A new optimism for the Middle East

The Abraham Accords signed last month between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signal a new reality underpinned by moderate Islam

Fitzroy Morrissey

“This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace.” So declared Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after his country signed the Abraham Accords, a “treaty of peace, diplomatic relations and full normalisation” with the United Arab Emirates, and agreed a separate deal with Bahrain, at the White House on September 16.

The agreements make the UAE and Bahrain only the third and fourth Arab nations to recognise the Jewish State. Breaking with the longstanding policy of Arab states to wait for the resolution of the Palestinian issue before contemplating normalisation with Israel, they represent the biggest step forward in Arab-Israeli relations since the 1994 Treaty of Peace between Israel and Jordan, and a major achievement of diplomacy and policy-making for the Trump administration, which facilitated the talks.

Significantly, the Accords also represent the first step in the formalisation of a powerful new Middle Eastern alliance between the Gulf nations and Israel. Engaged in tacit collaboration for several years now, these countries have been drawn together, in part, by economic interests. Article 5 of the Abraham Accords looks ahead to agreements between Israel and the UAE in finance and investment, healthcare, tourism, and the “peaceful uses of outer-space”. Already, since the signing of the Accords, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office has announced plans to open an office in Tel Aviv; the Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce; and Dubai’s state-owned ports and logistic firm DP World has agreed preliminary deals with Israel’s Dover Port and Bank Leumi to explore infrastructure development projects. Saudi Arabia, too, is waking up to the benefits of economic ties with the Jewish State. Israeli venture capital and cyber technology firms are reportedly involved in NEOM, a $500bn project to build a “city of the future” on the Gulf of Aqaba, a key pillar of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy away from oil.

If economic interests are important, however, even more so are common enemies. Israel and its Arab allies are united in their opposition to what Mohammed Bin Salman, the reforming Saudi crown prince and a key driver of the new alliance, has called “the triangle of evil”. This, he explained in a 2018 interview, consists of the Iranian regime, which seeks to export its “extremist Shiite ideology” across the region; the Muslim Brotherhood, which uses democracy to build “shadow caliphates” in the hope of one day constructing a “global Muslim empire”; and Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which also strive for a caliphate, only by violent means.

Within this overall framework, the new alliance identifies other threats. In an article published in the Wall Street Journal the week the Abraham Accords were signed, UAE foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan denounced “non-Arab countries and a mob of non-state actors” who “exist in a warped axis of perpetual resistance”, “advocate one brand or another of extremism” and “are nostalgic over lost empires or obsess over a new caliphate”. The references were clear. “Non-Arab countries” denoted first, Iran, and second, Turkey, which the new alliance opposes on account of President Erdoğan’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood policies. (It is also opposed to Qatar, which is not part of the new alliance, for the same reason.) “The mob of non-state actors” was a reference to Hezbollah—the Lebanese proxy of the Iranian regime—and Hamas—the radical Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood—which consider themselves the advanced guard in the so-called “resistance” to Israel. Those who “obsess over a new caliphate” could equally be the Muslim Brotherhood or IS.

Notably, the new allies’ assessment of the threats to regional peace is shared by Washington. Peace to Prosperity, the January document setting out the Trump administration’s “vision” for the region, identifies a “fault line” in the contemporary Middle East “between leaders who want to create economic opportunity and a better life for their peoples, and those who manipulate religion and ideology in order to foment conflict and excuse their failures”, where the former are the members of the new alliance—along with other US allies such as Egypt and Jordan—and the latter are Hezbollah, Hamas, IS, and the Iranian regime. Like the new alliance, the US has singled out Iran—described by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as “a radically revolutionary, outlaw regime, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and anti-Semitism, and the principal driver of instability in the Middle East”—for particular criticism, and has recognised that a common enmity towards the Islamic Republic might serve as the basis for a new stage in Arab-Israeli relations. “The threats posed by Iran’s radical regime,” Peace to Prosperity explains, ‘have led to a new reality where the State of Israel and its Arab neighbours now share increasingly similar perceptions of the threats to their security”, setting the stage for “diplomatic breakthroughs”—such as the Abraham Accords—“and a broader regional security architecture in the future”.

Underlying this “new reality” in the Middle East are ideas and ideologies. For the Muslim-majority nations, this primarily means competing interpretations of Islam.    

