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The President's Take

Slivers of Hope in the Middle East

Where’s a peacemaker to look for good news these days?

Anyone hoping that U.S. President Donald Trump’s departure and COVID-19 vaccines would bring respite from tempestuous global affairs might look back despondent at the year so far.

First came the coup and brutal crackdown in Myanmar. Ethiopia’s cruel war in its northern Tigray region grinds on. What could be Afghanistan’s worst fighting in years looms, with Taliban gains and the U.S. troop withdrawal inspiring dread among many Afghans. There was the latest Israel-Palestine flare-up: thousands of Hamas rockets, shocking scenes of ruin in Gaza, hundreds of people – overwhelmingly Palestinians – dead, among them scores of children, and ethnic strife in Israeli cities. Colombia’s deadly protests are troubling in themselves and as a harbinger of what could come elsewhere if vaccines don’t roll out soon; the unrest is not primarily about the coronavirus, but the pandemic played into anger that took people to the streets.

Nor do big power politics look much less gloomy. New U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has meant a welcome shift in tone and sense of normalcy to U.S. foreign relations and the UN Security Council. Diplomats in New York agree that their U.S. counterparts are far more constructive than in the Trump era. But, so far at least, Biden has brought more continuity than change to fraught U.S. relations with China and Russia. Animosity among the world’s most powerful countries risks crowding out multilateral efforts to manage crises. 

Animosity among the world’s most powerful countries risks crowding out multilateral efforts to manage crises.

Yet bright spots exist in what are, perhaps, unexpected places. A flurry of recent diplomacy suggests efforts underway to mend the rivalries that have fuelled Arab wars over the past decade.

The first of these rivalries pits Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey. The dispute has largely centred on Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian anger at Qatari and Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the region since the 2011 uprisings. It has polarised Arab politics, cast a long shadow over North Africa, for years split the Syrian opposition and now plays out in the Horn of Africa, notably exacerbating rifts among Somali factions. In 2017, it boiled over. Several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with and blockaded Qatar, demanding that it break with the Muslim Brotherhood, close a Turkish military base and shut down its Al Jazeera news network, among other things.

The second enmity – Iran versus Saudi Arabia, the latter backed (especially during the Trump years) by Washington – is bitterer still. It’s hardly a new struggle. Tehran and Riyadh have competed across the Muslim world for decades. But the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Arab revolutions gave it fresh fire and opened up new battlegrounds (Crisis Group tracks flashpoints in our trigger list).

Today, signs of rapprochement are stirring on several fronts.

First came a softening of the GCC crisis in January (an episode of our Hold Your Fire! podcast covers it in detail). Riyadh appears to have decided, notwithstanding Emirati foot dragging, that enough was enough. Such a sharp rift no longer served its interests, particularly as Qatar showed no sign of bowing to the bloc’s demands (it still hasn’t). In its twilight months, the Trump administration, having partly triggered the rift through clumsy signals of support to Riyadh, had nudged the Saudis to patch things up. The pandemic and its economic toll, alongside falling oil prices, may also have been on Saudi minds.

Next were overtures between Turkish and Egyptian officials.

If Libyan factions can agree on a track to elections, they could turn the page on years of division.

These were partly prompted by a peace deal in Libya, venue for some of the fiercest quarrels between Ankara and Cairo. Turkey’s military deployment last year to prop up the Libyan government turned the tide of the war, ousting forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar from positions around the capital Tripoli. That made clear to Cairo, which together with the UAE had backed Haftar, that their man couldn’t prevail militarily. Critically, Turkey chose – partly thanks to U.S. diplomacy (by the then Trump administration) – not to press its advantage. Egypt had vowed to step in militarily if Turkish-backed forces advanced too fast east. From the stalemate came a unity government (see our latest Libya report). If Libyan factions can agree on a track to elections, they could turn the page on years of division.

Ankara’s isolation in the East Mediterranean – detailed in our report this week – may have played a role, too. Egypt, Israel, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, backed by other European Union countries, have struck deals over gas exploration, cutting out Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have felt he was taking on too many foes at once, prompting Ankara’s outreach to Cairo.

Egypt, so far, has been cooler, at least in public. Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s loathing of the Muslim Brotherhood at home has long shaped his action abroad, although recent moves in Libya and Gaza – Cairo brokered the latest ceasefire between the Islamist Hamas and Israel – may hint at greater pragmatism. Cairo has reportedly made demands Ankara baulks at, including deporting Egyptian dissidents from Turkey. Bad blood between Erdoğan and Sisi themselves will also be hard to move past.

