When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the UAE scrambled to contain the protests that shook the region. Many interpreted this as Abu Dhabi seeking to deter the contagious revolutionary sprit from reaching the Emirati people, whereas others saw it as a way of curbing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were clearly the electoral beneficiaries of the Arab Spring.
Despite both views holding weight and containing elements of truth, to cluster Abu Dhabi’s intentions oversimplifies what is, in fact, a dangerous attempt to expand its sphere of influence. Not only are there many dimensions to the UAE’s involvement in other Arab countries, but these dimensions ultimately lead to footing fundamental regime changes to exert maximum influence and control – Palestine is a perfect example of this.
While Palestinians have a simple call for justice, their political system by contrast remains complicated. A common misconception about Palestinian politics is that all Palestinian political factions and personalities are united against Israel’s injustice— just observing intra-Palestinian political affairs destroys this notion, with rivalries between political parties, with the most prevalent being the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas rivalry which has shaped Palestine’s political machine for more than a decade. Within this complex political system, Abu Dhabi relies on one figure in particular to exert its influence in both Ramallah and Gaza: Mohammed Dahlan.
Who is Dahlan?
Mohammed Dahlan, also known as Abu Fadi, is a notorious Palestinian figure. Some regard him as the loyal protégé of Yasser Arafat, whereas others suspect he poisoned and killed the autocrat. He is a man accused of being a “spy” on all fronts and of being trained by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the CIA and Israeli Mossad, all at various different points in his political career.
Dahlan began his political career in the early 1980s when he founded the Shabibia, Gaza’s branch of the Fatah movement, which eventually landed him in an Israeli prison. By the time the First Intifada broke out in 1987, he branded himself as Gaza’s Fatah youth leader. This led to his arrest and his deportation to Jordan in 1988, to which he eventually went into exile in Tunisia, met Arafat, and found his way up the Palestinian political food chain.
He reached his political height as a direct consequence of the controversial Oslo Accords in the early 90s. After Arafat signed away Israel’s recognition of Palestinian statehood, claiming it was a temporary and strategic move that will ultimately lead to “total liberation”, the agreement gave way for the establishment for a Palestinian security apparatus, known as the Preventative Security Services (PSS).
Dahlan subsequently returned to Gaza and became head of the Gazan branch of the PSS, where his power and influence grew in the coastal province. He quickly developed a reputation for repression, developing an obsession with controlling every aspect of Gaza and cracking down on anyone perceived to be in opposition of the Fatah movement, or even suspected of being critical of Dahlan himself.
This also meant Dahlan faced a Palestinian group that is not only opposed to Fatah, but is its biggest political rival of which Gaza is its ultimate stronghold: Hamas.
His paranoia with Hamas meant he went to extremes trying to suppress their influence in Gaza. With a force of 20,000, Dahlan’s PSS managed to crack down on thousands of Hamas officials and suspected supporters of the group, using notorious torture tactics that have been described as being even more treacherous than Israel’s.
The PSS’ grab on Gaza made Dahlan so powerful that Gaza was even nicknamed Dahlanistan.
Despite seeming unstoppable in the 90s, Dahlan’s power-trip eventually came to an end after the 2006 Fatah-Hamas war when Hamas democratically won control of Gaza. Upon losing the war in July 2007, Dahlan resigned and Gaza’s PSS was dissolved.
Dahlan was criticised inside of Fatah for not being able to succeed in recapturing power over Gaza. Accusations that he conspired with Israel to poison Arafat, which led to the latter’s death in 2004 resurfaced. His dream of moving further up in the Fatah leadership seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Despite this, Dahlan refuses to accept his decade-long slump as his end and has continued to reiterate his desire to return to Palestine and become Fatah leader.
The fall of Dahlanistan and the UAE connection
After the failure of his totalitarian endeavour in Gaza, Dahlan returned to the occupied West Bank where inter-Fatah tensions increased. In 2011 expelled from Fatah, he went into self-exile and strengthened his relationship with the UAE.
