PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST IS STILL A MIRAGE
Barely over a week before the attacks, the United States National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, boldly proclaimed that the Middle East is now “quieter today than it has been in two decades”. His timing could not have been worse.
Mr Sullivan’s claim was an act of political theatre, meant to showcase the Biden administration’s prowess in putting out brush fires in the volatile region. It now lies in tatters, to almost no one’s surprise.
At the Middle East Institute’s annual conference earlier this year, a panel of experts wrapped up the event by discussing this question: Is peace in the Middle East a mirage?
The question was posed in response to a rash of detente that has broken out in the region over the last few years: The Abraham Accords, the end of the Blockade of Qatar, and a Saudi-Iran deal to resume ties, among others. While not overly pessimistic, the panel was hardly optimistic. Those who had cause for pause might now feel vindicated.
But the conflagration masks two bigger, more consequential, shifts that will shape the region. The first is that Israel’s existence is a fact, and cannot be ignored. The countries in the Middle East will have to deal with it, and some already have. The second is the urgent, existential need for the big players to ditch their old model economies and transform to face the future.
To do that, they will require more trading partners, investment, and tourism, among others. Israel’s moxie and cutting-edge technologies in everything from defence to agriculture are a critical part of this equation. The United Arab Emirates – which, together with Bahrain, were the first to sign on to the Abraham Accords – signed a free trade agreement with Israel last year, and both sides project that annual bilateral trade will hit US$10 billion within five years, 10 times that in 2021.
These are the overriding national interests guiding the policies of the major economies in the region, and they will not change soon. For now, Israel’s main interest is in defending itself, while countries like the UAE, which aligned with it, will be forced to keep a distance to quell internal disquiet. For Saudi Arabia, entertaining any thought of normalisation now, or in the near future, will amount to dicing with trouble, something Riyadh is loath to do.
But the big picture has not changed by much. That is the final takeaway Singaporeans should absorb: At the end of the day, all well-governed countries will doggedly pursue what is in their interests, even if the price sometimes appears much too high.
The shifts in the Middle East are seismic. As these things are wont to do, some china will be broken, and we can expect further shocks. But eventually, the contours of the region will be reshaped.
Carl Skadian, a former journalist and editor for 30 years, is Senior Associate Director at the Middle East Institute, NUS.
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