The Arab members of the new alliance profess themselves representatives of “moderate Islam”. “We are simply reverting to what we followed—a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” said Mohammed Bin Salman in 2017, of his plans to move away from the more exclusivist aspects of the Kingdom’s puritanical Wahhabi creed.

In May of last year, the Saudi-based Muslim World League hosted a “Global Forum on Moderate Islam”. The result was the Mecca Declaration, which stressed among other things the importance of “tolerance, respect, dialogue and cooperation among peoples as a means to combat discrimination and hatred”. “We are building partnerships in which Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths are advocating common values and educating their diverse communities on such commonalities,” the League’s Saudi secretary-general Muhammad Issa said recently of its interfaith initiatives. In January, Issa led a delegation of Islamic scholars on a historic tour of Auschwitz organised by the American Jewish Committee.

Islam in the UAE, similarly, is defined to a large extent by tasamuh and taayush, often-heard Arabic words denoting “tolerance” and “co-existence”. 2019 was declared the country’s “year of tolerance”. In February of that year, the UAE hosted a summit between Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the rector of Egypt’s al-Azhar—the leading religious institution in Sunni Islam. The result was the pluralistic “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, which declared that religious diversity had been willed by God and that salvation was anchored in values like peace, justice and co-existence. A few months later, the UAE announced plans for the “Abrahamic Family House”, an interfaith complex featuring a mosque, synagogue and church, due to open in Abu Dhabi in 2022.

This perspective has found its way into the Abraham Accords. The name and text of the Accords—like the Abrahamic Family House—draw on the idea that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam constitute the “Abrahamic religions”. Under article 6 of the agreement, the parties “undertake to foster mutual understanding, respect, co-existence and a culture of peace between their societies in the spirit of their common ancestor, Abraham”.

As well as proclaiming these positive values, moderate Islam defines itself against its extremist alternative. The Mecca Declaration condemned sectarianism, terrorism, and “intolerance and discrimination based on religion, colour or faith”. The Document on Human Fraternity likewise denounced terrorism and extremism as deviations from religious teachings. The parties to the Abraham Accords commit “to work together to counter extremism, which promotes hatred and division, and terrorism and its justifications”.

In particular, the proponents of moderate Islam contrast it with Islamism, the ideological interpretation of the faith which insists that Islam is a comprehensive “system” regulating all aspects of life, public as well as private, and that political sovereignty belongs only to God, whose law, the Sharia, ought to be the law of the land.

In spite of their differences and mutual loathing, the three members of Mohammed Bin Salman’s “triangle of evil” share this basic Islamist perspective. The second article of Iran’s constitution declares that the Islamic Republic is founded on the doctrine of the “exclusive sovereignty” of God. The slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood—adopted by Hamas—is “The Qur’an is our constitution”. The fifth article of Al-Qaeda’s creed states that “all rule and legislation belong to God alone”. 

As Islamists, they also share a fundamental hostility to the West, Israel and the Jewish people. They believe that Muslims’ understanding of their religion has been distorted by Western orientalists—many of them Jewish—who present Islam not as a system for governing society but a religion of personal piety and ritual law, and that the West, Israel, and the Jews have long conspired to keep the Muslim world backward and divided. “From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews,” wrote Ayatollah Khomeini in Islamic Government, the unofficial ideological charter of the Islamic Revolution. “Zionist scheming has no end,” declares Hamas’s original 1988 charter, referencing the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “and after Palestine they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates.”

Unsurprisingly, the Islamists have been among the most vehement in their opposition to the Israel-UAE deal. “The savage, criminal nature of the heads of the Zionist regime has not changed a bit since the first decades of the occupation of Palestine,” proclaimed the Twitter account of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, two days after the deal was signed. For them, the values proclaimed by the representatives of moderate Islam, and agreements like the Abraham Accords, are barriers constructed by the enemies of Islam to prevent the realisation of their all-encompassing system of life.

Seen in light of this cleavage in modern Islamic thought, the Abraham Accords represent a vision for a post-Islamist Middle East, of a “moderate” Arab-Islamic world committed to the values of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, and ready to embrace the West, Israel, and the Jewish people in a spirit of “Abrahamic” fraternity. Significantly, it is a vision supported not only by the signatories to the Accord, but also by Saudi Arabia and Egypt—always bellwethers of important trends in modern Islam—and key Islamic institutions such as al-Azhar and the Muslim World League. For that reason—and with a number of other Muslim-majority countries reportedly ready to consider normalisation with Israel—there are grounds for optimism that this vision is becoming the new norm. 

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