Today the world is totally focused on the war in Ukraine. While that is understandable, given its potential consequences to the whole world and the heavy attention the Western media dedicates to it, there are huge changes far further from the limelight. And these are equally important about the future.
Several things could be mentioned here. Like the renewed claims by Beijing about Taiwan. Or that the Chinese Foreign Minister made his debut visit to Afghanistan since the county was taken over by the Ṭālebān. Yet within the same tour, he not only stopped at Pakistan but ended his trip in India, which is the first such high-level meeting since the two states had a military clash in 2020. The two not only paved the way for a possible rapprochement, but also for a joint stand in a number of global matters.
Normally these dealings are shadowed by intense American diplomatic activity. But today Washington is busy with Russia and Europe.
Another such developing matter is the recently intensified clandestine and cyberwar between Israel and Iran. Today the world is busy evaluating the Russian precision strikes on the mercenary and Western-supported training camps in Ukraine. But not long ago, though gaining much less attention, Tel Aviv and Tehran exchanged similar surprising strikes on each other’s sensitive facilities.
This unfolding conflict matter along with the Vienna nuclear talks between Iran and the West reaching their final stages push most Arab states to evaluate their standing, and on which side they rather wish to end up on. Diplomatic missions are busy these days to set the equation before yet another possible major clash. And that already brought some surprising, though long-awaited twists, like the historic visit of Syrian President Baššār al-Asad to the Emirates.
Normally the U.S. would be busy monitoring and guiding these developments. But today Washington is busy. Which leaves the question: Which way the Arab world is heading? Which is the eve of a major energy crisis is not at all a secondary question.
A not so hidden war
The current series of mutual strikes against each other between Iran and Israel allegedly started in early February, though for a long time it was not revealed. Allegedly some time in early February 2022 Israel carried out a strike – though the method and the details are completely unclear – against an Iranian drone facility at Kermānšāh, destroying hundreds of drones. This was only revealed on 15 March by the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, but nor before nor at that time no confirmation was reported by any Iranian, or independent source. While this itself is suspicious, what makes this claim even more doubtful is that only came in the context of a surprising Iranian strike.
In the early hours of 13 March Iran carried out a precision strike in the close proximity of the Irbīl airport in Northern Iraq, very close to a still operational American base. It seemed initially that the target might have been the American base itself, as recently the attacks against the American positions is increasing – thought usually by local resistance groups -, but that was soon refuted both by Tehran and Washington. The real target was in fact a Mossad training and spy center right next to the main airport of Iraqi Kurdistan and the American Ḥarīr military base. The Iranian strike was a huge surprise. Not because the Iranians managed to reveal this Israeli position, as the same area was hit several times in the months before. The surprise was caused by the fact that shortly before the strike a new team came to the base, allegedly preparing for an operation within Iran, which was stopped and several Israeli agents died in the attack.
The alleged Israeli strike at Kermānšāh in February was only revealed following this attack, which Israeli sources reasoned as a retaliation. However, this might have been part of moral warfare. Once again, no Iranian, or Western source, even Iranian antigovernment source ever mentioned the strike at Kermānšāh, not even later, which is unusual for Iran. It makes it even more likely that Iran revealed an upcoming Israeli operation and foiled that the day after the Irbīl attack Iran announced that a Mossad sabotage operation against a main nuclear facility at Fordō was uncovered and prevented. Also at the same time, an Israeli spy ring was uncovered in Iran.
All together, while it is not denied by either side that there is a clandestine war between the two parties for years by now, it seems that Iran caught an Israeli operation and strike back severely. Is it is likely that Tel Aviv only invented the airstrike against Kermānšāh, to mitigate the significance of this Iranian step? Especially, that such a move suggests highly developed Iranian intelligence, probably even cyber capabilities.
Tehran soon took the matter even further, when dubious hacker groups linked to Iran leaked information from Mossad director David Barnea. It seems very likely that the hackers managed to crack Barnea’s phone, or computer, which alarmed the Israeli leadership.
This set of events and the previous surprise, when the Lebanese Ḥizb Allah managed to send a drone deep within Israel and return the drone unharmed indicate that the situation is escalating in the region and a major clash might be very close. The nuclear negotiations in Vienna are also in their final stages. All that added up Tel Aviv is in an uneasy situation, which prompted swift action. Both Isreal and Iran now try to improve their positions, and that put the whole region between them at crossroads.
Under such circumstances naturally, all Arab states right between two regional powers on a warpath should think about their options. And certainly, they do. However, there are a number of factors, which puts them ahead of uneasy choices. And the result is a slowly developing middle road amid very busy diplomatic activities.
Many Arab states, especially those in the Gulf and Egypt are in a precarious position. While they are suspicious about Iran, against which they have a long history of grievances and clandestine activities, they are equally uneasy to side with Tel Aviv. Normally under such circumstances, they would opt for increased American involvement to provide security guarantees. But today that is an unlikely path to be taken. On the one hand, because following their very logical economic interests they practically sided with Russia in the current economic-sanction war. But on the other, because long before that the relations between Washington and these Arab allies were already in shambles. The Biden administration continued its position on Egypt, where Obama left it with a very cold and distanced opinion. Biden also failed to give support to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in their war effort in Yemen, failed to protect them from the continued areal strikes, and from their point of view, humiliated their leaderships. Yet at the same time failed to heal the relations with Qatar, which turned bitter after Trump gave tacit support to Riyadh, Cairo, and Abū Zabī in their blockade against Doha. So losing one set of allies did not result in regaining another one. Thus their position on the anti-Russia sanctions only came natural. This not only surprised Washington but also made certain opinion centers demand punishment for Saudi Arabia for “its support for Russia”.
So other than rallying American support, what can the Arab states do to embrace themselves before the coming storm? Some, like Syria, are in an easy position. Their excellent relations with both Russia and Iran clearly mark their position. Others, like Iraq paralyzed by internal problems, might wish to loosen their strong ties with Tehran but have few options to choose from. Yet for the most, the picture is anything but clear. Which led to a very busy diplomatic zigzag, and very mixed signals.
A few months ago the high-level meetings between top Emirati and Iranian leaders and the good progress of the Saudi-Iranian talks suggested that the Gulf is slowly distancing itself from the previously zealous “normalization”, or alliance-building process with Israel. But that track is not that clear now. The developments in Yemen surely disturbed this track, just like the now escalating war between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
The first signal that the Gulf might not ditch the Israeli friendship just yet came around Bahrain, which has become a testing ground for these relations. This was reasoned by both Bahraini and other Gulf officials as nothing, but international cooperation with the West in which Israel might be involved, but that those not mean direct bilateral cooperation between Tel Aviv and Manama. However, on 9 March Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi arrived in Bahrain and held extensive talks with his Bahraini counterpart. This came after a long series of high-level political and military meetings and the formal appointment of an Israeli liaison officer for the first time to an Arab county. While Bahrain itself might weight little in the equation, two things are significant. On the one hand, no Gulf state commented on this development, while it is known that Manama can hardly formulate foreign policy on its own, without first consulting its Arab neighbors. Yet on the other hand, until very recently Iran also refrained to comment on these developments, which must have been alarming for Tehran. Thus suggesting that there was still some hope for an overall rapprochement, which no parties wanted to jeopardize.
Since those significant meetings, however, between the Iranian officials and their Saudi and Emirati counterparts the war practically started between Tehran and Tel Aviv. And that ignited the series of high-level meetings, which are still going on. These go on three separate, but interlinked tracks. On the first Israel started to increase its diplomatic activities in the Gulf and Egypt and tried to form an anti-Iran regional alliance. On the second recently Iranian Foreign Minister took a regional tour to secure support with its transitional allies in Syria and Lebanon. While on the third the leading Arab states did their best to formulate some sort of joint position, but also probe both parties.
As for the Israeli effort, it was mostly shown before. A set of groundbreaking visits to the Emirates and Bahrain paved the way to establish some ground for future cooperation against Iran. Thought this might just be part of the traditional mental warfare by Israel trying to intimidate Iran and drive a wedge between Tehran and its neighbors in the Gulf, by now the Israeli media openly talks about a possible regional alliance. The pivotal moment of this diplomatic activity was Prime Minister Bennett’s meeting with Egyptian President as-Sīsī and Emirati leader Ibn Zāyid in Egypt. Which came only shortly after a high-level meeting between as-Sīsī and Saudi Crown Ibn Salmān in Riyadh on 8 March. We know very little about the results of these meetings, but the trajectory is clear. And whatever was the true outcome of these consultations, Israel is so far successful to give an image that it can count on at least some regional support.
This track was interwoven with a set of meetings between the Arab leaders themselves. On a surprising, though long waited move on 18 March Syrian President Baššār al-Asad arrived in the Emirates. This is a historic breakthrough practically ending the long war on Syria, at least by its Arab rivals. The move has already provoked criticism from Washington, but the Emirates shows little concern. While this is a historic shift, which could sign a possible reconciliatory attempt by Abū Zabī towards the pro-Iran camp, it should not be missed from sight that again, beyond the cordial appearance, there were no tangible results. We still don’t know how this meeting, which is indeed very important, would change the realities around Syria. Especially in the light of the later developments. Because not long after this meeting Emirati Crown Prince, the de facto leader of the state held a tripartite meeting in Egypt with President as-Sīsī and Israeli Prime Minister Bennett. Which would suggest a swing in the opposite direction. A day later the same Arab leaders continued their consultations with Jordanian King ‘Abd Allah and Iraqi Prime Minister Muṣṭafā al-Kāẓimī. Knowing how fearful Jordan is of Iran and how fragile is the political landscape in Iraq now, this again indicates that these consultations do not necessarily aim to mend fences with Iran or the pro-Iran camp. Much rather a forum for the states which are generally at odds with Iran, but on good terms, it’s the West exchanging views on the current events.
