After years of looking abroad for answers, countries in the Middle East now appear to instead be talking to each other to find solutions following two decades defined by war and political upheaval.
The American withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq have played a part in that change. Once ostracised autocracies such as President Bashar Assad in Syria, and shunned former top figures such as Moammar Gadhafi’s son in Libya, are back in the political arena amid the still smoldering ruins of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Much remains unsettled and this inward search may not provide the answers most want. There are no quick fixes to Lebanon’s unprecedented economic free-fall, the plight of Afghans desperate to flee the country’s new Taliban rulers and Iran’s increasingly hard-line stance over its nuclear programme.
But the diplomatic manoeuvring signals a growing realisation across the region that America’s interest is moving elsewhere and that now is the time for negotiations that were unthinkable just a year ago.
The United States still maintains a strong military presence, including bases across the wider Mideast. Tens of thousands of American troops operate tanks in Kuwait, sail through the Strait of Hormuz and fly missions across the Arabian Peninsula.
But its Arab allies also watched in stunned horror as desperate people clung to the sides of departing US military cargo jets during America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war and the Taliban takeover of the country. Decisions by both the Trump and Biden administrations led to that moment — and upended strategic thinking calcified by the Cold War and the conflicts that followed the September 11 attacks.
American analysts now talk about the “great powers” competition and point at Russia’s buildup of forces on Ukraine’s borders and China’s posture toward Taiwan. Those flashpoints, they say, need some of the personnel and equipment long stationed in the Mideast.
Meanwhile, talks in Vienna aimed at restoring Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers appear to be floundering. With Iran’s uranium enrichment at levels never seen before, threats of military action by Israel have rekindled tensions and fears that an ongoing shadow war in could escalate into open conflict.
And with the border-locking chaos of the coronavirus pandemic largely behind them, Mideast leaders are now shuffling, talking face-to-face amid a flurry of diplomatic meetings, seemingly eager to hedge their bets.
The United Arab Emirates sent its national security adviser on a rare trip to speak to Iran’s hard-line president, likely hoping to head off any other maritime attacks off its coast. Saudi Arabia, which cut off ties to Iran in 2016 following attacks on their diplomatic posts sparked by the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric, also has held talks with Tehran, hosted in Baghdad.
It’s not just about Iran, however. An intra-Gulf feud that saw Qatar boycotted for years by four Arab countries ended in January. Years of recriminations gave way to an image of Qatar’s ruling emir, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Emirati national security adviser, photographed smiling and relaxed, standing next to each other in board shorts.
Later in December, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, is to hold its first non-fractious meeting since the boycott. Prince Mohammed has embarked on a tour of the GCC states ahead of that summit, hoping to reassert his own influence after US intelligence agencies said he likely approved the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
While each of the Gulf Arab states conducts its own diplomacy, a unified GCC front could prove valuable if tensions rise further with Iran. There are also considerations farther afield. Turkey, long viewed with suspicion by the Emirates and Egypt over offering a haven to religious hardliners, has sought warmer ties as it tries to halt the collapse of its currency, the lira.
The closing of ranks also brought a return of realpolitik to the region, a decade after the Arab Spring movements that aimed to topple the region’s autocrats.
Syria’s Assad has clawed his way back from the precipice. Though the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib remains under the control of opposition forces, Assad controls the rest of the country. Now, he is slowly being brought back into the fold of the same Arab countries that once called for his ouster — even if America maintains both its opposition to his rule and a small troop presence in the country’s east, near the border with Iraq.
Another figure back on the scene is Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Libya’s slain dictator. Though still wanted by the International Criminal Court over the killing of Arab Spring protesters, Seif al-Islam has reemerged as a candidate in the country’s upcoming presidential election.
In Tunisia, which saw the first of the Arab Spring’s protests, President Kaïs Saied froze the country’s parliament and seized executive powers in July. That sidelined the country’s religious hardliners in a move criticised by opponents as a coup.
And in Sudan, where a popular uprising and coup toppled longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in 2019, another recent coup disrupted fragile plans for a transition to democracy.
This new Mideast reassessment, however, appears to have limits on what it can resolve.
The Mideast hasn’t rushed to embrace Taliban rule in Afghanistan and international recognition is still far off. The grinding civil war rages on in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition battles Iranian-backed rebels. In Lebanon, the Iran-Saudi rivalry threatens to tear the country apart even more as it faces what the World Bank described as the world’s worst financial crisis in 150 years.
But the talking, for now, continues. And absent a major crisis that could draw America in again, those conversations likely will be where the deals get done.