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September 20, 2020

Recolonising Middle East

Opinion

September 20, 2020

The UAE-Israel agreement of last month followed by the more recent Bahrain-Israel agreement to fully normalize their relations with the blessings of the US constitute a major advance in Israel’s efforts to gain recognition in the Arab world.

The UAE and Bahrain are the third and fourth countries respectively after Egypt and Jordan to sign a peace agreement with Israel. As part of the deal with the UAE, Israel will suspend, but not halt, its plans to annex certain Palestinian areas in the West Bank. As expected, the Palestinian Authority has condemned the UAE-Israel and Bahrain-Israel agreements as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

While Saudi Arabia has linked its recognition of Israel to an internationally recognized peace accord with the Palestinians, Arab League foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement on the draft resolution condemning the UAE-Israel agreement at their recent meeting in Cairo. Therefore, the possibility of some other Arab states following in the foot-steps of UAE and Bahrain cannot be totally ruled out. Opinions in the Muslim world also remain divided. In a nutshell, Israel’s peace agreements with UAE and Bahrain have served to advance US and Israeli strategic interests in the Middle East while weakening the Palestinian cause and aggravating divisions among the Arabs and in the Muslim world.

Divide-and-rule has historically been the policy of imperial powers. This was the standard practice of the colonial powers in consolidating and maintaining their rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of these colonial powers were forced to relinquish their control over their colonies gradually in the aftermath of World War II in implementation of the principle of self-determination. As part of that process, the Mandates of the UK and France over the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East came to an end, allowing the emergence of new countries.

However, the attraction of the Middle East because of its rich energy resources, its location at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, important land and maritime trading routes traversing through it, and the sacred places in Palestine revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews have kept major world powers deeply engaged in the affairs of this region. As the UK and France, the former colonial powers enfeebled by World War II, withdrew from the Middle East, the void was filled by the US. The process of virtual recolonization of the Middle East started in right earnest with the establishment of Israel and its early recognition by the US. For all practical purposes, Israel has served and will continue to serve as the US outpost in the Middle East designed to promote its, and broadly the Western, strategic interests in the region.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Israel’s security has been guaranteed and its economy has been bankrolled by the US since its establishment in 1948. Since then, Israel has considerably expanded the territory under its occupation and control. The most important milestone was the 1967 Arab-Israel war which resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza besides some other Arab territories. Israel remains in occupation of most of those territories in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The US has also sought to expand its influence in the Middle East through other means. Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh’s overthrow in 1953 as a result of ‘Operation Ajax’, orchestrated by the CIA and UK’s MI6, was meant to restore the Shah as a Western puppet and ensure Western control over Iran’s oil wealth. In 1971, the British Royal Navy base in Bahrain was wound up and in its place the US established its own naval base with the agreement of the government of the newly independent Bahrain. The US also maintains an air base in Qatar which relies mainly on Washington for its security.

Washington has also relied upon the policy of divide-and-rule to control Middle Eastern countries and their vast energy resources. The Iraqi invasions of Iran in 1980, with the full support of the US and other Western countries, and of Kuwait in 1990 with the alleged covert encouragement of the US, both of which divided the Arabs and the Muslim world, need to be seen in this perspective. The US is vehemently opposed to Iran primarily because it views the latter as a major obstacle in the realization of its hegemonic designs in the Middle East. The US invasion of Iraq of 2003 on false pretexts was an attempt to exercise direct control over this oil rich Arab country and expand the US military presence in the heartland of the Arab world. It is a different story that the invasion instead served to enhance Iran’s influence in the region.

The process of virtual recolonization of the Middle East through various stratagems holds important lessons for Pakistan. Perhaps the most important is that a country or a region suffering from economic and technological backwardness and political instability is likely to be exploited by other powers to its detriment. Second, while moral and legal arguments do help in defending a country’s interests, in the world of realpolitik national power plays the decisive role in the settlement of strategic issues of peace and security.

Therefore, if Pakistan wishes to safeguard its national interests, counter effectively the threat to its security posed by India, and promote the Kashmir cause, it must strengthen its internal political cohesion and stability, accelerate its economic, technological and scientific progress, and pursue a proactive foreign policy while maintaining a credible security deterrent.

Finally, it is in Pakistan’s long-term security and economic interest to resist attempts by the Western powers to control the Middle East through the use of proxies and the policy of divide-and-rule.

The writer is a retired ambassador, an author, and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.

Email: [email protected]