The Middle East seems to be in the mode of reconciliation. Regional rivals and enemies are striving to reestablish ties and reestablish relations. The Gulf crisis appears to be resolved with the Al-Ula Summit. After nearly a decade of hostility, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have embarked on a process of rapid rapprochement. Likewise, there is a thaw in relations between the UAE and Iran. The normalization talks between Cairo and Ankara are In progress while diplomacy between Ankara and Riyadh has accelerated in recent months. In addition, the Arab Spring and political Islam, two major dividing lines of contention over the past decade, are no longer high on the regional agenda.
However, despite the intensification of diplomatic activities, no conflict in the region is close to resolution. The Gulf, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa remain geopolitical hot spots. Such contradictory developments raise two interrelated questions: What exactly is happening in the Middle East and, more importantly, what is driving it?
Normalization and rapprochement have been widely cited to explain the recent wave of regional diplomacy. However, among the terms de-escalation, it is better to describe the situation since the realignment in progress is not the result of a new modus vivendi between regional authorities. It is rather the consequence of the revision by the actors of their geopolitical posture because the regional and international contexts favor de-escalation rather than conflicts. In a sense, what we are seeing is a temporary freeze on regional conflicts, rather than the culmination of genuine efforts to resolve them.
This de-escalation is brought about by a confluence of factors that have altered the strategic priorities of regional powers, including the withdrawal of the United States as well as the approach of the Biden administration to the disputes in the Middle East, the dead ends in various arenas of geopolitical competition, ideological exhaustion among rivals and national economic imperatives.
First of all, the American partial withdrawal from Syria and Iraq, the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and the reluctance to take on more security responsibilities as well as the Indo-Pacific pivot have led regional actors to rethink the cost of geopolitical instability. From their perspective, the United States is not only reducing its security commitments, but it has also become an unpredictable partner. The clearest example is that the Biden administration is not taking sides in the confrontation between the Arab Gulf states and Iran, a a major change of the Trump administration, which unreservedly supported the anti-Iran camp. Instead, this administration is pushing to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, with little success. These factors have pushed regional players to cover their options, strengthen ties with their rivals and cultivate closer relationships with other external powers like China and Russia.
To reflect this regional coverage strategy, almost all regional states are deepening their relations with Beijing and Moscow. China has dramatically increased its share and role in the region’s economy and Russia in the region’s security. As the prospect of a great power competition between the United States and China, as well as Russia, looms on the horizon, the deepening of Middle Eastern states’ relations with Moscow and Beijing are underway. to become a major source of tension between them and the United States.
Second, in many conflict areas the stalemate has been the result. The Gulf Crisis of 2017 ended with no winner, but a lot of losers. In Syria, the opposition lost, but the regime did not win. Likewise, despite outbreaks in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and a group of countries allied with Greece and Cyprus (France, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates), the map of the conflict has not changed significantly. The parties were only able to agree on a new temporary freeze in the dispute. Likewise, Khalifa Haftar’s year-long military campaign to control Tripoli with the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates ended after Turkey and Russia agreed to a truce. This lack of clear victory creates more ground for engagement and negotiation between the conflicting parties and their international backers.
Third, the region is experiencing ideological exhaustion, which in turn has diminished the relevance and intensity of the ideological battles that have dominated over the past decade. A decade after the uprisings of the Arab Spring, no one can claim victory. On the other hand, the list of losers is quite long. Islamist political actors who were seen as the winners at the start of political transitions have subsequently suffered setbacks and losses. From the Egyptian coup of 2013 to the tragic fate of the Syrian opposition turning into mercenaries and the last coup d’etat by Tunisian Kais SaÃ¯d facing parliament, the Islamist parties suffered heavy defeats.
Although the battle of ideas is not the defining character of regional policy at the national level, elites and societies in the Middle East remain highly polarized, especially in countries in transition and in conflict. In particular, the democracy-authoritarian divide has deepened, with autocratic regimes becoming more repressive. In this sense, the insecurity induced by the Arab Spring among the autocrats has diminished, but it has not evaporated.
Fourth, geopolitics and ideology have dominated the regional agenda over the past decade. As a result, there has been a decoupling between foreign policies and the economic interests of regional rivals. After the collapse of oil prices in 2014, this gap had negative consequences for trade and investment cooperation between neighboring countries. Qatar blockade in 2017 was financially costly for everyone before the Covid-19 pandemic worsen tensions and pushed the region in a deep recession. In the face of persistent uncertainty about the global economy, states have prioritized economic recovery, including restoring economic ties abroad. This dynamic is already visible in Turkey-UAE relations and their respective overtures to rivals. Growing economic nationalism shape Saudi Arabia’s external relations could very well open the door to improving relations with its Turkish and Iranian rivals.
Despite all the talk about the region entering a post-Arab Spring era, from Lebanon to Algeria and from Iraq to Sudan and Tunisia, public protests continue across the Middle East. These protests could increase the insecurity of authoritarian regimes and rekindle ideological struggles. Frozen conflicts can be unfrozen in response to a multitude of triggers. A Trump-like figure could potentially be elected in 2024. Moreover, as US special envoy to Iran Rob Malley said, the outlook to relaunch the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran are increasingly bleak. An escalation of the crisis with Iran could exacerbate tensions in the Gulf with spillover effects throughout the region.
To avoid a reversal of the ongoing de-escalation, international actors must actively support regional actors through multilateral frameworks that strengthen and sustain the benefits of cooperation over conflicts. Initiatives like Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which took place in August 2021 and with a significant participation of regional leaders, should not be a one-time event. With the support of the United States, it should be transformed into a platform and a process for a multi-stakeholder dialogue on the common security and development challenges facing the Middle East today, including terrorism, refugees. , food security and migration.
Galip Dalay is Richard von WeizsÃ¤cker Fellow at Robert Bosch Academy and PhD candidate at the University of Oxford.
Tarik Yousef is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and former Director of the Brookings Doha Center.