Crossing interests

            As the shockwaves of the Israeli-Emirati-Bahraini normalization are still hitting the Arab world, this week we continue to give a broad overall understanding of what is happening, what this normalization really means, and what is the most probable rearrangement to be expected soon.

            Last week we started this journey with giving a general understanding about the three main camps struggling with each other in the Middle East. Next week we will see how those states react and try to find their way, which is not strongly affiliated with any camps, like Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman, or Sudan. All these states try to deal with the situation and hold on to their own free will, not just to drift with the current, while also at the same time taking advantage of the situation and make the best out of it.

            Between the two points, this week we will focus on the crossing interests between the camps, which complicate realignments and reconciliation between the camps. These contradictions pose now the biggest obstacle, as clearly the two camps facing the ascending Israeli-Emirati-Egyptian axis are trying to mend fences. However, at the same time, this almost unsolvable puzzle might give insights how the strategic landscape will look like, after Israel became a formal player in the regional struggle, not a catalyst of rivalries.

            These contradictions, which all manifest in the Palestinian fold as well, give out a very convoluted the Middle East. By understanding these lines one can not only understand that these frontlines are not new but also the now the American administration clearly focusing only on the elections in November is running on a course almost nothing diametric to the main issues. That is why now Washington makes surprising gains, while on other occasions dreams about the impossible.

            After the Emirates brought Israel to the strategic map as a full partner can the Axis of Resistance and the Turkish-Qatari camp join forces? Can they solve their conflicts? Can they add vital assets to the other to thwart this emerging threat? Are they in an unbreakable deadlock destined to all struggle in multiple fronts? To understand these questions we will have to see the relations between each pair of camps.


The Emirati-Saudi Block vs. the Axis of Resistance

            This is possibly the most complex pair, as there are multiple players on both sides. We wish to point out right at the beginning Israel and its interests will not be considered in this evaluation. First of all, because Tel Aviv is not a “full” partner. It hasn’t been such, given its lack of legal status in the Arab fold, and probably it will never be, as the Jewish state will not give concessions for the sake of any of its partners. It will surely bring advantages, or make favors to its partners, but to give up self-centered interests for the benefit of its partners is not feasible. This has already shown in the row about the Emirati purchase of American F-35 planes. So we will see the strategic assessment both here and in the next sections based on the realities before the Abraham Accords. And that will show why Abū Zabī and Cairo felt inviting Tel Aviv into the club not only a necessity but also as a very good strategic decision.

            Assessing this matter we have to understand that within the Egyptian-Saudi-Emiratis block the role of Riyadh is secondary, Abū Zabī leads now, and the Egyptian-Emirati relation rules overall consideration. That is because Egypt provides the muscle, the military backing for the Emirates in case it needs it, while the Emirates keeps the current Egyptian leadership afloat with its financial support. Therefore, however, the Saudis view the other camps is almost irrelevant, as all major decisions, just like that of the normalization, happen without Riyadh.

            The main conflict between this mentioned block and the Axis of Resistance is of course concentrated around Iran. Regardless of the claims Iran being a Persian nationalistic regime, being a threat as an aggressively expanding power, having a revolution exporting agenda, or even being a Shii “infidel” state, these are not the core issues. And the more blatant accusations, like Iran supporting terrorism, interfering with the internal affairs of its Arab Gulf neighbors, or even that it holds three Emirati islands occupied are just vocal excuses, but not irreconcilable conflicts. The three islands of Abū Mūsā, Lesser and Greater Ṭunb are seriously disputed, as those were taken over by Iran in 1971 in the wake of the Emirati independence slightly before the UAE was formed. The formal claimant to these islands, the Emirate of Rās al-Hayma has been pushing for tough measures, but most other emirates in the UAE are way less keen on confrontation. At one point current Dubai monarch Muḥammad ibn Rāšīd Āl Maktūm even called the matter a fabricated story by the United States, which along with the still lucrative trade relations with Iran explains why the Emirates never made serious attempts to regain the islands.

The three disputed islands in the Straits of Hormuz.

            With their population of less 2500 people, they are not a significant possession, regardless of the strategic position right at the Straits of Hormuz. That being the “most significant issue” it is easy to see most other claims are only hiding the real conflict since the Gulf Arab states had excellent relations with Iran before 1979, and after the Iraq-Iran war up to this day have trade relations with it.

Current Saudi king Salmān dancing for the Iranian shah in 1975.

            The main problem between these states, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that they have a fundamentally different view about their regional role and their relations with the West. Saudi Arabia, just like many other Arab monarchies in the past, and even Iran before 1979 view that the most crucial guarantee of their power, the current political establishment is their excellent political ties with the West, especially with the US, and the reliance on their military and intelligence support. Looking at the difference between the economic capabilities and living standards of the Gulf states and Iran that seems to be a convincing argument, however, considering how much of their respective achievement developed their own capabilities put this question in a different light. Iran holds a completely different view, as its conflict with the West, especially with the US is not solely ideological. Much rather Tehran views the American economic presence suffocating and its political-military role in the region detrimental to political sovereignty. It is true that Iran tried hard to export its revolution to its Arab neighbors in order to secure its own political agenda, and in this quest tried many times to undermine the Arab monarchs in the Gulf. But this with the death of Homeīnī has long passed. What remained, however, is a living symbol that there is an alternative. So whoever views the current establishment in any Gulf state as mere pawns of Washington may look at Tehran, which so far survived four decades of relentless American attempts to overthrow it. Which very understandably causes fear for most Gulf leaders. In short, Iran learned to live with its neighbors offering, and sometimes even successfully cutting deals with them, only reacting to provocations. Saudi Arabia in particular, however, never learned to live with revolutionary Iran, and would only feel secured by a completely different system. That is not as much the case for the Emirates, and other smaller Gulf states, however. The best example is Qatar, which even learned to profit from its otherwise limited ties with Tehran, as Iran provides the vital support line between Doha and Ankara.

            The ties between Bahrain and Iran are the most problematic, and of a very different nature. Bahrain is a mostly Shii state led by a Sunni elite. Its society resonates well to the Iranian political agenda, which understandably causes the biggest fear in the Bahrain royal court. Bahrain on the other hand is strongly under Emirati-Saudi political, and since 2011 military control. That is why Bahrain was forced so easily to the normalization with Israel. This, however, is of smaller strategic importance for Iran in light of other relations in the region. It serves as a deterrent, a possible provocation, or retaliation point for Tehran, but not a serious case.

            And finally, there is the odd relation between Egypt and Iran, which we discussed before in greater detail. In short, these two states have many benefits for each other and could cope well, but there are a number of fundamental social, political, and economic considerations, which undermine any stronger Iranian-Egyptian ties. However, there is no major conflict between the two, which could make them almost ideal partners for inter-block reconciliation.

            The other main underlying problem is that while Tehran gives little importance to Riyadh and Abū Zabī, those view it as an irritating rival in most regional matters. As long as Iran poses an alternative, states like Iraq, Syrian, Lebanon, or even Jordan are hard to be kept under Gulf influence. So the contradiction is not as much direct, but manifest in the relations with each regional state. Having the main agenda, the relations to the West sufficiently agreed upon, these matters could be solved. Otherwise, they keep trying to gain new partners to their own agendas in the region, and with every new ally, one feels progressing, while the other more isolated.

            Of course, none of the allied states see any unresolvable problem with Syria. They tried to persuade Damascus to distance itself from Tehran, but the Syrian-Iranian alliance was never a major source of conflict. So much so that after the attempts to overthrow the Syrian government since 2011 failed the Emirates saw no problem to reconcile with Syria reopening its embassy in December 2018. Abū Zabī was even willing to give considerable support to Damascus, only to open a front against Turkey. Egypt, with obvious blessing even gave limited military and intelligence support to Syria in its war on terror. That is until Washington closed this approach threatening the Emirates with serious sanctions. The fact that now Saudi and Emirati troops also take part in the American invasion in Syria also acts against any rapprochement. Since by this these states have become invaders of Syria, just as much as Turkey.

            All other conflicts between the camps, like those with Ḥizb Allah in Lebanon, the al-Ḥūtī group in Yemen, or similar matters in Iraq could be solved, given the spheres of influences would be separated. If the two blocks could cooperate, most problems could be solved, but only if Riyadh and Abū Zabī learned to share and coexist with Iran. And here lies the strategic difference for them between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Not only there are no territorial disputes between them and Israel, but the underlying governmental structure and agenda is much more compatible for Riyadh and Abū Zabī than that of Iran. Once it could have been hoped for that with Gulf unity, tacit Israeli support, and firm American backing Iran could be surpassed, but since Kuwait and Oman departed and Qatar joined Turkey to form another camp that became unrealistic.

            To solve this matter several attempts were made to break the Qatari-Turkish duo, bring Qatar back under Saudi-Emirati influence, and unite this front. This, however, clearly failed, to which the failed siege of Qatar is a true testament.


