The Vatican and the Gulf Have a Common Enemy

The meaning of the pope’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates

Pope Francis is welcomed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan upon his arrival in Abu Dhabi on February 3, 2019.
Pope Francis is welcomed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan upon his arrival in Abu Dhabi on February 3, 2019. (Reuters)

Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET on February 8, 2019.

ABU DHABI—Sometime on Sunday, an advance team infiltrated my hotel and taped notes in Italian to the elevator call buttons. One floor was marked VATICAN ROOMS, and another VATICAN EXIT. The Vatican entrance was not marked, but the arrival of Pope Francis in the United Arab Emirates had been long foreshadowed.

For the past week, the UAE has been preparing for one of the most significant interreligious events in modern memory. A conference on “global fraternity” has featured rabbis, imams, swamis, cardinals, and obscure religious officiaries whose titles I had never heard before. (For fans of exotic clerical headwear, Abu Dhabi is temporarily the fashion capital of the world.) The assembled clerics, seemingly one of every type, were a sort of warm-up crew for the pope, who appeared Monday night with Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University (the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo), in a double act billed as a moment of public healing that will mend hatreds dating to the Crusades. Tuesday morning, Francis celebrated the first papal Mass ever in the Arabian Peninsula.

I have been coming to the Gulf for nearly 20 years, and for almost that long I have heard quoted a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, to the effect that the Arabian Peninsula (UAE and other Gulf States, plus Yemen) should not contain any religion but Islam. This religious zoning law is enforced with greater zeal as one approaches Mecca and Medina. There one finds no non-Muslims at all. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims may live temporarily and worship discreetly. In the UAE, there are churches, but proselytization is still illegal, and Islam is enshrined in law. You can get thrown in jail for blaspheming, and killed for leaving Islam. Practice of magic is criminalized, per Islamic law. And yet Francis performed, before an audience of about 120,000 and with no danger of prosecution, what many Muslims consider an act of sorcery, the transformation of wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ.

What has happened to the Emirates? Whence this turn toward tolerance? In the past three days, I have heard two main theories.

  1. Nothing happenedthings are still bad. This is the view of Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East executive director of Human Rights Watch, who argues that the papal visit is being used to conceal the same moral rot that has afflicted the Gulf for decades. The Emirates still deprives residents of basic rights, including rights of free worship and expression. It persecutes, she writes, “peaceful critics, political dissidents, and human rights activists.” No one may leave Islam or object to its official form, sanctioned by the state. During the past 20 years, the UAE has reaped immense benefit from increased openness to the world. The papal visit is a pretense of reform, masking failure to institute real change.
  2. Nothing happenedthings are still good. The official Emirati line is that the tolerance on display continues a long tradition, embodied by the founding father of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan (1918–2004). “Sheikh Zayed believed all humanity is one,” says Zaki Nusseibeh, minister of state and a longtime spokesman for the Emirati government. Zayed had a “vision,” Nusseibeh says, an “ethos” of curiosity and engagement with the outside world. The visit of Pope Francis is the natural result of his vision.

I find both sets of claims incomplete, at best. A papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula is something very new indeed—as evidenced, most obviously and literally, by its failure to occur ever before. Something has happened, and the change has proceeded not slowly and continuously but with surprising speed, and only in the past five years or so. Today’s UAE is more open and tolerant of other cultures. At the Abu Dhabi Louvre, one of the most popular exhibitions is a chamber of religious artifacts, arranged in a way that would almost certainly have been considered blasphemous a few years ago. There is a Hindu idol, many-armed and wearing skintight yoga pants, showing his rear end directly at an Islamic tombstone in Kufic Arabic script. When I visited, no one seemed to care.

The old emir, Sheikh Zayed, was an absolute monarch. If he wanted a museum where Shiva could shake his glutes at Meccan artifacts, he could presumably have commissioned one. Under his rule, Abu Dhabi grew more cosmopolitan, more modern, but at a pace far slower than in the 14 years since his death.

What has changed, in brief, is the dual rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State. The following analysis applies equally to the Emirates and to Saudi Arabia.

