In the last six months of 2020 – the death spiral of the Trump presidency – a series of peace deals and normalisation agreements were signed between Israel and Arab countries: the UAE and Bahrain came first, in September, followed by Sudan and Morocco. Rumours are that Oman will be next. In November, Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia to meet the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. Apparently, while most countries were counting the minutes till Trump’s term would be over, Israel and a few monarchies and dictatorships in the Arab world were squeezing the most out of his last weeks in office. Each delegation asked Trump, as if he were the Wizard of Oz, for what it most wanted in return for normalising relations: to be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Sudan); to have its illegal occupation of other people’s land recognised (Morocco); to buy a few squadrons of F-35s (UAE); to put the Palestinian cause to sleep (Israel); possibly along with other promises we will never hear about.
1919 was a year of travelling revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings were triggered by the efforts (sometimes secret, sometimes not) of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to colonise the Middle East and to divvy up its territories at the end of the First World War. As their intentions became apparent – after both Britain and France had repeatedly promised otherwise – thousands of men and, for the first time, women took to the streets in protest.
A Hamas delegation recently paid an official visit to Egypt, which these days is news in and of itself. While in Cairo, the delegation also met with the former Fatah warlord Muhammad Dahlan, which is even bigger news.
The Iraq war is not over; it never really ended. It just spilled into a new war, the war in Syria. We may one day speak of Iraq-Syria the way that we speak now of 'Af-Pak'.
In response to a wave of attacks by the al-Qaida group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States is supplying Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's embattled government with Hellfire missiles and drones. The Obama administration also wants congressional approval to lease (and eventually sell) six Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqis, a plan held up by lawmakers who fear they will be used against Maliki's political opponents.
As reported by the New York Times, the arming of the Iraqi government is a story about instability inside Iraq, counter-terrorism and the effectiveness of drones. But the regional implications are much larger.
The defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood is a regional turning point. Mohammed Morsi's election was widely hailed as the birth of a new era of Sunni Islamist-led democracies in the Arab world, bankrolled by Qatar, sympathetically covered by al-Jazeera, and supported by Washington, Ankara and the Gulf. It was not to be. The Morsi presidency now looks to have been a turbulent and highly contested segue between two eras of military rule. Qatar, which invested heavily in the Brothers, has lost a major ally.
China's re-emergence as a world power, in some respects as a challenger to the American superpower, has been seen in the Middle East, as elsewhere, mainly in economic terms. China is expected to replace the US very soon as the largest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East gets 75 per cent of its imports from Asia, expected to rise to 90 per cent by 2030. Iran is a special case, because of the dreadful state of relations with America and the West; China is Iran's largest trade partner, largest oil purchaser and largest foreign investor. Israel is also special; China buys modern technology, both civil (particularly agricultural) and military, including US technology under the counter. When foreign workers were evacuated from Libya in March this year, by far the largest number – up to 45,000 – were Chinese, involved in fifty large projects, worth $18 billion, in construction, railways, oil services and telecommunications. Economic interests have political and military consequences.
From Swamp Post, a time-lapse video mapping protests in North Africa and the Middle East from 18 December 2010 to 7 March 2011. Painstakingly compiled by John Caelan.
The 'Palestine Papers' being published this week by al-Jazeera confirm in every detail what many Palestinians have suspected for a long time: their leaders have been collaborating in the most shameful fashion with Israel and the United States. Their grovelling is described in grim detail. The process, though few accepted it at the time, began with the much-trumpeted Oslo Accords, described by Edward Said in the LRB at the time as a ‘Palestinian Versailles'. Even he would have been taken aback by the sheer scale of what the PLO leadership agreed to surrender: virtually everything except their own salaries. Their weaknesses, inadequacies and cravenness are now in the public domain.
The CIA announced yesterday that it has set up a task force with a rude acronym to assess the damage caused by WikiLeaks. So far, more trouble seems to have been caused by the bare fact of the leak, and the sheer scale of it, than by the content of any of the published cables.
For the most part we see able, professional diplomats doing their best to understand and report on the places where they’re stationed, as anyone familiar with the State Department would expect. Those I have looked at (mostly from or concerning the Middle East) are classified up to ‘secret’, which is supposed to mean the information in them would cause ‘grave damage’ to national security if made public. One lesson is that over-classification, which is a form of bad security, is even more prevalent in the State Department today than it was in the British diplomatic service when I served in it.
Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week was, of course, addressed as much to Americans as to Cairenes (or for that matter Muslims). The crowd hardly needed to be reminded of their civilisation's accomplishments in maths, science and learning; but many Americans could surely benefit from the history lesson the president so succinctly and eloquently provided. Likewise, most Egyptians know that there are worse places to be Muslim than the US: that's why so many of them are desperate for American visas. Europeans, on the other hand, could learn something from American tolerance of the hijab.
Last week in the Occupied Territories, a bunch of (mainly) British writers, guests of the Palestine Festival of Literature, were asked to run workshops for the students at Birzeit. I was paired up with Robin Yassin-Kassab, the author of The Road from Damascus. Our workshop title was 'the role of writing in creating new political realities'. Right. Something about change then. Yassin-Kassab is a novelist; he knows what it is to ring the changes. I'm a journalist; I know how to change an inkjet cartridge. But we both agree that shouting tends to lock 'old' political realities in place, so why not turn this into an experiment about making a point without banging a drum?
A good way to grasp what's happening to East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories is from the air. Google Earth can do that for you, but there's a history of contention: in 2006, users created tags for Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war of 1948-49; the following year Fatah's al-Aqsa Brigades were said to be checking potential Israeli military targets against Google Earth pictures; last year there was a controversy over the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam, when a user called Thameen Darby posted a note claiming it was formerly a Palestinian locality 'evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war'. Kiryat Yam, its residents protested as they reached for the nearest lawyer, was built in the 1930s.
Last week, the Palestine Festival of Literature organised a discussion about travel and writing at the Dar Annadwa cultural centre in Bethlehem. One of Palfest's star guests, touring the West Bank and East Jersualem, was Michael Palin, whose early glories, before his reinvention as a traveller, were much on people's minds. He spoke well about growing up in Sheffield and cultivating a passion for Hemingway, but the audience was delighted when someone suggested that living under Israeli occupation was a bit like being in the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. As the panellists stood up and tidied their books, a young Palestinian in the seat in front of me said she couldn't believe we were all with Palin in Bethlehem – Bethlehem! – and no one had thought to ask about Monty Python's Life of Brian. But with two other writers on the stage, there'd been a lot of ground to cover.