Middle east

Inside the new Arab-Israeli alliance

As Jordanian fighter jets shot down Iranian drones heading for Israel on Saturday night, there were joyful cries of Allahu Akbar on the ground as some people lent out of their windows to cheer the drones they thought were getting through. King Abdullah II was depicted on social media wearing an Israeli military uniform complete with the Star of David and he must dearly wish that Israelis would shut up about their ‘new strategic alliance’ with old enemies like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Jordan’s foreign minister was forced into an unconvincing declaration that they would shoot down anyone’s drones, not just Iran’s. Yet, the important fact remains: this is

When righteous anger goes wrong

From abroad I’ve returned to a country where, in language to which the word ‘shrill’ hardly does justice, fellow British commentators have been letting fly on both sides of the argument about Gaza and how Israel should or should not respond to Hamas’s unspeakable attacks on 7 October. There’s just one thing both sides – the British Muslim banner-wavers and those who bay for a war of attrition in Gaza – seem to agree upon: that whatever the answer might be, it is, in the most important sense of the word, simple. It is not simple. Things so rarely are. The simple bit is who – in the immediate –

Lionel Shriver

What did Hamas think was going to happen?

Much misfortune the woebegone couldn’t have seen coming: a raging fire in the house next door that spreads to yours. The invention of some kooky technology called ‘the internet’ that puts your travel agency out of business. Yet other calamities are foreseeable. If you suddenly stop filing tax returns without a good excuse – like, dying – it’s a virtual certainty that the all-seeing computer will come after you. So when compounding fees and interest leave you skint, our sympathies are apt to be scant. What did you think was going to happen? Or to up the moral ante: if you slaughter 18 innocents in a frenzy for no apparent

How is Joe Biden handling the Israel-Palestine crisis?

27 min listen

This week Freddy speaks to Dennis Ross, former Middle East coordinator under President Clinton and current Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. They discuss Biden’s visit to Israel this week, how his policy towards the Middle East borrows from Trump and Obama, and how we can discern between the public posturing and private desires of Middle Eastern states. 

Bush is leading us to tragedy (2002)

It’s 20 years since the clamour for the invasion of Iraq was at its loudest. Boris Johnson, The Spectator’s then editor, spoke to the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Ghazi Algosaibi. You can read more on our fully digitised archive. ‘No, no,’ says the Saudi ambassador. ‘This is how you do it. You cannot lift your arm above the shoulder, and you must do it sideways.’ He moves alongside, a big man with a faint resemblance to Leon Brittan, and makes a thwacking motion. Meet Ghazi Algosaibi, 62, a poet and author, the Arab world’s leading envoy to London, who has recently earned not just a personal rebuke from Jack Straw, but

Can Israelis trust the UN?

You probably think you’ve heard every story there is to hear about people getting fired over their tweets. Well, here’s the story of Sarah Muscroft. She’s got them all beat. Until last Friday, Muscroft was the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA). For 72 hours beginning on 5 August, Islamic Jihad fired 1,000 rockets into Israel and Israel responded with 170 counterstrikes, with the terrorist group citing as its pretext Israel’s targeted killing of two of its senior commanders and the arrest of dozens of its members. Eventually, a ceasefire was brokered with the assistance of Egypt.  Muscroft, based

The West cannot do business with Iran

Salman Rushdie’s would-be assassin might have been a lone wolf. He might have had no contact with military or intelligence figures. He might never even have set foot in Tehran. But be in no doubt: he acted, in effect, as an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under the terms of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989, Rushdie ‘and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death’. Khomeini urged ‘brave Muslims to quickly kill them wherever they find them so that no one ever again would dare to insult the sanctities of Muslims’, adding: ‘Anyone killed while trying

Are the Abraham Accords working?

Two years ago, UAE citizens were barred from entering Israel. No longer. The inaugural Emirates flight touched down in Tel Aviv last week, a Boeing 777 carrying 335 passengers. For much of the 20th century, the only thing that the Middle East could agree on was the destruction of the Jewish state. But attitudes are changing. The purported reason is the so-called Abraham Accords, signed in 2020 after Donald Trump decided to solve the seemingly intractable problem of the Middle East. If Don the Dealmaker couldn’t do it, who could? Seven decades of antagonism had failed, the White House argued, and the Palestinian cause seemed as troubled as ever, so

Why is Biden copying Obama’s mistakes with Iran?

There was a picture taken on Tuesday that says more than just a thousand words. The photograph was snapped in Sharm el-Sheikh and shows Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett seated either side of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. According to the Egyptian president’s office, they met to discuss ‘the repercussions of global developments, especially with regard to energy, market stability, and food security’ but ‘they also exchanged visions and views on the latest developments of several international and regional issues’. That’s a very wordy way of saying ‘Iran’. Obama and Biden’s foreign policies are indistinguishable Iran is what this meeting

The West has to bite its lip for Saudi oil

It would be ridiculous to claim that Boris Johnson’s visit to Saudi Arabia is not morally problematic. He is going to a country which held a mass execution for 81 people this weekend – a record number – and to visit a man who US intelligence blames for the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet, if the West wishes to reduce Vladimir Putin’s leverage – and stabilise the oil market – then it needs Saudi Arabia to pump more; no country has more spare capacity than Saudi Arabia, which could produce another 1.5 to 2 million barrels a day if it wanted to. The best solution is – obviously – for the

Can Boris get the Saudis to pump more oil?

