This is a video I’ve wanted to make for a while. After looking at it intensely for at least three years now, I’ve got some very strong opinions on the history of the Arab World. I’ve been reluctant to lay them out however, because it’s impossible to talk about the Arab world in general without talking about Israel. It’s a topic that is guaranteed to alienate at least half my audience. As you can tell from today’s video, my views are capable of irritating all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I have held off on addressing that conflict directly because of general chicken-heartedness, and a feeling that I haven’t read enough on the subject yet.
Well a week or so back Israel and the UAE took it out of my hands. The deal announced by Trump is tremendously significant, though not for the reasons that the parties or the deal-makers suspect. This really could be a turning point in Arab history more generally. Or maybe not. Anyway, I’m delighted to have been forced to get these ideas out there. Let me know what you think!
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Last week the Trump administration announced a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Details are very sketchy, but it is supposedly going to lead to the full normalization of trade, diplomatic and even tourism relations. My initial instinct, as with many Trump initiatives, was to call it a nothing burger. But I don’t think that’s right. This deal is tremendously significant, though not in the way that Israel and the UAE think it is.
This is not a good deal for the Palestinians. It’s not really a Middle East Peace deal as we used to understand it. I would expect the Palestinians to see this deal much the same way that the Polish saw the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or the Czechoslovakians saw Chamberlain’s appeasement deal in Munich. Yeah, Yeah, supposedly Israel agreed not to do the annexation that would have ruined it’s relationship with the next US President, but that’s more about salvaging the fiction of a 2 state solution than anything else. The fundamental message of this deal to the Palestinians is a simple, and very contemptuous one: it’s that nobody cares about the Palestinians anymore.
That message is unfortunate, and it’s not actually true, but I think this UAE-Israel deal has a significance far beyond the lives of 5-10 million Palestinians. I think it has real meaning for all 400 million-plus people in the Arab world. I am getting way into wild speculation with this video, but what I think this deal may signify, is the end of the second era of Arab independence.
The first era of Arab independence was in the post world war II era, when all of the imperial powers that had controlled the Middle East and North Africa for 500 years realized they couldn’t afford to do it anymore. This happened unevenly, over a two decade period. The Israelis were better funded, and better organized than anybody else, and thanks to the horrors of the Holocaust they were very motivated. In 1948 they were able to take possession of land that had been run by, and principally populated by Muslims for 1300 years.
Now as an American it’s very easy to say that the Arab world should just get over it. That’s essentially what a tiny, unaccountable elite in the United Arab Emirates just agreed to do. But for the other 400 million Arabs, anger at Israel’s actions in 1948 remains central to their identity. And I get it. Just as they were finally winning back their independence, a bunch of Europeans came in, took a chunk of their historic land, and turned hundreds of thousands of Arabs into refugees.
Israel has been the symbol of Arab humiliation over the past 72 years. The Arab world faces many challenges, but any leader who has ideas about facing any of those challenges is defined by his ability to confront Israel. Since Arab independence, I think many historians would agree that there have been two over all strategies that have been tried. Both have been around for hundreds of years, but you can divide the period of independence into two different eras, each dominated by a separate model. These models aren’t just about confronting Israel, they were about everything, government, society, religion.
The first model was Westernization or modernization. This approach has roots going all the way back to Napoleon’s invasion, which we talked about earlier this year. The idea is to beat the Europeans at their own game, build up a modern nationalist structure, take back Arab leadership in science, build a powerful military, etc. etc. The most famous Arab nationalist figure was Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser, and his victory in the 1956 Suez crisis probably represented the high water mark of this approach. Nasser is now becoming better known for his mocking of head scarves and cheerful embrace of modernity, but it’s important to remember that he emulated the darker aspects of European nationalism as well, setting up a brutal one party state, and pursuing policies that led to many of Egypt’s commercial minorities fleeing the country.
