New lines in the sand in the Middle East

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (L) and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel pose for the media after a joint press statemen. Berlin, 7 June. [Clemens Bilan/ EPA]

The Middle East used to be known for its stale continuity. But with the Qatar crisis now in its third week, the region is finding itself convulsed in its biggest diplomatic shakeup in decades, warns Willem Oosterveld.

Willem Oosterveld is a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

This crisis is by no means the first in recent history to upset the region, but it has the most potential to redraw the diplomatic map for some time to come, with important implications for Europe too.

The current standoff may have been triggered by rash tweets by the American president or even a series of alleged hacks but has its roots in geopolitical developments of recent years. The first is the nuclear agreement with Iran concluded in 2015, which was meant to halt Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear weapons capability but also brought the country back into the international fold.

Inevitably, this momentous development prompted a rearrangement of political power in the region, affecting the positions of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States among others.

This would have been difficult enough to manage under ‘normal’ circumstances but is becoming greatly complicated as a result of the ongoing demise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which is rapidly creating a power vacuum in the heart of the region that all regional and outside players get sucked into.

The result is only more mistrust among them, and diminishing prospects for coming to a rebalancing of power in a peaceful way.

This tense situation needed only a small trigger to escalate, and the Qatar crisis provided just that. What it laid bare is that the region is being carved up along definite but new lines, being the Sunni-Shia divide; support for or opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood; and alignment with Western countries (US and EU), Russia and China.

The Sunni-Shia divide is arguably the most consequential, being at the center of the most critical standoff, that between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although their rivalry is actually only of recent date, Saudi Arabia now wants to exploit the emerging Sunni-Shia rift so as to isolate Iran and to prevent it from becoming the new regional hegemon. Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere does not help to lower suspicions in the region about its ulterior motives.

The second major divide is between countries that sympathise with the Muslim Brotherhood and those that do not, a division which Saudi Arabia also has an interest in. Riyadh developed second thoughts about the movement following their involvement in toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and also mistrusts the Brotherhood because it does not subscribe to the Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law prevalent in Saudi Arabia.

Geopolitically, stressing the threat of Muslim Brothers as a source of domestic instability is a means for Saudi Arabia to isolate its other chief regional rival, Turkey, which has generally been supportive of the movement.

Ironically, it could be that Saudi attempts to isolate its rivals result in leaving itself isolated, especially if Riyadh’s efforts drive Turkey and Iran together. However, it is not a foregone conclusion that Ankara and Tehran will see eye to eye anytime soon.

The last line in the sand is the least clear, and in fact the one that still needs to be played out, namely between those countries supported by Western powers and those supported by Russia or China.

Until recently, the three key regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – all seemed to want to have it both ways, and cultivate ties with all sides. Indeed, the fortunes of all three have waxed and waned over the past few years, and so have their ties to the key outside powers.

This uncertain environment makes these outside powers understandably nervous. Russia, which has gained much influence in the region in the past two years, is loath to lose this but is more likely to choose to align with Iran. But this also means that Russia is likely to lose influence in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and that it could at best maintain tenuous relations with Turkey.

For the US, the reverse could happen. Whilst foregoing better ties with Iran, the US will be more firmly aligned with a Sunni bloc that will also tacitly include Israel, and perhaps Turkey too. Ironically, it could be that because Russia and America are so deeply invested militarily in the region, they actually lose part of their geopolitical flexibility.

For Europe and China, the present situation presents a conundrum. Both want to maintain strong ties with all countries in the region, but when the dust has settled they may be forced to choose too.

Whether they bring sufficient clout to achieve this remains to be seen. The Chinese have large investments and economic interests to safeguard and cultivate on both shores of the Persian Gulf, but China’s recent naval exercise with Iran shows that Beijing may already have thrown in its lot with Tehran.

For Europe, things are different. Its dependence on fossil fuels from the region will diminish over time, so its energy-related interests could decrease. As a result, it could be well placed to serve as a go-between for the major regional stakeholders. However, if it wants to play that role, it will have to carve out a clear role for itself.

Given that fostering a stable political environment in the Eastern Mediterranean is particularly important to European countries in view of the migration crisis, taking more initiative in this part of the region will be required. One way to do this is actually to deepen economic cooperation with the Levantine countries especially once the war in Syria starts to wind down.

In sum, what the current diplomatic crisis in the Middle East has exposed is an emerging Thucydidean trap where one emerging power (Iran) instills fear in an incumbent (Saudi Arabia), leading to a reshuffling of cards across the region. But rather than that it will lead to a long-winding great game, the new lines in the sand that will shape the new regional order can already be distinguished.

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