The oil price is up by more than 40 per cent since the start of the year. It is being driven up by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the lack of investment in oil and turning the world economy on and off again: US production is still not back to pre-pandemic levels. In the immediate term, as I say in the Times today, pretty much the only way to bring the price down is to get Saudi Arabia – which has 1.5 to 2 million barrels a day of spare capacity – to pump more. The West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been morally problematic. The justification for it, despite Riyadh’s appalling

Israel’s changing global fortunes

Israel has been working closely with other countries and international companies, developing and producing vaccines against Covid-19. At the same time, the Middle Eastern country is rapidly improving relations with its Gulf neighbours, the latest evidence being the appointment of a new UAE ambassador to Israel. A major shift has taken place in Israel — 20 years ago the country was under siege from terrorists, with bus bombings rocking Jerusalem and terror attacks in the heart of Tel Aviv. Just a few years ago Israel was fighting a major war in Gaza against Hamas, a war that is the subject of an inquiry by the International Criminal Court. For many years Israel

Why would the Saudis bail out Biden?

Is Saudi Arabia shunning Washington? Mohammed bin Salman has reportedly been refusing to phone Joe Biden, who wants the kingdom to turn on its oil taps as the West desperately seeks alternatives to the Russian energy market.  Riyadh – the world’s largest oil exporter – has so far failed to accommodate Washington’s pleas. Ahead of the Russian invasion in mid-February, the US asked the Opec+ cartel – of which Saudi Arabia is the most important member – to produce more oil to slow the already rising prices. Opec+ stood firm, and said they would increase production by 400,000 barrels a day in April, a rise agreed before the threat of a

How did US intelligence get Afghanistan so wrong?

It may well go down as the understatement of the year. In a quite extraordinary address to the nation after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the US President made this admission: ‘The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.’ If this were the only intelligence failing of recent years, then maybe a little indulgence could be shown More quickly? Than we had anticipated? As recently as 10 August, US intelligence said that it would take the Taliban up to 90 days to take

Who cares what Ben & Jerry’s think about Israel-Palestine?

When you think of the Israel-Palestine conflict, ice cream doesn’t usually come up. But that may be about to change. Ben & Jerry’s has finally broken its silence, announcing yesterday that it will ‘end sales of our ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territory’. Perhaps in the years ahead we’ll come to see this depriving Israeli settlers of Caramel Chew Chew and Truffle Kerfuffle as some kind of tipping point. We won’t, of course, because that’s ridiculous. As is a Vermont-based over-priced ice-cream brand weighing in on far-flung conflicts. But that seems to be where we’re at now – with corporate America in general and with Ben & Jerry’s in

The Afghan withdrawal will only embolden the West’s enemies

‘How many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons, were you willing to risk?’ Biden asked critics of the decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan last week. He has the support of the American public – most of whom also wanted to see troops leave Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting and 2,400 fatalities. This risk aversion is one of the reasons America decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. There’s a diminished appetite in the US for prolonged military involvement in the Middle East, especially large-scale deployments of ground troops that inadvertently cost lives. In the UK, the Ministry of Defence’s integrated review, which advocates reducing the size of the

How China won over the Middle East

In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a six-nation Middle Eastern tour to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. ‘Belt and Road’ cooperation, economic development and the Covid pandemic were the topics of discussion. The treatment of China’s Muslim Uighur population in detention camps, which some in the West have described as genocidal, didn’t come up. Both China and Saudi Arabia cleave to the belief that internal affairs are nobody else’s business — or at least as long as there are overriding economic interests at stake. Compare the silence of Muslim countries on the Uighur issue with the loud faux anger when the

Is the worst yet to come in the Middle East?

Beirut We can’t say yet if the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas is the start of ‘the big one’, a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising. That possibility was raised by the grandest of Middle East commentators, Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times. Friedman is sometimes mocked for his prognostications. A ‘Friedman’ is defined as six months because of his repeated statements that the ‘next six months’ would be critical for the US in Iraq, the light at the end of the tunnel visible only then. He also praised the ‘new ideas’ of Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, before it turned out that one of those new ideas

The strange tale of NEOM: Saudi Arabia’s struggling desert megacity

Prince Mohammed bin Salman is desperate to shake Saudi Arabia’s addiction to oil. Its price has still not recovered from an American fracking boom seven years ago, and decades of excess have left the world’s largest exporter now needing £55 a barrel to balance the books — more than Iraq, Libya, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE. Looking to reinvent his kingdom, MBS is building a new city, NEOM. Sold as a rival to neighbouring Dubai, which has long been the capital of business and tourism in the Middle East, the city will cost £360 billion, will be the size of Belgium and is expected to be completed by 2030. Or

Could an Israeli-Saudi peace deal be imminent?

The Israeli-Saudi peace deal is, to coin a phrase, oven-ready, a source close to the negotiations told me this week. After many months of covert meetings, the detail has been agreed and the Israelis are ready to commit. All that’s needed is for the Saudis to sign on the dotted line. This means that an alliance could be sealed within six months. Of all the Arab-Israeli peace agreements, a Saudi deal would be the most significant. The Gulf kingdom is a huge country that comes close to bordering Israel, and, as such, is of great strategic weight. It is the largest economy in the Middle East. And as the custodian