Probably in reaction to all that Iranian Foreign Minister Amīr ‘Abdollahiyān started his own regional tour to rally support. On 23 March he arrived in Damascus and met with President al-Asad. Here he not only expressed continued support for their strong bilateral alliance, but also supported Syria’s rebuilding ties with the Emirates in particular, and with the whole Arab world in general. Though it might be a suspicious process for Tehran. The following day ‘Abdollahiyān left to Beirut, where he held a series of the high-level meeting, ending with a meeting with Ḥizb Allah Secretary General Ḥasan Naṣr Allah and a lengthy interview with Lebanese independent television channel al-Mayadeen. During this trip the Iranian Foreign Minister not only appealed to the traditional pro-Iranian political circles, but to the whole state apparatus, offering extended economic help for example for the crisis stricken country. Having said that, however, the true nature was also revealed during the aforementioned interview, when ‘Abdollahiyān said that “no Israeli presence will be accepted in the Gulf”.
So far such statements were only randomly expressed by the most hardcore cadres of the Iranian military, but never from the official political line. Which can be read as a warning, or a possible signal of dissatisfaction with the current state of the Iran-Gulf rapprochement. The fact that after some considerations Sana’a also refused the recent Saudi initiative for an overall peace conference in Riyadh, and stroke a devastating blow on the kingdom also shows that Tehran is dissatisfied. Thus the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is over.
The solution of the riddle
So where does this diplomatic busywork leave us? What does it suggest that after extended peace negotiations Riyadh recently broke off these attempts? How come that shortly after meeting with Baššār al-Asad the Emirati leadership met with the Israeli government under Egyptian guidance and with Saudi cooperation? What is the reading on these mixed signals?
The solution is very probable. Egypt, while having little problems with Iran, for a number of reasons endorse a more inclusive Israeli regional partnership, and would love to be a facilitator in this for their own benefit. The Gulf states may, or may have been not sincere while trying to mend fences with Iran, but the real point of the diplomatic work was to settle the internal rivalries. To make Riyadh, but much more the Abū Zabī regain their tarnished influence.
The meeting with the Syrian President fits in, as this is an attempt to probe the pro-Iranian camp on the one hand about their intentions, but also to once again split it. Most importantly to offer the old and every recurring proposal for Damascus. If Syria breaks its alliance – not necessarily all economic and military ties – with Iran, in exchange for that the Gulf will reintroduce it to the Arab world, the Arab League, and reopen funds and investments to the Damascus. Within the same process, the Emirates will mediate a permanent peace deal between Syria and Israel returning parts of the Ğūlān Heights – or all of it -, ending the support for the terrorist cells and the demand for American support in Southern Syria. While this is important itself, this process could be extended easily to include Saudi Arabia, either as a secondary guarantor, or another normalizer. This would be a huge favor for Riyadh, which so far struggled to find the right excuse for the developing Saudi-Israeli ties.
Overall this approach seemed doomed to fail, as it has always failed before. However, in the meantime the resolve of both camps can be probed, the Saudi-Emirati ties settled, and a broader Arab security camp under Emirati influence created. A bold plan indeed, which could finally repair the somewhat weakened Emirati role in the region, and once again marginalize the old rival Qatar. Which has few choices now, as for its deep entanglement with Turkey, can offer very little to Syria, or Iraq.
This is, of course, is just a hypothesis. But one, which fits the details. In the end, what does Syria mean to the Emirati leadership, especially on the level worth invoking American fury? What do the Emirates gain from all these favors given – at least by appearance – to Damascus? On its own nothing. But along with its diplomatic efforts, it can prove its worth with Israel, settle its relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and those between them, gain favors all along the Arab world, from Morocco and Algeria to Syria and Iraq, and take over all Qatari positions in the region. Because the center pillar of the Emirati foreign policy, the key aspect above all economic, strategic, security, and global concerns is the rivalry with Qatar. That Qatar must be crushed.
When Saudi Arabia in the al-‘Ulā Summit in January 2021 ended the blockade, reconciled with Qatar, and enforced this reconciliation upon its allies Doha practically won the game. Since then the Emirates were on the back foot in this regional rivalry. The question was, how will it return to the game. It just did. Between the meeting with Baššār al-Asad and another with Bennett, in the background of an escalating war between Tehran and Tel Aviv, slowly knitting the ties.