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2020 Forecast: Revealing the Future of the Middle East

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Authors: Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) and Shehab Al Makahleh*

“When I thought I had already reached the bottom, they knocked from below.”-Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

This quote of the polish aphorist and poet of the 20th century, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, serves as a perfect epigraph to this in-depth 2020 forecast and ideally characterises the last 5–6 years of the developments in international relations and the crash of most of the “cautious optimism” that has ever been expressed within this period. Pessimists are the winners of the epoch in terms of prediction. Every time it seems that things can not get any worse, they actually get much worse. Thaws in conflict and progress that might take place on individual tracks are unreliable, uncertain, weak and very temporary. Additionally, they frequently end up with no concrete and significant results.

The system of international relations remains relatively chaotic. Nonetheless, there are stand-alone attempts to systematise it in a way or another at certain regional levels, especially while talking about security issues and the need to tackle the growing security challenges. The establishment of collective security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the reformation of collective security in Europe were discussed frequently in 2019. Emphasis was made on the clear understanding in global decision-making circles that the ongoing earthquake can only be weathered with minimal losses if there are attempts to keep at least some of its fragments relevant and solid. However, none of the players can put words into real action due to growing contradictions, even between “natural” allies. These contradictions keep growing as old paradigms are collapsing under the pressure of disillusionment and new challenges created by ill-management and populism.

These rising divergences with growing contradictions and decrease of common ground between international players will lead to a rise in confrontation. At the same time, the parties will be running out of diplomatic or non-violent approaches to deal with the contradictions, while pushing for decisive steps could spark violence.

General Global Overview

The year 2020 will be the most challenging and dramatic year since the beginning of the 21st century. It will be crucial in terms of shaping the world for the upcoming 20–25 years, laying the foundation for the emergence of a new system of international relations through the collapse of the elements of the latter one.

The rise of protest activities marked 2019. This tendency will gain momentum in 2020, leading to the collapse of individual governments and coup d’états, as well as plunging countries into the chaos of rising protest activities. This affinity will not be only limited to the rugged regions but will be standard for well-developed countries as well. Global confrontation will be on the rise, making international relations more explosive than ever before. Tension within societies is rising, while the governments are incapable of tackling them timely and properly, as they follow outdated principles poorly adapting to the dynamically changing world. Plus, according to statistics, there are already specific markers alarming that the world economy is moving quite fast to the new financial crisis that will impact all economies.

The heat in the Middle East will rise not only in terms of climatic changes but as well due to explosively increasing challenges in the regions, most of which are unsolvable.

The upcoming year will be more violent, and there is a high probability of triggering new global conflicts.

One of the main areas of global developments will be the Middle East. The Middle East was finalized 2019 with many countries on the brink of economic and political volatility.

Since the youth form more than 70 per cent of the population in the Middle East, increased access to the Internet and social media networks will provide them with direct information from the source. This will put some despotic regimes in the region at stake, as new mechanisms of demonstrations and protests will be orchestrated beyond governments’ capacities. Intelligence bodies in these states will fail to control digital media where the activists will call for rallies to save the jobless youth, fight gender parity and secure the rights of minorities, accelerating social and political transformation.

Middle East 2020: Political and Economic Forecast

Governments and institutions will face significant challenges in the coming few years, mainly in 2020–2021 as the world order and global trends undergo a major restructuring process. It is expected that all Middle Eastern regimes will experience snowballing tensions with mounting types of terrorism and the ability of strong, asymmetric and non-state actors to negatively affect the world order and the global balance of power.

Moreover, the social contract between Middle Eastern communities and governments would collapse and fail as people will call for meeting further their economic and social needs, security and prosperity (at a time when populism is rocketing in the West), thus threatening the whole world order. The tension between the ruling elites and citizens will reshape regional political geography.

With conflicting principles of superpowers, the Middle East will undergo a high risk of conflict in spheres of influence between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and other rising regional powers which seek to play a pivotal role in local and global affairs, attempting to shape the multipolar world.

