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The volatile playground of the Middle East

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In a simple worldview, Israel is seen as the enemy by all those Arab countries with whom she has not signed peace treaties.
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 15, 2017

But a little beyond, in the murky corridors of cigarette smoke and away from the prying eyes of journalists, deals are made, handshakes clasped and promises murmured. The Middle East is a strange place, and its politics are often even stranger.

For years now there’ve been reports of increasing co-operation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. There has been talk of a Saudi embassy opening in Tel Aviv and behind-the-scenes intelligence sharing.

At first glance, it might not make much sense; after all the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. But if one looks at the rifts in the Arab world, especially between the Gulf States (of which Saudi Arabia is one) and Iran, it’s overwhelmingly clear that there are many interests Jerusalem and Riyadh share.

First and foremost, both view Tehran as the main threat to regional peace and fear that that country will use her nuclear know-how against them. Saudi Arabia controls Islam’s holiest sites and as a Sunni nation, competes with Shia Iran for religious leadership and political influence across the Muslim world.

When it comes to Israel, most Israelis are convinced Tehran is building a nuclear bomb to destroy their country.

Enter Qatar, another Gulf State, which, although small, has huge reserves of oil and gas. It doesn’t share Israeli and Saudi obsession over Iran and insists on remaining independent. It walks a narrow line - on the one hand hosting the largest American airbase in the region, while at the same time underwriting Al Jazeera, the Middle East’s largest news network, often criticised for being anti-Semitic and biased against regimes its sponsors don’t support.

For years Western countries have been accusing Qatar of funding Sunni extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood and more recently, the Islamic State. Qatar has always denied the charges, but last week things came to a head when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, cut diplomatic ties.

The development came not long after US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh and Jerusalem - his first overseas trip - in which he promised a united front to contain Iran and crush Islamic terrorists.

At first glance, it would seem Jerusalem has much to benefit - finally the Arab world is taking a stand against Iran and Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is insisting Qatar end its support for Hamas before its relations with the rest of the Arab world can be reinstated.

Such a stance no doubt weakens the Palestinian movement and undermines its influence in the Gaza Strip that it controls. In response, Hamas expressed “shock” and claimed Israel now had the perfect excuse “to carry out more violations against the Palestinian people”.

But Gaza is in a mess. Home to about two million residents, essential infrastructure is non-existent and much of the population live below the breadline and is jobless. Observers are warning the situation is a ticking bomb.

Qatar is one of the largest financial contributors to reconstruction efforts in Gaza and the flipside of being forced to end this, could well worsen the economic situation in Gaza and increase military tension with Israel.

And history is important. Israel has had trade relations with Qatar since 1996 when the late Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Doha and opened an Israeli trade bureau there. Qatar has persistently said that boycotts against Israel are counterproductive and promised that Israeli athletes would be welcome to compete in the Football World Cup it is hosting in 2022.

What’s more, Jerusalem has in the past used the Qatari monarchy to convey messages to Hamas.

As part of the boycott, Jordan and Saudi Arabia last week closed down Al Jazeera bureaus in their countries. Over the past few years there have been numerous calls for Israel to do the same because of the network’s negative coverage of Israel. Right now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly mulling over the matter.

But he would do well to remember that the Middle East is a volatile playing ground and although current developments seem to suggest that the Israeli vision of normalising relations with Arab states while isolating the Palestinians could soon come to fruition, no one can be wholly sure what deals are being cut behind the scenes. 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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