Where US-backed diplomacy is on the march in the Middle East

Saudi Press Agency/Reuters
The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, meets with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 11, 2021.

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After eight years of frosty relations, Egypt and Turkey held their first high-level talks last week to move toward “normalized ties.” Not to be outdone, Qatar advanced its detente with Egypt; Saudi Arabia and Syria held secret talks in Damascus; and the Turkish foreign minister traveled to Riyadh this week to repair ties.

The overtures are adding to the ongoing dialogue between the region’s primary rival powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite the violence convulsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dialogue and diplomacy are in the air this spring across much of the Middle East. Competitors that had divided the region have come together to call “truce.”

Why We Wrote This

Despite the convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence, there are signs that the arrival of a diplomacy-first Biden administration has accelerated a “diplomatic spring” across much of the Middle East.

Although this surge of diplomacy may be driven by realpolitik more than by a real change of heart, the Biden administration has accelerated the process, using its status as a key ally for other regional actors to push their dialogues further along.

“All the major regional powers have probably come to the realization that in this game of nations they were playing the past 10 years, no one can score a knockout, nobody is capable of a total win,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “Everyone is in the mood to de-escalate.”

In a Middle East region where an old conflict has erupted anew, the official resets in diplomatic ties have been, nevertheless, as many as they have been momentous.

After eight years of frosty relations, withdrawn ambassadors, rivalry, and recriminations, Egypt and Turkey held their first high-level talks last week to move toward “normalized ties.”

Not to be outdone, Qatar advanced its detente with Egypt; Saudi Arabia and Syria held secret talks in Damascus to reestablish ties; and the Turkish foreign minister traveled to Riyadh this week to repair relations with Saudi Arabia.

Why We Wrote This

Despite the convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence, there are signs that the arrival of a diplomacy-first Biden administration has accelerated a “diplomatic spring” across much of the Middle East.

The diplomatic overtures are adding to the ongoing dialogue between the region’s primary rival powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and efforts to wind down the Yemen war.

Despite the violence convulsing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dialogue and diplomacy are in the air this spring across much of the Middle East. Rivals that had divided the region the past decade with competition for influence, territory, and resources have come together to call for a truce.

Behind this sudden diplomatic push, analysts say, is a fatigue among regional powers over the cost of interventions, trade wars, and economic crises at home, and an eagerness to formalize the status quo.

Although these detentes may be driven by realpolitik more than by a real change of heart, the arrival of a diplomacy-first Biden administration has accelerated the Mideast’s “diplomatic spring.”

Even as Washington is coming under increased pressure to do more than urge restraint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is using its status as a key ally for other regional actors to push their dialogues further along, and to put an end – at least for now – to the rivalries and proxy wars that have destabilized the region.

Fresh off a trip last week to the region, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said the Biden administration’s focus on de-escalation and diplomacy “has had an immediate, positive impact,” noting that “the grass shoots of dialogue are emerging between historic rivals.”

“It is clear that Middle Eastern leaders see the Biden administration’s priority on settling conflict,” Senator Murphy said in a press call Monday, citing the “encouraging” and “positive” signs in efforts to end the Yemen conflict, Saudi-Iran talks, and an end to the rift among Gulf Arab countries.

Cementing gains

The regional powers’ gains in the past decade have been many.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates achieved economic, political, and even military footholds in North Africa and the Horn. Turkey secured maritime concessions off the Libyan coast, and a buffer zone in northern Syria. Egypt has influence over eastern Libya, its neighbor to the west.

Diplomatic sources say regional actors have reached an “understanding” over a common interest in maintaining their individual gains, rather than competing for more.

“All the major regional powers have probably come to the realization that in this game of nations they were playing the past 10 years, no one can score a knockout, nobody is capable of a total win,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “So now it seems they are counting what they have gained from the competition.”

It was during the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, where the decade of intensified regional rivalries began and two rival axes took shape.

