The current changes in the Middle East are titanic in scale, and the regional powers are repositioning themselves to take advantage of the transition. They are using the margin of freedom created by the transition from a unipolar world order led by the US to a new world order based on the balance between competing centres and military, economic, and technological blocs in order to do so.
Saudi Arabia is abandoning its centuries-old Wahhabism and adopting a more modern interpretation of Islam. This gives more freedom to women and is more tolerant of different forms of religious and cultural, but not political, beliefs and values.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) is negotiating the terms of a long-awaited peace accord between Riyadh and Tel Aviv with the Biden administration in the US and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Meanwhile, a carefully managed Saudi-American public relations campaign is portraying MBS as fighting pressure from Biden to lower oil prices and keep China out of the Middle East while at the same time seeking to acquire advanced weapons systems and an independent peaceful nuclear programme.
This campaign is meant to serve both leaders domestically in their uphill struggle to stay in power.
A careful examination of the facts also shows a much more harmonious relationship between Bin Salman and the ageing US president, since Biden needs lower energy prices, a quieter Middle East, and an Israeli-Saudi peace deal to help him win the 2024 presidential elections in the US and see off a Republican Party challenger.
Despite many (public) Saudi calls for OPEC, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, to cut production, oil prices still went down, as if by magic, from $120 a barrel when Biden visited Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to meet Bin Salman a year ago to reach and stay in the mid-$70s. Biden had earlier promised during his 2020 elections campaign to turn him into a “pariah.”
US officials have welcomed the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian normalisation agreement as this will help to end the Yemen War and facilitate a new agreement with a much-weakened Iran before the US elections. This new agreement also promises less than the arrangements made under the earlier Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) arrangement with Iran in 2015.
US leaders recognise that China has become the main trading partner of most Middle Eastern countries. They acquiesced to the sale of Chinese Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to deter former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Iran. The Chinese have now started to build a manufacturing facility for such Missiles on Saudi soil. The Biden administration will look the other way and will require Israel to follow suit in return for peace with the Saudis.
The US will continue to be the main guarantor of the security of the Gulf countries. However, it will not mind if the Chinese can also help to defuse the Iranian threat.
In return, Bin Salman is only requiring US support for the smooth transition of the Saudi throne from his ailing father King Salman to him when the time comes. He has been able to neutralise most of his competitors in the Saudi Royal Family and weaken its role in determining the succession. Economic rewards and punishments are gradually replacing seniority and lineage as the basis for selecting the next king.
I also assume that Bin Salman is negotiating a fig-leaf formula with the Americans on the Palestinians that could be acceptable to Netanyahu. Bin Salman can only conclude a peace agreement with Israel when he becomes king. He will also need a new version of the earlier Saudi-Arab Peace Initiative, since this has not been accepted by any Israeli government. I believe that serious negotiations are underway under conditions of tight secrecy to produce such a formula.
All the coordinated US and Saudi leaks about security guarantees, advanced weapons systems, and a peaceful nuclear programme for Bin Salman are, in my opinion, mere camouflage for the real trade-off between his smooth ascension to the throne and his country’s peace with Israel.
AFTER THE BROTHERHOOD: Ten years ago, the Egyptian, Saudi, and Emirati rejection of Political Islam prevailed over the US preference to accept the control of the Muslim Brotherhood as an outcome of the elections in the Arab Spring countries.
After a prolonged period of resentment, the main regional backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, also recognised and complied with this rejection.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a U-turn and changed his hostile policies towards Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The latter two countries lavishly rewarded him, allowing him to win this year’s presidential elections in Turkey and thus to remain in power for another five years. Erdogan now also has a vested interest in accommodating Western investors and going back to market-economy rules and stop blocking Sweden’s membership of NATO.
Naturally, the regional picture is not as rosy as we might wish. The Middle East is still full of sources of conflict that could erupt into a national tragedy, regional strife, or international confrontation. The situations in Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Lebanon are all obvious examples and are potential causes of pessimism. The continued policy of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the oppression of the Palestinians, and the lack of any glimpse of hope for a political solution on the basis of the two-state solution could also trigger another uncontrollable explosion in the region.
Israel could wait until there is a Republican president in the White House, preferably a second term for former president Donald Trump, to hit Iran militarily. Iran would then retaliate by targeting US forces in the region. More than 40,000 Americans in military uniform are still deployed in the region in bases and on ships that are within reach of Iranian weapons. Such a scenario could easily lead to the use of US nuclear weapons for the second time in history.
The Middle East, therefore, still deserves its unfortunate reputation as the most-troubled region in the world today. Egypt, as the most populous country in the region and the country that it is at the centre of it because of geostrategic location, has a prominent role to play in the emerging regional and global setting.
However, this prominence is not an entitlement or a God-given gift. It requires Egypt to overcome the serious domestic economic and political problems that are limiting its ability to project its power, hard and soft, beyond its borders. Economic and political reform is necessary to achieve this goal. If a serious process of reform starts today, this will create domestic, regional, and international confidence and generate much-needed support on all three levels.
Over the last ten years, Egypt has avoided many tough choices by adopting a passive attitude towards many regional conflicts. Its declining to send troops to fight in Yemen, staying away from helping the warring parties in Syria, and stopping short of a direct military intervention to help its favoured sides in the conflicts in neighbouring Libya and Sudan have all been examples of this policy, which could be called a “passive lack-of-action policy.”
This has saved human lives and national resources and maintained the non-intervention principle adopted by Egypt towards the other Arab countries for more than four decades.
This policy was proven right when the international and regional powers fighting via their proxies in Syria and Yemen decided to stop these wars and try to find political solutions for the conflicts in both countries. However, it did not enable Egypt to play an influential role in efforts to settle these conflicts or to protect Egyptian interests in these countries, not to mention the trade-off of these interests with other vital Egyptian interests such as resolving the problems over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Egypt should not limit its involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to only mediating ceasefire arrangements between Israel and the Islamic militias in Gaza or only negotiating some limited economic relief for the suffocated Palestinian population. If it is allowed to continue its present policy, Israel will succeed in swallowing most of the West Bank and will also shove Gaza down Egypt’s throat. Egypt’s continued advocacy of the two-state solution, while Israel slaughters it, will also have the practical effect of leading to the above-mentioned disastrous result that has been opposed by Egypt for decades.
Egypt should speak to its Israeli interlocuters in the government and opposition and to the relevant international parties about the dangers of a one-state solution in Palestine that will turn Israel into an apartheid country, discredit Palestinian peace advocates, and further delegitimise the Palestinian Authority.
The Egyptian Armed Forces should be more willing to participate in regional collective defence arrangements in the Gulf and in peace-keeping missions that might be needed for post-peace confidence-building measures in Libya, Sudan, and Syria. An essential part of the Egyptian-Turkish or Iranian reconciliation should focus on reaching agreements that will protect Egyptian regional interests and support a more active Egyptian participation in settling existing regional conflicts and preventing the eruption of others.
Egypt should end its ten-year period of “strategic latency” and go back to its long tradition of regional and international activism. The changes in the international order and the transitions in the Middle East are all making such an Egyptian comeback more welcome and needed than ever.
* The writer is a retired ambassador and international relations scholar.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly