Should the Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel if this would make life easier for Palestinians? Could having such ties propel the Middle East peace process forward?
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, spoke recently about Israel’s attack on Gaza last winter. Noting that Turkey was able to deliver emergency goods to the Palestinians immediately, he said: “I would have been glad if Egypt had done the same,” alluding to the fact that both countries have ties to Israel.
He then added: “Everyone was asking us to shut the Israeli commercial office in Doha and we have done so. Show me now how this will benefit the peace process?” It could be argued that such commercial ties with Israel allowed Qatar in the past to donate $6 million to finance the building of the Sakhnin football stadium, which is used mostly by Israeli Arabs.
It is an open secret that all six Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel and some have overt commercial interests. Officials as senior as the current Israeli president himself have visited Oman and Qatar on various occasions. In fact, not too long ago a Gulf official asked me for contacts in the Israeli foreign ministry (which I did not have). It was a casual request, as if I were being asked to introduce a potential business partner.
We now know that these ties exist thanks to the internet, the ultimate taboo-breaker and myth-shatterer of the Arab world. For instance, over the past few years I have received via e-mail photographs of former and current Gulf foreign ministers with Israeli officials, usually Shimon Peres during his time as foreign minister of Israel. There is also a popular YouTube video of a Gulf ruler and his foreign minister meeting Tzipi Livni when she was Israel’s foreign minister; the Gulf ruler gestures to the TV crew to stop filming. As recently as a few years ago such a video would have not been seen at all. Now it has thousands of viewers.
The German magazine Der Spiegel reported the clearest example of Israeli rapprochement with the Arab Gulf states in early July when it disclosed that Israel had voted for the UAE to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena). The magazine attributed this to Israel wanting to build closer relations with the Gulf states. That strategy could be working: this month an official delegation from Bahrain visited Israel for the first time to collect five citizens of the island kingdom who were deported after being caught on board a protest ship that tried to sail into the Gaza Strip.
The boldest step by any Gulf states to normalise relations with Israel has come from none other than Saudi Arabia: King Abdullah’s peace plan promises full normalisation rather than a cold, Egypt-style peace with Israel if an agreement with the Palestinians is reached. Additionally, Bahrain’s foreign minister suggested last year that the Middle East countries form a regional organisation that includes Israel and Iran. David Klein, the governor of Israel’s central bank, visited the UAE in 2003 for World Bank and IMF meetings. Even in conservative Kuwait, a candidate for parliament called recently for closer relations with Israel.
What ties the Gulf states to Israel is mutual suspicion of the Iranian nuclear programme. They also fear that a potential strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations could have serious repercussions for the Gulf states in economic, environmental and security terms. In contradiction to western media reports that the Gulf states have acquiesced to an Israeli strike, it is more likely that they would employ their contacts with Israel (and the US) to highlight the serious potential consequences of such a move. After all, the two Gulf countries with the closest links to Israel (via its former commercial representative offices there), Oman and Qatar, also happen to have the closest relations with Iran among all six Gulf states.
It is naive to think that simply having relations with Israel would make a difference to the peace process; some say it is counterproductive to reward the current hard-line Israeli government whose latest blunder is to insist that Arabic place names in Israel be rendered so as to present the Hebrew language equivalent (eg, Al Quds becomes Yerushalayim, rendered in Arabic). However, it is equally naive to think that such ties don’t already exist, no matter how vehemently the Gulf states deny it.
Bahrain’s progressive crown prince recently highlighted the importance of communicating with Israel in an article in The Washington Post. Clearly, the Gulf states can no longer be involved passively in perpetual peace processes that fail. One step they can take is to appoint a high-level peace envoy whose sole duty is to monitor and encourage, diplomatically and financially, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
What we need now is practical steps that can finally improve the prospects for peace and dignified living for the Palestinians. If having ties with Israel can achieve that, then few Gulf citizens will condemn their governments.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 26th July 2009