The geopolitical alignments of the Gulf region are rapidly transforming both in bilateral and multilateral formats. Starting with the rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in January, the common thread here is that the shift in the regional strategy under US President Joe Biden has been critical one way or another.
The ‘thaw’ discernible in Saudi-Turkish relations lately and the dramatic meeting 10 days ago in Baghdad between the top security officials of Saudi Arabia and Iran can be seen as ‘derivatives’ of the shift in the US’ policies.
Anwar Gargash, advisor to Emirati President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, said last week that ‘the changing face of the Middle East’ is to be attributed to the Abraham Accords of last August, which he described as ‘an alternative strategic view’ aimed at bolstering regional security. But the tall claims are not without an element of truth either.
Indeed, the historic transformation of relations between Israel and the UAE has provided an anchor sheet for the new unprecedented regional grouping that has appeared on the horizon comprising four countries of the wider Eastern Mediterranean, West Asia and the Persian Gulf — Greece, Cyrus, Israel and the UAE.
However, fundamentally, it is the shift in the locus of the US’ traditional regional Gulf security strategy away from the past pattern — dividing the region into rival camps to fuel any antipathy toward Iran and take advantage of it for advancing American interests — that is already having a calming effect on the region.
Certainly, each of the recent trends in Gulf alignments also would have specific features. Thus, the ‘normalisation’ between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was mostly due to Riyadh’s concerns about the incoming Biden administration’s foreign policy. Riyadh wants some goodwill with Biden in the context of the severe damage to the image of Saudi Arabia — and specifically its Crown Prince — in the eyes of many Democratic lawmakers in Washington.
The improved relations between Riyadh and Doha may not necessarily lead to dense bilateral cooperation or breathe new life into the moribund Gulf Cooperation Council, but it leads to more diplomacy, and, therefore, fewer threats and acts of violence. Interestingly, Ankara had played a critical role in terms of giving Doha the confidence to stand strong in the face of the Saudi blockade, but the very prospect of Saudi-Qatari relations moving in a positive direction, also raises hope for Ankara that it can build a stronger relationship with Riyadh without undermining the Turkish-Qatari alliance.
Again, Qatar’s ability to bust the Saudi-led embargo indirectly boosted Turkey’s regional standing as an increasingly influential power. The Turkish-Qatari military base and the presence of Turkish military personnel in the sieged Gulf Arab country no doubt contributed to Qatar’s deterrence.
Most western pundits made a hasty conclusion that Iran would be the ‘loser’ out of the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation. But they underestimated the pragmatism of Gulf Arab states. For, although Tehran was a major beneficiary of the Gulf dispute when it erupted three-and-a-half years ago and the crisis offered Iran an opportunity to bring its partnership with Qatar to new heights, the warmth in the Iran-Qatar relationship has now become an enduring feature of the Gulf diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the signs are that the talks in Vienna to work out the return of the US to the JCPOA and the lifting of Iran sanctions are progressing well. This will prompt a further rethink in Riyadh, which may partly explain the meeting ten days ago in Baghdad between Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan, the Saudi chief of General Intelligence Directorate and Gen. Ismail Qaani, the head of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Alas, this meeting could have been held much earlier but for Washington undermining it with the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January last year. Suffice to say, the Saudi rethink on Iran is independent of the US strategies toward Iran. Now, that gives reason for hope.
Of course, an easing of Saudi-Iranian tensions may not overnight blossom into amity as acute contradictions bedevil that relationship. Nonetheless, a suspension of mutual hostility alone is bound to improve the Gulf security situation.
Indeed, the trajectory of the US-Iranian engagement through the coming one-year period is going to be decisive. For, if the US sanctions get lifted and Iran’s integration into the international community accelerates, the West Asian landscape will phenomenally change. Notwithstanding the locus of power in Iran after the coming presidential election, there should be no doubt that Iran’s willingness to be a factor of regional stability is genuine.
For a start, Iran never had any intentions to make the bomb. Second, its priority does not lie in the projection of power in its neighbourhood but in the reconstruction of Iran’s economy which has been ravaged by decades of western sanctions and isolation. As a responsive regime, the domestic public expectation is to be taken seriously. Third, Biden Administration has resuscitated the Palestine file.
With all this, the scope for expanding the gyre of the Abraham Accords in the Gulf region in an anti-Iran direction has shrunk. That partly explains the ‘Look West’ policy by Israel and the UAE to team up with Greece and Cyprus to form a new regional security grouping.
The foreign minister level meeting of the four countries on Friday in Paphos, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, can be seen in this light. The host, Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides grandiloquently described the event as signifying a new era for the region, driven by the common vision “of the wider Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and Gulf as an area of stability, prosperity and peace.”
He claimed that this new era will help dispel “the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighbourhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis” and unfold a “radically different” one with a positive and inclusive agenda that will promote “cooperation, peace, stability and prosperity”.
Quintessentially, however, the four participants hope to acquire strategic depth in the pursuit of their shared antagonism toward Turkey by pooling their resources and strengthening all-round mutual cooperation. (See the Israeli perspective in Jerusalem Post titled Israel, UAE, Cyprus summit sends message to Turkey.)
On Sunday, Israel and Greece announced their biggest ever defence procurement deal that includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training centre for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems over a 22-year period.
The Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz has said, “I am certain that (this programme) will upgrade the capabilities and strengthen the economies of Israel and Greece and thus the partnership between our two countries will deepen on the defence, economic and political levels.” Meanwhile, the UAE and Greece too have a significant defence cooperation programme. Greece plans to plans acquire 40 fighter aircraft inclusive of French Rafales and US-made stealth fighter F-35 jets. The Biden Administration has reportedly cleared the sale of 50 F-35 jets to the UAE.
Clearly, Greek, Israeli and Emirati interests are converging on containment of Turkey’s vaulting ambitions of regional dominance, with which Cyprus also is in agreement. Importantly, it also enjoys US backing. But, significantly, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have kept out of the 4-nation grouping and are instead prioritising the stabilisation of their relationship with Turkey.
Israel anticipates that the momentum toward the US-Iranian engagement is becoming unstoppable and any new Gulf security paradigm would inevitably visualise Iran’s inclusion. Israel needs to think hard and fast as the Iran bogey has outlived its utility. Clearly, Iran’s anti-Zionist policies never really added up to ‘anti-Semitism’, either. There must be a way forward to put aside the sword and take up the ploughshare to turn the loosened soil.