AS the US-led ‘recognition blitz’ that made four Arab states recognise Israel rocked the Middle East and changed the region’s geopolitical ecology, the Arab-Islamic world wondered whether the Saudi regime that proudly proclaims itself to be the Guardian of the Two Holy Places would follow suit. Indeed 2020 was one of the worst years for the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority calling it a betrayal of its people.
Not without Saudi blessings did the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain extend official recognition to Israel, followed, as if on cue, by Sudan and Morocco. The recognition violated a number of UN resolutions besides the 2002 Arab plan, reaffirmed in 2017, which provided for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories in return for recognition by all Islamic countries.
The Saudi silence was deafening, until, on behalf of the kingdom, Turki al-Faisal surprised all at a Manama security conference on Dec 6 by lashing out at the Jewish state’s atrocities in occupied territories, saying it killed whosoever it wished, putting Palestinians in concentration camps on the “flimsiest of security accusations”, destroying Arab houses, killing “whosoever they want”, and unleashing the media and its “political minions” in other countries to malign Saudi Arabia. Among those stunned was Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi listening remotely.
“Assalamo Alaikum, and come again and again” was how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed passengers of the first UAE commercial flight to land in Tel Aviv on Nov 26. The two Gulf sheikhdoms’ tour de force coupled with the rather unnoticed opening of the Iraqi-Saudi border after 30 years were developments which President Donald Trump, obsessed with Iran, thought would serve to bring Arab states and Israel closer. Tehran, however, showed no signs of wavering, and in a rather flippant mood issued arrest warrants for the American president.
For most part of the year, the Saudi silence on the growing ties between the Arabs and Israel was deafening until IT came out with a stunning censure of the Jewish state.
The year had begun on a high-voltage crisis between Tehran and Washington when on Jan 3 a US drone killed Iranian Quds Force chief, Gen Qassim Soleimani, in Baghdad. The Iranian regime, at the end of its tether, retaliated by missile attacks on the US base at Ain al-Asad in Iraq claiming 80 enemy dead. Trump said no Americans were hurt, but the Pentagon contradicted him, admitting 64 of its soldiers were injured, 34 suffering “traumatic” brain injuries and concussion.
Will the Democratic administration give a new direction to America’s Middle East policy, follow a less servile attitude toward the Israel lobby and take relations with Iran to the pre-Trump benchmark are questions that defy answers because of America’s complex policymaking apparatus.
Foreign policy in the US is a bipartisan affair and relies, besides Congress, on inputs from a variety of sources that include experts at the State Department, Pentagon and the White House, not to speak of the plethora of think tanks often influenced by powerful lobbies. On his campaign trail President-elect Joe Biden had said nothing categorical about a re-entry into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but merely accused Trump of weakening national security, which, he claimed, had helped Tehran get closer to the bomb.
Biden may indeed try to move away from the Trump era brinkmanship, but a renewed adherence to the nuclear accord will be difficult, given the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. One can, however, expect Biden to be mindful of the Arab-Islamic governments’ keenness to see Washington follow a more balanced policy on the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally realised the need for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, with which ties had soured following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi mission in Istanbul in Dec 2018. As the Turkish presidency announced after Erdogan made a surprise phone call to King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Nov 2, the two leaders had decided to “keep channels of dialogue open” for enhancing their bilateral relations “for issues to be settled.” Turkey had not officially blamed the Saudi government for the murder, but had indicted a number of Saudi nationals, even though Riyadh itself had categorically condemned the assassination.
On Libya also, Turkey was on the wrong side of many Arab states, and a Turkish court’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque was slated as much by some European governments as by many Arab commentators who said it was “neo-Ottomanism” and a ploy to win votes.
Also criticised by some European countries, especially France, was Erdogan’s stance on the gas-rich area near Crete to which Greece has claims. Tension peaked in August when the two countries began war drills, with Erdogan declaring Turkey would not give up what belonged to it. The Macron regime seemed to be hopping mad and said Paris didn’t believe eastern Mediterranean should become “a playground for the ambitions of some”.
Turkey’s Nato partners were divided; Italy taking part in the manoeuvres on the Turkish side, while France chose to ally itself with Greece. Germany’s attitude was, however, positive, and Foreign Minister Heiko Mass warned that the confrontation between two Nato partners could have disastrous consequences. The crisis seemed to be de-escalating as the year moved toward a close.
On Libya also, Turkey was accused of ‘neo-Ottomanism’, with the government-owned Egyptian daily Al Ahram terming Ankara’s military presence in Libya an attempt to display power in a country that once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Ankara is on the side of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, and against Gen Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt.
Riyadh has often accused Ankara of interfering in Libya’s internal affairs and termed its military presence a threat to “Arab and regional security’’. It remains to be seen whether the kingdom will adopt a soft policy toward Ankara after the recent attempts at détente by Erdogan. Turkey also enjoys the quiet blessings of Qatar and of Muslim Brotherhood, thus adding to Cairo’s unease because it does not want Muslim Brotherhood extremists enter Egypt from Libya.
Turkey’s military intervention in Libya has mostly meant sending trained soldiers and militants from Syria. They now number nearly 2, 000. Ankara’s main interest lies in gas in eastern Mediterranean. With the Haftar militia losing militarily, the Sarraj government agreed to Turkey’s claims that the gas field in question was within Turkey’s maritime rights, prompting Erdogan to declare that drilling would soon begin.
On the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Erdogan regime played a positive role, helping Azerbaijan diplomatically, and calling Turkey and the Caucasian republic “two countries and one nation”; a reference to the religious, cultural and linguistic ties between them. The fighting, which erupted in September, led to thousands of civilian casualties, both sides accusing each other of war crimes and screening videos showing prisoners being tortured and executed.
The fighting finally ended on Nov 10 in Azerbaijan’s victory, but Ankara, keen on asserting its role as a major regional power, was disappointed when it was not invited to the signing of the peace deal, initialled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The treaty in effect meant a military victory for Azerbaijan, which retained the areas it conquered. Armenia agreed to withdraw from areas as agreed upon. There were joyous scenes in Baku, while enraged Armenians attacked their parliament and beat up the speaker for a peace they believed amounted to abject surrender.
And, finally, Lebanon, which seems to be destined in modern times to suffer tragedy after tragedy. Lebanon, is the land of the Phoenicians’ descendants, inhabited by 18 religious groups and nearly a dozen Christian sects. It is also the land of the martyrs of Sabra-Shatilla, the land of Khalil Gibran and, yes, of Robert Fisk.
On Aug 4, a blast in a Beirut port warehouse devastated the city, killed over 400, injured more than 5,000 and rendered 300,000 people homeless. People, fed up with corruption, took to the streets, leading to resignation by Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
Nearly three months after the catastrophe, author and journalist Fisk died following a stroke. A fearless reporter, Fisk earned the Zionist lobby’s hostility by reporting the truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially in his coverage of Zionist atrocities in occupied Lebanon. The Independent, the paper he worked for, said Fisk “was the greatest journalist of his generation”.