The persistence of conflicts and the absence of real effective political and economic reforms will not reduce poverty as oil prices are not expected to return to the oil boom levels, forcing governments to limit cash payments and subsidies.

Social media is likely to become the key source of revolutionary activities and off-line coordination again, forcing the governments to shut down the Internet as an instrument of cracking down the protest movements. Though taking into account growing public dissent, these measures will become less effective and in the opposite will become dangerous and counterproductive, leading to broader civil uprising.

Polarisation vs Pluralisation in the Mena

Tenacious social and economic disparities over the coming years will inexorably be cemented by empowering sectarian, ethnic, ideological, regional and tribal identities. This might lead to a new wave of the Arab Spring, similar to what was witnessed in the cases of Syria and Libya, as well as Yemen. In the cases mentioned above, regional powers supported by global forces acted to instigate differences to reap more benefits. This was done by dividing these countries in order for the industries and economies of some of these regional and global powers to flourish. By 2021, it is also expected that the Islamic camp, which groups Muslim nations, will be fragmented, bringing about other Islamic camps in the Far East and Central Asia, as well as Africa, to compete with the Islamic camp led by Saudi Arabia. Thus, the competition will not be limited to a confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, but we will also see the growing power struggles within the Sunni political-religious camps (Turkey — Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Nigeria and Indonesia). Another split will be between countries backing moderate Islam and those claiming to support moderate Islam, but in reality funding extremist cells.

In 2020, the assiduous fading of state bodies in many Middle Eastern countries will craft favourable environments for strengthening domestic and international collective identities. By the same token, despotic political regimes still ruminate miscellany as key to power and feebleness. Such undemocratic Middle Eastern governments will proceed further with the unstated or uncluttered split of minorities, disregarding the opposition blocs and activists.

Proxy Wars and Protest to Escalate in the MENA

The conflict between Saudi and Iranian agents will continue in some countries in the Middle East. Although the Iranians proved to be more skilled in this competition, the Saudis count on American support. Washington will continue to escalate pressure on Iran using Europe as a springboard for further sanctions on Tehran and Iran would probably consider future moves using its proxy agents similar to Abqaiq refinery attack in Aramco.

Political instability will continue to hit the Middle East region. While the protests in Iraq and Lebanon will continue to achieve their goals with international support. Many demonstrations will be fuelled in other Middle Eastern states starting from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and some Gulf nations. As pro-Iran forces control Iraq and Lebanon, Tehran is likely to persuade its allies to make some concessions. This will require the efforts of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps to intervene when ordered.

Thus, three main focal points will prevail in 2020:

First: the impact of global economic trends on domestic politics; the influence of regional power struggles on unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. In many ways, these dynamics are interconnected and feed into one another. However, evidence of increased contact with Russia by countries like Egypt and Jordan should be taken in the context of the US disengagement from the region, which began during the Obama administration, and concern about the Trump administration’s disorganised, chaotic foreign policy. Furthermore, if the US administration announced the “long-awaited for the deal of the century”, this would push many Middle Eastern countries which have no peace deal with Israel to reconcile and naturalise ties even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved based on the Arab Peace Initiative (adopted in Beirut Arab League Summit).

Therefore, the Middle East will witness demonstrations in a number of countries, but without a regulatory framework to bring about regime change. Besides, economic conditions will aggravate, leading to more tensions.

The Three Core Sub-Regions of the Middle East

The Fertile Crescent (The Levant and Iraq)

Some experts believe that different paths will prevail in the sub-region of the Middle East: North Africa, the Gulf and the Fertile Crescent (the Levant and Iraq). The focus will be on resolving the Syrian crisis with the victory of the Assad regime and allies. Yet, Russian-Turkish ties will be affected by Russian-Syrian-Iranian intervention near the Turkish border. The threat that this would impose on the Turkish armed forces could spark a proxy war in Syria or at least in the North-West of the country.

Lebanon and Iraq would undergo a state of great internal turmoil that could either consolidate Iran’s power in both countries or lead to civil war by forming a techno-political government that consists of both former politicians and technocrats.

Having become the battlefield of the US and Iran, Iraq is risking to plunge in into severe instability and insecurity due to regional and international intervention in its internal affairs. It has been evident that when the Iraqi parliament asked the Americans and the international coalition to withdraw from Iraq, the Americans delinked the request, in a sign that whenever American military bases are present in countries, such states will have no independence or sovereignty to say no to the American who have the upper hand in these countries politically, economically and militarily. As Iraqi example shows, with the Americans threatening Iraqi government with sever sanctions Baghdad does not withdraw its request to the international troops to pull out of Iraq, it is clear that the first penalty on Iraq would be imposition of economic and financial sanctions that would badly affect economic activities and cause many financial and political issues in a bid to twist the arms of politicians and decision-makers in Iraq to reconsider their relationship with Iran and to ask Iranian troops to pull out of Iraq rather than asking the Americans.

In Iraq, there is little prospect of establishing a stable and popular government that can address the population’s genuine social and economic concerns, put an end to corruption and limit any foreign presence and interference in the country. Instability will generate violence; government hardship will fuel discontent and could herald the return of terrorist activities in Iraq as many countries prefer the country to be under the continued threat of jihadism, guaranteeing Iraqi’s allegiance to the West and the the US in fearing the repetition of the scenario of a strong Iraq of 1980s when the Iraqi army was one of the top ten world armies and used to have a say in political roadmap of the Middle East region, mainly in the GCC states.

Experts forecast that Jordan’s 2020 outlook will be promising as it is not involved in regional tensions. Although Jordanian diplomacy keeps walking the Middle East tightrope policy, the country closely monitors extremist factions and terrorist group leadership which seek to restore their power and evolve into a stronger caliphate relying on social media networks to recruit members and launch attacks. Jordanian Israeli bilateral relations will be tense because of Israel’s intransigence concerning the Palestinian issue, East Jerusalem and the expectation that the Israeli government would annex the Jordan Valley, exerting more pressure on the Palestinians in this region to move to Jordan, causing huge burdens on the Jordanian regime.

Syria will see national reconciliation due to internal and external dynamics paving the way for this end. Yet, Syria will not return to its pre-2011 state, as the Syrian regime will think twice before planning and acting to serve the people, businesses, and new generations which have lived the war and offered sacrifices. In the meantime, Moscow and Tehran will try to make sure that their interests in Syria are not shaky after all the sacrifices both countries have made to protect the regime and keep Syria united. The draft constitution proposed will be approved based on the partial decentralisation of power, which could lead to the return of many refugees from European and Arab countries.

North Africa

North Africa will have significant turbulence, and many North African states will be on the verge of violence starting from Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Western Sahara due to the flow of terrorist fighters from other African states. The only two countries that would be safe from terrorism and violence in north Africa are Morocco and Tunisia. In contrast, others will face waves of terrorist activities emanating from Mali, Nigeria and Somalia and Chad. The second version of the Arab Spring will spark in Lebanon and Iraq, then move to Algeria and Egypt for political and economic reasons. The outcome of regional and international interference and intervention in the Libyan affairs would backfire on its neighbours and further terrorist groups will arise, benefitting from international and regional rifts and disputes to settle down key conflicts in Africa where Iran, Turkey and some GCC states will have a proxy war that would split some of these countries based on conflicts of interests.

The GCC

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will continue to focus on tensions between some of their countries, Iran and Turkey. All of this depends on who will win in the coming American presidential elections in 2020. The next round of Israeli elections in March 2020 will help the GCC states take their final say about their political interests once Benjamin Netanyahu become the prime minister of Israel.

Yemen

The primary conflict in the Gulf now is Yemen, and the way to end it is problematic for the parties involved since the war in Yemen is not de-escalating as the gap between the warring parties remains wide and, in some respect, unbridgeable. Yemen will continue to be a war zone, and the Houthis will act to have the upper hand in north Yemen, rejecting any dictated agendas to resolve the conflict as their war with other parties and countries is a “to be or not to be”. KSA and the UAE will try through some agents to target the leader of the Houthis Abdul Malek Al Houthi to abort the dreams of the Houthis to have their political and military power in Yemen and in the region. Simultaneously, the Houthis will increase their targets in both KSA and UAE and this time by targeting entities of civic services to convey stronger messages to their leaderships.

Kuwait

In Kuwait, there is a new government, and new parliamentary elections will be held in 2020, paving the way for the country to have further democracy. Yet, the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would reflect on Kuwait as the Kuwaiti community is divided between both regional powers. Regarding the Sultanate of Oman, the country will continue to act as a bridge between Tehran and the GCC countries, the European countries and the US, working actively with Riyadh to put an end to the war in Yemen. However, success depends on how much effort the new Sultan Haitham bin Tarek can put into resolving these regional tensions: the Yemen war and Iranian-Saudi tension and whether he is going to follow the path of the previous Sultan. The new Sultan of Oman is to a great extent a replica of Sultan Qaboos’ policies.

Qatar

The Qatar crisis will be not solved as the recent meeting in Riyadh for the GCC was attended by the foreign minister, and there are no indicators that the dispute will be settled any time soon due to Doha’s steadfast stance. Moreover as the recent regional developments indicate that Qatar is trying to approach Iran at the expense of its GCC neighbours in order to be an alternative business hub if war erupts between Iran and the US with its other GCC allies. Furthermore, Qatar intensifies its contacts with Iran and broadens its cooperation in a bid to advocate itself later on as a mediator between Iran and other parties. And this will likely strengthen Qatari position in the region in 2020.

UAE and KSA

Any military intervention in the Gulf, if any, will not probably start before 2020 due to the many international events and meetings in the GCC countries. The UAE will host the World Expo in 2020, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host the G20 in Al Khobar at Aramco’s compound which it considers as an important playground to promote for itself and its modernisation in the framework of its 2030 Vision it is implementing with much effort. The year 2020 also marks the start of the countdown to the implementation of reform programs in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for 2030 (Kuwait is 2035 and Oman 2040) based on the achievement of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations Development Program. All of these programs hinge on the stability of the Gulf region, as any regional war would destroy all these plans and projects.

Kuwait

The health of Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah is in critical condition and this would increase the rift over the coming ruler of Kuwait in 2020–2021, leaving all options open for the Islamists to have a big say at the political scene of the country. Though the country is deemed one of the most advanced in the Gulf region politically as the emirate has an elected parliament with true democracy and free press, many neighbouring countries turn Kuwait into a satellite state. This will mark the coming era which will witness many Kuwaiti liberals, calling for safeguarding the country from any foreign interference.

Bahrain

As for Bahrain which is almost connected in its domestic and foreign policies with Saudi Arabia, it is slated that Manama will proceed further with the current trend of policies which would affect its relations with other GCC states at a later stage including those with Oman and at a later stage with Iraq due to the strong connections between Iraqi military groups with those in Bahrain whom Bahrain would accuse of tampering with its security and stability.

Other Key Players

Israel

Some important geopolitical trends in the region will be marked by March 2, 2020, with a new round of Israeli elections which would decide the future government of Israel. Indicators from Israel reveal that once Benjamin Netanyahu wins in the coming elections, he will announce the annexation of the Jordan Valley to Israel and this will adversely affect Israeli-Palestinian relations and Israeli-Jordanian relations, as this move violates the terms and articles of both Oslo (Palestinians and Israelis) and the Wadi Araba Agreements (Jordanians and Israelis). This would be at a critical time the threats of a regional war with Iran that would break out any moment as of summer 2020 after the American and western sanctions on Iran weaken the political regime and turn the Iranians against their rulers. thus, some GCC states will find it suitable to announce open normalisation of ties with Israel regardless of any Israel announcement with regard to the annexation process of the Jordan Valley as part of the so-called «Deal of the Century». The result will have an impact on the speed of development of relations between Israel and the GCC nations; Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority will feel marginalised or betrayed by other Arab states. Furthermore, Iranian comportment in the Gulf region (the increasing activities of Iranian naval forces) and Hezbollah in Lebanon will be taken seriously by Israel due to reluctance of the US administration to take military action against Iranian forces as Hezbollah will act even if by carrying out limited skirmishes that would lead to kidnapping some Israeli soldiers for further political and military concessions from both the Americans and the Israelis.

Iran

After the downing of the Ukrainian jet by Iranian forces, Iran has lost its fora and relatively privileged positions which Tehran has gained after killing of Qassim Soleimani which was a violation of international law. With the downing of the jet, Iran has lost the pretexts to act against any military provocations from other countries, fearing international outrage.

The general elections will be a sideshow for the vast majority of the population. But a more conservative and hard-line group will likely return to parliament to form a majority unless external interference is resorted to in order to affect people’s will, leading to further demonstrations and protests not only against the regime but also against its political elites and the Republican Guards who mostly control the country’s economy. On the other hand, there would be pro-government demonstrations and this would lead to direct clashes between both camps.

Furthermore, the so-called reformist/centrist/pragmatic camp would have a chance if regionally and internationally supported to change the pendulum of politics, especially after Iran has announced its pullout of the nuclear deal. Thus, the Western countries would find it easier to negotiate with a reformist camp rathe than to a rightist. Tehran and Washington are unlikely to make rapid progress, such as removing all sanctions in time. Therefore, the pressure of sanctions will continue to shape the Islamic Republic’s policies at home and abroad, and Tehran’s failure to protect its vulnerable population from harsh sanctions will lead to more unrest, violence and the erosion of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy. The sanctions have primarily secured the regime’s policies, and this is unlikely to change in 2020 if there are no improvements in Iran’s economic conditions and a radical change in the mindset of the American administration.

Turkey

Turkey’s sway in regional affairs will increase. Turkey will continue to play the double Dutch foreign policy cunningly between both Western and Eastern camps to secure their national interests domestically and externally. Turkish President Recep Erdogan will continue his repressive policy against any Kurdish state by the borders with Turkey as this will have problematic political developments. Yet, the political landscape in Turkey will be very critical with the Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s Ekrem Imamoglu, Ali Babacan (who was former prime minister) and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu will nominate themselves for presidential elections against Erdogan in the coming elections.

Erdogan is playing all political games with regional and international powers that serve him and his party. He is cautious when dealing with Russia, but in 2020 Russia will become Turkey’s key ally, though Ankara had been keeping Moscow before as Plan B for next scenarios against any American threat against political regime. Cooperation of Moscow and Ankara will intensify shaping a kind of alliance that limits Western opportunities to have an upper hand in regional affairs.

With Iran, Erdogan is also benefitting from the energy market, using the sanctions imposed on Tehran. With Syria and Iraq, he seeks to keep pushing for buffer zones to keep his borders clear and to distance Kurds from the Turkish borders. With the approval of the Turkish parliament to send troops to Libya to support Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj, the Turkish seek not to lose their final base in North Africa to other regional powers, considering that the loss of a presence means the loss of influence. Furthermore Turkey states clear that it is ready to step against the US and play its own geopolitical games freely and independently. Besides, Ankara made it clear that it is ready to play a «bigger» and more significant role in regional affairs than ever.

Conclusions

The expected re-election of US President Donald Trump will continue to have profound implications on the Middle East, and the inability to predict Western actions in the region and the profound absence of a coherent policy will affect regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Israel. Thus, the Gulf is slated to explode even without war on Iran because the whole region is divided based on each country’s national interests which contradict other states. Regarding the civil war in Libya, security will aggravate in the country, mainly in Tripoli, unless an agreement is reached among militant groups in addition to Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, the USA and Russia. The impeachment process of US President Donald Trump and the US role in the MENA region would determine the future of conflicts in many countries starting from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and the future government in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, Turkey and Iran. It is also expected that many MENA capitals will witness protests that would change the balance of power in the region. The outlook of the MENA in 2020 reveals that there will be a Sunni-Sunni split similar to the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

*Shehab Al Makahleh President of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center, Founder of the US-based Geostrategic and Media Center

From our partner RIAC

Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) Political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. President of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club

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The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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