The Emiratis are winning the great Gulf normalisation game

Summary: The United Arab Emirates has stepped on the accelerator in its charm and diplomatic offensive with Israel while Saudi Arabia remains stuck in second gear.

In a lengthy and discursive interview given to Al Arabiya, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, for many years the Saudi ambassador to Washington and from 2012 to 2014 the head of the Saudi Intelligence Directorate took dead aim at the Palestinian leadership.

Prince Bandar blamed them squarely for the plight of the Palestinian people: “The Palestinian cause is a just cause, but its advocates are failures and the Israeli cause is unjust, but its advocates have proven to be successful….There is also something that successive Palestinian leadership historically share in common; they always bet on the losing side, and that comes at a price.”

That price he illustrated somewhat later in the interview by noting that in 1967 there were no settlers in the West Bank, by the end of the 1970s after successive wars won by the Israelis there were 300,000 and “today, there are more than 600,000 settlers.”

He also took a moment to fire a shot at the Qataris. “Qatar was on the margins,” Bandar proffered and the ruling family was “not worth a mention.” Then with a dismissive wave of his hand he added “surely, you all know that they say ticks can drive camels mad. That is true, but my brothers and sisters, ticks are ticks and camels will always be camels, and that sums it up from my point of view.”

He then made the surprising though entirely plausible claim that Yasser Arafat had been scared off signing the 1978 Camp David Accords by the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.  According to Bandar, Arafat told him al-Assad had threatened to kill him if he signed the treaty. Said Bandar, hands spread wide as the interview concluded: “I thought to myself, so he could have been one martyr and given his life to save millions of Palestinians,” a brief pause and then “but it was as God willed it.”

Though the prince is himself somewhat of a marginalised figure within the ruling family, two of his children, Khalid and Reema, are respectively ambassador to the UK and to the United States. So he does hold something of a semi-official role in expressing the views of the Saudi government. As Sami Hamdi noted in our 18 September podcast, the Saudi tactic is broadly to support normalisation without joining Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in recognising Israel. In Hamdi’s view Mohammed bin Salman has convinced the Americans he needs to go slowly, “he needs their support, and that he is committed to socially engineering Saudi society to make it more acceptable to Western and European standards.” Then and only then will he be ready to recognise Israel.

The message from Bandar with its attack on Palestinian leadership and the pointed references to lost opportunities serves to reinforce the comments of Jared Kushner that we noted in our newsletter of 15 September. But it does so without in any way jeopardising Mohammed bin Salman’s softly, softly approach.

Meanwhile the United Arab Emirates and Israel are barrelling along like love-struck teenagers. Fittingly, the Emirati minister of state for youth affairs, 27 year old Shamma al Mazrui published her speech celebrating Shabbat in the Times of Israel on 29 September. Rejoicing in the normalisation she said: “While I’m young and restless myself, I’m coming to see that stillness and peace is the key to, well, about just everything in our lives.”

And her Emirati colleague, the wealthy businessman Khalaf al Habtoor, published an opinion piece in Haaretz yesterday that much more bluntly drove home the message that if the Palestinians don’t pick up Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity deal they will just keep on losing. Or as he put it: “I urge all Arab leaderships to bury old hatreds that have consumed their foreign policies for 72 years without bearing fruit. Join us in forging a peaceful Middle East with new exciting opportunities for all.”

Ashkenazi, Maas and bin Zayed at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin on Tuesday

On the diplomatic front the Emiratis were busy too with a meeting between the UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israel’s foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi hosted in Berlin by their German counterpart Heiko Maas. The participants hailed it as an “historic moment” while urging the Palestinians to come to the table and begin negotiations, something their leaders have steadfastly refused to do.

After the meeting, the three ministers visited the Holocaust Memorial. In a gesture that resonated especially strongly in Israel, bin Zayed signed the visitors’ book.  Writing in Arabic, he called the memorial “a witness to the fall of a group of human beings who were victims of advocates of extremism and hatred,” and he wrote of “the noble human values of co-existence, tolerance, acceptance of others and respect of all religions and beliefs.”

“Never Again,” he concluded in English.

The pressure is building inexorably on the Palestinians to accept ‘the deal of the century’ and for the first time that pressure is coming openly from an Arab state, and an increasingly powerful one at that.  Should the deal happen, credit will go to the UAE, not the Saudis.

That being so, Mohammed bin Salman may well be pondering this: yet again the Abu Dhabi crown prince and de facto ruler of the UAE Mohammed bin Zayed has got several more paces ahead of him in the race to become the leader of the Arab world.

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