A divide has opened between the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It seems this divide, while not terribly large at this point if one doesn't count the UAE signaling that it is pulling out of the Yemen War, is very deep because it has to do with religion.
In late December the UAE reopened its embassy in Syria but the Emirates didn't stop with high-level diplomatic overtures. It backed these with humanitarian aid projects in the war-torn country and an extraordinary media effort done in cooperation with Syria's government. From a May 31 report in Asia Times headlined UAE using soft power in Syria after 7-year frost:
The UAE is also looking to influence minds — in Syria and beyond — bankrolling two Syrian soap operas this Ramadan airing exclusively on Abu Dhabi TV.
The first, Maqamat al-Asheq, tells the story of a renowned Sufi mystic Ibn A,rabi, who lived in Damascus centuries ago and is buried on the slopes of Mount Qassioun overlooking the city.
The second, Al-Asheq (The Impassioned), is the tale of the Abbasid-era Sufi philosopher al-Hallaj.
Both preach a version of Islam that the UAE and Syria are trying to promote, and which radical groups like the Islamic State tried to eradicate over the course of the war in Syria and other territories it seized.
Sufism is an order of peaceful mystics that once prevailed in Damascus under Ottoman rule. Sufi scholars have wide authority to interpret religious issues and take action based on judgement unless otherwise mentioned in the Quran. Connectivity with God takes different forms, in addition to prayer, and can be achieved through spiritual dancing or religious hymns — two acts that radical groups like ISIS consider un-Islamic.
When ISIS overran the city of Mayadeen in eastern Syria, its militants raided the homes of Sufis, arresting, flogging and often killing members of their order.
Because Sufism appeals to [so many] Muslims, ISIS saw this brand of the religion as a threat to its power base, more than Christianity, for example.
Sufi clerics like Ibn Arabic and al-Hallaj, portrayed in the new Emirati-funded dramas, in contrast strictly banned the killing of any member of the monotheistic religions.
Like all Muslims, Sufis too believe in a caliphate. But any caliph, they say, needs to come “through brotherly love and fluttering hearts” — in the words of Ibn Arabi — rather than by the sword.
[...]Of course, there are all sorts of politics and business dealings involved in the defrost. The lede for the AT report reads, "Emirati authorities keen to get a foothold in Syria, despite US sanctions against full investment." And given that the UAE is a hub for entertainment productions, even the financial backing for the Sufi dramas, which have an appeal across many regions in the world, has a big financial angle.
But from the Asia Times report, clearly, this isn't just about entertainment profits. This is about the United Arab Emirates working to create a sea change with epochal ramifications for Islam and thus, all societies across the world.
I don't want to fall prey to irrational exuberance, but this really is a very big story, a hopeful one. However comma as you will see if you read the entire Asia Times report, right now many Muslims, including Syrian Muslims, are caught between Wahhabism on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. It's like being asked if one prefers death by poisoning or hanging. And the governments pushing these two versions of Islam -- notably Turkey and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other, are in turn backed by various Western governments including, I am ashamed to say, my own government.
But the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step and the United Arab Emirates has taken that step. If they keep it up, if they act from the heart, then the journey could be much shorter than supposed at this time. Here I am reminded of the children's rhyme:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again ...
When a journey is lit by the heart's candle, distance and time make no matter.
See also U.A.E. Pulls Most Forces From Yemen in Blow to Saudi War Effort; July 11, 2019, The New York Times