The Emirati-Saudi Block vs. the Turkish-Qatari block

            That is a network much easier to understand. Until 2013 Turkey tried its best to create excellent ties with the otherwise conservative Sunni Gulf state. While Erdoğan was still consolidating his power he benefitted from ties to bolster his party’s conservative-religious agenda. By 2013 however, it became clear that Riyadh and Abū Zabī don’t view Turkey as a partner to give concessions to, and Ankara could not really count on these states. So it narrowed it maneuver down to the one state, which for the sake of defending its own free will sought a strong partner. That was Qatar. Seemingly Qatar could not offer that same moral benefit, as Saudi Arabia with Mecca and Medina could, but soon Doha became the financial engine of the Turkish economy. Also, its Muslim Brotherhood relations came very usefully for Erdoğan’s moral-political agenda, both regionally and domestically.

            Initially, the two blocks only quarreled about the economic footholds created by the so called “Arab Spring”. Those in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya. But that soon developed into an unofficial war, where all parties are in a war with all members of the other camp. Egypt, which became the biggest asset for the Emirates after 2013, especially the establishment of as-Sīsī, is equally at war with Qatar, and Turkey. Both of these were heavily involved in the overtaking of the Egyptian economy and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of late President Mursī. Understandably both tried to undermine the rule of as-Sīsī in a futile attempt to reverse this development. Turkey started a diplomatic war and a rally campaign with the infamous Rābī‘ al-‘Adawiyya movement, while Qatar utilized its al-Jazeera network to fan the fumes. Exactly for these reasons both Qatar and Turkey not only pose a threat to as-Sīsī personally, but to the whole military establishment behind the scenes in Egypt. That triggered a covert war, in which both Egypt tried to undermine the Turkish and Qatari governments, both the other sides tried to put pressure in Cairo. The military adventures in Sudan and in Libya by Turkey partially served this role as well. That is therefore an existential struggle on both sides, which is irreconcilable.

            While Saudi Arabia itself has no major problems with either of these opponents, the Emirates has a long feud discussed many times with Qatar. The fact that Qatar could successfully rid itself from the Emirati patronage and create an equally strong power hub irked Abū Zabī. It even had the potential to overtake the Emirates’ position and the main ally of Saudi Arabia, and that could have seriously diminished Abū Zabī’s role. Therefore this is once again a vital struggle, in which neither side cannot really turn back. The Emirates has no real problem with Turkey directly, but to break Qatar it has to isolate it from the Turkish support. One of the tools used for that was the support given by the Emirates and Egypt via Muḥammad Daḥlān to the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016. As for Riyadh, it has to follow the Emirates in this conflict in order to keep the Gulf realm together, as much as possible. The bottom line is, however, that these two Gulf states need Egypt desperately as the main military deterrent behind them. Therefore they can never show any weakness supporting Cairo’s quest against its two most mortal enemies.

            One understands this web of interests can understand why now Qatar took a very firm position by the Palestinians, a surprisingly strong one, and why the American attempts to make Doha joint the normalization process is almost ludicrous. Doha had good unofficial relations with Tel Aviv, which can be revived. That is not the case. But accepting the normalization means falling under the Emirati-Israeli-Saudi influence. That would practically end Qatar as a sovereign power. That is why we can understand that the American offer to solve the Gulf conflict and the blockade against Qatar has practically no weight. Qatar survived the siege very well, and by now that is a bigger burden in boycotting sides. *

            The Turkish-Qatari block even managed to benefit from the current challenges, as Qatar suddenly became a strong supporter of Palestine in the Arab League, while Turkey hosted high-level negotiations between the Palestinian faction. There were so successful that agreement was reached on a unity government and elections within 6 months. This signals that they understood the challenge, as showed that they are resolved to continue the struggle. The appearance of Israel in the Emirati-Egyptian-Saudi block, however, will soon become a burden unbearable. Washington will continue to press Qatar for normalization, the Emirati-Israeli cooperation will pose a huge intelligence threat to Qatar to prevent a coup, and the joint Saudi-Emirati-Israeli-American efforts along Turkey’s southern borders will be overwhelming for Ankara. So while they are doing fine for the moment, Ankara and Doha have to look for ways to join forces with the Axis of Resistance. Not only because a war on two fronts cannot be upheld, but because in the long run they both need help, and Iran is a perfect solution. This, however, also has obstacles.


