By Barry Rubin
Want to understand the real Middle East? Then pay attention to the following. Let’s say an important and outspoken Gulf Arab gave a frank and thoughtful assessment of the region’s security problems. What would he say and what would that tell you? And how would that differ from the stereotypes of what Arabs—especially non-Islamist Arab leaders—think as presented by the Western media and academia?
In fact, Dahi Khalfan Tamim recently gave such a speech. He is the respected police chief of Dubai. I don’t agree that everything he says reflects reality but I believe—and there is plenty of other evidence for this assertion–that everything he says reflects what the Gulf Arab elite thinks.
First, let’s quote President Barack Obama’s State of the Union message:
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“The United States [is] safer and more respected around the world.”
Is America seen as weak and unreliable? No, says Obama:
“That’s not the message we get from leaders around the world, all of whom are eager to work with us. That’s not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin; from Capetown to Rio; where opinions of America are higher than they’ve been in years.”
More respected? Higher opinions? Well what does Tamim think? Just this:
“In my opinion, U.S. policy in the region is the number one security threat. Our American friends might not like this, but experience has taught us that the Americans do not have friends. On the contrary, they are quick to wash their hands of their friends.”
This, of course, is a reference to Obama dumping the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes while also reflecting the Gulf Arabs’ observing Washington’s breaking of agreements with the horrible Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, U.S. support for the overthrow of Bahrain’s regime; and even lack of backing for Israel. Even if relatively moderate Arabs don’t like the U.S.-Israel alliance they know that American behavior in that case also shows how it treats allies. As a Saudi said privately not long ago, “If you treat Israel, part of your family, like this how are you going to treat us?
Obama says that the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are a success; that his policy has weakened Iran; and that his support for the “Arab Spring” and Islamist movement is bringing gains for the United States.
What does Tamim think?
“U.S. policy in the Gulf constitutes a threat, because they have ulterior motives: to overthrow the regimes….They adopted the path and ideology of Khomeini. They embraced the same idea, and began to export the revolution.”
What revolution? The Islamist revolution. In the Middle East, if you are for change and Islamists taking power then you are against the governments of Algeria, Israel, Jordan, and all the Gulf Arab governments.
It is a mistake—though we can understand why Gulf Arabs make it—to think the Obama Administration supports Iran, the external threat they face. But it is no mistake to think that despite all of its efforts on the Iranian nuclear program, the Obama Administration is doing nothing to battle the spread of Iranian influence in places like Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon or its overall hegemony in the Gulf.
Iran “interferes…in the affairs of all Gulf states….We face a reckless neighbor…which has territorial “aspirations in the Gulf” and to dominate Iraq. Yet the Gulf Arabs don’t want to be dragged into a U.S.-Iran war either. Presumably they want the United States and even Israel to solve the problem for them.
Yet from their standpoint, objectively U.S. policy does help Tehran:
“The United States has granted Iran many of its dreams in the region, including the toppling of Saddam [Hussein], active presence of Iran in Iraq and the exporting of the revolution into the Arab world…. The Americans “say: We are exporting the revolution to the Arab world. If their aim is indeed to export the revolution, they subscribe to the same mentality as Khomeini.”
It is no mistake to think that the policy of the Obama Administration is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the internal threat to the Gulf Arabs, though that group is also no friend to Iran. . “America is now embracing” the Muslim Brotherhood. “When the Iranian public took to the streets, the people were trodden on, crushed, beaten, and thrown into prison, but when the public in the Gulf took action” Iran supported it. But so did the United States.
Thus, Tamim is right to describe U.S. policy as the enemy of the Gulf Arabs. And it is also the enemy of the democratic forces in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, not even to mention of Israeli interests. The same point will become clear in the not-distant future regarding Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, too.
On the list of security threats Israel was not even mentioned and this also reflects Gulf Arab thinking. This doesn’t mean they don’t think about the Palestinian issue at all. They know precisely their stance—supporting the Palestinians and their getting a state—but it just isn’t a high priority. But look at how they think about it:
“The rights of the Arab Palestinian people [are] are violated more than the rights of any other people. So how come the United States does not take action, and recognize the right of the Palestinian people to establish a state? The United States has declared its rejection of a state for the Palestinian people.”
Of course, the U.S. government accepted in principle a Palestinian state almost 20 years ago, working hard to bring one about through negotiations in the 1990s and since then. True, the United States rejected a unilateral declaration of independence but to say it has rejected a state is not true. Still, if 20 years of effort and billions of dollars in aid yield no acknowledgment that it ever happened than how much is it worth?
He also addresses internal affairs and here the Gulf problem comes out clearly: Will these countries be democracies or monarchies? He evinces the current Western debate and catchwords: “Growing gap between the ruler and his subjects….The more we restrict these liberties, the more we can expect the people whose freedoms we restrict to revolt against us.” He speaks of how it is undesirable to have a life-long ruler (then how can there be democracy?); the need to fight corruption, to have equality before the law; more freedom more jobs; less poverty and better social services. Is this all possible without regime change? Is it all possible at all in the next, say, 20 years?
By backing the forces of revolution in the Arab world, by backing the Muslim Brotherhood, and by being too soft on Iran, Gulf Arabs believe that Obama Administration policy is endangering them.
They are right.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com