Turkey, along with Qatar, supported political Islamist groups following the popular uprisings that overthrew Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE – concerned that Arab Spring uprisings would reach their doorsteps and suspicious of Ankara- and Doha- backed Islamists – supported the rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the democratically elected Islamist Mohammed Morsi in a military coup.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP
Sedat Onal (seated third from right), a Turkish Foreign Ministry deputy, meets with Hamdi Sanad Loza, Egyptian deputy foreign minister, and their delegations, at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo, May 5, 2021.

Points of contention

This month’s reset in Turkish-Egyptian ties is based on Libya, another conflict state where the Turkey-Qatar and UAE-Saudi-Egypt axes competed. 

Both Ankara and Cairo have found they can work with Libya’s recently formed Government of National Unity, and increasingly see it as in their interest that the new billionaire businessman-led government stays in power.

Although the sides have not resolved their core ideological differences, the sticking point in the rivalry between the two axes – Islamist movements – is increasingly becoming moot.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been dismantled, jailed, and repressed in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Islamists have increasingly lost at the polls in Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere.

“The Muslim Brotherhood ... did not have the impact everyone expected – they did not topple the regime in Egypt, they did not come back to power, and they did not witness a renaissance,” says Mr. Abdulla, noting that Qatar and Turkey have found diminishing returns in Islamists.

Regional powers have also backed off their weaponized media coverage, halting a polarizing us-versus-them narrative and restraining state-owned media in Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates.

Turkey, faced with Cairo’s request to extradite Egyptian opposition figures and Islamists for trial, instead muted figures residing in Turkey and stopped their activism, shutting down popular YouTube channels.

Power of the pandemic

With its economic downturns, observers say the coronavirus pandemic was a tipping point for many regional powers whose ambitious regional designs had already left them “overstretched” and “vulnerable.”

Oil prices and tourism plummeted, investments and state subsidies dried up, and economies contracted.

“One important reason for dialogue right now is the pandemic,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“If you are a Mohammed bin Salman, COVID-19 and public unrest due to restrictions and lockdowns become a much greater threat at home than the Houthis” in Yemen.

“Competition and rivalry have become pointless and [are] draining the energy and resources of all sides,” says Birol Baskan, a fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The pandemic made it even worse.”

U.S. as “midwife”

Regional analysts and Arab officials say the Biden administration has played a crucial role in “accelerating” this diplomatic spring, even “midwifing” the detentes.

Analysts say this push for regional dialogue and de-escalation comes as part of a desire by the Biden administration to shift its focus and energy to challenges at home, climate change, and competition with China.

Key to President Joe Biden’s approach was encouraging a change in Saudi Arabia’s behavior by suspending support for the war in Yemen and pursuing accommodation with Iran.

Other powers are taking cues from a Saudi kingdom that is suddenly pursuing diplomacy to achieve its goals and contain Iran’s influence through nonmilitary means and are following suit, analysts and officials say.  

“It is not a coincidence that almost immediately after the election of President Biden, you saw the rift [among Gulf Arab countries] get on a pathway to being healed,” Senator Murphy said. “It’s not a coincidence that after President Biden was sworn in, you saw the Iranians and the Saudis starting to talk to each other.”

Will this diplomatic spring bloom into a new era of cooperation – or even end competition? It seems too early to say.

“The one threat on the horizon to these de-escalations and understandings is the situation in Jerusalem and violence between the Israelis and Palestinians,” says Mr. Riedel.  

“If the situation in Jerusalem continues to get worse, and we see a third intifada – that could immediately polarize the region again, and Iran would be the big winner.”

For now, says Mr. Abdulla, the Emirati analyst, “everyone is in the mood to de-escalate, and we have seen it backed up by actions on the ground, too.”

“But are regional powers just buying time to compose themselves and compete again, or is this a long-term strategic shift? We are only in the first five minutes of this process; we will have to wait and see.”

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