November 26, 2021No Comments

Middle East: Toward a Sustainable Regional Security System?

By: Martina Gambacorta.

Image: This amazing tangled knot of a diagram, made by U.K. data journalist David McCandless, displays the key players and notable relationships in the Middle East. What it communicates is something no one doubts: the Middle East is a confusing place. Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/ng-interactive/2014/sep/24/friends-and-enemies-in-the-middle-east-who-is-connected-to-who-interactive

Without doubt, security is the first and fundamental objective of governments involved in the building of a sustainable regional security in the Middle East but it is not the only one. On one hand, different actors are cooperating to counter the Iranian threat and the affiliated militias. On the other hand, multilateral cooperation is taking a way forward from the mere security interests, while economic and thus political aims are now being prioritized. One of the things that emerged  especially in the last 20 years, is that the US role in the region is vitally important but it works much better when it is done through multilateral efforts of allies. In an ideal World one would see the inclusion of Russia and China in this multilateral work, but if not, it is up to the countries of the region, the US, the EU and other willing actors to try to take action to address the regional challenges. Up to now military action has played an important role—through aviation, maritime and border security; but we are moving toward an increased non-military cooperation. 

In Middle Eastern minds, a unified front would play a decisive role in dealing with major fundamental challenges that are undermining the regional stability, such as Iran. Nonetheless, such unified front would not only look at allies, but would strive to include enemies too. Saudi Arabia and Iran informal talks are a clear proof of how the two want to avoid a collision that would destabilize their respective systems of power.

In this frame, the Middle Eastern geopolitical scene has been shaken in recent years by a completely unexpected, almost paradoxical, convergence such as that between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In this case, the most significant episodes were perhaps the apparently repeated meetings, between 2016 and 2018, between the influential Saudi prince Turkī al-Fayṣal, former head of the secret services, and Tzipi Livni, co-secretary of the largest Israeli opposition party, together with General Amos Yadlin and his colleague Ya'akov Amidror, formerly head of military intelligence and National Security Advisor. Since those years, an intelligence-sharing program has begun between Saudi Arabia and Israel to monitor both the pro-Iranian non-state actors in the region, from Ḥizbullah to the ḥūṯī, and the advancement of the Iranian missile program. 

In Riyadh, the hope is that Israel—through its influence on groups in Washington—will be able to coordinate robust pressure on the US political establishment to activate containment of Iran, by introducing or re-imposing sanctions, and possibly helping to reactivate Washington's commitment to defending the interests of all its traditional Middle Eastern allies. The Saudis therefore offered new demonstrations of loyalty to the United States, including a willingness to open a new chapter to secure Israel's future in the region.

Such normalization reflects nothing but the footsteps traced by Obama, Trump and Biden’s presidencies to leave responsibilities to local actors whenever US interests are not at stake. Also, it reflects a profound need for a sustainable regional security system that could develop simultaneously to the creation of ties of political and economic-financial nature and access to resources. An example is the announcement of the giant Dubai Port (Dp) World that it intends to settle in the Israeli port of Haifa or the maritime expansion strategy of the United Arab Emirates. This demonstrates a need for new funding and space to stay afloat in a crisis environment. 

In this sense, the "Abraham Agreements" go toward this direction but do not come out of nowhere, in that  they represent a tactical convergence between the interests of the actors involved. The Arab Gulf countries, including Qatar and Oman, have been cultivating economic-financial, intelligence and security relations with Israel for years, behind the scenes or in a semi-formal manner. 

In 2015, the Emirates granted the Jewish state to establish diplomatic representation at the International Renewable Energy Agency based in Abu Dhabi. Together with Egypt, Qatar has been the main mediator between Hamas and Israel for years. In 2018, Oman formally received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the same year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview that Israelis "have a right to have their own land" and that Saudi Arabia "has no problems with Jews". Also in 2018, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled ben Ahmad Al Khalifa even went so far as to take Israel's side against Iran. Commenting on the umpteenth air raid in Syria attributed to the Jewish State Air Force against alleged Iranian military bases, he stated that "Israel has the right to defend itself and eliminate sources of danger".  

If the Turkish threat is added to the Iranian one, the Jewish state could be—together with Russia—a new factor of protection. Behind the curtain of the agreements also hides Saudi Arabia. If Bahrain has signed an agreement with Israel, it is because Riyadh has given the green light. Saudi Arabia then granted the opening of its airspace to air links between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. To do more, Mohammed bin Salman must wait to formally take power, so that his father - the over eighty and sick King Salman - passes away. Mohammed bin Salman’s ambition is to become the protector of all the holy places of Islam. Science fiction, at least for now. 

Is this frame a solid basis for a sustainable regional security system? It is too early to answer and in the following 20 years changes will shape a new frame. As presented in this article,  advances have been made and different actors are building a new unified front. Nonetheless, unanswered questions still remain. One of this concerns Iran and the future of the JCPOA. Should a comprise be found, and sanctions reduced, the unified front will undoubtedly accommodate the US. Nonetheless, the JCPOA works have proofed to be a failure in the past, and unexpected outcomes cannot be excluded. Moreover, the JCPOA will not be enough to tackle other issue but the nuclear one. While allies are talking to each other, and enemies are being included in such dialogue, religious and ethnic differences won’t be easily overcome through politics and economics.

June 10, 2021No Comments

Winds of Change? Possible Transition from War to Peace in the Middle East

By: Omri Brinner, John Devine, Martina Gambacorta and Angelo Calianno.

The most significant development from the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas is the warming of relations between two rival camps in the Middle East, which is a hopeful sign of things to come. If developments such as the recent Saudi-Iranian negotiations and the seeming end of the civil war in Libya continue to characterize regional affairs, then the region might very well be on its way to rehabilitate from more than a decade of continued wars. 

The two countries representing the rival camps are Egypt and Qatar. Regionally, Egypt is in league with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Qatar is linked with Turkey and Iran. Egyptian-Qatari relations have significantly improved since the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and the Qatari promise of increased financial support to the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Qatar are in a unique position to bridge geopolitical gaps through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Egypt as the only Arab country that borders the Gaza Strip and therefore controls the crossings to and fro Gaza; and Qatar as the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with the authorities in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Until recently, the two countries and their camps were on a head-on course of action, best characterized by the 2017 blockade on Qatar, which focused to a large extent on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and not by chance. Since its inception in 1928 the MB has challenged and at times terrorized the Egyptian state, with the rivalry climaxing in 2012 when the organization won the Egyptian elections and became the ruling party. However, the old regime soon retook power through a military coup and began persecuting, jailing and executing MB members. 

A notable portion of Qatar’s support to the MB has been delivered to its Palestinian branch, Hamas. As a MB affiliate, in recent years Hamas has challenged Egyptian sovereignty by building underground smuggling tunnels and connecting with Egyptian terrorists in the border area. Egypt’s fierce anti-MB policies, which include a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, have resulted in Hamas’ dependency on Egypt for humanitarian support. Hamas is, therefore, willing to make concessions that will essentially, in light of its dire state, benefit both itself and Egypt. In other words, in coordination with Israel, Egypt decides when and what to give to the Gaza Strip. 

However, Egypt has competition for both peacemaking and patronage in the Gaza Strip by one of its regional foes, Qatar. Qatar is in a distinct position as it is the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with both Israel (albeit unofficial) and Hamas. Other regional countries have either relations with the two parties or funds to spare, but not both. Therefore, Qatar has two prominent roles in supporting the Gaza Strip. The first is financial. Since 2012 Qatar has transferred to Gaza around 1.5 billion USD with Israel’s approval, with Hamas directly receiving the lion’s share. Despite this fact, it is in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip will be politically and economically stable. Israel calculates that stability reduces the chances of a coup by more extreme local groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, and that Palestinians will want to maintain a relatively good lifestyle and low unemployment rates, as opposed to times of poverty and recurring clashes. The other Qatari role is providing Gaza with energy. With the electricity infrastructure all but functional, Hamas found in Qatar a patron for petrol - the latter being the world-leading exporter of liquefied natural gas

So far, it seems that the shared interest of Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Hamas to stabilize the Gaza Strip has strengthened relations between Egypt and Qatar. An indication for this state of affairs took place a day after the ceasefire agreement was reached, when the exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke from Qatar, thanking Egyptfor its role in brokering the ceasefire. It should be noted that Haniyeh could not have congratulated Egypt on Qatari soil without the authorities’ blessing. However, while Qatar has been in the driving seat with regards to financing the Gaza Strip thus far, Egypt is now challenging the former by organizing a regional donors conference. It also recently announced the allocation of 500 million USD of its own funds for the reconstruction of the strip. That said, Egypt needs to carefully calculate its financing schemes to maintain the Qatari-Egyptian cooperation in Gaza. Otherwise, it will push Qatar to either transfer more funds directly to Hamas or to stop the flow of cash altogether, leaving itself as Gaza’s sole provider.

When examining Egyptian-Qatari relations in a wider geopolitical perspective, it can be stated that each country represents its camp in terms of competition, but also cooperation and diplomacy. The improved Egyptian-Qatari relations signify improved relations between the camps. Other developments include Egyptian-Turkish talks, in which the sides discussed various disagreeable issues (such as Turkey’s favourable policies towards the MB), the apparent end of the Libyan civil war, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and, consequently and hopefully, the beginning of the end of the Yemenite civil war, the revival of the JCPOA and the end of the blockade on Qatar. 

Comparing today’s regional state of affairs to that of a year ago will show that calculated and mutually beneficial diplomacy is arguably a better ingredient for regional stability and peace than hardline and uncompromising policies.