THE low-level talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad were perhaps the only positive development in the Middle East in 2021 which otherwise saw another Gaza massacre with Nazi precision by Israel; the Arab world’s virtual abandonment of the Palestinian people to Israeli occupation; the continued war in Yemen; and Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since 1800.
Even though there was no follow-up to the Baghdad talks, brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, the fact that the two rival oil powers agreed to sit across the table was itself an achievement. Hopes were raised when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman emphasised the need for seeking “good” relations with Iran.
Iraqi sources said Riyadh was keen on reconciliation with Tehran to seek an end to the Yemen war in which neither side seems to be wining.
The talks came as Iran had a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative with a judicial background, who is likely to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as the nation’s spiritual leader. However, there was no progress on reincarnating the 2015 nuclear deal, which former American president Donald Trump had repudiated. Meanwhile, Iran decided to upgrade uranium to a higher level, and in April there was an explosion at the Natanez nuclear reactor.
While Israel continued with its brutalities in Gaza, the Arab world could not move much beyond ending the boycott of Qatar by a Saudi-led foursome.
The hopes aroused by the Baghdad talks for peace in the region were shattered in May when Israel began a large-scale military operation against Hamas in Gaza, though the victims of the 11-day carnage were mostly civilians; over 100 women and 66 children among the 254 dead. By the time the Egypt-brokered ceasefire went into effect, houses and apartment buildings lay flattened.
The Gaza carnage, however, had no dampening effect on the UAE-led détente with Israel. In December, Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the United Arab Emirates. In July, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited the UAE and Bahrain in September to inaugurate his country’s missions, with King Hamad bin Issa Al Hammad of Bahrain telling the Israeli diplomat that a normalisation of ties between the two countries – part of the US-led Abraham accords – would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. On his part, Ayatollah Khamenei called the recognitions by the Arab countries as a sin, and said Israel wasn’t a country but a “terrorist base.”
Another indication of the Gulf sheikhdoms’ submissive policy toward the Jewish state was their participation in the five-day naval exercise with Israel and America in the Red Sea.
Soon enough, Morocco signed a series of agreements with Israel. The decision seemed to be a goodwill gesture toward the US, which in 2020 recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Surprisingly, while Israel renounced the two-state solution, the US administration took some positive steps to undo the effects of the preceding administration’s anti-Palestinian moves. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken unveiled plans for assistance to the Palestinian people. The Biden administration also criticised Israel’s decision to not only build l, 000 more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but to regularise illegal settlements retrospectively. Swift was Israel’s condemnation of the US reaction, with Housing Minister Uri Ariel, saying: “No country in the world accepts diktats from other countries on where it is allowed to build or not.”
Within the Arab world, however, there were commendable conciliatory moves, one of them being the end of the Saudi Arabia-led boycott of Qatar. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, irked by the independence Qatar was showing in relations with Iran and Turkey and its purported tilt toward the Muslim Brotherhood, had, along with Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, broken diplomatic ties with the gas-rich kingdom and cut off air and road links. However, realising that Qatar had refused to be bullied, the Saudi-led group relented and chose to invite Doha to the 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the Saudi resort of Al Ula, with MBS, all smiles, embracing Qatar’s ruler Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the airport.
The UAE also seemed to be reviewing its policy toward Turkey with a visit by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan the first by a top UAE diplomat to Ankara since 2012. The problems between the two included the Libyan civil war where the UAE considers Turkey to be on the wrong side, Ankara’s bonhomie with Doha, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to the oil kingdoms, especially Saudi Arabia. The visit came on the invitation of President Erdogan – a point emphasised by the UAE media.
Meanwhile, Lebanon had a financial crisis the World Bank called one of the worst in centuries, aggravated by the Saudi decision to ban imports from Lebanon after a minister, who had till then not taken the oath of office, criticised Riyadh’s role in the Yemen war. Over the last two years, Lebanon’s economy contracted by 30 per cent, the country defaulted on public debt, currency value fell by 90pc, food inflation was over 500pc, cars waited for hours at gas stations, and vital medicines disappeared.
While the country had not fully recovered from 15 years of civil war (1975-90), what triggered the economic crisis was the devastating explosion in August 2020 at the Beirut port that killed or injured over 6,000 people and damaged over 80,000 properties. No one was arrested for the explosion. The cumulative effect of the economic meltdown led to sectarian violence that saw the use of machineguns and rockets. No wonder the World Bank called it a “deliberate depression” caused by corruption and bad governance.
And, at a non-geopolitical level, the UAE was in the news again with two landmark decisions. One legal initiative was to decriminalise sex among unmarried couples with certain conditions (https://www.dawn.com/news/1660757); the other was the switchover to a 4.5-day workweek, with weekends to consist of Friday half-day, Saturday and Sunday.
The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author