Pick or chosen

            This week we conclude our journey started two weeks ago, looking into the situation caused by the recent Emirati step to normalize the relations with Israel. To which it not only managed to force Bahrain into, thus elevating some of the diplomatic burdens, but also pushed others to follow.

            First, we looked into the three major camps, what holds them together, and how do they operate. Not forgetting why the Emirates viewed it as a vital strategic interest to finally make its relation with Israel official, thus making it a formal ally. Which naturally turned the equation between the rival camps upside down.

            Secondly, the equations between the camps were considered, giving some insight how these camps might cooperate with each other, and face the challenge what the Israeli official presence might present. This, of course, is a very puzzling and complex system, in which the camps might not act collectively and certain members may choose to cope with the other block in certain themes while struggling against it in other matters.

            This week we come to the end of this overview with a look at the “neutral” players, or in other words, we shall consider how those states can react, which are not strongly affiliated with any of the three major camps. Here we shall step over those Arab states, which are not in a position to conduct any realistic foreign policy of their own, like Yemen, Sudan, or Libya, which are all pushed by certain sides to the verge of partition. These states, just like the practically occupied Bahrain, cannot make independent policy given the pressure they face, and the weak internal situation they live in.

            The matter of these “neutral” states, however, is important, because in many frontiers the three camps face each other can prove to be the tip of the scale. Their situation and the choices they make can also give some insight to just how fierce the rivalry can be in many cases.

            So, which are the most important still neutral Arab states in the struggle, and how they chose to face the current realities?


Strategic disparities

            Before we take this overview, we have to note an important addition, especially to the considerations from last week. Can certain members of the three main camps, especially the senior partners take decisions for their own, even somewhat contrary to the general interest of their camps? What we can see is that this possibility certainly exists with all three camps.

            We saw before that the Emirates conducted an individual policy in Yemen, not only contrary to the general GCC allies, like Oman, or Kuwait but even against the will of its seemingly closest ally, Saudi Arabia. The Emirates now not only carves out a separate entity in the south of Yemen but is even willing to share Socotra with the “new” Israeli ally. And even pushes Riyadh to join the ranks of normalization, which is so far to much for the Saudi leadership. This self-interested policy did not prevent Abū Zabī, however, to conduct a joint policy towards Bahrain, Oman, Turkey, Qatar, and most importantly against Iran. So conflict at one point does not disturb the general cooperation in the main approach.

            This can be said about the Axis of Resistance as well, as Iran gives great importance to its most valued Arab ally, Syria, through which it conducts most of its policies in the Arab world. Syria is the gateway to the Palestinian fold, an important juncture to Lebanon, and means important connections all over the Arab world. Yet these special relations did not prevent Tehran to give support to Qatar in its most desperate hour, seemingly with no direct payoff. Nor to make strategic deals with Turkey, despite Ankara’s destructive role in Syria. Both Qatar and Turkey benefitted from Tehran’s policies, yet this hasn’t changed their animosity towards Damascus.

            And recently in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we can see the same strange contradiction. Turkey not only aspires to be the “savior” of the Palestinians but also greatly supports Qatar’s bid now, to be the most effective Arab ally of Palestine and the Arab leader against the normalization process. Yet at the same time, while supports Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia, it also acts as an intermediary between Baku and Tel Aviv, as Israel also supports the Azeri side for a number of strategic considerations. Therefore we can see that while on the Palestinian matter both Doha and Ankara seem resolute to face Israel, that does not prohibit strategic cooperation with it in other, even more, important battlefields.

            Therefore we find that while the main theme within a camp is important, the senior partners can deviate from it in certain cases if their own interests require it. So far none of these individual steps created friction in any camps, but they certainly caused frustration. That notion is important because in many cases certain so far “neutral” states might decide to develop strategic partnerships with one of the senior partners in camp, while still refusing the main doctrine of that group. They might even cooperate with the block itself, regardless of the reservations they have for certain members. Thus it should be clear that in this regional all-out struggle all states have to pick a side, or shall be pushed to cooperate with one, yet this does not necessarily mean joining any club, even in a loose level. Stating that, which are the most important “neutral”, or semi-neutral Arab state, which now tries to deal with the new developments?



            During the last year, especially because Oman has a new ruler, Sultan Haytam, we discussed the position of Oman, which is indeed a unique Arab state. Oman for long had a very characteristic foreign policy of its own. Its first pillar was strong cooperation within the GCC, while the other is a self-interested peaceful relation with all regional states, including Iran. This policy would have certainly prevented Muscat from choosing sides, even in the current difficult times, as the late Sultan Qābūs was adamant to stay out of any struggle.

            As we saw, not the least because of the attempts by the Emirates to interfere with the Omani internal affairs, Sultan Haytam is ready for a change in this policy. Muscat has recently severed many economic ties with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia and pulls closer to Turkey. Closer in fact than to Qatar. This would indicate a trajectory in which Oman would join ranks with the Qatari-Turkish block.

            However, the most critical strategic interests dictate a good partnership with Iran, which can be sustained easily, given the historically good religions and cultural ties between the two sides. Oman has also recently taken positive steps towards Syria.

            This pattern suggests that the only camp Oman cannot join is the one led by the Emirates, as the Abū Zabī clearly walks on a confrontative path, both in the Gulf and against Turkey. In light of these considerations, Muscat will probably not be neutral in the upcoming clashes and stays far from the policies of the Emirates, but it is a bigger question on which side it will choose it has to. The one led by Iran, that of Turkey?



            Kuwait somewhat faces a similar problem. Not only became it stayed far from the Gulf conflict since 2017, and even tried to mediate between the two sides, but because it equally fears the Emirates and Iran. Understandably, since Abū Zabī goes on a warpath today, and Kuwait already experienced the hardship of such a policy, when Iraq invaded it in 1990. It had an equally close and fearsome experience with Iran in the Iraq-Iran war during the tanker war. Having Israel invited into the Gulf has the very tangible prospect of war with Iran. But Kuwait, which otherwise experienced good relations in recent years with Iran has nothing to gain nor from the aggressive anti-Iran policies, nor from the Israeli friendship.

            As long as late Emir Ṣabāḥ al-Aḥmad al-Ğābir aṣ-Ṣabāḥ was alive Kuwait was just as keen to be a neutral player in the region as Oman, but he recently passed away. His successor, Emir Nawāf is reportedly a much weaker character with less experience, which can indicate that soon we will witness internal struggles in the small state. And the rival contenders will surely enjoy the support of the main camps behind them. Before the late Emir went to his final medical journey to the US he tried to secure his state from such a possibility but promoting the successor even after Nawāf, but only time will tell how successful that was.

            The role of Kuwait is not to be underestimated, however, as it is now one of the strongest enemies of the normalization process. Thus being a major obstacle in the eyes of Abū Zabī’s rulers. This conflict dates back at least to 2013 when Kuwait mediated a settlement with Qatar, and after 2017 it had several strong attempts for the same. Which policy was upheld even this May? Suggesting that Kuwait rather takes Qatar’s side. Just as much, should Kuwait pull closer to Iran that could further push Baghdad closer Tehran, and antagonize the relations within the GCC. The recent severe media and diplomatic clashes between Egypt and Kuwait already indicate attempts to isolate Kuwait and put pressure on it, so it would ease its resistance to the Emirati policies. Yet given the support the former leadership had, it is unlikely that Kuwait would fall easily to the ranks of the Emirati-Egyptian axis. Which might mean yet another Gulf crisis, similar to what happened with Qatar.



            If there is a country completely in the middle of the frontlines that is Jordan. And it has much to worry about. Jordan has an even bigger disdain for Iran than its Gulf partners, as it should not be forgotten that the favorite slogan against the Iranian relations in the region, the so-called “Shia Crescent” was introduced by Jordan. Long have the days passed since the royal household, the Hāšimī dynasty fought against its arch-enemy, the Saudi monarchy, which some hundred years ago chased it away from its homeland, only to find fortunes by British grace in Iraq and Jordan. Though in Iraq the Hāšimī dynasty fell in 1958, in Jordan it stayed in power to this very day. The price for this was the gradual dropping of the anti-Saudi line, which by ‘80’s caused to be a close partner of both Cairo and Riyadh, as it started to depend evermore on foreign subsidies coming from the US and the Gulf. After Egypt Jordan was the first state to normalize relations with Israel in 1994. That, however, was never meant to create real relations, only to act as a security guarantee. Jordan was much more afraid of Syria, and later on from Iraq becoming an Iranian ally. Fearing the pressure Jordan pulls closer and closed to Riyadh, and tries to keep the western favor.

            The Emirati-Israeli deal, however, created huge problems. Jordan was very supportive of the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian line in most cases, family ties even bond the Hāšimī house to the Emirates, but this new deal means that soon what was always blocked and afraid of might soon begin. Massive Israeli economic presence will manifest, as the Emirate will start mass projects with Israel. And the Palestinian section of the deal, the mass exodus of Palestinians, will practically make Jordan the “exchange state”.

