The region is going through a moment of shifting dynamics as a result of the changing priorities of some leading Arab Gulf countries. These shifting dynamics, Egyptian officials agree, are bound to have an impact on the region and in a way on some of Egypt’s traditional foreign policy parameters.
“The desire in some Arab Gulf capitals to reshape regional dynamics is dragging the Arab world towards a new reality for which it is ill-prepared,” said one Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld.
According to the official, the purely transactional calculations that now hold sway in the Gulf, where economic heft is being used to expand political influence, could all too easily backfire. He cites, as an example, attempts to exclude the Palestinian cause from the process of normalisation with Israel, a strategy likely to “boost the popularity of extremist Islamist groups that we have spent the last seven years sidelining”.
The official was speaking in advance of an Arab Gulf tour by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman that is scheduled to cover all Arab Gulf Council members ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Saudi Arabia slated for later this month.
One key stop is Doha, where Bin Salman will arrive in the wake of a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Significantly, Erdogan has already met with the UAE’s influential Vice President Mohamed bin Zayed who used his recent trip to Ankara to announce a $10 billion investment fund to aid Turkey’s ailing economy.
The steady Gulf rapprochement with Turkey — indeed, the rapprochement within the Gulf itself which saw Qatar return from the cold — has happened, said an informed Egyptian government source, earlier than originally planned and short of securing sufficient commitment from Qatar on observing the concerns of the four Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain) that had in 2017 imposed a boycott on Doha to contest Doha’s attempt to influence internal affairs in the four countries.
On a parallel track, and despite the shaky path of negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme, Gulf states are also opening up to Tehran.
According to Cairo-based European diplomats, Arab Gulf countries have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day Iran will have to strike a deal, a fact that US Envoy Robert Malley’s failure to secure concessions in Tehran’s position does not change. The same diplomats also note that Erdogan has been busily pragmatic in making overtures to the Gulf, desperate for support from its oil-rich states to help dig Turkey out of its economic crisis, and that Arab Gulf states, faced with a new regional reality ushered in by the Middle East diplomacy of the Biden administration, have clearly decided it is time to move on and smooth troubled relations.
Egypt, they add, has been too sluggish in turning over a new leaf with both Ankara and Doha, and remains apprehensive towards Iran, partly to accommodate Saudi Arabia, but also because it has its own security concerns.
“It is not that Egypt has closed all doors in the face of Tehran. In fact, a few delegates have visited Cairo recently. But we have foreign policy and security parameters that we observe,” said an informed government source.
The same source added that while it is true that relations with Ankara and Doha have been slow to improve, this is because Cairo wants to reset them on new foundations to which Turkey and Qatar remain loath to commit.
In the meantime, say the Cairo-based European diplomats, Arab Gulf states have decided it is high time they ran the regional show, and while, practically, they cannot do this without making some accommodations to Egypt, this does not mean they have to synchronise their foreign policy interests. And the reality, they add, is that many key problems in the region cannot be resolved without the intervention of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
These diplomats cite the role of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in convincing Sudan’s military leaders last month to come to an agreement with civilian politicians in an attempt to defuse the crisis sparked by the army’s decision to seize control of the country in October.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron was in Riyadh this week, where he persuaded Bin Salman to join him in a call with Lebanese Prime Minister Naguib Mikati. At a time when Lebanon is facing an apocalyptic economic crisis, the call holds out the promise not just of a resumption of trade between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, but an end to the three-year suspension of Saudi aid to Beirut.
Macron raised the issue of Lebanon’s economic problems on other legs of his Gulf tour which started earlier this week in the UAE. Informed diplomatic sources say that during his first stop Macron brought up elections in Libya, scheduled for 24 December but which look increasingly as if they will be delayed. The French president also used his trip to discuss the situation in Syria, arguing that Bashar Al-Assad needs to be pressured into ending his government’s gross violations of human rights before Syria can be readmitted to the Arab regime, something for which the UAE is pushing.
In Abu Dhabi, Macron signed a mega arms deal that Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gurgash qualified as a “Christmas gift” from the UAE to the president of France.
In Cairo, Egyptian officials recognise the growing influence of Arab Gulf states in international capitals but say that there is, as yet, no indication how far Gulf rapprochement will go, or how old rivalries within the GCC between Riyadh and Doha, and new regional rivalries between Abu Dhabi and Doha and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, will play out. Egyptian officials are also cautious in their assessment of the chances of a rapprochement between Riyadh and Ankara, and say that, as far as Abu Dhabi and Iran are concerned, there is nothing new about channels of communication.
Yes, say officials in Cairo, new political realties are taking shape on the ground, and they might not be heading in directions Egypt favours, but this by no means heralds a falling out between Cairo and its Gulf allies, or Egypt’s exclusion from regional affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.