Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

New regional realities

The Middle East is about to witness new political and military dynamics that could presage a shift in the regional order, Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Arab capitals are getting ready for a truly “new Middle East” — “at least a significantly different one, with many more changes that would eclipse those introduced to the region following the early tides of the Arab Spring,” as a leading Arab diplomat put it.

The region, according to these new dynamics, will part ways with the traditional political balance, with Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar on the other, and with the rest of the Arab countries choosing sides, mostly going to the Riyadh camp.

Contrary to the hopes of some central Arab capitals, the new division of the region will see Iran and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other.

“Already there was a serious shift in the dynamics of regional politics following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, when the Gulf countries decided that what they have in common is much deeper and much more reliable and significant than what they have with the rest of the 22 Arab League member states,” argued the same diplomat.

At the time, and during the following decade, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) moved from exercising financial-based political hegemony in the Arab Middle East to being almost independent of the pan-Arab organisation.

This split was followed in the next decade with the demise of hopes for settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle, instability across most of the Mashreq, alienation of the Maghreb and the slowing down of Egyptian diplomacy.

Inevitably, it was Riyadh and Doha that were in competition, with the latter gaining ground following the early changes of the Arab Spring and the former regaining ground with the hiccups faced in almost every Arab Spring country, with the possible exception of Tunisia.

“But this is all changing very fast with the possible deal with Iran [on its nuclear programme] that will certainly introduce new realities to the region, especially as coming at the very same time when the stability of many Arab countries — states and not regimes — are seriously challenged, and at a time where radical militant Islamic groups are acting in an unprecedented way,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

It is an open secret that the upcoming deal between Iran and the West — something that US Secretary of State John Kerry briefed GCC foreign ministers on this week — is raising concerns (some diplomats openly speak of “fears”) in the Saudi capital, which is already consumed with the introduction of a new ruler whose strategic choices seem to be different from those of his predecessors.

The word in Riyadh now is that the West is coming round to accommodate Iran, and that this will come at the expense of the historic and strategic concern of the House of Al-Saud over Iranian influence across the Arab region. One GCC source told Al-Ahram Weekly that Kerry advised his GCC counterparts that 2015 is probably the year for the big deal with Tehran.

The source added that it is a particularly challenging moment for Riyadh, because this new deal means three things.

Iran, the archenemy of Saudi Arabia, is going to have less restrictions on any scheme assumed by Riyadh to promote the Shia sect at the expense of the Sunni sect, and to prompt otherwise docile Shia populations in the oil-rich GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia and its closest GCC ally, Bahrain, to protest for more rights.

Second, Iran, through regional organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, will have more of a say on the fate of the region. This may include promoting continued confrontation with Israel, supporting Hamas and other Islamic resistance groups, both Sunni and Shia, especially at a time when there is little hope for peace-making efforts.

Third, Iran will empower Saudi Arabia’s GCC power contender, Qatar.

Iran already enjoys significant influence in Iraq. Some Saudi diplomats openly say Tehran is in charge of south and central Iraq, while the northern part is contested between the Kurds and the Islamic State (IS) group, Lebanon and Syria.

The power of Iran in the Arab world is not just about the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is also, Arab diplomats concede, about Sudan and large parts of North Africa.

The most intolerable part for the Saudis, however, is the “effective Iranian takeover of Yemen” through the Shia Houthis.

This was the message of the Saudi delegation to an Arab League foreign ministers meeting at its Cairo headquarters this week.

The visit of the Jordanian foreign minister to Tehran this week was qualified by many foreign diplomats in Cairo, both Arab and Western, as essentially a mediation attempt on the side of Amman to carry a message from the Saudis proposing a deal on Yemen.

Some diplomats added that the mediation role is one that Amman welcomes, knowing that the US veto on dealing with Tehran has been lifted, and that it is in the interests of Jordan, which does not share a phobia over the Shia, to explore possibilities with the influential and wealthy Iran.

The fact that news of the visit was no small fare, for Jordanian and Iranian media, was noted by many regional diplomats. “Something is clearly changing and it would be stupid to suggest otherwise,” said one of the longest serving European diplomats in a Middle East post.

The Saudis, diplomats added, are looking at a new reality and are planning to act to annul or at least limit the possible repercussions of these new political dynamics. In calculating his moves, the new Saudi ruler concluded, and shared with some interlocutors, that the Saudis have to be very specific about their “new” allies in the upcoming power balance in the region.

The consensus in the Saudi palace under the rule of King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz is that most Arab countries are in no position to be leaned on. All eyes in Riyadh are on Ankara.

