Fayez Sara

A Path Towards Solving the Region’s Problems!

Over the past six months, a remarkable series of promising events have unfolded in the Middle East. The most significant of which was the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement brokered by China, which was preceded by Turkiye, encouraged and spurred on by the Russians, opening up to the Assad regime in Syria. Turkiye’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel took the same trajectory.

We can point to other breakthroughs among regional countries whose relations have been tense or limited. This is the case for Iraq’s ties to its Arab surroundings, which began to improve under Mustafa al-Kadhimi. His successor, Iraq’s current Prime Minister Mohammad Shiaa Al-Sudani, has taken on the task of following up on his work since forming his government in late 2022.

The series of breakthroughs in the Eastern Mediterranean and their extension into the Arab Gulf region reflect two matters. First, we have internal developments in these countries, especially its regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, Iran, and Egypt. Their governments have fortified efforts to confront domestic challenges through new initiatives.

This is the case for Saudi Arabia, which is changing radically within the framework of Vision 2030. Others are seeking to address problems engendered by government policies and decisions that have been escalating and building up, as in the case of Iran, which has been facing serious repercussions for its regional policies.

The second matter that the recent breakthroughs reflect is that the states of the region have decided to change how they deal with each other. We are seeing a shift from confrontation towards an approach that seeks solutions, reconciliations, and rapprochements. Some consider this shit to be a prelude to agreements that could give rise to a regional system that governs most, if not all, of the region.

It perhaps goes without saying that the recent reconciliations were not made in isolation of the great powers’ Middle East policies, which have changed tremendously over the past decade. The United States, Russia, and China have all changed their posture. The United States’ engagement in the region, which had long been at the forefront of Washington’s international political, economic, and security concerns, has declined to the lowest levels we have seen in decades.

This US retreat has been reflected in criticism and defamation. Indeed, it went as far as opposing the policies of allied countries like Turkiye, which is considered Washington’s most important NATO partner. Its actions have given rise to disputes that will require significant efforts to overcome. Their ramifications will be difficult to contain. Indeed, this is not merely true for US-Turkish relations but also in US-Saudi relations, which have been excellent for decades.

While US interest in the region has declined, Russia has been opening up to countries in the region over the past decade. Its relationship with Turkiye is crucial for Moscow’s policies in the region. What used to be a traditional relationship has turned into an alliance since Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, though that intervention almost precipitated a war between the two sides.

Instead of waging war, however, Moscow turned its intervention into a gateway for political and operational cooperation with Turkiye. Together with Iran, they share the same position on Syria, per their 2016 joint statement and the launch of the Astana peace process that began that same year.

Moscow thus managed to reconcile the positions of its allies, which had seemed mutually exclusive. It then moved towards further strengthening the ties between Moscow and Ankara. The success of this policy is evident from Turkiye’s shift towards normalizing relations with the Assad regime. While several factors helped explain this turnaround, Russian demands and pressure were certainly decisive.

The changes to China’s engagement with the region are the most consequential great power recalibration in the Middle East. China is keen on calm in the region. It has been open and focused on building economic relationships with most of the countries in the region for decades. Nonetheless, the Chinese President’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late 2022 marked a turning point in Arab-Chinese relations. Three summits were held during the visit, a Chinese-Arab summit, a Chinese-Gulf, and a Chinese-Saudi summit opening new horizons for deepening its relations with the Arab world.

The Saudi-Iranian agreement sponsored by Beijing that turned a new page cannot be understood without accounting for recent domestic and regional developments and the shifting international balance of power. These factors have contributed to the opening paths in the bilateral relationships between the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean and Arab Gulf.

While the recent agreements are largely strategic in their content, they are also largely experimental. The fact is that the experiences and legacies of inter-ethnic conflicts and disputes have cast a shadow over the region and its people for decades.

If the Saudi-Iranian agreement is an example of one of the paths of openness being paved in the region and the strategic necessity of transforming regional relations, it is experimental because of Iran’s policies. At the forefront are its Gulf policies, but this also includes its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. In both regions, the Iranians have been exploiting religion to expand their influence, establishing armed militias and strengthening and diversifying its proxies, who are supported by its missiles and nuclear program.

In this context, Iran has imposed its direct and indirect hegemony over four Arab countries: Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, which have been held captive to Iran. Meanwhile, Saudi openness towards Iran requires genuine steps toward different policies. Iran must stop interfering in the affairs of neighboring countries. Instead, it should help them to reclaim their natural positions and rebuild their traditional alliances, becoming a good neighbor that further shared interests. Turkiye’s openness to the Assad regime should do the same.

Assad’s actions undid the breakthroughs the two countries had made. His war against the Syrian people had serious political, economic, and security implications for Turkiye, especially with the influx of refugees and the rise of Kurdish armed groups. Apprehension about both these things played a decisive role in pushing Turkiye to take its Syria initiative, which will have positive, albeit indirect, implications, as it will push towards finding a resolution for the conflict in and around Syria.

All of this will place Turkiye in a better opportunity to ameliorate relations with Damascus and, through it, with its Arab neighbors. This makes Turkiye’s recent openness a matter of strategic interest. Given that the two sides have been in conflict for a decade, during which dark pages from the past were reopened, it is difficult to imagine that the path of openness will be smooth or yield swift results. It will be difficult and dangerous, and a lot of time and effort will be needed to achieve the desired outcomes.

In conclusion, the region is undergoing a phase of openness. Policies, relationships, and actors are changing. While this course serves the strategic interests of the region and its countries, it seems experimental, given the legacy of the past few years and decades. Some may succeed, and others may fail, making them practice tests for building a brighter future in which we hopefully overcome the region’s current problems; eventually leading to the emergence of a new regional system.