The Middle East may be beginning a historic realignment more significant than the “Arab spring” or anything else that has happened in the region since World War II. That beginning came about because two Sunni Muslim nations — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — were willing to admit that whatever theoretical danger Israel poses to Islamic dominance of the Middle East pales in comparison with the threat of Shiite Iran.
If the Trump transformation of the Middle East continues, it could quickly bring in Oman, Kuwait, and eventually Saudi Arabia all of which are entirely terrified by Iran’s military and religious aggression.
The UAE breakthrough brought Trump a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. (He was nominated a second time for engineering the recent economic deal between Serbia and Kosovo.) That Bahrain joined in should cement the award for him but it probably won’t.
The Atlantic, the magazine that published the article claiming that Trump had refused to visit a World War I cemetery and called America’s dead and wounded soldiers “suckers” and “losers,” reacted to Trump’s nominations by calling for an end to the Nobel Peace Prize. If the Nobel Committee — notoriously political and entirely left-wing — gives Trump the award, it will only do so because it has no choice.
The Trump-engineered breakthrough in the Middle East cannot be underestimated. Even before World War II, the Arab nations objected to any Jewish presence in what was then Palestine, a territory governed by the British (from 1920 to 1948) under a mandate from the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor. When Israeli independence was declared in 1948, five Arab nations immediately declared war on Israel, which survived their attack.
After they failed to conquer Israel, the Arab nations boycotted it, hoping to strangle it economically. That failed too. The so-called “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement against Israel by Palestinian activists is a direct descendant of that boycott. It cannot succeed in competition with the ancient Sunni–Shiite religious struggle.
The Sunni–Shiite rivalry, which has erupted in war many times, goes all the way back to 632 A.D., when Islam’s Prophet Mohammed died. One faction — the Shiites — claimed that only a direct descendant of Mohammed could govern Islam. The other faction — the Sunnis — disputed this claim.
The rivalry has become ethnic as well as religious. The majority of the world’s Muslims, about 1.6 billion people, are Arab, Pakistani, and African Sunnis. The majority of the Shiite population is in Iran, which is a Persian nation. They are a small minority among the world’s Muslims.
Iran’s aggression around the world has long been focused on the Middle East. While it sponsors global terrorism, its claim to dominate the Muslim world has led it to alliances with Syria and Russia. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons continues, unabated, in secret. Iran continues to develop a variety of long, medium, and short-range ballistic missiles that threaten the entire Middle East and parts of Europe.
Last month, as a result of a big push by Trump and Pompeo, the UAE announced that it was ready to begin normal relations with Israel, including trade, tourism, and, soon, full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The first regular airline flight from the UAE to Israel followed quickly.
The UAE breakthrough was condemned, of course, by the Palestinian “government” of Mahmoud Abbas. When the 22 nations that are members of the Arab League refused to condemn the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, the Abbas “government” declared that the Palestinians had been abandoned by their Arab brethren.
That abandonment is, of necessity, quite true. The Palestinians, since Israel’s founding, have made the destruction of the Jewish state their sole reason for being. The Arab nations have used the Palestinians as a political tool against Israel, which has availed them nothing. The UAE and Bahrain realignment proves, redundantly, that the Palestinians are irrelevant to peace in the Middle East.
Last week, Bahrain made the same peace overture and said it was ready to trade with Israel. Other Sunni nations such as Kuwait, Oman, and Sudan may soon follow.
It’s easy to see why both the UAE and Bahrain took this historic step. Both are tiny states on the Persian Gulf that have long relied on America to protect them from Iran. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and there is a large U.S. Air Force presence in the UAE. There are about 50,000 Americans living in the UAE.
In short, the example of those nations will almost certainly lead other Arab nations in the region to normalize their relations with Israel. The big question is whether Saudi Arabia — in which many American troops and aviators are stationed — will join in the realignment.
It will be very difficult, but not impossible, for the Saudis to join. Their religion, Wahhabism, is a radical sect of Islam different, but almost as radical, as Iran’s Shiism. Many members of the Saudi royal family have donated money to terrorist organizations.
But the Saudis are in as great a danger from Iran as any nation. They have been attacked regularly by Yemeni Shiites, the Houthis. Iran’s missiles and its constant threats to close the Persian Gulf to shipping would cripple the Saudi economy. The Saudis’ great fear is that their eastern province, which has a majority Shiite population, would rebel at Iran’s urging. But that hasn’t happened, at least yet.
The Saudi rulers, including crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, have to be realistic about the Iranian threat. They will be pressured by Trump and Pompeo to join in the realignment. If Biden is elected president, that pressure will disappear amid Biden’s initiative to rejoin the Obama nuclear deal with Iran.
Let’s outrun our headlights for a moment and project a possible long-term result.
In 1955, CENTO — the “Central Treaty Organization,” also known as the “Middle East Treaty Organization” or “METO” — was formed by a treaty between Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. (The U.S. didn’t join because of our alliance with and support for Israel.) CENTO was aimed to prevent Soviet expansion into the Middle East. It was dissolved in 1979, because of the Iranian revolution and the weakness of the Sunni Arab states.
If the Trump transformation of the Middle East continues, it could quickly bring in Oman, Kuwait, and eventually Saudi Arabia, all of which are entirely terrified by Iran’s military and religious aggression. If they all agree to normal relations with Israel, those nations — with Bahrain and the UAE — could develop into a new “CENTO,” including both Israel and the United States.
Such an alliance would isolate Iran from all but its sympathizers in Europe, Russia, and China. China is busy implementing a new agreement with Iran to ensure its oil supplies and cement its presence in Iran. That agreement could be sufficient to keep Iran’s economy — which is in tatters because of Trump’s sanctions — from failing entirely.
Trump has made enormous progress in the Middle East. He has moved our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and offered a peace plan to the Palestinians, which was heavily weighted toward Israel. Israel has, surprisingly and certainly at Trump’s urging, canceled its plans to annex large areas of the West Bank. All of that was intended to prove to the Palestinians both a new reality and their irrelevance to peace.
Trump is succeeding where Biden clearly wouldn’t. Whether he gets the Nobel Peace Prize or not, he obviously deserves it.