For most of the past 40 years, the conventional complaint about the Arab Gulf countries was that their oil allowed them to grow in power without growing in engagement with the outside world. Normally when countries get rich, they trade, and through contact with the outside they learn about one another. The Gulf countries relied on a single resource, oil, whose extraction did not require intimate cultural contact. They grew rich without growing worldly.

Meanwhile, the Gulf States sponsored forms of Islam that vilified non-Muslims and constantly reminded Muslims of their inherent superiority. In Saudi Arabia in particular, hard-liners came to believe that the presence of even the few non-Muslims allowed as oil engineers and traders constituted an affront to Islam, a de facto establishment of a second religion on the Arabian Peninsula. These hard-liners said, sometimes loudly but often in whispers, that the kings and emirs of the Gulf had compromised their religion and should abdicate or be deposed. For years, the Gulf gave the hard-liners one-way tickets into exile—ideally so they could die in the cause of jihad far away, without threatening the stability of the Gulf monarchies. That was the deal: The Gulf States would give Islamists wide latitude to operate, as long as they concentrated their efforts elsewhere.

By about six years ago, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood had separately declared that the deal was off, and that they would seek the eventual overthrow of the Gulf monarchies. (The Muslim Brotherhood exempted only one of them, Qatar, from the threat.) In the case of ISIS, the declaration is explicit. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, insists that it is not a revolutionary organization and does not seek regime change. But its Egyptian windfall from the Arab Spring expanded and universalized its ambitions, and all Gulf states (again excepting Qatar) have regarded it as an intolerable challenge.*

The pope’s visit was advertised as the UAE’s gift to the many thousands of Catholic guest workers, including nearly 700,000 from the Philippines alone. That was only part of its purpose. Freed from any obligation to Islamists, and faced with the promise that those Islamists would work implacably to end the monarchies, the Gulf States have everything to gain from embracing the West, opening further, and reaping the benefits of cooperation against Islamists. The visit was not a concession to Christianity but a strategic calculation, and a canny one at that.

My heart is not so flinty and pragmatic, though, as to deny the joy visible in the crowds at the papal Mass. In the Gulf, nearly everyone who does work involving physical labor comes from the Indian subcontinent or Southeast Asia. As a visitor to the Gulf, one sees them every day—serving food, driving taxis, cleaning. They are everywhere but still somehow invisible, because their unexalted work leaves them socially separated from citizens of Western countries and the Gulf.

To see tens of thousands of Filipinos and Indians worshipping together, in front of their Holy Father, in an event that all will someday describe to their children and grandchildren, was to see them achieve visibility. When you are legally required to hide what matters most to you, the chance to proclaim it becomes something greater than just a personal release. It is a collective acknowledgment of humanity long suppressed.

By the time I arrived in the stadium, nearly every seat was full, and Vatican flags that had been left on the seats were wagging in every section. Large screens showed Francis at a nearby church, which in his address to the congregation he called (with obvious affection) “small” and “new.” He then hopped into an open-backed truck, and we watched him proceed, waving in the familiar papal parade posture, a short distance to the soccer stadium that had been outfitted for celebration of Mass. The only part of the scene that would have distinguished it from another, less historic papal visit was the presence of one member of his security detail wearing a thawb, the body-length white garment traditional in Abu Dhabi.

He entered the stadium like a matador, cruising back and forth before each section of seats, so no one was denied a close look and an opportunity to cheer. When he passed by me, about 10 feet away, he smiled broadly and squinted to avoid being blinded by the Gulf sun. He looked energetic—younger than 82—and he must have been grateful that in the heat of Abu Dhabi, his regalia was a heat-reflecting white.

Francis delivered his homily in Italian, with Arabic translation. I wondered whether he would speak about universal subjects, given the inherent controversy of his being in Abu Dhabi at all; a sermon about loving one’s neighbor would provoke less controversy than, say, a sermon about the Trinity, or another subject likely to spur polemics from Muslims who see a triune god as a form of polytheism.

