s point man for the event, put it, the sight of an Israeli pavilion in a staunchly Sunni country will certainly “create a buzz.” 
Some have suggested that Dubai wants to turn the Expo into a diplomatic summit of sorts between regional players and Iran, which was also invited. The presence of all Middle Eastern countries in this more “neutral” setting - and one that can produce economic benefits for all - may have the potential to foster some initial ties.
With the initiative of fostering international bonds clear on its agenda, there is little doubt Dubai officials have Iranian reconciliation at least in the back of their minds. This goal would be a bold one. What efforts will Dubai take to push that goal forward? With the Expo still months away, there is still plenty of room for speculation.
One thing is for sure: the opportunity will be there at Expo 2020. Any nation with an interest in seeing tensions in the region quelled should appreciate the political gravity of the event.