Rarely have global politics seen changes and shifts like those that have occurred since the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, which was the first of its kind in Europe after World War Two. It was then followed by Russia's invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, and finally, the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war that began in 2022 and has had major repercussions for international relations. The cards have been shuffled; new alliances have emerged and old ones have expanded, paving the way for a change of course giving rise to a global order founded on the principle of sovereign entities.
The indications abound. From NATO, which Finland and Sweden have now joined, to the AUKUS alliance to counter China between Britain, Australia, and the US, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that includes Iran and gave several Arab states the status of "Dialogue Partners," and the BRICS, which has agreed to an unprecedented expansion with the inclusion of several Arab states, and affirmed its pursuit of a multipolar world order in which the dollar does not dominate. We also have the I2U2 Group announced at the G20 summit, as a challenge to China's Belt and Road Initiative. 12U2 brings together the United States, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Israel, and aims to address issues such as food security, energy, and public health, as well as to work on the proposed economic corridor between India, the Middle East, and Europe.
The Middle East was not and will not be isolated from the implications of these pivotal changes. The most significant ramification was the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran through Chinese mediation, and the Kingdom joining BRICS, which was recently discussed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his remarkable interview with the American network Fox News. In it, the Crown Prince presented a novel, cohesive vision for the future of the economy, development, politics, and social relations in his country and the region, primarily focusing on scaling down and resolving conflicts to pave the way for development, modernization, and a better future.
The Saudi Crown Prince candidly addressed, in a manner we are not used to seeing from Arab leaders, the Arab-Israeli conflict. He spoke about the ongoing negotiations between Riyadh and Washington aimed at achieving concrete results to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians, emphasizing that finding a fair solution to the Palestinian question is a necessary requisite for normalizing relations with Israel. He denied claims about suspending negotiations with America, stating that "It is not true... Everyday, we are getting closer, and we will see.” He also said that if the Biden administration succeeds in brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel it would be “the biggest historical deal since the Cold War.”
It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the Crown Prince's interview is as significant a turning point as the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. It illustrates a new reality that goes beyond the Kingdom to encompass the entire region, and it reaffirms the foundations of Saudi policy and Saudi Arabia’s vision: balanced foreign relations, internationally and regionally, dictated by its national interests. In this context, the Saudi Crown Prince said that Saudi Arabia’s expected agreements with the United States will benefit both countries and enhance security in the region and across the globe.
These statements reflect the importance and depth of US-Saudi relations, a strategic partnership that includes cooperation on nuclear energy and military issues. Regardless of the US effort to expand the scope of the Abraham Accords, it seems that the relations between Saudi Arabia and the US are the crux of the matter. They go beyond Riyadh's relations with Tel Aviv, especially after the Democratic administration has reaffirmed Saudi Arabia's standing in the region and the world, its economic, political, and religious weight, and its importance for safeguarding US interests.
That has not prevented Riyadh from opening up to Beijing and Moscow, without compromising its strategic alliance with Washington, nor has it stymied Saudi efforts to find political solutions to the region's crises to fill the void left by other Arab players.
The Kingdom's foreign policy is clearly more open and pragmatic than it had been. On the one hand, it is trying to break away from the rigid framework of Arab alliances - a framework that has divided the region between the Axis of Resistance camp and the moderate camp for more than two decades. It is also shifting away from the confrontational approach it had taken to relations with international powers.
On the other hand, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in his interview with CNN, used the same old rigid language as before. Raisi claimed that the United States and some European countries tried to exploit the killing of Mahsa Amini to undermine the Iranian government, implying that the events that had transpired in Iran were not tied to domestic issues but a hybrid Western war against Iran.
He also opined that Washington’s efforts to normalize relations between Israel and the Gulf states would not be successful, and said the release of US prisoners had been released on humanitarian grounds and that Iran has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, and so on and so forth.
Comparing the two interviews demonstrates the contrasts between the two pathways, to the world and particularly the region. One is a path toward new peace, openness, development, and vision; the other is confrontational, intransigent, fanatical, and backward-looking. These trajectories will not inevitably clash. Despite the emergence of two state models, each with its own approach in politics, security, economics, and social and cultural ways of doing things, there will be space for coexistence and cooperation between them on multiple levels. The fear is that most countries of the Arab Levant will take the second path, as Jordanian King Abdullah II had warned in 2004, when he expressed his concern about what he called a Shiite crescent that reaches Lebanon. The fate of these countries is concerning, especially Lebanon and Palestine.
According to the French presidential envoy to Lebanon, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the five countries cooperating on resolving issues in Lebanon are annoyed, even losing hope, and questioning whether it makes sense to keep financing Lebanon. That is, he warned that they are contemplating the idea of washing their hands of it and have no hope of improving the conditions of this country or those governing it. This reflects a seriousness of concerns regarding the stability and the future of Lebanon amid the hurdles of Middle Eastern politics and the two starkly contrasting approaches being adopted by different regional actors.
As for Palestine, its conditions are no better than Lebanon’s. Its leaders have done nothing to warrant any praise. They have failed to overcome the split between Hamas and its allies in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to say nothing about the disputes within the PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the emergence of armed groups that are affiliated with any of the main factions in several locations. All of this raises the specter of chaos, especially if the PA and PLO do not manage the succession of Mahmoud Abbas well.
The one bet we can make is protecting the West Bank from chaos. Indeed, Israel and Jordan will not allow for instability and violence on their borders. The success of this bet crucial to the future of this region and its inhabitants hinges on the outcome of the peace negotiations. In turn, these negotiations are tied to domestic developments in Israel, and whether it will be governed by the extreme right or an alliance of the parties coming together to confront what they perceive as its coup plot.