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A realignment of alliances
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

President of the Emirates Policy Centre (EPC), a leading Emirati think tank, Ebtessam Al-Ketbi was in Cairo this week to take part in the launch of a project at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on the future of the Middle East.
The Al-Mostaqbal (Future) initiative is a three-year project that will examine the socio-economic, political and security issues facing the Arab world and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Charting a way forward for the MENA region, the project will include a multi-track series of workshops, conferences and publications that will assess the challenges and opportunities facing the Arab world.
“I think we are in a region that is going to see changes and that it is important for all of us to share our ideas on how we see the future of the region and to agree on ways to resolve the problems we all worry about,”Al-Ketbi said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
She added that the UAE's vision of the future of the region stood on “the essential pillars of modernity and moderation”, adding that “if we want this region and the peoples of this region to move forward, we need to find paths leading to modernisation and moderation. This is the philosophy the UAE is embracing.”
Al-Ketbi said there was a need to reject radical ideologies, “whether adopted by states like Iran or non-state actors like the Muslim Brotherhood”. There was a need to find “realistic answers to old questions”, including the Palestinian issue and the need for more modern education and technology.
“I think that any future planning for this region has to have an awareness of the fact that we are living in a world in which technological advancement is a key factor in determining the strength of nations and in which the priorities of people are fast changing,” she said.
She argued that the future stability and security of the Middle East had been well served by the recent decision of the US administration to impose sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US decision to put the IRGC on its list of terrorist organisations. This was in keeping with the US policy of keeping the “maximum pressure on the Iranian regime”, he added.
The decision will freeze the ability of the IRGC to access overseas resources because anyone who now deals with the IRGC could run the risk of criminal charges, including aiding or supporting a terrorist group. US President Donald Trump said that “if you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.”
“To understand why these sanctions are really purposeful, we need to first understand what the IRGC stands for and how it influences Iranian policies inside and outside Iran,” Al-Ketbi argued.
“The IRGC is the most influential body in Iran, and it decides the country's internal and foreign policies to serve the objective of exporting the Iranian Revolution's ideology and coopting the Shia populations of the Arab countries. Drying up IRGC resources as the new sanctions will do will reduce its capacity to pursue this ideological project that if implemented will threaten the strength of the nation-state in countries with significant Shia populations,” she said.
“In fact, today Iran is not just reaching out to those of the Shia faith, even if they are incompatible with the Shia sect that the Iranians follow. It is reaching out to all those wish to seek the financial and political benefits of cooperating with Iran under the umbrella of political Shiism,” she argued.
Iran had used its 2015 nuclear deal with the West to escape from harsh economic sanctions and pursue “its project of Shia geopolitics that goes well beyond creating an Iranian-led Shia nation because Iran wants hegemony of the region.”
This had made many in the region apprehensive about the policy that the former administration of US president Barack Obama had adopted towards Iran. Such people's fears had been well-founded, she added. “In the Gulf, we have been finding networks of direct association with Iran that work to destabilise the nation-state. We could not have just turned a blind eye to this situation,” she argued.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, its close Arab Gulf ally, the Emirates kept up reasonably good relations with Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that toppled the rule of the former shah. These had allowed for business cooperation and two-track diplomatic consultations, Al-Ketbi said.
However, today, while Abu Dhabi does not necessarily share the same concerns over Iran as Riyadh, it has come much closer to the Saudi view of the significance of the Iranian threat to the region.
“We have always tried to promote dialogue. We were open to diplomacy, and we hoped for a sign of moderation from Iran. We thought Iranian presidents like [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani [who ruled from 1989 to 1997] and [Mohamed] Khatami [who ruled from 1997 to 2005] would have been able to moderate Iranian policies and to check the plans for hegemony. But things did not work out that way because the president in Iran is not the one who rules. The real power is held by the IRGC and the supreme guide,” Al-Ketbi said.
“This is why the sanctions against the IRGC are important. They indicate the end of naiveté. In a few years, the foreign policy of Iran will inevitably be less aggressive as a result,” she said.

