The Middle East's move towards diplomacy
Since 2020, states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have become far more diplomatic in their dealings with each other.
In this current era, governments are pursuing much more transactional relationships in pursuit of stability and economic, trade, and investment opportunities while attempting to manage ideational tensions.
Today the region looks very different compared to the period following the 2010/11 Arab Spring uprisings in which competing ideologies and states’ commitments to standing up for certain causes fuelled high levels of tension.
There are at least three major factors which have driven this trend.
First, the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was extremely negative in the MENA region. Governments were quickly looking for ways to make their foreign policies less costly.
"Since 2020, states in the Middle East and North Africa have become far more diplomatic in their dealings with each other"
Winding down confrontations and endless proxy wars while pursuing more economically lucrative relationships was an easy way to start.
Second, there is the role of US leadership. During the Trump years, the White House approached the region in ways that encouraged maximalist behaviour from certain states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The blockade of Qatar in mid-2017 was a case in point. Yet, with Joe Biden being elected in 2020, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and other capitals expected his administration to be less willing to unconditionally support the more hawkish aspects of their foreign policies.
This changed incentives for acting aggressively. Indeed, there is a good reason to question whether the blockade of Qatar would have ended in January 2021 had Trump secured a second term two months earlier, or whether it would have even started had Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the 2016 election.
Third, MENA states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE seemed to have realised that there were limits to what their confrontational foreign policies could achieve for their national interests.
In Ankara’s case, it was clear that strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood cost Turkey in many ways, particularly with respect to the country’s relationships with the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members which viewed Turkey’s Islamist-friendly foreign policy as threatening.
Likewise, attacks against Saudi and Emirati tankers and energy facilities in 2019 demonstrated how Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s hardline stances against Tehran - and lobbying of the Trump administration to impose ‘maximum pressure’ on the Islamic Republic - did not end up protecting them from the perceived Iranian threat.
“The region is moving into a de-escalation pattern for some of its conflicts in large part because none of the regional powers see a viable path forward with escalation,” Ryan Bohl, a MENA analyst at the risk intelligence company Rane, told The New Arab.
It is remarkable how quickly rapprochements have taken place in the region over the past three years. Indeed, relationships in the region, particularly the rivalries, looked significantly different only a few years ago.
Turkey and Qatar, which established themselves as the main defenders of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist causes, have mended fences with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt since 2021.
Amid a period of serious economic challenges in Turkey, as well as the financial and humanitarian problems resulting from the 6 February earthquakes, the country can benefit from improved relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Both Gulf states have actively helped the Turks cope with the aftermath of last month’s catastrophic natural disasters. Their investments in the Turkish economy are also important.
"Relationships in the region, particularly the rivalries, looked significantly different only a few years ago"
Furthermore, expanding economic linkages between Turkey and these Gulf states can lead to greater Turkish investment in the Saudi and Emirati economies across various non-hydrocarbon sectors from hospitality to entertainment and tourism.
Given the size of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s economies, deeper ties between them can facilitate much growth in this upcoming period.
Despite weathering the 2017-21 blockade, Qatar now aims to have a friends-of-all foreign policy in the region. Officials in Doha believe it best serves their country’s long-term interests to be on positive terms with its immediate neighbours on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt.
Last year, at the time of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s watershed visit to Doha, Dr Robert Mogielnicki, a senior researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, summed up an important change in Qatar’s foreign policy.
“For Doha, being perceived as a responsible supplier of LNG is in, and serving as a platform for political Islam is probably less relevant today,” he said.
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also decreased their tensions with Iran since these two GCC states began engaging Tehran in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
Abu Dhabi returning its ambassador to the Islamic Republic last year and the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal announced earlier this month were significant developments with major ramifications for the Gulf.
At the same time, many of the states which were previously calling for Bashar al-Assad’s ouster after the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011 have by now reconciled with Damascus and are pushing for Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Saudi Arabia’s reported intentions to restore official diplomatic relations with Syria after the holy month of Ramadan mark a major turning point in the Assad government’s return to the Arab region’s diplomatic fold.
The Syrian president visiting Riyadh later this year, following his recent visits to the Sultanate of Oman and the UAE, would be extremely significant from a symbolic standpoint.
To be sure, these ideological tensions between states have not disappeared.
For example, Iran’s support for certain resistance groups in the region, such as Hezbollah, will remain a point of friction in Tehran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE.
"This new era of diplomacy is best characterized as de-escalation and détente, but not necessarily a resolution of the deep ideological and strategic divergences between these countries"
Nonetheless, governments in the region have concluded that it serves their national interests to find ways to de-escalate, manage, and control these tensions instead of letting the friction intensify.
As Bohl told TNA, this new era of diplomacy is “best characterized as de-escalation and détente, but not necessarily a resolution of the deep ideological and strategic divergences between these countries”.
He also observed that while state-to-state relations are warming, many internal conflicts plaguing countries such as Yemen remain unresolved and will not necessarily be peacefully solved any time soon.
Implications for global powers
How these rapprochements in the region play out in upcoming years is difficult to predict. Whether the region is beginning a long era of warm relations between local actors or experiencing a brief freezing of hostilities that will soon start up again is unclear. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the implications for the West, Russia, and China.
To state the obvious, these thawing relationships offer much to external powers with vested interests in the region.
If policymakers in this part of the world remain focused on diplomacy, and there is less confrontation between states in the region, Western countries could take advantage of chances to deepen cooperation in the face of global challenges that should bring all of humanity together.
“The more secure the region is, it offers more opportunities for more collaborative soft power initiatives such as developing climate change policies and educational and cultural projects,” Dr Diana Galeeva, a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, told TNA.
"Governments in the region have concluded that it serves their national interests to find ways to de-escalate, manage, and control these tensions instead of letting the friction intensify"
“Recently, launched platforms, such as a Strategic Partnership Council between Saudi Arabia and the UK, and a Strategic Dialogue between the UK and Qatar are useful in this regard, in addition to develop ‘hard’ partnership in defence, energy, trade, investment.”
By the same token, there are policymakers in Washington who tend to see the region in zero-sum terms, meaning that any of Beijing or Moscow’s soft-power gains will come at the US’s expense.
The extent to which many officials in Washington reacted negatively to this month’s Saudi-Iranian diplomatic agreement because of Beijing’s role in it speaks to this point.
Despite many in the US perceiving China’s growing diplomatic influence in the region as a threat to the West’s interests, it shouldn’t be lost on Washington officials that greater stability in MENA countries and warmer relations between them can bode well for the interests of the entire world, including the US.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero