The atmosphere in the Arab world is changing

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent days in countries ranging from Yemen to Iraq to protest against Israel. Even in Egypt, where the regime rarely tolerates non-state demonstrations, authorities have permitted demonstrations. Two weeks after Hamas’ attacks on Israel, it is clear that the West has lost the battle for the Arab world’s sympathy. Hamas benefits from the anger of many Arabs towards Israel, America and Europe. Experts say no one in the region trusts the West anymore. Shifting tectonic conditions will likely determine relations between the West and the Middle East in the years to come. China could benefit from this.

This outcome was not necessarily expected at the start of the Hamas offensive on 7 October. Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have made peace with Israel and there is nothing left for the radical Islamist group Hamas and its backer Iran. The UAE criticized Hamas after October 7 for its attacks on Israeli civilians. However, Israeli air strikes on Gaza and especially the explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza that killed hundreds of people have caused the atmosphere to change. The UAE has now also criticized Israel.

Basket for Biden

US President Joe Biden himself has felt the change in mood. During his short visit to the Middle East, he not only wanted to talk to Israeli leaders, but also meet with Arab politicians. But they rejected the American president. Their country’s anger over the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital was too great. During his visit, Biden supported Israel’s claim that the clinic was hit by a Palestinian rocket attack – but almost no one in the Middle East believed that.

“In a country like Jordan which is pro-Western, people distrust US, European and German policies which are considered one-sided and are accused of not adequately recognizing the suffering of the Palestinian people,” said Edmund Ratka, head of the foreign office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Jordan. “The current escalation will have far-reaching consequences and will contribute to continued anti-Western sentiment, especially among large parts of the Arab population,” Ratka told our newspaper. “The public is angry, furious and powerless – these are dangerous impacts that Arab governments must reckon with. The greater the escalation, the greater the risk of destabilization in these countries.”

Conversation on ice

The loss of trust “will make it difficult for the West to win over its regional allies on other international issues,” Ratka predicted. The Middle East has experienced many crises, but this time the gap between Arab countries on the one hand and Israel and Western countries on the other is very wide. “People view Western discourse as hypocritical, not as inhumane,” Ratka said. “This time the proportions are completely different from usual.”

The damage done will likely be irreparable even when the fighting in Gaza is over. Saudi Arabia has postponed its talks with Israel on normalization and intensified its contacts with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to Turkey this month or next is unlikely to come to fruition. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Israel’s attack on Gaza borders on genocide; Israel has withdrawn its diplomats from Turkey as a precautionary measure after several protest demonstrations in Turkish cities.

China’s winner?

Recently, Western and Middle Eastern countries presented plans to build a transport and data corridor from India via the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The war in Gaza makes this project impossible for the foreseeable future. “No one in the Arab world dares to maintain good relations with Israel in the current situation,” said Osman Bahadir Dincer of the Bicc think tank in Bonn. Western institutions in the Middle East noticed that their interlocutors suddenly turned away. Dincer sees a major error in the assumption that the “frozen conflict” between Israel and Palestine is viewed without considering Palestinian interests. The conflict is shaped by Israeli and Palestinian claims to their own state for a hundred years, Dincer said. “This is a war that continues to escalate, but never ends.” Nevertheless, no one paid any attention to the Palestinians.

The winner of the West’s loss of reputation may be China. Beijing’s special envoy Zhai Jun spoke in recent days with Israel’s ambassador to China and Arab League officials, stressing that the Chinese government was ready to play a “positive role.” Several months ago, China demonstrated its ambitions as a Middle Eastern power by brokering a rapprochement between arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Ambrose Fernandez

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