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It is often difficult to keep track of one’s mortal enemies in the Middle East. One day you could be in the throes of a great cold or proxy war with rival regional powers, before the reality of inflation and currency crashes kicks in, or you want a larger pool of potential buyers for your homegrown drone industry, or you identify a new greater threat du jour, and you have to shift alliances. Old enemies become brothers in arms, and old unshakable pillars of your raison d’être as a politician or autocratic leader become suddenly as malleable as a gummy worm. As the Egyptian saying goes, “There is no love except after enmity.”
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also captured it perfectly when he decided to enter a deal with the Great Satan. After decades of defining his regime in opposition to it, he would sign the nuclear deal with the U.S. It was worth adopting what he described as “heroic flexibility” in order to guarantee the influx of those delicious oil and gas dollars.
As is often the case with great regional tragicomic events, Lebanon offered an instructive example to me in my early years as a reporter because of the propensity of various political actors, militias and strongmen to shift their loyalties to regional overlords at the drop of a hat without losing pace. You could one day march in the streets demanding the departure of the Syrian occupation, for example, after the regime had orchestrated the assassination of members of your family and political allies, then visit Damascus, then fund militias hoping to overthrow the Assad dynasty. Or you could claim to stand for the oppressed peoples of the region, then starve Syrian civilians to death.
Satirist Karl Sharro’s confused person’s guide to the Middle East often draws laughs, but it’s not because the joke is absurdist. It is because the reality is. There is a vulgar Lebanese expression that describes this situation succinctly. It is too obscene to be repeated here verbatim, but the gist of it is likening the situation to an orgy in which nobody knows who they are currently engaged in a tryst with.
But for a more involved understanding of the situation, one has to turn unfortunately to George Orwell: “Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: Therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”
The most recent example of this heroic flexibility and newfound brotherly love is encapsulated by the rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the persons of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Let me clarify first of all that I’m not against regional powers resolving their differences diplomatically instead of via proxy wars over the bodies of impoverished Syrians, Libyans and Yemenis. But the scale and speed of these volte faces can leave one suffering from an acute sense of whiplash.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one hand and Turkey on the other have of course been tense for years and for myriad reasons, particularly Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Islamist movements during the Arab Spring years and after the 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. It has manifested in Turkey standing alongside Qatar in its standoff with other Gulf powers as well as either side backing rival factions in the civil war in Libya and dueling lobby efforts in the United States and elsewhere.
The nadir in the relationship was reached when Saudi agents assassinated and dismembered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at their country’s consulate in Istanbul. Erdoğan’s drip-by-drip release of details of the crime left MBS a pariah on the international stage (at least for a few years, until people forgot and trade imbalances and oil prices got in the way). It was difficult to imagine a relational renaissance in the aftermath.
But lo and behold, the two met in Ankara late last month, embracing like long estranged brothers. The satirical Arabic website Alhudood (full disclosure: I used to work there) joked that the two leaders signed a counterjournalism agreement, given Turkey’s own history as a global leader in imprisoning journalists. But the love was palpable, the flowery language that adorns this restoration of relations between brotherly and sisterly nations all the more cringeworthy because of what came before.
(Joe Biden is also visiting Saudi Arabia soon, having shortly after his inauguration declared the country a pariah that would “pay” for the Khashoggi assassination but alas foiled by the price of oil. Perhaps the outsized outrage over his visit, more so than Erdoğan’s, highlights disparate expectations).
Turkey’s case is not unique, but it is instructive in how autocrats in the region control popular opinion. Erdoğan has long been a popular leader among the masses in the Arab world, ever since he reprimanded Israeli President Shimon Peres during a Davos panel in 2009 over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, storming off the stage with a flourish, as well as his credentials as a pious Muslim leader of an advanced and powerful country willing to stand up to Western hegemony. Turkey had long been an attractive destination for middle-class, particularly observant, Arabs who wanted to engage in Islamic-flavored tourism, bolstered by the popularity of Turkish soap operas dubbed in Arabic. This sentiment was greatly suppressed during the period of estrangement, the anti-Erdoğan propaganda so pervasive and virulent in the mainstream that Turkey became a regional pariah except in Qatar and among the Syrian opposition, which Ankara continued to support. But we are no longer at war with Eurasia, so bygones will be bygones because the leaders of the states have willed it.
This pervasive state control over popular sentiment can be seen in many other examples in the region. They are too many, so I will content myself with two other recent ones.
The first was the standoff between the Qataris and the rest of the Gulf powers, a diplomatic fissure that went as far as an actual blockade and that was unique in its all-encompassing transgressions over previously untouchable subjects, like the honor of the wives of emirs and monarchs, perpetrated by high-ranking officials on social media. After the rapprochement, UAE-supported social media influencers descended on Qatar en masse for Fashion Trust Arabia, extolling the emirate for its world-class facilities and generous welcome, largesse and brotherly love and passion that naturally followed the emir of Qatar and MBS embracing on the tarmac at their first meeting in years.
The second example is the Abraham Accords. I recall as a child growing up in Dubai reading a popular children’s magazine called Majid that came out every Wednesday, and in the magazine was a section that highlighted reports from Israeli media about abuses against Palestinians. Coverage of the second Palestinian intifada was round the clock on local TV stations, and New Year’s celebrations were canceled in 2009 in solidarity with the Palestinians during the Gaza offensive at the time. Compare that general pro-Palestinian sentiment with the fervent embrace of Israel following the Abraham Accords — not a cold peace like the one between Cairo and Tel Aviv for 40 years but full-on cultural exchange, defense cooperation agreements, free trade deals, tourism, etc. — the gamut.
What I find fascinating about this aspect of Arab state control has nothing to do with the causes themselves — the region needs peaceful, diplomatic resolutions to its crises and standoffs. The fascinating part of it is the ability of the state, so secure in its hold on power, to impose top-down revolutionary cultural, political and social change that instantly transforms (at least on the surface) attitudes about festering problems that have shaped people’s worldviews for decades, often their whole lives.
Take MBS’s neutering of the fundamentalist religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, one of the positive aspects of his his rule that will have far-reaching implications in the Arab and Muslim world because of the kingdom’s position as an arbiter of Sunni orthodoxy for generations who worked and lived there during the oil boon.
We have long accepted the premise that rule in Saudi Arabia depended on an accommodation between the state and the religious establishment. Except when it didn’t, because the state had amassed so much power the clerics had more to lose from opposing its edicts than embracing them. Which is why a generation of Saudi clerics and preachers suddenly discovered after decades of telling the world’s Muslims that music and women driving were forbidden that they were in fact quite happy to forgo the legacy of Wahhabism and had no problems with the kingdom building cinemas, letting women attend sports events and hosting concerts featuring Justin Bieber.
This is both a terrible and exhilarating power to wield.
On the one hand, it implies that longstanding problems like sectarianism, the dominance of virulent strains of conservative Islamic orthodoxy, homophobia and others are not fixed attitudes. They are promulgated or at least tolerated by the state. They can ultimately be reversed, and quite rapidly. We will one day forget that we were at war with Eastasia. Or was it Eurasia?
Conversely, there’s the obvious problem in reliance on the state’s benevolence. And we’ve seen how benevolent our autocrats have been. Just look at them embracing in brotherly love.