For a second there in the late 1950s it looked like Nasser could do no wrong. He even briefly brought Egypt and Syria together in a United Arab Republic. But after talking a big game, when he faced the Israelis in 1967’s six day war, he failed miserably, losing the large tracts of Egyptian and Jordanian land that became the occupied territories. After 1967, the reputation of Arab nationalism faded quickly. Many Arab governments still claim this ideology but my sense is that it lost the bulk of the Arab people in 1979. In that year, Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in order to get the Sinai peninsula back. I think that peace deal, which Sadat was assassinated for by the way, was probably the end of the first era of Arab independence.
There is some other stuff that happened in 1979 too, but I don’t want this video to be 45 minutes long, so I am leaving Iran out of this story.
The dominant ideology of the second era is the return to Islam. After the failure of those who sought to emulate the West, many suggested that the Arab world could strengthen itself by returning to its roots. There was long intellectual tradition behind this idea, but it was corrupted and turned pathological by the wealth and savagery of Saudi Arabia. The most well-known proponent of the fundamentalism of this era would probably be Osama Bin Laden that most famous of Saudi Arabians. The Saudis and other Gulf countries like the UAE poured hundreds of billions of dollars into fostering grim ideas of Islamic supremacy all over the world. This approach probably reached its peak with 9-11, an event that was no doubt emotionally satisfying to some in the region, but ultimately left the Arabs weaker than they had ever been.
The dirty secret of this attempt at self-strengthening through extremism, is that it was always a joke. Saudi Arabia has basically been a US colony for over half a century, and all this extremism was fostered first to advance US policy against the Soviets, and now to advance US policy against Iran. Gulf monarchies like the UAE funded brutal anti-western ideologies that turned Arab countries into killing fields, at the same time as they were signing bigger and bigger deals with Western companies.
The spectacular flame out of the Islamic State is probably this 2nd era’s equivalent of the failed Arab nationalist wars on Israel. The horrors of Mosul and Raqqa show that Islamic extremism, has failed utterly in strengthening the Arab world. It’s done the exact opposite in fact. And last week the UAE, one of the largest supporters of anti-democratic religious extremism, signaled the end of this 2nd era by signing a deal with Israel.
The 1979 deal with Egypt was tremendously important for Israel’s security. The two countries shared a border, and had fought a serious conventional war as recently as 1973 backed by opposing super-powers. The UAE, a tiny petro-state 1000 miles away and similarly aligned with the US, poses no threat to Israel. This deal is far more significant for what it says about the Arab world than what it says about Israeli security.
Because this deal doesn’t just abandon the Palestinians, it also abandons the vast majority of the Arabs. After spending a decade crushing all attempts at Arab Democracy, the UAE has taken a step that illustrates complete contempt for the wishes of its own people, and for the wishes of the Arab people across the region. The UAE-Israel peace deal is a victory dance over the corpse of the Arab Spring that we should not be celebrating.
Luckily I do think there’s a way forward here. The third era of Arab independence has already begun. Real Arab Democracy began in Tunisia in 2011, and it has not been easy but they have hung on against all odds ever since. Tunisia has demonstrated that a representative system can thrive while trying to include the best of the Arab nationalist and Islamic tendencies. The Middle East will continue to suffer the effects of Saudi Arabia’s era of dominance for decades to come, but across North Africa, you can see glimpses of the next more democratic paradigm in Sudan, Algeria, Morocco and even Libya, potentially. This third era of Arab independence finally promises real freedoms and growing strength for these countries.
I want Arab countries to make peace with Israel. The old idea of sending all the Israelis back to Europe is as dead as Nasser’s idea of uniting the Arab world in a single country. Too much time has passed, and all the countries of the region are too well established. Peace is the only way forward. But that peace can’t be forced on the Arab people by medieval monarchies while much of the region is in flames started by Israel’s superpower patron. Peace needs to be chosen by the Arab people from a more democratic place of wealth and security. Thankfully that’s exactly what I think the next era of Arab independence will be about.
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