Yaqub Probes U.S.-Arab Relations in the 1970s

By Tanzeen R. Doha - In the 1970s, the logic of the Cold War resulted in a particular kind of international relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. Those relations were explored on October 24, 2016 by Salim Yaqub, professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, at a colloquium hosted by the Department of History.

Yaqub’s talk—like his recent book Imperfect Strangers: Americans and Arabs in the 1970s—was not only about U.S.-Middle East relations during that decade, but also conditions of Arabian immigrants living in the United States. He suggested that while the former grew steadily tenser, the latter actually improved. This paradox highlights the significance of the diplomatic and political dimensions, as well as of the social, cultural, and psychological aspects, of relations between the U.S. and the Middle East in that era.

Kissinger’s role in all this, Yaqub explained, was crucial. By creating a friendly relationship with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Kissinger negotiated with the Palestinians and kept Israel safe. Yaqub provided humorous details on how “Kissing-er” kissed his way into the Arab world by participating in the practice—common among male Arab state officials and diplomats—of kissing on the cheeks.

Kissinger’s diplomacy helped to humanize Arab-Americans who were striving to be recognized by civil society. The president also offered conflicting pledges to the Arabs (Saudi Arabia, and Palestine for instance) to pacify the possibility of Arab-Israeli war. Though opposed to such an arrangement in principal, Kissinger created the necessary conditions for the discourse of a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem.

Shaping a new language

Taking questions, Yaqub acknowledged that his history coverage mainly focused on public utterances by state officials, resulting in an absence of the discourse of, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. (The presence of the Muslim Brotherhood during the era of Sadat was very significant, because while the organization experienced more mobility in Egyptian society during that time, it was also very critical of Egypt’s soft position on Israel.)

Yaqub also acknowledged the significance of the 1979 siege of Mecca, and noted that 1979 as a whole was instrumental in shaping a new language of politics in the Middle East in the decades that followed. 

Learn more about Salim Yaqub at his UCSB faculty webpage.