The Middle East seems to be undergoing an all-encompassing reset. One at a time, Arab nations are making their pace with Israel. Monarchies in the Gulf are trying to settle old scores. Radical groups shore up old alliances. Iran gets pushed back after over a decade and a half of expansions. The highlights of the 2000s were the outcome of the attack of the al-Qaeda network on the United States, while those of the following decade the result of the Arab Spring. In the East, the third decade is marked by the political will of its leaders.
The early year surprise: the reconciliation of Sunni monarchies in the Gulf
The most important event at the start of the new year in the Middle East has all but gone under the radar: the reconciliation between Qatar and a group of four states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which in 2017 imposed an air and naval blockade on Qatar. The dispute had raged on as Sunni monarchies in the Gulf competed for regional influence and power. Other reasons included Qatar’s refusal to censor Al Jazeera, a TV station which had been extremely vocal against regimes in other Arab countries (of course, the limitations of Al Jazeera’s freedom of speech are transparent in its coverage of issues related to Qatar, especially on its Arab-language channel) as well as Qatar’s good relations with Iran, which the Saudis, the Emirates and others regard as the main regional threat. In its attempt to become a regional force to be reckoned with, Qatar struck an alliance with Turkey, which included the setup of a Turkish military base on its territory. Qatar equally supported the Muslim Brotherhood network and Islamic parties with close ties to the Brotherhood, or which branched out of the movement, spreading to the entire Arab world, from Egypt, where it enjoyed close relations with Mohamed Morsi’s regime, to Libya, where it supports the government in Tripoli, and Gaza, where it provided extensive funding to Hamas. This caused an upset among countries with leadership aspirations in the Arab and Muslim world, first of all Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who in Libya, for instance, together with the United Arab Emirates, support field marshal Khalifa Haftar, an opponent of the government in Tripoli. In the case of Egypt, another contributing factor was the Brotherhood’s decade-long rivalry with the Egyptian army, which actually overthrew Morsi.
Tensions soared in 2017, when Qatar was actually threatened with open war and received an ultimatum including a list of 13 demands, which would have basically turned the country into an annex of Saudi Arabia. War was avoided, but its neighbors resorted to a blockade and a boycott, which Doha survived easily due to the huge amount of capital it owns and to the cooperation with Iran and Turkey. In 2019, the Saudis started sending signals they were willing to overcome their differences with Qatar, but even so, the announcement regarding the normalization of relations made on January 4 came as a surprise. It’s unclear just how many of the 13 demands Qatar accepted, because they were never mentioned again, and if the hatchet was truly buried, or is just waiting to be dug out at any time.
The most important legacy of the Trump era
Reconciliation in the Gulf was made possible due to Kuwait and the United States stepping in and brokering a resolution, considering the Americans exert considerable sway over all the stakeholders in this conflict. Their contribution to the negotiation process has been trivialized, as Washington had more pressing matters to deal with – the pandemic, the presidential transition, Trump’s final effort to challenge the result of the election. One day after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit hosted by Al-'Ula, Saudi Arabia, also attended by Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, and which put an end to Qatar’s dispute with the four countries, the Capitol was stormed by Trump’s supporters, so no one cared much about the Gulf. The reconciliation, however, is one of the pillars of Trump’s broader strategy for the Middle East, a strategy which might remain one of the most important legacies of his highly controversial presidency.
It’s worth going over the main points in this strategy: moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem, known as a capital of Israel, a move which cannot be undone, irrespective of what becomes of Trump’s peace plan for the Middle East; turning up the pressure on Iran and brokering the peace deal between Israel and four Arab states – Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan, the last two being closely tied. Iran has always been a concern for the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf due to its appetite for more territories; these concerns have done nothing but grow after the proclamation of the Islamic Republic, which is ideologically opposed to Gulf nations – a revolutionary and theocratic Shia-Islamic regime in contrast with fundamentalist Sunni autocratic governments. This also explains why in the ‘80s the Gulf supported Iraq in its war against Iran. After 2003, Iran unleashed an overarching regional offensive, expanding its sphere of influence through Iraq and Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean and Lebanon, where Hezbollah reigns supreme – it’s the so-called “Iranian crescent”. Teheran has likewise been active in the Gulf, an area which the Saudis and other Sunni monarchies claim to be rightfully theirs through ties with Shia communities in countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, but especially Yemen, where the Houthis succeeded in occupying large parts of the country a few year back, including the capital Sana’a. Iran’s expansionist drive was seen as a threat, both by Gulf states and Israel, which Teheran’s propaganda demonizes as much as it does the United States. All these countries, which have been Washington’s allies for decades, exerted pressure on the Trump administration to toughen its stance on Iran, which it actually did by pulling back from the nuclear agreement, reintroducing a line of sanctions and assassinating Qassem Soleimani, the top military operations architect in the region. As a tradeoff to America’s policies, Gulf countries and Israel agreed to formalize relations that had been secretly going on for years, which also provided Trump with an ace in the hole in the presidential election.
