UAE flag covering Tel-Aviv's city hall, following the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The vertical split in the Islamic world was inevitable even before the much-touted UAE-Israel ‘historic’ peace deal.
The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aka MbS as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia rapidly changed not only the landscape of the kingdom but also of the Islamic world.
Beleaguered by dwindling oil prices, MbS unleashed an unbelievable reform programme in the hardline Wahabi kingdom. Although these changes were welcomed in the West and MbS was hailed as a ‘great reformer’, Saudi Arabia in the process surrendered its role of the leader of the Islamic world by abandoning ‘sensitive and emotional’ Muslim issues like Palestine and Kashmir and Uighurs.
The drastic U-turn in the foreign policy towards Israel created further division and leadership vacuum with both Iran and Turkey, waiting in the wings, to fill the void.
Saudi Arabia from the very beginning has wielded the mantle of leadership of the Islamic world due to its immense oil wealth and being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines. Through its oil wealth and spiritual leadership, Saudis exported the Wahabi brand of Islam, which did not go well with other Muslim countries who practised different strands of Islam. However, Palestine was one issue which transcended different interpretations of Islam and united the Muslim world.
As Saudis started cosying up to Israel, two main contenders – Iran and Turkey – joined hands along with Malaysia, Qatar and Pakistan to grab the most emotional issue – the Palestinian cause – among the Islamic world.
The cracks started appearing even among the Arab world when Saudi Arabia and the UAE snapped ties with Qatar for its refusal to toe their line in Syria, Egypt and Yemen.
Turkey after failing to get into the European Union turned its attention towards the Middle East and under the strongman, President Tayyip Erdogan, pitched its qualifications to lead the Islamic world.
At the 2016 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Ankara, Erdogan, while blasting the West, called upon the Islamic world to unite to solve its own problems rather than relying on outsiders. Turkey’s role in breaking the Gaza blockade had already earned accolades. Then Erdogan said something that resonated across the Islamic world. He said: “My religion is not that of Sunnis, of Shiites. My religion is Islam”. Something, which no Saudi leader could say due to their serious religious differences with Shiite Iran.
As Saudis, already facing problems with the Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon, moved closer to Israel, the chorus against it started getting louder. Meeting on the sidelines of UN general assembly session in 2019, former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and Erdogan planned a separate summit of Islamic leaders in Kuala Lumpur.
Saudi Arabia saw the move as an attempt to sideline it and create a new Islamic bloc. Although Saudis were invited at the summit, the list of other invitees, which included Turkey, Qatar and Iran – bitter Saudi foes – ensured its non-attendance.
As expected Saudi Arabia boycotted the summit and even forced Pakistan to withdraw. The Saudi-controlled OIC even issued not so veiled attack saying such gatherings would divide Muslims. Without naming Malaysia, OIC Secretary-General Yousef al-Othaimeen said: “It is not in the interest of an Islamic nation to hold summits and meetings outside the framework of the (OIC), especially at this time when the world is witnessing multiple conflicts. Any weakening of the OIC platform is a weakening of Islam and Muslims.”
As the Saudi-Israeli bonhomie grew stronger, the Iran-Turkey alliance started getting more members and the UAE-Israel peace deal proved the last straw.
It is an open secret the agreement has the blessings of Saudi Arabia and as US President Donald Trump has indicated that more will follow, meaning that it’s just a matter of time when Saudis will announce the establishment of ties with the Jewish state.
Although Saudis have not issued any statement on the deal, an op-ed article in the Arab News by Ronald S. Lauder, president of World Jewish Council on it says it all.
The reaction to the peace deal was on expected lines. The Saudi allies in the region have welcomed it while Iran, Turkey and Malaysia have been very severe in their denunciation.
Iran condemned the deal, saying the Palestinian people would “never forgive the normalising of relations with the criminal Israeli occupation regime and the complicity in its crimes.” Turkey called it as an act of treachery. “While betraying the Palestinian cause to serve its narrow interests, the UAE is trying to present this as a kind act of self-sacrifice for Palestine,” it said.
The biggest shock came from Kuwait, a trusted Saudi and the US ally, which said it will not follow the UAE in establishing ties with Israel. Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas quoted a government as saying: “Kuwait maintains its position and will be the last country [on earth] to normalise with Israel.”
The peace agreement has shredded the myth of Arab or Islamic unity. Today, the Islamic world stands divided as never before.