Thursday, March 4, 2021

Tom Friedman on the Abraham Accords

It feels like Tom Friedman is staging an intervention. He does not say it, but he must have written his last New York Times column for the benefit of the Biden administration. He does not say that the Biden administration is in the process of undermining the Abraham Accords, engineered by the Trump administration, with the help of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He does not say that the Biden administration has placed numerous anti-Israeli activists in positions of authority in its foreign policy team. And he does not say that the pathetic John Kerry still believes that all roads to Mideast peace pass through Ramallah.

So, Friedman is telling the Biden administration to change course before it is too late. It is telling the Biden administration that it erred in issuing a public indictment of MBS and that it erred in canceling the sale of military equipment to the United Arab Emirates.

In the past Friedman reported fairly about the reforms instituted by MBS in Saudi Arabia. And, as he reminds us, he always supported the Abraham Accords. He, like your humble blogger, sees these treaties as having produced a major structural realignment in the region. Which is more than we can say about today’s left wing of the Democratic Party. After all, the Biden administration seems hellbent on reviving the Iran nuclear deal, even if it compromises the progress that the Trump administration made in the region.

As he states:

I believed from the start that the openings between Israel and the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — could be game-changing. 

Note well, that Friedman dares speak well of Trump and Kushner. That, in itself, shows where he stands on these issues. And it shows that he does not stand with the Biden administration.

He retains some skepticism, because previous peace treaties have not produced a strategic realignment, but that is simply sensible. 

That caveat aside, something big seems to be stirring. Unlike the peace breakthroughs between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon’s Christians and Israel and Jordan, which were driven from the top and largely confined there, the openings between Israel and the Gulf States — while initiated from the top to build an alliance against Iran — are now being driven even more from the bottom, by tourists, students and businesses.

The matter of tourism strikes him as especially important, because it is a bottoms-up, not a top-down movement:

In the middle of a global pandemic, at least 130,000 Israeli tourists and investors have flown to Dubai and Abu Dhabi since commercial air travel was established in mid-October!

Consider also, he continues, some of what has been happening in the U.A.E.

A new Hebrew language school that holds classes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has been swamped with Emiratis wanting to study in Israel or do business there. Israel’s Mekorot National Water Company just finalized a deal to provide Bahrain with desalination technology for brackish water. The Times of Israel recently ran an article about Elli Kriel in Dubai, who “has become the go-to kosher chef in the U.A.E. … Last year, Kriel launched Kosherati, which sells kosher-certified Emirati cuisine, as well as fusion Jewish-Emirati dishes.” And, by the way, those 130,000 Israeli visitors helped to save the U.A.E.’s tourist industry from being crushed by the pandemic during the crucial holiday season.

Surely, in a nation that is preparing for the moment when it will run out of oil, tourism is a major industry. The same applies, incidentally, to Saudi Arabia.

Friedman would be happy to see Saudi Arabia make peace with Israel, though obviously, the recent Biden administration indictment of MBS makes that far more unlikely. Friedman does not say that it was a mistake, but he implies as much.

If the Abraham Accords do thrive and broaden to include normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, we are talking about one of the most significant realignments in modern Middle East history, which for many decades was largely shaped by Great Power interventions and Arab-Israeli dynamics. Not anymore.

Consider what is happening in the U.A.E.

The U.A.E., by contrast, is transitioning from decades of oil abundance to an era of oil scarcity by building its own ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship in the same fields as Israel.

The U.A.E.’s growth strategy for the 21st century — of which the opening to Israel is a key part — is to become THE Arab model for modernity, a diversified economy, globalization and intra-religious tolerance.

As is happening in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. is liberalizing its culture, moving to produce a Reformation at the heart of Islam:

To that end, in November the country announced a major liberalization of its Islamic personal laws — allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, which, among other things, makes the U.A.E. more accepting of gay and lesbian people; criminalizing so-called honor killings of women who “shame” their male relatives — as well as made divorce laws much more equitable for women and loosened restrictions on alcohol.

What impact will these events have on Lebanon where Hezbollah has been destroying the country:

If you are a Lebanese Shiite living in the poor southern suburbs of Beirut having to scramble every day to barter eggs for meat — as the economy teeters on collapse — you’re asking, Why are we stuck with Iran and its axis of failing proxies like Hezbollah, which just keep letting the past bury our future?

That is a dangerous question for Iran and Hezbollah. And more Lebanese are asking every day. Which may explain why the outspoken Lebanese anti-Hezbollah journalist and publisher Lokman Slim was shot in the head in southern Lebanon a few weeks ago. All fingers point at Hezbollah as the culprit.

Finally, a last word about Saudi Arabia, where MBS is both politically repressive and religiously progressive:

As for Saudi Arabia, it is already letting Israel’s national airline, El Al, fly across Saudi airspace to the U.A.E. But will it follow suit and formally normalize with Israel? That would be huge for both Israeli-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations.

That call will largely be made by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. M.B.S. is the most politically repressive, militarily aggressive and, yet, socially and religiously progressive leader that Saudi Arabia has ever had. His C.I.A.-reported decision to have Saudi democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi, who was a longtime U.S. resident, killed and dismembered was utterly demented — an incomprehensible response to a peaceful critic who posed no threat to the kingdom.

Note that Friedman does not consider the Khashoggi assassination to be decisive. 

 Getting the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords is the best way to ensure their success. Because, if done right, their participation could create new energy for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, which, in turn, could make it easier for Jordan and Egypt to fully normalize relations with Israel as well.

I respect the worry some have that Saudi Arabia’s making peace with Israel could be a vehicle for rehabilitating M.B.S. They might be right. But I don’t believe that is a reason to oppose it. In the Middle East, big change often happens when the big players do the right things for the wrong reasons.


alfromchgo said...

Excellent column as always. I think that from now on you should refer to the present Federal administration as Obama 3. Neither the old man nor the female is in charge of policy.

Sam L. said...

I never cared much for Friedman. I may have to change my mind. I will need more reasons.

autothreads said...

One is tempted to compare Tom Friedman to the proverbial blind squirrel, but he's not stupid, just wrong a good deal of the time. I'd say that he's half-right about half of the time.