President Donald Trump declared “the dawn of a new Middle East” in Washington on Tuesday as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein signed public agreements with Israel for the first time.
Not “peace agreements”, as Trump claimed, since neither country has ever been at war with Israel. Just documents involving an exchange of ambassadors, trade deals and the like. And it was significant that while Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were there in person, the UAE and Bahreini rulers just sent their foreign ministers.
The only thing that actually happened on Tuesday, however, was that two Gulf mini-states went public on ties with Israel, especially in the arms trade, that had previously been not actually secret, but at least discreet. Apart from that, it’s still the same old Middle East, as corrupt, violent and dysfunctional as ever.
The last time Israel fought an actual war against any of its Arab neighbours was in 1982, a full-scale invasion of Lebanon that ended in a prolonged Israeli military occupation of the southern part of the country. That’s long over now, although Lebanon remains a ghastly mess, but all the region’s other wars trundle on uninterrupted.
The second Libyan civil war continues into its sixth year, with a cast of foreign participants and supporters that now includes Russia, Turkey, France, Egypt and the UAE.
The atrocious foreign military intervention in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia but involving most of the autocratic Arab states and their Western arms suppliers, is only one year younger and still killing around 5,000 a month.
The Syrian civil war is in its ninth year. It has killed at least half a million people and driven almost half the population from their homes. It may be creeping towards an end now, with only one province still in rebel hands, but the rebels have Turkish military support and the Russian air force fights for the Assad regime.
Iraq is enjoying only its second year of relative peace since the US invasion of 2003, but the signs are multiplying that Islamic State is going to launch a major come-back bid there. The collapse of the oil price has left much of the population destitute. Urban youth are in open revolt, with hundreds shot dead by the police this year.
And when something genuinely new does crop up in the endless churn that distinguishes the region’s politics, it is often unwelcome.
Saudi Arabia, once the stable, conservative linchpin of inter-Arab politics, has turned into a loose cannon, starting unwinnable wars (like Yemen), funnelling money and arms to jihadi extremists (in Syria), and commissioning the cold-blooded killing of critics of the regime (as in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).
Overshadowing all these wars, and actually driving some of them, is the religious and strategic confrontation between revolutionary Shia Iran and the conservative Sunni monarchies and dictatorships of the eastern Arab world. That’s what those huge Arab arms purchases are for, not for fighting Israel.
Indeed, Israel is a silent partner in this region-wide cold war between the Sunni Arab states and Iran; that’s what made the little ceremony at the White House on Tuesday possible. There is no ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’: the major Arab players are already undeclared Israeli allies, and the Israeli army refers to its sporadic punitive strikes against the Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’.
Real change in this region happens with glacial slowness, if at all, but that does not mean that it is stable. On the contrary, it could tip suddenly into a radically different state. It almost did so in 2010-12, the years of the aborted ‘Arab spring’, and the forces that drove that uprising are even stronger now.
Half the population in Middle Eastern and North African countries is under 25. As populations have soared (Iraq’s has doubled to 40 million since the first Gulf War in 1990), economies have not kept pace, and living standards have fallen almost everywhere. A huge, mostly jobless young population living close to despair is now the Arab norm.
The oil-rich Gulf states used to be the exception to this rule, but no longer. The oil-price crash this time is not temporary: demand is falling and will continue to fall as the climate crisis and cheaper new ‘clean energy’ sources eat into oil’s traditional markets.
The pantomime at the White House on Tuesday was about tidying up a few of the loose ends of an old conflict. It would have a certain relevance if the future was going to be just more of the present, but that is not the case.
The timing is uncertain but the destination is clear: big changes are coming that will sweep away many of the existing regimes and reshape the politics of the region. Happy endings are not inevitable, but different endings are practically guaranteed.*