The Turkish-Qatari block and the Axis of Resistance

            In this relation, the conflicts are very deep, but overall this is possibly the most reconcilable pair. First of all, because between the two senior partners, Turkey and Iran, there are no irreconcilable differences. Quite the contrary, their relations are good overall, and during the last few years, they managed to cooperate well, even in matters with absolutely opposing roles in them. Syria is the best example, where they give very tangible military support for the two fighting sides, yet that never led to open tension between Tehran and Ankara, and they managed to take part in the Astana process together. On the other hand, Iran also has excellent relations with Qatar. Historical tensions, just like with Turkey, had existed for a long, but that never led to major problems, and in the Gulf crisis since 2017 Iran opened the vital support line between Turkey and Qatar. It even opened its own ports for goods and provided huge provisions to Qatar in the most desperate first weeks. Though Doha is still cautious enough not to boost its economic ties to the limits Iran wishes for, this is still an invaluable favor. And it is true that the main motivation for Teheran was to keep Riyadh and Abū Zabī at bay, but it asked nothing in return from Doha. That is a perfect ground to build further on.

            Iran also has never clashed with any of the Qatari-Turkish ventures in Sudan, Libya, or other places, and refrains from criticizing Turkey even on matters, which are crucial for Iran, like Turkish incursions into Iraq, or support for the Azeri aggression against Armenia. There are also no conflicts between members of the Qatari-Turkish block and the smaller members of the Axis of Resistance. Like in Lebanon, Turkey recently appeared as a new and very capable outer actor, but that again caused no problem, partially because Turkey was taking over the Saud proxies, and partially because France started to push this presence out very fast. So regardless of their otherwise not compatible ideological agendas, and some former tensions, there a perfect ground for cooperation between the two blocks, at least against the Emirati-Egyptian-Israeli camp. There is only one exception, which has been so far unsolvable. That is Syria.

            Syria is not only a very trusted and valuable ally for Iran, the second pillar of the Axis of Resistance but a critical element of the Iranian presence in the Arab world. It was clear in 2011 that if the Syrian government falls, so fall all the allies of the Axis of Resistance and most of the Iranian contacts in the region. Syria means a very important support line for Lebanon, a connection to the Israeli frontier, which can be used as a deterrent, and means access to the Palestinians geographically and politically. So Iran cannot abandon Syria, and cannot make a deal in the expanse of Syria.

            But Turkey occupies parts of Syria, controls a terrorist mercenary group made up partially from Syrians, recruits other Syrians for this terrorist group, indoctrinates the population under its occupation, and hosts some 2 million Syrian refugees, which might return upon a reconciliation. Qatar also supported the war on Syria since 2011, it was one of the war’s first coordinators, and a recent statement of Emir Tamīm to the U.N. General Assembly shows that Doha is still on this trajectory. Though its capabilities have shrunk considerably.

            For successful cooperation between the two blocks Qatar would have to alter is policies towards Syria, which is possible, and Turkey as well has to settle with Damascus. The latter is extremely difficult because for that Turkey has to give up those Syrian territories it occupied. But to these lands, Ankara planned to repatriate millions of Syrians – and other Arabs – and to impose a Syrian government for its own likings. What is worse, giving up these areas would mean the first obvious defeat for Erdoğan, and not only millions would not be repatriated, but even new waves, mostly radical former terrorists would come to Turkey. For whom there is no room anymore. There are, however, optimistic expectations as well. There are reports suggesting that with Russian mediation Syrian-Turkish understandings started to take form is smaller cases, regardless of the general confrontation. On the other hand, both sides know perfectly well that regional challenges desperately need cooperation and there is no point in prolonging the war. The recent Saudi-Israeli-American steps along the southern Turkish border in Syria, propping up the Kurds might even speed up this reconciliation process.

            The needs are known, probably even agreed upon that Turkey has to leave Syria for good and stop supporting terrorist groups there. But for long nor Erdoğan, nor any allies haven’t found a way to do that, without catastrophic results for himself. Whatever happens, however, total cooperation, even merger, is not feasible in the short run, even after a Syrian-Turkish peace deal, as the Syrian war went too far. The two political leaderships cannot meet openly.


Can there be cooperation?

            The Emirati-Israeli-Egyptian block can not and will not cooperate with either of the two rival camps. The Israelis were brought in specifically to overcome both. Meaning the other two have to join forces. As we saw, that would be possible, if the Syrian war could have been ended and Turkey withdrew.

            Since that is very difficult, regardless of the pressing factors, there can be two possible trajectories. The first is that while in major matters they start to cooperate, with Russian mediation small scale deals would be cut in Syria, a slow and gradual pullout would start, and after the Syrian presidential elections in 2021 Turkey would leave. From that point on reconciliation could start, but in the meantime, Iran and Turkey would cooperate against the Emirates.

            The other scenario is that the Syrian fronts stay mostly as they are, and Iranian-Turkish cooperation would be started on a bilateral basis only, regardless of what happens in Syria. That would be a huge disappointment for Damascus, but seeing the results in the last 2-3 years that is a very likely scenario.