            To prevent this Jordan would have to reverse its course and distance itself from this block, but that is extremely difficult. After being a training ground for the radical elements, the so-called Free Syrian Army and its affiliates against Syria, the American maneuvers against Iraq, and waging a long propaganda war against Iran Amman can hardly join the Axis of Resistance. That is even incompatible with the absolute pro-Western economic and political approach the monarch rests upon. It cannot join the Turkish-Qatari block either. It practically has no access to them in case of need, being surrounded completely by the other two groups and Israel.

            Jordan was already in mid-2018 was on the verge of economic collapse, almost the same Lebanon is in now. Protests called for reconciliation with Syria and pulling away from the Gulf and pro-Israeli approach, which was almost impossible, as Amman is heavily dependent on Saudi-Emirati subsidies. Than the COVID crisis hit the country, which practically demolished two key sectors, tourism and the free trade sector in Aqaba between China and Europe. To ease the burden Jordanian king ‘Abd Allah, exactly like 4 years ago in the same crisis, on 27 September dissolved the parliament months before the elections, and a week later on 3 October accepted the resignation of PM ‘Umar ar-Razzāz. Yet this does little to help to solve the crisis and monarchy in under double pressure. If it doesn’t change course its allies will swallow Jordan, unless the people topple the monarchy as a whole before that.



            Iraq is also an important country, with which we dealt many times before. It is right between the two key members of the Axis of Resistance and has a political climate, which would dictate incorporation to it. Especially after the war against Dā‘iš, in the form of the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī and its allies, there are political and paramilitary factions within Iraq representing this political will. There are, however, mostly the outcasted Sunni elite, and the Kurds, who don’t share this political desire and wish for a strong pro-West, pro-Gulf, and anti-Iran policy. The matter is only complicated by the American presence, which manipulates the political climate, as wages a covert war against the Iranian political influence.

            Since the Dā‘iš onslaught started Baghdad saw a pro-West, and a pro-Iran government, the latter being torn apart inside for trying to balance the influence out and hoping to avoid turning into a battleground. This is how we arrived this year, after the collapse of ‘Abd al-Mahdī’s government and months of intensive protests to the premiership of Muṣṭafā al-Kāẓimī, the former head of the Iraqi intelligence. His main duty, though with a somewhat better grip on the state institutions than his predecessor, was to keep Iraq equally distant from Tehran and Washington, preventing a full-scale Iranian retaliation on Iraqi soil for General Soleymānī, and achieve American withdrawal.

            For that, he had to be rough with the Shia militias fighting their own war against the Americans, which al-Kāẓimī did. But also had to be resolute with the Americans, which for the time being seems to be working, as after a number of key American bases were handed over to the Iraqi forces, in al-Kāẓimī’s visit to Washington Trump promised full withdrawal. This is hard to believe, especially after Trump’s infamous similar promise about Syria, after which the Syrian oilfield became occupied. Nonetheless, the promise of American pullout is already a big achievement.

            Regardless of the desires in Baghdad, however, there are great obstacles ahead. Iraq cannot stay neutral, as the two main neighboring rival blocks all have political allies inside promoting their interests. So, if Iraq does not choose one specific side, it can only do that by choosing the other. It cannot choose the Turkish-Qatari block, as it occupies parts of its territories, and the Kurdish region would strongly oppose that anyways. There are many in Iraq, who wish to see it pulling away from Iran, but that is extremely difficult. Just in the level of electricity Iraq is so dependent on Iran that it cannot simply turn away, and any attempts to substitute Iran with Saudi Arabia failed. So Iraq simply cannot choose the Saudi-Emirati block, regardless of the good relations with Jordan and Egypt, because economically and politically it is a suicide. For political, ideological, and economical reasons the cooperation with both Syria and Iran would be ideal, but that is opposed by both the Gulf, and the Americans.

            Iraq can be a very important component in the Axis of Resistance, once it fully joins it, given its economic and military weight and strategic location. The only reason it aims to be “neutral” now, it to avoid a full American-Iranian confrontation before it rebuilds itself. But its long term place is much less questionable, as the affiliation of the current government.



            What can be said about Tunisia is greatly true to all North African states, though given their different capabilities their position is somewhat different. They are all very far from the Axis of Resistance, especially from the Iranian relations. They all had much closer relations with the other two blocks for long, but their rivalry put the whole region in danger. Libya is the best example, which became not only a battleground between the Turkish and Egyptian interests but a huge economic and security burden on Tunisia and Algeria. Which was in the last few years shadowed by sporadic terrorist attacks radiating from Libya. The choice is therefore between the pro-Turkish and the pro-Emirati camps, but as an escape route, the strengthening of the common Arab line and support for Syria manifested many times. In light of the realities, however, this is not much more than a desire.