In fact his choice of subject was classic and sublime. He spoke of the Sermon on the Mount, and he stressed the power of Christians to maintain their faith even in conditions of weakness, poverty, and oppression. Because nearly all the Catholics in the Emirates are members of the underclass, the topic must have been heard by all—or at least the small minority who speak Italian or Arabic—as a message of solidarity with guest workers who will never rise into the Emirati elite, but whose riches lie in the cultivation of Christian love in their hearts.

And then, finally, came the Eucharist. I am not Catholic, but I grew up attending Communion rites, observing from the sidelines as my Christian-school classmates gobbled the body of Christ and drank his blood. If you are exposed to this rite early enough in life, I think, you never fully register how strange it is, how weirdly it combines the sophisticated with the feral. Witnessing the rite in this foreign environment allowed me to experience it perhaps as a Muslim might for the first time. When the altar bells rang onstage, signaling the imminent transformation of food into corpse, I shuddered with a new appreciation of the uncanny.

These frissons, whether of religious ecstasy or of cannibalistic transgression, will wear off with time. But at least a few repercussions of the papal visit will be permanent. The Catholic population of the Emirates will remember the visit—and, perhaps more important, the decision of Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MbZ), to invite him. (The crowd’s roars of excitement at the pope’s entrance were only slightly louder than the grateful applause at the mention of MbZ’s name, later in the ceremony.) Western countries will remember that by inviting a Christian idolator to perform sorcery on the peninsula of the Prophet, Abu Dhabi took a step away from Islamists, a step that cannot really ever be taken back.

Of less certain long-term significance is the effect of the visit on global religious dynamics, writ large. Yesterday night, Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Azhar imam, signed a “Human Fraternity Document,” agreeing on general values shared by the two communities of faith. I feel certain that the details of this document have already been forgotten forever; the shared values (do not kill people, be respectful, don’t separate children from their parents) are bland and unchallenging, and therefore effortlessly ignored. Moreover, they were adopted in the face of, and without mentioning, ongoing humanitarian disasters in which the UAE and el-Tayeb’s Egypt are complicit—namely the war against Iranian proxies in Yemen, and abuses of state power in Egypt.

But the fact that el-Tayeb and Pope Francis signed the agreement is, in a way, more important than the contents. What matters is that they, as the preeminent figures in Christianity and Islam, were joining forces, in a coalition of institutional religious authority, not so subtly united against upstart forces of popular religion. The Catholic Church has worried for centuries about the same concern that now afflicts the Emiratis and Egyptians: that younger generations no longer trust the establishment, and that they will, if not forced into obedience, adopt rebellion both religious and political.

In Emirati mosques, institutional insecurity is palpable in the khutbah, or sermon preached each week. A government-appointed committee writes the khutbah—and that same khutbah is read aloud at every mosque, verbatim. A guide at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque explained that the committee simply wants to exercise quality control, and to keep wingnut clerics in line. No doubt the practice also keeps them painfully boring. El-Tayeb, in his talk on Monday, argued against what he called “individualism”—which seemed to mean independent thought, outside the scholarly edifice of which he is the superintendent. Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict, is better known than Francis as a doctrinal enforcer. But Francis too, by simple virtue of being pope, is nothing if not the unifier and director of a massive and coordinated religious enterprise.

The Gulf States no longer fear Christianity. Christendom no longer covets Muslim land; Christians just want to be respected and respectful guests. The greater threat comes from chaos—the danger that their Muslim sons and daughters are beyond their command, and will instead embrace entrepreneurial amateurs like the Islamic State. The friendly and conciliatory performances of el-Tayeb and Francis proved that the religious authorities of Christianity and Sunni Islam will happily make peace with one another, and not focus unduly on converting one another or fighting. But the fights within Islam continue to be fought, as they were in Christianity, with catastrophic effects for the Church of Rome, 400 years ago in the Protestant Reformation and Counter Reformation. The institutional authorities of Islam, and the political authorities with which they are aligned, have just bought themselves an institutional ally, if not a theological one. Whether the alliance keeps the theological barbarians at bay is another question.

* This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf states.