Enemies in the Middle East give diplomacy a boost
IIT WAS A surprising choice for a summer vacation. On August 18, Tahnoon bin Zayed, the UAE’s national security adviser (United Arab Emirates), traveled to Ankara to meet Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey. Countries have disagreed for years over Mr. Erdogan’s support for Islamist groups in the Middle East. Turkish authorities accused the United Arab Emirates for encouraging a failed coup in 2016. But none of this was mentioned in the official statement after their meeting, which spoke instead of economic cooperation.
A week later, Sheikh Tahnoon met the Emir of Qatar, becoming the highest Emirati official to visit Qatar since United Arab Emirates and three other Arab states imposed an embargo on it in 2017. Again, there was cheerful language about cooperation. The sheikh is one of the United Arab Emiratesof the most influential figures, a brother of Muhammad bin Zayed, the de facto ruler. His visits were a sign of a change in UAE foreign policy. It is not the only country to change course.
There are two main fault lines in the Middle East today. One pits the Gulf states and Israel against Iran and its allies. The other passes between countries like Turkey and Qatar, sympathizers of the Islamists, and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are not. These schisms fueled conflicts in the Levant, Libya and Yemen, and less bloody disputes elsewhere.
Over the past five months, however, longtime enemies have embarked on a wave of diplomacy. Saudi Arabia and Iran began a dialogue in April. Turkey has sought to mend ties with Egypt, which deteriorated after the Egyptian military overthrew an Islamist-led government in 2013 (Mr Erdogan was a vocal critic of the coup). Qatar and Egypt, who fell out for the same reason, take the floor again. Egypt even allowed Al Jazeera, a Qatari satellite television network with an often pro-Brotherhood stance, to reopen its Cairo office, which was closed after the coup.
The highlight was a summit in Baghdad on August 28 that brought together officials from Egypt, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere. While he didn’t come up with any concrete agreement, speaking was a breakthrough in itself: many attendees would have been reluctant to attend such a gathering not so long ago. Optimists hope the meetings could signal a thaw and a possible end to the region’s ruinous conflicts. The Middle East is a cruel place for optimists, but in this case their hopes may not be entirely lost.
The Saudi-Iranian feud, which reshaped the region after 1979, has turned into a frozen conflict over the past four years. This is due in part to Iran’s success and Saudi Arabia’s failure to exert influence abroad. Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman committed a series of foreign policy blunders during his early days in power and has since focused on transforming the oil-related economy.
After pursuing its own aggressive foreign policy, the United Arab Emirates also began to seek relaxation. Officials in Abu Dhabi, the capital, say it is a side effect of covid-19. “It made us realize … that we had to go home and abandon certain types of engagements in the wider Middle East,” said an Emirati diplomat.
As introspective as it may sound, it is a ex post facto justification: the United Arab Emirates began withdrawing troops from Yemen in 2019, months before the pandemic. The war had become a quagmire, as the UAE’s support for an anti-Islamist warlord in Libya ended in defeat (in large part thanks to Turkish intervention). A militant foreign policy has yielded few gains; Better to focus on an economy which, although more diversified than those of its neighbors, is still not prepared for an imminent energy transition away from oil. Ahead of the country’s 50th birthday in December, officials are busy announcing a series of economic initiatives.
Turkey came to similar conclusions. Its economy was crippled by 19% inflation, weak foreign investment and a long currency crisis. Regional quarrels, not to mention disputes with America, EU and Greece, do not help. “The economy needs a de-escalation,” says Galip Dalay of Chatham House, a think tank in London. He also needs cash. Emirati investors could provide some. The devaluation of the lira means that foreigners can grab Turkish assets at bargain prices.
Turkey also hopes to benefit from normalization with Egypt. Despite their remoteness, trade between countries reached nearly $ 5 billion last year. Turkish officials say the potential is much higher. But fixing the barriers with Egypt would also pay political dividends. Egypt, with the EU, America and Israel, sided with Greece and Cyprus in a dispute with Turkey over drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Mr Erdogan’s government believes that a deal with Egypt can help them come out of their isolation, so they are trying to negotiate one.
It would all be good U-turn. Yet at present there are hardly any Islamists to support. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian dictator, ruthlessly dismantled the Muslim Brotherhood. Even in countries where Islamists are free to compete in politics, their popularity is declining. For Turkey and Qatar, the costs of an ongoing confrontation with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are big, the benefits slim.
Disputes with Iran are more difficult to resolve. The Tehran regime will not negotiate to relinquish its hard-won influence in the Arab world. Instead, the Gulf states may just be looking to secure their own backyards. They became fully aware of their vulnerability after Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign led Iran to sabotage tankers in the Persian Gulf and provide drones and missiles for a surprise strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019. A larger conflict would be ruinous. Officials fear, for example, that a well-placed missile salute targeting desalination plants could render the Gulf unliveable within days.
Each, in its own way, therefore approaches these talks from a position of weakness. The Gulf states are rich but fragile, while Iran and Turkey are muscular but broke. The Baghdad summit ended with a joint declaration committing to “non-interference in the internal affairs of countries” – ironic, as the participants are known for their interference. They are unlikely to stop. Regional diplomacy is therefore of little comfort to the citizens of countries like Lebanon and Iraq, which barely exist as sovereign states. These are talks between autocrats concerned with protecting their hold on power and stimulating their economies: not peace in our time, only within our borders. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Less fighting, more jokes”