George W. Bush and Barack Obama both tried to transform the Middle East. Neither found the kind of success he sought.
But as the U.S. has reduced its regional footprint and ambitions, the Middle East has begun to change on its own. One of the most recent signs of its metamorphosis was Saudi Prince Bandar’s blistering criticism of Palestinian leaders for their decades of poor decision-making. His words are underscored by his kingdom’s decision to open its airspace to commercial flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai. Taken with the United Arab Emirates shifting from not recognizing the Jewish state to building a warm peace and economic partnerships with Israel, it’s clear the region is moving away from the predictable sterility of the past toward something genuinely new.
In the new Middle East, the younger generation is turning its back on religious radicalism, and Arab public opinion is moving to accept the presence of a Jewish state. The Palestinians have lost their position at the center of Middle East politics, and it is Turkey and Iran, not Israel, that Arab rulers are most concerned to oppose.
Last week I asked U.A.E. Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba to explain what was happening, and the first thing he did was point me to recent polls by the Zogby organization and 12th annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, which interviewed 4,000 young Arabs (18 to 24) in 17 countries.
President Trump’s peace plan, which many longtime Middle East experts dismissed as a ghastly blunder that would destroy the American role in Middle East peace negotiations, has turned out to be relatively popular on the Arab street. The Zogby survey found majorities in favor of the “Deal of the Century” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
Asked to identify which countries had most increased their influence in the Arab world over the past five years, more young Arabs in the survey named the U.S. than any other country. (Only 16% named Russia.) Fifty-six percent considered America “an ally” of their country, up from a low of 35% in 2018.
On other issues, 67% of young Arabs in the survey agreed that “religion plays too big a role in the Middle East.” Seventy-six percent of young women and 70% of young men supported the idea of married women working outside the home.
If attitudes on the Arab street are changing, attitudes in the suites are changing even more. The picture that emerged from my conversation with Mr. Otaiba, which was underscored in a later talk with national security adviser Robert O’Brien, was that key Arab leaders have embraced the idea that better relations with Israel are critical to their states’ security and even survival.
It is Turkey even more than Iran that keeps some Arab leaders awake at night. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has aligned himself closely with the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional Islamist movement that Mr. Obama once hoped could tame terrorism by introducing a moderate and democratic form of Islamist politics into the region. That dream died with Mr. Erdogan’s turn toward a more authoritarian approach, the incompetence of Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt, and the continuing support for violence by Brotherhood-affiliate Hamas.
Many Arab leaders fear that Turkey will use the brotherhood’s networks to build support for Ankara’s regional ambitions. Iran can only call on the minority Shiites for religious support, but Turkey can attract supporters from the Sunni majority.
Ironically, the current Arab nightmare is that the next U.S. administration won’t support Israel enough. Regional leaders fear that Team Biden would ignore Israeli as well as Arab objections, embracing Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, despite Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions, and dropping sanctions against Iran as part of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Close Arab cooperation with Israel will, some in the Gulf seem to hope, help keep that specter at bay. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to defer annexations of West Bank territory in exchange for the relationship with the U.A.E. was a gift to both American political parties. Republicans could hail a foreign policy victory for Mr. Trump. For Democrats it meant that the Biden campaign and a President Biden would not be distracted by a bitter intraparty fight over the U.S. response to Israeli annexations. Aligned with Israel, the Arabs hope their voices will be heard more clearly and their interests taken more seriously no matter what happens in the November election.
Meanwhile, Mr. Otaiba believes that bringing Gulf capital into the Israeli economy and Israeli technical expertise to the Gulf can help Arab countries achieve economic results that will satisfy the restless younger generation. One suspects Washington would welcome having America’s Gulf allies displace China as an important source of foreign investment in Israel.
The Middle East has changed; American thinking will have to adjust.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the October 20, 2020, print edition.