The Middle East is rapidly transforming into a place where the U.S. is no longer a regional ‘gendarmerie’ with its armed forces and where countries project influence remotely, using proxies. It is likely that we will rarely see religiously- and ideologically-driven conflicts in this new period. The initial indicators have already started to appear.
►Reconciliation between Israel and Arab countries, and reciprocal embassy openings during Trump’s term are the most obvious examples of this.
►However, ‘peace’ was not only made between Israel and Arabs; Iran and Saudi Arabia, representing the two different branches of Islam, also came to the table. Nowadays, there is even talk of a second meeting in Damascus.
►The nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran have also made progress. There are now that sanctions in some critical areas such as banking and energy may be lifted.
►Apparently, inter-Arab conflicts have come to an end. The UAE has already taken the first step to establish a relationship with the Assad regime in Damascus. Saudi Arabia (SA) comes next. A high-level mixed Saudi-Emirati delegation paid a visit to Damascus two weeks ago. It was leaked that the Saudis may open an embassy in Damascus following the Ramadan holiday. The Arab press also speculated that Syria under the Assad regime will return to the Arab League after the holiday.
►There are signs that Middle East nations are taking steps back from the ideologically-driven approaches of recent years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are beginning to distance themselves from Wahhabism. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, is striving to actively, and sometimes violently, attempting to sideline Wahhabis. Resistance is obviously massive. Similar signs are emerging in the UAE. For instance, the Emirates didn’t close restaurants in the daytime during te Ramadan and the prohibition on alcoholic beverages is not implemented for foreigners in the country.
►The Muslim Brotherhood influence is gradually decreasing in North Africa, notably in Egypt. Tunisia saved itself from the Muslim Brotherhood to a large extent and integrated itself into the system. The Brotherhood was brutally annihilated in Egypt. Branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have gradually lost power in the political arena in Libya.
►As the U.S. withdraws from the Middle East militarily, we see the increasing influence of Russia and China. However, the approaches of Russia and China are different from the U.S. approach. Moscow prefers to work with existing administrations and resists any suggestion of regime change. In return, it is becoming more influential politically and has set up its own military bases there. China’s economic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative is rising. And like Russia, the Beijing government doesn’t tussle with existing regimes.
TURKEY TAKES A STEP, HOWEVER…
The AK Party became more deeply involved in the Middle East through a policy of regime change during the Arab Spring. However, it didn’t work and instead implicated Ankara in various armed struggles Egypt, Libya, Syria. As a result, it became isolated in the region. Moreover, none of those hoped-for regime changes came to pass. Both Sisi in Egypt and Assad in Syria remain firmly in control in their countries. The AK Party government’s efforts to reduce the influence of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi has proven ineffective.
Now, the AK Party government seems to be embracing the idea of economic cooperation without political interference in the Middle East. On virtually every front, we see Ankara reaching out to leaders who, not long ago, were vilified. The same top-level officials who called Egyptian President Sisi a “coup plotter- murderer” have now sent a delegation at the Deputy Ministerial level in order to meet with the Sisi administration. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s Ramadan phone call to the UAE and President Erdogan’s phone call to Saudi King at the beginning of Ramadan and prior to the Ramadan Holiday all appear to be steps toward peace.
We should warn, however, that there have not been much by way of concrete responses from the region. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is keeping in place its informal boycott of Turkish goods. The closure of eight Turkish schools, which have operated in the country for years, is a sign of the Riyadh administrations’ cautious approach to Turkey’s ‘peace’ overtures.
The trust issue also plagues the relationship with Egypt. In line with Egypt’s reconciliation demands, the AK Party government warned Muslim Brotherhood television channels broadcasting from Istanbul and halted broadcasts critical of Sisi. However, these television channels have simply shifted their broadcasts to YouTube, again irking Cairo.
Another demand from Egypt for normalization of relations with Turkey is Turkey’s military withdrawal from Libya. Syrian jihadists started to withdraw initially. However, the rest of the withdrawal didn’t come. The AK Party government insisted instead on the necessity of a ‘mass withdrawal’, pointing out that there are other mercenaries also on Libyan soil, such as Russia’s Wagner Group. However, there has been no response from either Moscow or the UAE, which is rumored to have funded the Wagner Group.
Turkey faces a great deal of pressure and the issue of Turkish forces in Libyan was front and center during the visit of Cavusoglu, Akar, and Fidan. The Libyan Foreign Minister said in person at the joint press conference that they are waiting for Turkey’s cooperation in the withdrawal of foreign soldiers in Libya.
The ‘trust issue’ seems to be the biggest problem Turkey is facing as the new Middle East is being formed.