THE GCC AND ISRAEL: Al-Ketbi said that it was to be expected that the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) did not share the same perspective on the Iranian threat.
She said that some were more concerned than others, but argued that the collective position of the GCC on Iran should not be measured by the choices made by Qatar, which has interests that prompt it to keep open channels with Iran and to insist on hosting one of the largest overseas US military bases.
Al-Ketbi said she was not concerned by “the incidental association of interest” between the Arab countries who worry about Iran and Israel. When it comes to the future of the region, it might be easier to see “the regional integration of Israel in the long run” than that of Iran.
“There is a real will on the part of the current US administration to put forward its ‘deal of the century' [on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] and to make it work with the political and financial help of the Arab countries,” she said.
“I know there is resistance here and there and that the decision of the US administration to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was not helpful for the Arab regimes who wish to help with a final settlement of the Palestinian cause, but I also know that for the Americans today resolving the Middle East conflict is very important because it is not just about securing US interests in the region but also about helping with the safe disengagement of the US from the region,” she said.
“Like the Obama administration, the Trump administration wants to give more attention to China, but unlike his predecessor Trump wants the disengagement in the Middle East to happen in a way that is not abrupt,” she added. “The Trump administration has adopted a policy of ‘shared responsibilities' with its Middle East allies in order to stabilise the region, and it will pressure those allies to respond favourably.”
In addition to the “deal of the century”, US plans for the Middle East include the Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) that aims to create a platform for military, security, political and economic cooperation among the GCC member states, Egypt and Jordan, along with the US.
Al-Ketbi said there were different views on how MESA would work and concerns about the role of Qatar, which is at odds with most of the Arab partners. She also said there was hesitation among some Arab partners to move ahead with the plan. However, she argued that it would be unwise to jump to conclusions about whether MESA would work, given that the project is in the process of formation.
The Palestinian leadership would need to make its decisions with a view to the changing facts on the ground, including the growing threats of non-state actors that are attracting attention from the Arab states. There was also the Iranian pursuit of hegemony and the wish of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to form a sphere of influence through the Muslim Brotherhood, she said.
There were also the “changing priorities” of the peoples of the region, who were more concerned perhaps today than in the past about stability and development than about Israel, she added.
“We are seeing a realignment of regional alliances, and we have to deal with it,” Al-Ketbi said. It was to a large extent the outcome of a growing realisation among most regimes in the region that their worst fears are “threats against the nation-state”.
THE ARAB SPRING: Much of this realisation had come with the Arab Spring, Al-Ketbi said, adding that this was why the UAE had been so apprehensive about it.
“We were not opposed to the demonstrations or the revolutions or whatever they were. We were worried about the outcomes that brought about Muslim Brotherhood regimes that did not wish to respect the boundaries of the nation-states of the region and instead wanted to see an enlarged regime that went beyond state boundaries,” Al-Ketbi said.
It was not a fear of democracy but rather a fear of the intervention of “the Muslim Brotherhood and associated cells in the internal affairs of the Arab countries”, she added.
“At one point we saw Iran trying to play off the Shia population of Bahrain against the regime, while at the same time the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to manipulate its cells in the Emirates. This was not something we could have turned a blind eye to, and this is why I say that what we opposed were the ideological regimes that the Iranian regime or the Muslim Brotherhood wished to have,” she said.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had resorted to Iran and Russia to quell the protests that were taking place in Syria in a way that had created a very disturbing conflict in the country. She acknowledged that there was a shared reluctance among several Arab Gulf states and Israel to see Iran “and for that matter Hizbullah” taking over Syria.
“There again we could not have turned a blind eye because we know what happens when a regime falls and Iran acts to exercise its political dominance. We saw it in Iraq in the wake of the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein,” she argued, without dwelling on the role of the GCC, which critics have claimed encouraged the US-led war on Iraq in 2003. Whatever the details, Al-Ketbi said, it was important to avoid “a replay of what happened then”.
“We have become very well aware of the important role of the nation-state,” she said. The UAE was working with its Arab partners to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold and to make sure that Syria did not drift towards the Iranian sphere, she said.
At the end of weeks of demonstrations in Sudan and Algeria that have forced an end to the rule of Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika and Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, Al-Ketbi again stressed the “absolute importance of the nation-state”.
The wish of the peoples of Sudan and Algeria to introduce fully civilian rule could not exclude the role of “state institutions” and preserving “the stability of the two countries”.
The UAE, she said, was closely following developments in the two countries and would not hesitate to reach out to serve the cause of stability, especially in Sudan whose stability was essential for the Red Sea area.
This was essential to Emirati diplomacy, which has “been successful in securing a peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia and is still working to balance the influence of Qatar and Turkey in Somalia through good relations with Somaliland. It is also standing up against Iranian attempts to dominate the Houthi rebels in Yemen through the important role played by the UAE in that country,” she said.

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