The sands are shifting in the Middle East

Avijit Goel | Updated on November 25, 2019

Saudi Arabia is re-thinking its relationships with the other countries in the region as the US takes a few steps back

In quoting Ella Leya from The Orphan Sky, a piece embodies the Middle East, “... a desert of shifting sand dunes. Unpredictable. Erratic. Harmony changes into dissonance, the immediate outlives the profound, esoteric becomes clichéd. And all, vice versa”

Middle Eastern history has been replete with incidents barely predictable until a few days into their existence, the immediate always outliving the profound, with harmony and dissonance as interchangeable as the central characters behind them.

Around two years ago, the Middle East was a house split down many rooms. The coalition of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain imposed a blockade on Qatar in an effort to bring about a regime change in the small Emirate. In a war of narratives and information, the troika had accused Qatar of being the world’s leading sponsor of terror and state-sponsored news outlets had been spewing venom ever since then.

The traditional rivalry between Saudi and Iran touched new heights with proxy wars in Yemen and Syria and the re-imposing of US sanctions on Iran. US President Donald Trump had visited Riyadh in 2017, and in the backdrop of a sizeable arms deal, had articulated an agenda for empowering the Arabian side of the gulf against Iran, and of re-imposing sanctions on Iran. The Saudi-UAE coalition seemed unstoppable in Yemen, while the future looked bleak for Iran and Qatar, economically and militarily.

“We are a primary target for the Iranian regime,” Prince Mohammed of Saudi had said in 2017. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Circa November 2019. There seem to be thawing of tenuous relationships in war-ridden Yemen, easing of the blockade against Qatar and most unbelievably, the semblance of some reconciliation between Saudi and Iran.

There’s one reason for this inexplicable chain of events — the US’ intentions not to dirty its hands in the Middle East anymore. Thought through or not, two indications by the US in the last few months have made the previous blurred writing on the wall clear to Saudi: the US has little interest in partaking in any conflict in the region. The US’ withdrawal from Syria and its non-response to the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities by Houthi rebels (Iran was accused of the attacks by proxy but has denied responsibility) have been a painful awakening for Saudi.

Trump did some tough talking against Iran after the attack, but avoided military response. This would have raised serious questions on the US’ commitment to Saudi security, which has underpinned the strategic relationship for years now.

For a coalition used to raw power by mutual support, the hold isn’t as mighty anymore. Fitch downgraded Saudi Aramco’s rating following the September 14 attack, that temporarily slashed its output by half. This sent a shiver down the Saudi family, as Aramco was preparing for an IPO and the timing could not have been worse.

Qatar, on the other hand, held on almost seamlessly despite the sanctions and the blockade and managed its international media narrative well. There was hardly a dent to the previously imagined regime change and economic collapse. That the the football teams of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will now take part in the Gulf Cup in Qatar is a clear sign of reconciliation.

The Iranian ploy to keep its heels dug in — despite mounting international pressure — seems to have paid off, at least in some quarters. Recently, the UAE held direct maritime security talks with Iran, and pulled back from the war in Yemen, where it had allied with the Saudis against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A larger reconciliation seems around the corner.

In recent weeks, there were reports of an olive branch from the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, asking for de-escalation with Iran (The leaders of Iraq and Pakistan had offered to mediate). Iran welcomed the gesture, stating publicly that it was open to talks with Saudi Arabia.

In just two years, the world seems to have drastically changed in the Middle East. Mohammed bin Salman’s decisions may be products of re-think on a variety of issues. A possible power sharing arrangement with the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, complete reconciliation with Qatar, and a larger conciliatory approachto issues might be grudgingly added into the Saudi playbook, as it belatedly realised that it has to bear the burden of war or dissonance in the region alone.

Talk about shifting sand dunes and the immediate outliving the profound.

The writer is a geo-political analyst

Published on November 25, 2019

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