The Middle East map is changing, not because of shifting borders, but because of profound transformations that are reordering political interests and priorities.
Perhaps the most important of these transformations has been the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its immanent withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year that might also be accompanied by the withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Syria. This exit from a region where Washington has grown accustomed to stay during the past two decades – since the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 to be precise – upsets the balance of power in the region and perhaps also in the wider world.
The US role in the region is receding after a lengthy involvement in a range of issues from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the threatened proliferation of nuclear weapons, the latest chapter in which involved the Iranian bid to acquire such a weapon that eventually led to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
Although the former Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from this deal in 2018, the Biden administration is currently negotiating to revive it. It is difficult to foresee how these negotiations will progress, but what concerns us most here is the fact that the resumption of this agreement will round out the picture of a US that avoids military confrontations and views international politics from the perspective of diplomacy and economic strength.
A regional response to the US departure has been seen in the trend among countries in the region to calm the tensions between them and to bring about reconciliation. The recent summit meeting in Baghdad was a prime example of this. While the purpose of the meeting was to support Iraq in the face of worrisome challenges, it was also a means to open channels between various other countries. For example, Iraq played a role in opening a path for communication between Saudi Arabia and Iran and for the meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Moreover, it appears that the summit meeting led to the subsequent agreement to promote Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement through the Egyptian reciprocation of a high-level Turkish visit to Cairo, while the renewed channels of communications between the UAE and Turkey have been notched up to summit level.
This drive towards reconciliation originated in the earlier Al-Ula Conference statement released during a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit meeting convened by Riyadh. The statement laid the foundations for the end of the “Qatari crisis” in which Doha, backed by Turkey and Iran, had faced a quartet consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
We will leave the question of how this crisis began to historians. What concerns us here is that it has begun to subside, even if manifestations continue in the form of ongoing freezes in diplomatic relations, the exchange of barrages in the media and friction over the Libyan crisis and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The countries of the region have had little choice but to take matters into their own hands and to deal directly with the non-Arab regional powers of Iran, Turkey and Israel. This trend has proceeded in two directions.
The first, spearheaded by Egypt, began with the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which now includes Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, Greece and Italy and has generated a realm of mutual interests that extends beyond drilling and extraction to a variety of energy related industries including natural gas transport, distribution and liquefaction.
The second is epitomised by the Abraham Agreements that the UAE and Bahrain, followed by Morocco and Sudan, have signed with Israel. The overall effect of this two-pronged trend has been to reshape the environment surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict in a manner that makes it possible to deal with a broad range of regional challenges, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which has entered a new phase since the fourth Gazan War and subsequent related developments.
It should be stressed that the reconciliation drive described here is not solely informed by external sources of tension and potential conflict, but also by internal factors that have lent further impetus to an Arab desire to work with non-Arab regional powers to solve a range of regional problems. These internal factors are to be found in the processes of comprehensive social and economic reform begun in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan.
Beginning in 2015, this reform process has generated a powerful momentum towards growth and progress that in and of itself is a strong incentive to work to cool down regional temperatures and give the reforms fuller scope to achieve further progress and modernisation.
The domestic reform process combined with the drive to calm relations with non-Arab regional powers brings us to the subject of regional security as an avenue towards dealing with difficult regional issues that have been aggravated and further complicated by the detrimental effects of the so-called Arab Spring, by unwise and harmful US interventions, and by the general confrontational environment in Middle Eastern relations.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s speech at the recent Baghdad summit meeting touched on the root of the problems when he urged respect for a number of crucial principles such as recognition of the current international order in the region and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of its nations. Essentially, this was an appeal to obey the very rules that are the subject of the international consensus at the heart of major international charters and conventions, not least of which is the UN Charter itself.
Mention of these rules came as a surprise to many observers, however, as though, after having been so consciously, gratuitously and frequently broken for so long in the Middle East, these rules represented merely a form of idealism. Perhaps this is exactly what led the Egyptian president to lay them out so squarely on the table during the Baghdad meeting.
He knows that it will be impossible to achieve regional security for all concerned unless these principles are put into effect. When they are not observed, the result is civil war, anarchy and major power intervention.
Over two years ago, a regional framework was proposed in this column for ending the conflicts in the region and setting the warring parties on the road to solutions. This framework would simultaneously safeguard the ongoing domestic reform processes from external attacks and promote beneficial cooperative relations among all stakeholders.
The regional situation today appears to be conducive to working with non-Arab regional powers on the basis of the common interests of all parties. Particularly encouraging in this regard is the existence of a core of Arab countries bound by efforts to restore stability in the Arab region, as we have seen in Iraq, and to work effectively to combat the terrorism that threatens us all.
Such efforts will help to bolster the processes of domestic reform in these countries and create wider markets, whether in the Eastern Mediterranean or in the northern Red Sea region. Indeed, an approach to transforming the region without the US presence might in fact be more effective.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly