The Arabist Lobby

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(February 10, 2019/KDJ) There’s been lots of talk about the “Israel/Jewish/Zionist Lobby” in the Western World. Al Jazeera, the infamous Qatari news channel, has even done an investigative film into the lobby and released it among some quarters. And yet throughout the decades, it was a group of Arabists that had the most influence on Western (especially American) foreign policy when it came to the Middle East. Behind many think-tanks & NGOs, the State Department, and Middle East Studies programs, one can find Arab petrodollars.

Think-Tanks & NGOs

A prestigious American think-tank known as the Center for American Progress recently announced that it would no longer accept donations from the United Arab Emirates. The move came amidst a triad of controversial events and realities. The first is the UAE’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia. The second is the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by the Saudi Royal rulers. Finally, the UAE is one of the countries behind the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Because of this, there were concerns that CAP wouldn’t be able to function independently without a pro-Emirati bias.

CAP is far from the only think-tank to take Emirati cash. The Center for New American Security, a think-tank founded in 2007 by former Clinton Administration employees, took $250,000 from the the UAE embassy after publishing & disseminating a piece on the benefits of selling drones to Abu Dhabi. NGOs, too, have fallen prey to this scheme. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have showered money on various non-governmental organizations to cover up their human rights abuses, and target Qatar for extra criticism.

Academia

They are not alone, of course. Educational institutions have also fallen victim to this kind of meddling and bribery. Qatar is host to a campus for Northwestern University, Durham University, and a host of other esteemed academic institutions in the West. Professor Stephen F. Eisenman conducted an investigation for his school’s–Northwestern–campus in Qatar. What he found is that there is very little academic freedom on campus.

Saudi Arabia is also known to have deep financial ties with a number of educational institutions in the United States and Britain, with a particular focus on regional and security studies. Despite Riyadh’s reputation as a funder of terror and an egregious abuser of human rights, these programs have often continued for years. Such funding has raised questions about Middle East Studies programs’ exclusion of minority narratives in the region–Kurdish, Jewish, Amazigh, Assyrian, and other groups–as well as an inherent hostility towards Israel in program narratives. And, much as is the case in think-tanks, NGOs, and government institutions, little to no attention is paid to the grievous injustices rampant in Arab countries.

Government Institutions

Hugh Wilford wrote America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East. The book describes how the CIA and State Department originally took on a  very pro-Arab Nationalist view when it came to Middle East affairs. A combination of studying & teaching at American university campuses in Arab countries, serving in embassies in such countries, and marrying local women helped propel these views into the mainstream among American (and other Western) diplomats. Wilford notes and documents in his book how Kim Roosevelt united with influential American Council of Judaism, which was largely opposed to Zionism. Much of the funding for anti-Zionist joint conferences and campaigning came from ARAMCO, which has a history of donating generously to Arabist causes.

The State Department and CIA also adopted the Arabist approach to another non-Arab power in the region: pre-revolutionary Iran. The CIA’s assistance to the British coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran is well-known and documented. Much like the case for the Arabist lobby’s anti-Zionsim, the case for a coup in Iran came through racist, pro-Arab Nationalist, and anti-communist lenses. On one hand, Zionism and the Iranian National Movement under Mossadegh was seen as more independent. While it wasn’t firmly tied to the Soviet camp, not firmly being in the West (or aligned with it) was akin to being vulnerable to “communist influences.”

There was great concern amongst Arabist government officials that certain socialist policies in early Israel and Iran left these countries susceptible to being dominated by Moscow. There was greater concern that if the US didn’t join the Arab World in undermining Jerusalem & Tehran, the Arab World would instead turn towards the Soviet Union, depriving the capitalist West of a vital source of oil. Of course, there was also a good amount of anti-Semitism and Orientalist-racism which was behind these anti-Iran and anti-Zionist campaigns. Gradually, the Arabist discourse faded away from CIA and State Department mainstream beliefs as the US came to embrace Iran under the Shah as well as Israel. And yet in modern times, oil interests have often caused different US governments to take a firm stand towards Israel on the Palestinian issue.

What Now?

The Arabist Lobby is at something of a crossroads in modern times. On one hand, it still works hard in educational institutions, think-tanks, and NGOs to influence future policymakers to soften towards Arab interests. Part of this includes encouraging the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel, undermining Kurdish nationalist aspirations, and putting enormous economic pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, there are also internal battles within the Arabist Lobby that is undermining it. For one, a good number of Arab countries are warming up to Israel, and even to the Kurdish cause to a slight degree. Shared concerns against Turkey, Iran, and various terror organizations have caused a coalescence between Kurdish political factions & Israel on the one hand, and stable Arab countries on the other. As such, the Arabist Lobby hasn’t been as anti-Zionist as it once was.

But other Arab powers, such as Kuwait and Qatar, remain firm in their funding to anti-Zionist groups and staunch in their opposition to Israel. The Palestinians have also joined in this camp, with the occasional assistance of Jordan, as they no longer trust the main Arab power brokers to defend their cause. However, these countries/entities are under immense pressure themselves and aren’t sure to succeed. Qatar itself is a target of the “stable Arab states'” lobbying, due to its close relationship with Turkey & Iran and its own funding of terror organizations. The Palestinians Authority and Jordan are both isolated and economically decrepit.

At the same time, the world has grown tired of the endless human rights abuses, hypocrisy, and internecine conflicts in the Arab World. The finite supply and need for oil further decreases the necessity to maintain ties with such backwards countries. This has brought about a dual development in politics. On one hand, it is forcing reformers such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to cozy up to Israel in pursuit of a new financial-environmental-defense deal that could bring about regional peace and cooperation.  On the other hand, it has caused a new diplomatic mindset in some countries. US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, along with the subsequent embassy move there from Tel Aviv and end of aid to the Palestinians, shows that the US no longer buys the decades-old arguments of the Arabist Lobby. The fact that Guatemala, Australia, and others are following suit in some capacity shows that the Arabist Lobby’s foundations are beginning to wither away.

In the meantime, one should expect the Qatar-PA-Kuwait sector of the Arabist Lobby to continue their work in the United Nations, European Union, Al Jazeera, Middle East Monitor, and Middle East Eye in trying to accelerate the BDS movement. Documentaries will continue to air on BBC and CNN International that portray the likes of the UAE and Qatar in a flattering light. But in the long term, as the Arab states grow less useful to the West and as oil becomes obsolete, the Arabist Lobby will fade away.