The US president and his regional allies have handed a priceless gift to their enemies
By Abdel Bari Atwan
US President Donald Trump was not the only one who miscalculated when he failed to anticipate the Arab and Islamic response to his disastrous decision to recognize occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there. It is clear that his closest regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE made an even bigger mistake when they declined to take a strong stand to deter him from, and warn him against the consequences of, taking this step. Rather than siding with the Arab and Islamic masses and taking their feelings and justified anger into account, these allies signalled their de facto acquiescence, an attitude that left the Israelis dancing with joy.
When thousands of demonstrators in Jordan chant slogans denouncing Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman and accusing him of being an American agent, and when the same chants are echoed in other Arab countries against Egyptian President Abdelfattah as-Sisi (while his security forces were busy breaking up protests held in defiance of the official ban), this does not just mean that people view the “moderate” regimes in the Arab world as clients of the US and Israel. It signals the start of the implosion of their alliance and its isolation in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
It is hard to fathom on what basis this camp’s regional strategy is built, or what doctrine drives its military and political decisions. What is clear, however, is that its numerous mistakes and blunders have enabled its regional rivals to reap rich rewards and win over much of the Arab public – especially now that they have cast themselves as collaborators with the US at a time when it is backing Israel’s racist policies to the hilt while its own power and influence in the fast-changing region are in rapid retreat.
It is unclear who misled the other. Did Trump mislead his Arab allies by persuading them that other preoccupations – such as Egypt’s economic malaise, the war in Yemen and the Iranian threat – have marginalized the cause of Jerusalem and Palestine and relegated it to the bottom of the Arab public’s concerns? Or was it these allies who misled Trump by assuring him that the Arab and Islamic peoples are in comatose condition and will not react, and he can go ahead with his plans to move the embassy and recognize the fait accompli that Israel has imposed by military force over the entirety of occupied Palestine. Whatever the case, and irrespective of who misled whom, a shock was delivered to both sides when hundreds of thousands took to the streets throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds in protest.
Turkey’ Recep Tayyip Erdogan deftly seized the moment to turn the tables on his friends-turned-foes, the Arab ‘moderates’ and their American patron, reassert his pan-Islamic leadership credentials, tilt further towards the rival camp that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah, and turn his back on the Euro-American West. The Islamic Cooperation Organization (ICO) summit he is hosting in Istanbul on Wednesday may be a landmark event in this respect.
The Saudi leadership bought Trump’s favour with $500 billion worth of investments and weapons purchases and by accelerating the process of normalization with Israel. It has employed its media and social media in a campaign to burnish Israel’s image and demonise the Palestinians and their cause. This was presumably aimed at preparing for a forthcoming war against Iran.Yet it inadvertently provided both its Iranian and Turkish foes with a massive and totally cost-free gain.
Two countries — Jordan and Morocco — have already broken ranks with the ‘moderate’ alliance as a result of this decision. Egypt could follow suit, especially in light of seething public anger at the regime’s ceding of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, reported plans to establish an alternative Palestinian homeland in Sinai, and the state’s on-going repression, stifling of free speech and economic failure.
Egypt’s most senior Muslim and Christian clerics – the Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmad Gumaa and Pope Tawadoros II – were not acting spontaneously when they spoke out as strongly as they did against Trump’s move and announced that they would refuse to meet Vice-President Mike Pence when he visits Cairo. There are two possible explanations for their stance. Either they were acting with an official go-ahead, aimed at appeasing and absorbing the anger of the Egyptian public for whom – Muslims and Christians alike – Jerusalem and Palestine remain a noble cause for which thousands of Egyptians gave their lives. Or, alternatively, both clerics felt impelled to distance themselves from the regime’s indulgence of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine and Judaization of its Muslim and Christian sacred sites. It is perhaps too early to tell which explanation is more accurate, but either way, it signals a turning-point.
Erdogan’s hosting of the ICO summit is a riposte to the Arab-Islamic-American summit held by Saudi Arabia in May to pay homage to Trump as leader of the new ‘moderate’ alliance. The Sheikh of al-Azhar’s call on Palestinians to launch a new uprising against Israeli occupation send a powerful message – whether to, or from, Sisi – that Egypt will no longer remain beholden to Saudi, Gulf and American dictates.
The same can be said about Jordan’s defiance – on both the official and popular levels — of Saudi dominance over collective Arab decision-making. King Abdallah’s decision to go to Istanbul sends out a strong signal in this regard. It heralds a reconciliation between historic Ottoman and Hashemite claims to pan-Islamic leadership, which may be expanded to include the rival Shia authorities in Qom and Najaf.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advised the Saudi leadership to be less capricious in its policies towards Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon and reconsider its approach. They would be even better advised to shift their focus to occupied Jerusalem and to stand up to the disgraceful American move against it. It is unacceptable for the self-professed guardians of Islam’s two holiest sites to be so contemptuous of the third.