Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Allegiances remapped

New alliances in the Middle East are reshaping the region, writes Dina Ezzat

Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia
Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia

Capitals in the Middle East, Arab and non-Arab, have been playing host to a series of unannounced meetings and more are planned, say informed officials and diplomats. The goal? To solidify a nascent pact that will promote stability and political coordination among its participating states.

Moderation and modernisation, sources say, are the two poles around which discussions revolve.

“We are talking about a vision that will allow the region to move beyond all causes for anger, wars, instability, protests, radicalisation and terror,” says an informed Egyptian official. “We are talking about the beginning of a new chapter for a part of the world that has been denied its share of development, stability and modernity for too long.”

Participants in the discussions are seeking to close all doors in the face of terror, add officials close to the talks.

“There are already moves that countries in the region have been taking jointly at the intelligence level to block the terror threat and it seems that in the near future — maybe even before the end of the year — agreements among some leading Arab states will be announced,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

He adds that the ambition of the most concerned countries — Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia — is to work with all regional parties to close down terror cells and radical opposition groups that seek to destabilise ruling regimes.

According to the diplomat, neither Israel nor Turkey will be excluded from this cooperative endeavour.

“The Egyptians, for example, do not talk very much with their Turkish counterparts but the Saudis do. On the other hand, the Egyptians talk a great deal more with the Israelis than do either the Emirates or Saudi Arabia. At the end of the day engagement is widening,” he said.

The ongoing coordination is supported by US President Donald Trump and his Middle East Envoy Jared Kushner.

According to Egyptian and foreign sources, the Trump administration wants one thing from regional capitals: that they act in unison to halt terror and neutralise any Iranian threat.

The same sources say that with this goal in mind Washington is supporting the growing political role of Mohamed bin Zayed in the UAE, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s consolidation of power in Saudi Arabia and Cairo’s coordination with Jordan, Israel and Palestinian political forces.

Part of the process, again supported by Washington, is that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have decided to shelve their disagreement with Qatar and allow time for US-backed Kuwaiti mediation to reach a deal with Doha.

On Monday, UAE Minister of State Anwar Korkash said that the conflict that started with Qatar four months ago is no longer a priority for the four states.

Meanwhile, the UAE and Egypt are engaged in three separate mediations which if successful will lead to a significant reduction in regional tensions.

The first — and according to many sources the most difficult situation to fix — concerns Yemen. In ongoing talks between Cairo and Abu Dhabi on one hand, and ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh on the other, the two Arab capitals are trying to convince the former dictator to switch allegiance from the Iranian-supported Houthis to Muslim Sunni groups that have the full support of Riyadh.

In return for changing his alliance Saleh will insist on a large role in post-conflict Yemen, something the former ruler says Riyadh denied him and his associates after they were forced from power by the Arab Spring.

Libya is the second hotspot Egypt and the UAE are working to cool. Cairo and Abu Dhabi have been using back channels to bring together a military coalition that, if it is not fully inclusive is nonetheless sufficiently representative. The coalition envisaged will come under Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan military leader supported by both Egypt and the UAE.

According to statements to the press made by Libyan politician Fatehi Al-Meguerri, the military coalition will top the agenda of this week’s talks in Tunis. Informed Egyptian sources say if a tentative agreement is reached in the talks it will be included in the new political deal UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salama is working on.

The third deal Egypt and the UAE are seeking to broker is a pre-final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The first step towards this has already been taken with the conclusion of a reconciliation agreement between Palestinian factions.

On Monday Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah made his first visit to Gaza since taking office two years ago.

In Gaza, which has been under the de facto rule of Hamas for a decade, Al-Hamdallah met with the leaders of Hamas and Egyptian intelligence mediators to discuss how best to implement the reconciliation deal between Hamas and the PA, the latter controlled by Hamas’ arch political rival Fatah.

If everything runs smoothly it will lead to new security and legal arrangements between the Palestinians and Egypt, reducing the pressure of the blockade on Gaza. That would in turn allow for a joint Egyptian-Israeli-Jordanian initiative designed to strengthen the much-weakened PA in areas already under its control as well as territories it might gain.  

In press statements made on Monday Al-Hamdallah expressed optimism about the chances of positive political developments that could “serve the interests of the Palestinian people”.

On a parallel track Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also working on consolidating their efforts to counter radical Islamist thinking.

Arab diplomatic sources in Washington say the US capital reacted positively to recent Saudi measures to reduce gender discrimination. The view in Washington, they say, is that these measures go beyond granting the crown prince a wider base of support in his fast-tracked march to rule.

“Clearly this is meant to be seen as more than a sign of the liberation of Saudi women. It also signals liberation from the Salafist thinking the Americans believe is at the root of all radical movements in the Middle East,” said one.

A source at Al-Azhar says there is also a growing determination to reduce the influence of “old school thinking” in the influential Islamic university in favour of “more modern and more open-minded schools”.

The UAE is lending a great deal of support to this movement through the Abu Dhabi-based Council of Muslim Elders, headed by the grand imam of Al-Azhar, and with the declared aim of promoting moderate thinking.

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