Monday, March 8, 2010

The Saudi Foreign Minister Explains the New Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

Here's today's evidence that we are now living in Middle East 2.0 instead of the old version.

First, a definition:

Middle East 1.0: Characterized by Arab nationalist domination, competition among the strongerArab states to lead the region and by the weaker ones trying to survive those campaigns. Arab-Israeli conflict is a real enterprise. Roughly 1952-2000 or so. International aspect: Cold War competition between the United States and USSR and, near the end, US as sole superpower.

Middle East 2.0: Characterized by a battle between Arab nationalist regimes and revolutionary Islamists. An Iran-led bloc (Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, Iraqi insurgents) seeking regional hegemony. Israel and most Arab states have parallel interests; Arab states (except for Syria) put low priority on conflict. International aspect: Will the West support the moderates or appease the radicals.

The latest occasion is an interview of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. Of course, there are the usual rhetorical flourishes about Israel but the passion and focus is clearly on Iran and various Islamist terrorists. (“There is nothing wrong with keeping the terrorists on the run,” says the prince.)

This is the same man who told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that sanctions would be too slow in stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and the United States better do something quick. Here he says he prefers a resolution through the UN but it isn't clear what that means.

It's funny that in the West the region is being discussed, written about, and taught as if we were back in the 1970s. There is a particular obsession with the idea that everything is about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But if the Saudis talk like this publicly (you can imagine what they say privately) it's a sign of how changed everything is in Middle East 2.0's world.

Read this carefully. The prince says:

“There are no troops arrayed on the border of Israel waiting for the moment to say, ‘Attack Israel. Nobody is going to fight them and threaten their peace. But they didn’t accept that. So it makes one wonder, what does Israel want?”

Now you can take this as propaganda, and of course Israel does have a lot to worry about: Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, Arab countries being overthrown by Islamist warmongers, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and agreeing to a Palestinian state that then begins phase two of an effort to destroy Israel. It also needs agreement that any peace treaty permanently end the conflict, that Palestinian refugees be resettled in Palestine, that a Palestinian state is really going to block cross-border raids, and that foreign armies (notably those of Iran and Syria) aren't going to enter the West Bank.

Even Dowd, not known as being sympathetic to Israel, understands some of this  and makes the remarkable statement: "If anyone deserves to be paranoid, of course, it’s Israel. But Israel can’t be paranoid because paranoia is the mistaken perception that people are out to get you."

But Faisal isn't just trying to score points. He is trying to get across the point that Saudi Arabia's government doesn't want a war with Israel and prefers the conflict to go away. It can't and won't make a formal peace but the Saudis certainly don't think the way they did decades ago.

And when Faisal talks about “no troops arrayed on the border....Nobody is going to fight them and threaten their peace," how does that look if one substitutes Saudi Arabia for Israel? The Saudis and other Gulf Arab states (along with Lebanon and Iraq) are now on the front line and under threat more than Israel is right now. Faisal knows it and so should we all.

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 latest books are 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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.


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