Ioannis E. Kotoulas
The recent U.S. government approval to sell arms to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) raised objections by politicians and NGOs, even when the sale forms part of a greater strategy to promote stability in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress Nov. 10 of a planned $23 billion sale of advanced weapons systems missiles, advanced F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones and munitions to the UAE. The State Department approved the sale to reward formalization of diplomatic ties with Israel. The arms deal also is intended to safeguard the UAE’s territorial integrity and security against Iranian threats.
Deal opponents failed to muster enough votes in the Senate to block the sale, but it is interesting to examine the ideology of some of the actors involved and to highlight how such initiatives often play into the ambitions of Iran and Turkey.
Turkey’s foreign policy attempts to use Islamist elements in Middle Eastern societies as agents of its influence. By demonizing Israel, with the strategic deployment of Islamists in various war fronts and symbolic initiatives, Turkey wishes to become the champion of the Islamist cause. Tensions between Turkey and the UAE have been mounting as the UAE adopts a more assertive foreign policy to counter regional Turkish plans. Iran is a rival of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Iran have worked closely on a diplomatic and financial level in recent years. Turkey, along with Iran, have created a cooperation network, indirectly backed by Russia, that is opposed to the network of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE.
The arms sale was the result of the 2020 Abraham Accords, a historic Middle East peace breakthrough signed Sept. 11 in Washington. The UAE and Bahrain agreed to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel. Since then, more Arab countries have joined the network of states that normalized diplomatic relations with Israel with the intermediation of the United States, such as Sudan in October and Morocco in December. The recent breakthroughs were strongly opposed by Turkey, Iran, Iran-influenced Yemen, Libya’s Islamist-affiliated Government of National Accord, the Palestinian leadership and Hizballah.
A group of American politicians, activists and think tanks opposed the UAE arms deal. Three U.S. senators, Democrats Bob Menendez and Chris Murphy, and Republican Rand Paul, cited both technical and essential reasons for their opposition, such as circumvention of the normal congressional review process and worries over UAE’s human rights record. The U.S. State Department, in fact, has expressed concern, reporting that “UAE military operations as part of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen killed civilians, damaged civilian infrastructure, and obstructed delivery of humanitarian aid.”
Rep. Omar’s Opposition
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced resolutions opposing the sale in the House, calling the UAE “a global human rights abuser. We should be focused on the deadly pandemic, not arming dictators.” Omar has been barred from entering Israel due to her support for the anti-Semitic BDS campaign, accuses the UAE of committing war crimes. Omar’s friendly attitude towards Erdogan’s Turkey and ambiguous stance concerning the Armenian genocide is well-known.
More interestingly, an “international coalition of NGOs” issued a joint declaration calling for the immediate halting of the arms sales to the UAE. Twenty-nine organizations, including think tanks, arms control and human rights organizations, signed a letter opposing the sale to the UAE and asking Congress to block the deal. According to the declaration’s opening remarks: “Delivery of the sales would undermine U.S. national security interests by fueling instability, violent conflict, and radicalization in the Middle East and North Africa and would also send a signal of impunity for the UAE’s recent conduct, which includes likely violations of international law”. Among the groups that have signed the petition are the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), as well as various activist networks.
At least one POMED member has called for the inclusion of Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in the political environment of Middle East countries as an expression of democracy. According to this thinking, that condemns the “failure of the existing state system to accommodate Islamist participation … if democracy is to flourish in the Middle East, we will have to come to terms with the notion that it will have to at least be somewhat illiberal, because Islamists are going to be a part of it.” According to this perception of accommodating Islamism, democracy in the Arab world “would simply be inconceivable without Islamist participation” and it is actually an error of Western democracies when they are hostile towards integration of Islamists.
CIHRS Director Bahey Eldin Hassan also argues the necessity of Islamist presence in Arab states’ politics. In a relevant analysis even before the Arab Spring, Hassan decried Egypt’s protective measures against the Islamist networks calling the Muslim Brotherhood – the fundamental source of all important Islamist organizations in the Middle East – simply a “constitutionally banned closed religious politically active group” which “is subject to constant political persecution, political and media pressure and trial of its members lacks the minimum standards of justice.” After the Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was ousted after less than a year in power, Hassan has also condemned Egypt’s security measures over the last years against what he calls “peaceful Islamist dissidents and human rights organizations.”
But the Muslim Brotherhood has been involved in multiple terrorist attacks and assassination attempts. Since its 2013 ouster from power in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has established 13 armed Islamist movements that have carried out terrorist attacks in Egypt.
Peace Threatens Iran’s, Turkey’s Ambitions
Other signatories against the UAE arms deal include the activist network United for Peace and Justice and various leftist and feminist groups that oppose any serious diplomatic action against Iran for its nuclear program and its constant threats and use of terror against Israel.
Interestingly, both the joint declaration of the NGOs against the UAE arms deal and Ilhan Omar’s initiative play into Iran’s and Turkey’s strategic planning in the region.
Turkey strongly condemned the Abraham Accords, calling it “a blow to efforts to defend the Palestinian cause and perpetuated Israel’s illegal practices,’ while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the UAE over its deal with Israel. Turkey has transformed into an Islamist-affiliated actor in international politics, becoming the center of the emerging new Islamist International.
The Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission issued a warning Sept. 13 that “alliance with the Zionist regime will put the security of Bahrain and the Emirates at a greater risk than in the past.” Iran has moved forward with its nuclear program and, according to credible reports, has considerably enriched its uranium stockpile. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are under increased Iranian threat for their strategic alignment with Israel. The Abraham Accords have created a new geopolitical landscape in the greater Middle East isolating Iran and its proxies and curbing Turkish influence. As the peace agreements become reality, stability in the region shall avert, at least on a diplomatic level, Iran’s attempts to use its proxies against Israel.
While more Arab states are attempting to normalize ties with Israel and move to a new era of co-existence and contain Iranian aggression and Turkish support of Islamism abroad, the NGOs and groups against the UAE arms deal continue an outdated approach aligned with a minority of radical actors. The groups opposed the UAE arms deal inadvertently assist the strategic views and agendas of Turkey and Iran when they attempt to block the arms deal with the UAE, a country under Iranian threat.
This blind activism disregards the geopolitical realities of the Middle East and the realignment of most of the Arab countries towards accommodation with Israel. Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Oman have all expressed their support for the Abraham Accords or have normalized their ties with Israel. Only Turkey and Iran and their proxies remain isolated in their negativism. Good intentions or abstract notions that disregard the political realities of Islamist behavior in the Arab world or regional security challenges posed by Iran and Turkey are a recipe for future instability and turmoil and a threat to U.S. interests.
Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics, University of Athens.