The UAE’s ruling al-Nahyan family welcomed Dahlan under its wing. With his extensive military and intelligence training, along with knowing the ins and outs of both Fatah and Hamas, Dahlan was perceived as the prefect tool for gathering intelligence on Palestinian officials, weakening the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading Emirati influence.
The Arab Spring had little to do with the UAE amplifying its endorsement of Dahlan. If anything, an Arab Spring in Gaza would have to some extent been in favour of the UAE and Dahlan — Hamas would have imploded inside its own stronghold, creating a power vacuum and potentially allowing the Dahlan-Abu Dhabi alliance to stroll into Gaza rather than having to sneak in..
The enemy of my enemy
The Nahyans and Dahlan had even cracked down on the same group at the same time in the mid-1990s. As the UAE become anxious about the potential influence of Islah, the Emirati branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Dhabi began to curtail its political activities in the Sheikhdom.
With similar ideological and power-political rivals and Dahlan’s unhinged desire for reinstating his status coupled with the UAE’s obsession with controlling internal affairs of other Arab countries, the partnership between the two is one with many elements.
In the context of Egypt, a key country not only because of its geographical proximity to Gaza, but because the Cairo government too is spearheading a war on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The current President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has since 2014 led a ruthless assault on the group since he rose to power in a UAE-backed blooded coup taking down the country’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi. Sisi is also attempting to weaken Hamas through tightening the brutal siege on Gaza and keeping close contact with Dahlan.
Despite Cairo’s attempts to debilitate Hamas, the group’s rule over Gaza so far remains firm. Nevertheless, Dahlan’s alliance with states that both target Hamas directly, and seek to diminish the ideology Hamas is built upon, remains a source of instability for Hamas, leaving its leaders prone to compromises.
This can be shown in Hamas’ changes in its charter last year which distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. Even before the disassociation, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in March 2016 appeared on Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabiya TV network and said while Hamas is “ideologically connected” to the Muslim Brotherhood, the group serves the Palestinian cause rather than feeding into the wider Muslim Brotherhood network.
Considering Hamas is one of the most popular Muslim Brotherhood branches because it says it is simultaneously resisting the brutal Israeli occupation, its distancing from the Muslim Brotherhood poses a perceived blow to the network’s morale.
Last year, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar — with one of the reasons being its alleged link to the Muslim Brotherhood. By containing Hamas the UAE is containing what it views as Qatar’s Levantine puppet.
‘Hava nagila’ for Israel?
A strong Dahlan will also be a win for Israel. Though it currently seems unlikely, in the scenario of him ruling Gaza, not only will Tel Aviv no longer have to deal with Hamas in Gaza, but for the besieged enclave to be led by a man far more inclined to deal with Israel. Even in the current scenario of Dahlan being unable to oust Hamas, he continues to negotiate with and gather intelligence on the group with no obvious disapproval from Israel.
With Emirati and Israeli relations covertly flourishing and consistent reports of secret meetings between Israeli officials meeting with Emirati, Bahraini and Saudi officials, Dahlan being a puppet for the UAE would be of no concern to Israel.
When Dahlan immersed himself in the Palestinian political scene last year competing with Abbas to reach peace deal between Hamas and Fatah, Israel showed no resistance to fact that Dahlan was attempting to strengthen his influence in both Fatah and Hamas circles behind the scene.
While the UAE has a vested interest in curbing the Arab Spring across the region, the case of Palestine shows the UAE’s interference in other Arab countries in some cases are less about the UAE defending itself from a perceived threat and more about spreading its influence. Its relationship with Palestine is one with many dimensions and many implications. This relationship is a reminder that the UAE is not specifically invested in the Arab Spring, but has longer-standing intentions when it meddles in other Arab countries.
Diana is a British/Palestinian journalist at The New Arab who specialises in reporting on Palestine and Yemen. She is also a women’s rights activist and a mental health advocate. She has a Masters degree from King’s College London’s War Studies department and blogs at: http://www.dianaalghoul.com