The Turks, as some Turkish diplomats who spoke to the Weekly from Ankara and other capitals around the Mediterranean attest, need an ally to regain a level of regional influence. Turkey has been compromised by the confrontation-turned-vendetta with Egypt following the 2013 ouster of president Mohamed Morsi.

Speaking from Ankara, a concerned diplomat said that the recent meeting between King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayeb Erdogan offered room for both sides to express their joint interests and to share views and concerns on new regional realities in the making.

“It would be an exaggeration to suggest that an alliance is sealed already, or that it was even seriously discussed. We are still at the early beginning of what has to be a relatively long political process, that will take time for honest understandings and compromises to be reached,” the Ankara-based diplomat said.

He added, however, that something might come to fruition soon. “We will be talking and we will see what we can do for one another.”

What Riyadh wants of Ankara is clear: help in checking Iranian influence. What Ankara wants of Riyadh is possibly the same.

The two capitals might also share some common views on the need to act more aggressively to eliminate the threat of radical militant groups, although on that front there would be no small disagreement on who qualifies as a radical militant group.

One thing is clear, however. The possible accord between Saudi Arabia and Turkey would come at the expense of the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-Egypt alliance that has for the past two years managed many regional issues.

The Saudi diplomatic line recently shared with Egypt at the highest level, including the recent visit of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to King Salman, practically in parallel with the visit of Al-Sisi’s top regional political adversary, Erdogan, is that Riyadh is in no way considering a breakup with Cairo.

“It is not in our books. We have been partners for over 40 years now,” said one Saudi diplomat.

Changes to the nature of Saudi-Egyptian relations are, however, perceived as “possible and normal”, according to what Saudi diplomats have been sharing with some Riyadh-based Western counterparts.

Egypt, Saudi diplomats say, is so busy with internal challenges and has so many wars around its borders that it would be unrealistic to expect Cairo to take up extra political-military responsibilities.

They also argue that even with a possible agreement with Ankara, Riyadh would not turn its back on Egypt — neither political nor financially. Nonetheless, there are clear signs that the generous Saudi financial support to Egypt that marked the last years of the rule of King Abdullah is coming to an end.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, concerned Egyptian sources say, are still in coordination on a wide range of regional issues, including developments in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Most recently, according to one Egyptian official, Egypt chose to bow to Saudi wishes and suspend back-channel communications it had started with the Houthis in Yemen, in “an attempt to find a political deal there that could have secured Saudi strategic national interests.”

Egypt is also closely coordinating with Saudi Arabia on Cairo-sponsored talks to formulate a diverse and well-matched front of Syrian opposition groups that is not predominantly Islamist. It is also sharing with Saudi Arabia developments in its efforts to promote secular over Islamist figures in Libya.

To underline its ability to be a reliable asset in the changing regional strategic situation, Cairo is proposing the establishment of a collective Arab military force to respond to regional strategic challenges, ranging from terror attacks, threats from IS, to any strategic offensive, including the one the Saudis fear Iran is already planning.

At the Arab League meeting this week, the Egyptian delegation managed to solicit some support for this proposal, especially from Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Arabi, who underlined the need to have a multi-task, easy-to-deploy Arab military force that could attend to terrorist, military and humanitarian concerns.

This proposal is still at an early stage and, according to well-informed Egyptian sources, is still short of full Egyptian support. Egyptian authorities hope that the possible launch of such a collective Arab military force would rekindle the old alliance with Saudi Arabia, especially if this force was to help bring stability to zones of political and security anxiety around Saudi Arabia, including the borders with Iraq and Yemen.

This arrangement, Cairo officials argue, would grant Egypt a front-row seat in the currently reshuffled regional setup.

It could also, Egyptian officials add, help Cairo escape the growing Saudi calls for Egyptian authorities to be more open in accommodating political adversaries, especially from Islamist ranks — the once collective enemy number one of Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Today, Cairo-based foreign diplomats argue that the number one enemy for the Saudis is neither the Islamists, including the Islamic State, nor the Qataris, but rather Iran.

“There are clear concerns in the House of Saud about Iran, and even more concerns about how Iran and the US seem to have found a joint language,” said a Washington-based Arab diplomat.  

According to this mind-set, the Saudis are “even convinced that maybe they could count on the large regional networks of Islamist groups across the region to defy any upcoming Iranian influence,” according to a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

This is a line, the same diplomat added, that does not face any serious GCC resistance, except from the UAE, which will ultimately (and in keeping with tradition) find a middle-ground position with the Saudis.

This is particularly the case with the UAE, despite its determination to keep supporting the Egypt-led anti-Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood campaign. The UAE will not soon forget its issues with Iran, including the occupation of three UAE islands in the heart of the Arab Gulf.

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