            Tunisia was a very fertile ground for the Turkish-Qatari economic interests, and the new political climate after 2011 was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, led by the an-Nahḍa Party. This party is losing its influence, but there is no one signal strong rival to replace it. This deadlock produced the troublesome elections in 2019, which brought a strongly pro-Arab president, Qays Sa‘īd to power. Since then the Tunisia politics practically fell into three various camps. The Parliament ruled by the an-Nahḍa, supporting a pro-Turkish line, the opposition parties financed by the Emirates, and the President, trying to avoid both, mostly relying on a pro-Arab stance and Algerian support. In light of plots to overthrow the government, which was attempted, this seems very menacing for Tunisia. For this, a strong common stance with Algeria would be highly needed, but Algeria has its own interests and problems.

            Tunisia might not seem to be a very significant player in the regional turmoil, yet one follows the inner political currents can see one of the best examples, how destructive this rivalry can be. And as the Tunisian President is possibly the most outspoken critic of the Emirati normalization, suddenly its price got much bigger.



            Algeria, being the biggest Arab country, and the second biggest by population and military prowess is undoubtedly a very strong player. Its role, however, is seriously undermined by a number of factors. Its economy is still very much focused on oil and gas export, but with the current prices, so low Algeria is in a growing crisis. As the Corona crisis is not about to end soon, the indications are very bad indeed, and Algeria needs supporters or at least economic partners. There is one on the horizon, Turkey, but this line has its complications. As Algiers is willing to cooperate with Ankara itself, it clearly rejects the Muslim Brotherhood influence emanating from Qatar.

            The other major obstacle is its political class, which last year seemingly collapsed. With the election of ‘Abd al-Mağīd Tabbūn and the imprisonment of practically the whole former elite Algeria claims to be renewed. That is, however, somewhat doubtful and Algeria is very much busy with its own internal problems. Even more paralyzing that Algiers still sees itself to be a separate power center capable of forming its own policies independently. That is not only shortsighted in light of the three major camps, but was manifested well in Libya, where Algeria tried to be a power broker but failed. This inability to choose its camp showed once again, as Algeria for long weeks had almost nothing to say about the Emirati normalization, only to reject it and show support once again for Syria in a symbolic gesture.

            Algeria is too far from the Axis of Resistance, to which ideologically the closest. It also needs financial support, which the Axis now cannot provide. The Emirati block became unacceptable with the normalization, as the very ideological core of the Algerian political elite is built around rejecting such a policy. Turkey is a temping partner and cooperation is well on the way, but there are rightful worries about this line and Turkey is more stretched than to provide the support Algeria needs.

            In this light, the future of Algeria suggests that regardless of its desired it will stay a passive player in this rivalry, even if engages in certain projects with some regional players.



            Morocco is somewhat an enigma. Its traditionally good relations with practically all Gulf states, which showed that in 2011 the GCC offered Morocco to join, its troubles relations with Iran and its former mild ties with Israel all suggest that it could be a good partner to either the Emirati or the Turkish-Qatari block. Political closeness showed in strategic matters, as Morocco joined the efforts to overthrow the Syrian government by hosting “Friends of Syria” conferences, and also briefly joined the Saudi war effort in Yemen.

            Yet the split between Abū Zabī and Doha put Rabat ahead of a dilemma. Political cooperation is supported and financial support would be welcomed, but Morocco simply has no priority for one camp over the other.

            Some instances suggest that Rabat has growing complications with both the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but the Algerian-Turkish cooperation in light of the long feud between Morocco and Algeria does not make the rival camp any more tempting. Therefore, at least for the moment, regardless of its political and economic weight Morocco seems to be more of an outsider and might be one of the few true examples of a neutral state in the regional rivalry.


Pick or will be chosen

            We have to understand that many of these states do not wish in anyways to join any of the major blocks. Either because they view themselves strong enough to be individual players, like Algeria, or because they equally fear the sometimes reckless policies of all potential camps. Just like Oman and Kuwait in the Gulf, or Iraq practically being torn apart from inside.

            Some countries, like Morocco, or Oman can allow staying largely neutral, given their fortune geographic location being somewhat secluded. But many, like Kuwait, Iraq, or Jordan, are in the middle of an unofficial war zone. In all those cases, however, they cannot escape the reality that the general turmoil in the Arab world forces all three major clubs to improve their positions against each other and pull more and more states into their fold. Thus preventing the others to further their agenda. If a state is not strong enough to withstand these pressures, like Tunisia, or Iraq, it can be torn apart to a certain level, and to protect themselves they have no choice, but to pick aside.

            Overall, however, the most possible prospect is that after this relative stalemate and parity between the blocks the struggle for these “neural” Arab states will increase. Thus further complications and even sudden unexpected changes can easily happen in all of these mentioned states.