Still, Ankara’s tamping down, since the talks, of anti-Sisi rhetoric from Egyptian opposition media in Turkey is a sign of what might be to come. Expect more outreach.

Ankara’s relations with Riyadh are also thawing. Erdoğan spoke with Saudi King Salman, and Turkey’s foreign minister met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier this month. Turkish officials describe dialogue as a step toward mending relations that have been tense since the October 2018 murder, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; U.S. intelligence assessed that the crown prince was implicated (Riyadh denies the charge). Prospects for Ankara might be better with Saudi Arabia than with Egypt. Riyadh has never seen the Muslim Brotherhood as quite the threat the Emiratis and Egyptians perceive it to be, nor fretted as much about Turkey and Qatar backing the movement. Trade between the two countries is another incentive to set aside friction.

Even Qatar and the UAE are talking. Reports surfaced just this week of meetings between the two, which, given the outsized role Abu Dhabi played in the GCC boycott of Qatar, point to what could be a remarkable turnaround. The Qatari foreign minister described a “positive vision” to overcome differences, though it’s probably fair to say there is some way to go.

Last, and perhaps most striking, Saudi diplomats have met their Iranian counterparts. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seems to have hosted the two country’s representatives “more than once” over recent weeks for discussions about, among other things, Yemen. Baghdad’s facilitation makes sense. Iraq stands to lose from any further escalation between the two regional heavyweights. More meetings are reportedly in the works.

What’s motivating all this diplomacy?

Part of it is Biden.

It’s not just Washington’s professed focus on Asia and implicit message that Gulf Arab allies fend more for themselves. After all, similar signals by Obama prompted not a rethink toward accommodation but an escalation of violence, as Middle East powers meddled with a heavier hand in conflicts across the region. Perceptions that the U.S. is paying less attention can spark war-making just as easily as peacemaking.

Perceptions that the U.S. is paying less attention can spark war-making just as easily as peacemaking.

It’s more the nature of U.S. involvement. That Riyadh and, to some degree, Abu Dhabi won’t get the same level of deference from Biden they often seemed to enjoy from his predecessor is clear. Washington, at the same time, is eyeing a return to the Iran nuclear deal and less hostile relations with Tehran.

That change in tack comes alongside other shifts in the region. Broadly speaking, fatigue is setting in, alongside grudging recognition of the limits of zero-sum competition. The Saudis in particular feel overextended and desperate to find a face-saving way out of their Yemen quagmire. The war against the rebel Huthis is not only unwinnable. It generates, together with the Khashoggi killing, fury toward the kingdom in Washington, which has suffered reputationally for backing Riyadh in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia and its allies also now look back on Trump’s “maximum pressure” against Iran as having backfired. At the time, they cheered him on. The result, however, has been that Iran enjoys, if anything, more influence in the region. If the U.S. and Iran get back to the nuclear deal, Riyadh fears the extra revenue that Tehran would accrue will further beef up that clout. If, conversely, nuclear talks collapse, Riyadh still expects blowback, this time out of Iranian anger. Diplomacy with Tehran appears partly aimed at blunting the storm. Reaching out to Turkey hedges against Iran. For its part, Ankara, traditionally friendlier than Riyadh toward Tehran, is also nervous about Iran throwing more of its weight around. That Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups have been cooperating with Ankara’s sworn enemies – Turkish PKK insurgents – in north-western Iraq hasn’t helped.

It’s still early days, of course, and much is likely to go wrong. Yemen’s war is going from bad to worse, despite the Iranian-Saudi meetings. Even were Tehran to play ball, it’s far from clear it could restrain the Huthis, who have the upper hand militarily on the ground. The Saudis may be talking to Iran, but they’re far from accepting Tehran’s ties to state and non-state actors across the Arab world that Iran views as integral to its forward defence strategy. Within the GCC, Emirati relations with Qatar remain strained. As for Ankara, it might be in the mood for talks today, but, unlike Riyadh, it sees its recent military adventures abroad – in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh – as successes. That’s hardly a recipe for compromise. The diplomatic stirrings could, in other words, end up being more a breather than the start of an end to regional turmoil.

Still, even slender hope qualifies as good news, given the destruction those rivalries have wrought over the past decade. While regional powers will have to lead further efforts at reconciliation, outside actors can help. For years, European diplomats, for example, have pondered how to structure some form of regional dialogue in the Gulf (we put forward some ideas last year). Those efforts were largely shelved during the Trump administration. Now might be a good time to dust them off.