Relations between Arab countries and Israel and the GCC reconciliation are not the only elements to have tipped the balance of power in the East. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a huge buzz over Hamas being on talking terms with Bashar al-Assad’s regime again, which means the old Iran – Syria – Hezbollah – Hamas alliance predating the Syrian civil war has been restored. The alliance collapsed due to the Syrian Sunni-Islamic forces’ opposition to Bashar al-Assad, who is a member of the Shia Alawite sect. The conflict put a serious dent in the reputation that Hezbollah, a Shia militia, enjoyed among Arab Sunnis for its military victories over Israel. Now that the war in Syria is virtually frozen, with the last of the rebel forces being cornered in the north, in the Idlib province, and that the status quo will be upheld as long as Turkey keeps deploying troops to defend Idlib, old relations can be resumed and recent bygones may well be bygones.
The breakdown of the Iran – Syria – Hezbollah – Hamas alliance was one the outcomes of the Arab Spring, which seems to have come to a close in that part of the Middle East as well.
When vox populi is not enough. The shortcomings of the Arab Spring
In a region dominated by authoritarian regimes, the Arab Spring gave people a voice, at a time when talk of democracy in the East had intensified to unprecedented levels. However, this far-reaching regional movement produced mixed effects. A number of dictators and authoritarian leaders were removed from power; Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh were killed, Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine ben Ali died in exile, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak spent a few years in prison, died some time later and was buried with military honors. A few years after the first wave of the Arab Spring, a second wave gripped the Arab world, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika were the next to fall. Iraq and Lebanon, two countries still preserving some form of democracy, saw wide anti-government protests, and the entire political class was accused of incompetence of corruption. There was even talk of bringing in armed Shia militias as a “sacred cow” solution. In the meantime, Tunisia seems to have embraced democracy – although there’s always room for a surprise – and other parts of the Arab world have also grown more lenient as half a decade ago.
Nevertheless, the Arab Spring came with a great cost. Civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The explosive surge of the Islamic State and the great war that swept Syria and Iraq, with ramifications stretching beyond the borders of the “caliphate”, from the West, to Central Asia or Western Africa. Authoritarianism took root in Egypt, the largest Arab country in the world, where the regime instated by the “Free Officers” movement in the ‘50s was clinging to power, only for a young generation to replace the “mummies”, which is what Mubarak’s near-senile acolytes were ironically called. And Egypt is not even an isolated case – take, for instance, Bahrain, and the list goes on. As regards the second wave of the Arab Spring, again, the results are not too encouraging. The army has maintained and consolidated its position of power both in Algeria and in Sudan. The regimes haven’t changed much in Iraq and Lebanon either.
Overall, it’s safe to assume the Arab Spring was, for it most part, a failure, all the more as we take into account the aspirations and demands of the crowds of people protesting in the streets. The causes for this failure are many – the response of the regimes pressed against the wall, the lack of response from external powers who could have made a difference, or, conversely, their inappropriate response (Russia’s unconditional support for Assad’s regime, NATO’s faulty intervention in Libya, Turkey’s actions, etc.), various divisions within the mass of protesters, with groups having separate interests and making distinct claims: pro-democracy militants, representatives of various national minority groups, tribes in search of influence and so on and so forth. Another cause could be linked to the timing and development of the Arab Spring. Maybe it happened too quickly and all too sudden. “What if” scenarios are purely fictitious and thus futile, but one might speculate that a slower change, spreading over the course of several generations, would have enabled a smoother and less violent democratic transition. The next generation of leaders groomed by the Arab world tyrants were considered to be more open and willing to accept a liberalization of their societies. Perhaps, in time, these societies would also have grown wiser and wouldn’t have allowed the escalation of new civil wars.
Vox regibus. A new East, or a turn back in time?
Whereas the Arab Spring gave people a voice, the start of new decade has given voice back to their rulers. It was Arab world leaders who decided to formalize relations with Israel, at the risk of facing internal opposition, which is exactly what happened in some cases (see Sudan). In other cases concerns remained unvoiced, mostly out of fear. Leaders such as the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) or the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), who mentored the former, launched modernization processes in their countries, which they guide with an iron fist. In the former’s case, at least, fears that his despotic rule might overshadow all the other Saudi kings before him are as high as expectations linked to reforms, which in certain areas are still reminiscent of the dark ages.
The problem with such reformist, top-down plans is that they’re old news in the Middle East. All secular, leftist regimes who’ve taken power by force, from Algeria to Iraq, have tried it before – and at first they were successful. These were the very regimes that gave birth to some of the most gruesome dictatorships in the region, which the Arab Spring protests challenged and eventually overthrew. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, tried it himself, and the result was in the end a revolution that led to the proclamation of the Islamic Republic, an oppressive regime funding terrorism all over the world. The first to attempt the introduction of such reforms (and the most successful at it) was the very man who served as a role model for many of the aforementioned leaders - Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The result is that, 100 years later, instead of being part of the family of Western democracies, Turkey is an authoritarian state, led by an Islamic party that increasingly owns up to its Ottoman legacy, which Atatürk tried so hard to purge.
The Eastern reset we’ve witnessed in the last few months may usher in a new era. Judging from official documents and speeches, the future holds much promise. Time will tell if this reset, which opens up a new chapter in the history of this region, will truly foreshadow a new East or will simply turn back the clock.