Indicators of geopolitical shifts in the Middle East

The impact of Turkish and Iranian rapprochement will cause the Gulf States to face pressure from Iran and complicate the situation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. These pressures and complexities may have been exacerbated by President Obama’s recent moves. Taken together, the regional nightmare has been redoubled.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan form an effective political bloc in the Arab and Islamic Middle East. A few years ago, Saudi and the UAE would not have been capable of forming such a bloc but they came together thanks to the Gulf Bank. They are now talking about establishing a monetary unit for the Gulf Cooperation Council, the leadership of which is being pursued relentlessly by the government in Riyadh.

Although Saudi has had doubts about Jordan dating back to the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom in 1946, they have grown stronger since the 1990 Gulf War. Nevertheless, the effects of the Arab Spring have created a nexus of the two kingdoms and the emirates as fears of political change sweep across the region.

The fiscal strength of Saudi and the UAE combined with the political and strategic importance of Saudi and Jordan stretch beyond the Arab world. The three cooperated throughout the Libyan revolution and the subsequent fall of the Gaddafi regime. They even came close to securing their preferred candidate for the Libyan presidency. Working with Qatar and Turkey they have also supported the Syrian rebels since they concluded in the spring of 2012 that the Assad regime has to be overthrown. Over the course of the past few months, they have combined to support the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi and worked actively to try to overthrow the coalition government led by Al-Nahda Party in Tunisia.

When the Arab revolutions erupted in 2011, Jordan was the only one of the three in which there were open demands for reforms, albeit not deep-rooted or radical changes. In hindsight, it would not have been difficult for the Jordanian regime to meet the people half way. The revolts in the Arab world, from Tunisia and Libya to Egypt and Yemen, did not hold any animosity towards other Arab countries, especially the Gulf States. In fact, their new governments, whether transitional or newly elected, all sought to foster good relations with the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia in particular. However, all of these factors did not dispel a growing fear of change and democracy as well as political Islam.

This fear was the main factor behind the now active and effective political alliance between Riyadh, Amman and Abu Dhabi. This has brought the Arab world back to what Malcolm Kerr calls “The Arab Cold War”. A quick analysis of the region’s current political map demonstrates that the tripartite bloc has achieved a number of victories and that it intends to redraw the boundaries of this map according to their own vision. This is bound to lead to a backlash reflective of the balance of power and geo-political environment.

The bloc’s active involvement in post-revolutionary Libya drove the country to instability, particularly after it prevented the people who fought in the revolution from participating in the new decision-making process. If it is true that Saudi, Jordan and the UAE support the division of Libya and the Cyrenaica region, which is rich in oil reserves, then Libya will undoubtedly be subject to long-term instability. Regardless of the role played by the three-party coalition in their confrontation of political Islam, Egypt and Tunisia are both potentially subject to long-term instability.

In this sense Tunisia, Libya and, more importantly, Egypt will not be able to play a role in the region’s power play, regardless of whether or not this role would benefit the tripartite bloc or any other Arab country. In fact, they will have to pay a heavy economic price for the continuing instability in Egypt and the deteriorating situation in Tunisia. For that, the wealthy tripartite bloc should carry some of the financial burden. What is currently happening in the Middle East suggests that there are even more risks.

The three countries built this political bloc in order to address the Syrian issue on the basis that there would be close Turkish involvement and mounting western engagement, particularly by the US. American and western interest in getting involved was raised when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in August. As the US, Britain and France threatened a military strike against Damascus, for a moment it seemed as though the influence of the Saudi, Jordan and UAE bloc had become less significant. This possibility was heightened by Israel’s support for military intervention by the West.

The bloc could not have foreseen America’s quiet withdrawal from general Middle East affairs although this has been the case since Obama’s first term. Nor was Washington’s hesitation over Syria anticipated. Obama has opted for a diplomatic approach built on the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. The three states were disappointed and sensed defeat by this move.

The crisis facing the region at the end of August had nothing to do with US intervention because America was never a player in Syria to begin with. Furthermore, negotiations will do little to change the balance of power in the conflict. The problem lies in the tripartite bloc’s exaggerated perception of its relationship with the United States and its belief that it could use this relationship to help them achieve their regional goals, although America is rarely involved in issues unless it benefits its own interests.

The bloc’s involvement in Syria is definitely influenced by its strategic interests. Since the beginning of the conflict the bloc, especially Saudi Arabia, has worked towards not only supporting the Syrian people and rebels but also placing themselves in a position where they will be able to decide who will rule after the collapse of the Assad regime. Recently, Saudi finance has bought the loyalty of the national coalition and the Free Syrian Army, which represent the opposition. However, the truth is that aside from this the tri-national bloc has been unable to achieve any other tangible victories. Leadership and influence over the coalition and fighters appears to be symbolic. Funding and provision of arms is as far as it goes.

Following the hive of activity at the UN which led to the thawing of US-Iran relations, President Hassan Rouhani has demonstrated his country’s willingness to compromise on its nuclear development programme. Iran’s supreme Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not voiced any objection to this position. America and Iran are thus on the threshold of a historic milestone in their relations since the 1979 hostage crisis.

The complexities that surround the issue of Iran mean that the Obama administration has decided to avoid dealing with the issue by military means if possible. Of course, Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel may throw a spanner into the works and it is also important that Saudi- Jordan and the UAE keep out it. All are opposed to the US approach to Iran and if the recent rapprochement fails it will undoubtedly be due to interference by these third parties.

Since the turn of the century, it was Iran and not Israel that has posed the biggest threat to the leadership of the tripartite bloc thanks to Tehran’s gains from the short-sighted wars waged by the Bush administration in the region. Even before the internal crisis in Lebanon deepened and the onset of the Syrian revolution, which would subsequently become a regional and international issue, the leadership in the Gulf States demonstrated an inclination to strengthen ties with Turkey in order to strike a new political balance. Today, the Gulf bloc’s interference in the Arab Spring countries has caused the government in Ankara to revise its regional policy. Turkey lacks confidence and trust in the bloc and is reconsidering its relationship with the three constituent countries.

If political rapprochement does take place between Turkey and Iran, the Arab Gulf countries will inevitably face pressure from Tehran. They will also have to deal with such an alliance’s knock-on effects in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; hence, the unexpected and unplanned-for regional nightmare.

This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Quds Al Arabi on 16 October, 2013

Author: Bashir Nafi

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