Are We Headed for a Regional Reshuffle? Implications and Recommendations for Israel
By Dr. Moshe Albo | January, 2022
In his book 1984, English writer George Orwell coined the term "doublethink", which pertains to the ability to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory approaches, beliefs or ideas as correct. The slogans used in the book – "war is peace", "freedom is slavery", and "ignorance is strength" – are manifestations of this notion. Orwell used this method to demonstrate how conflicting ideas could be incorporated into a single "coherent" political perception.
The fundamental shift in Middle Eastern dynamics is rooted in the region's lower ranking on the current U.S. administration's national security set of priorities, as well as the global health, economic and climate crises, the growing rivalry between the great powers in the international arena (Ukraine, Taiwan), and the desire to hedge threats in order to avoid escalation.
Under such circumstances, key actors in the regional system have been led to embrace a complex policy comprised of inner contradictions, alongside the skill to spearhead a policy of "having it both ways": Tighten security and economic relations with Israel while promoting détente and strengthening strategic ties with Iran and Turkey; engaging in a regional campaign against political Islam while enhancing relations with Turkey and Qatar; fighting Turkey in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean while engaging in economic and strategic collaboration with it. "Doublethink", a theoretical, literary notion, has transformed into practical policy.
Turkey, the Gulf States and Egypt – Normalization or regularization of relations?
Turkey's strategy in the region is a reflection of its realization that it must break free of its political isolation in the Mediterranean basin, while pulling its economy out of its severe financial crisis by developing economic and strategic relations with countries in the region. Erdogan's policy stems mostly from constraints: regional involvement in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean pushing Turkish resources to the limit; the Muslim Brotherhood's systemic weakness; and growing tension vis-à-vis the U.S. administration.
In this context, Crown Prince and acting ruler of the UAE Mohamed bin Zayed's visit to Ankara (November 2021) marked the beginning of a new era in the relations between the two countries. The economic agreements signed, amounting to a total of some ten billion U.S. Dollars in investments in the energy and technology sectors, are being viewed as a Turkish government accomplishment that strengthens local economy at a time of severe financial crisis.
President Erdogan's reciprocal visit to the UAE, scheduled for February 2022, symbolizes the fundamental change in the relations between the two countries after a decade of bitter rivalry. The Turkish government had accused the United Arab Emirates of financing the failed coup against it in 2016, assisting the military coup in Egypt in July 2013, and undermining Turkish interests in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. The UAE had viewed Turkey as a regional destabilizing factor in view of the latter's overt support of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the steps it had been taking in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. The ability of both countries' leaders' to "bury the hatchet instead of using it against one another" reflects their recognition in the need to hedge conflicts and focus their relations on shared interests – primarily financial ones. Nevertheless, Erdogan's move aims not only to renew Turkish relations with the United Arab Emirates, but with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel too.
The assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi in Turkey (October 2018) had led to an overt crisis in the relations between Ankara and Riyadh. In recent months, Turkey has been softening its rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, and senior officials have been "expressing their trust" that the Saudi courts, where Khashoggi's killers are facing trial, would bring justice. At the same time, Erdogan has also expressed his interest in the promotion of arms deals, including the sale of attack drones to Saudi Arabia. Thus, Turkey is pursuing the return of Saudi investments by reinforcing bilateral relations, "repressing" the Khashoggi incident, and even opening the Turkish military industry up to the Saudi monarchy. This interest has been growing in light of the evolving relations between Riyadh and Athens. Turkey is concerned that the Gulf's categorical support of Greece would make it even harder for it to live up to its "blue homeland" doctrine, enhance its isolation, and limit its ability to advance its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Following Mohamed bin Zayed's visit, President Erdogan had announced that Turkey sought to leverage the breakthrough with the United Arab Emirates and strengthen its relations with both Egypt and Israel. In Ankara's view, the regularization of relations with Cairo and Tel Aviv would help it realize its strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, this would not entail a full-fledged normalization of relations, only the regularization thereof, and the resolution of bilateral problems. Egypt, which has yet to respond to Erdogan's probes, will also have to overcome the obstacle posed by Libya, as a deep ravine lies between Turkey and Egypt with regard to their views on the resolution of the Libyan crisis, and Egypt is extremely suspicious of Turkey's intentions. Nevertheless, attempts to promote a breakthrough in this axis continue as well.
The Gulf détente with Iran and Syria
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who formerly described Iranian leader Khamenei as one who makes Hitler "look good", has been making a 180 degree turn in policy in view of the Biden Administration's strategy and his country's geostrategic interests. But he is not alone.
UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al Nahyan has met with his Iranian counterpart as well as President Raisi (1 December) to discuss improving the two countries' bilateral relations and strengthening their strategic collaboration. The United Arab Emirates has decided to get closer to Iran after the latter's attacks against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and exacerbated UAE threat were met with a feeble response by the international community and United States. Saudi Arabia has also been reaching out to Iran in recent months under the auspices of the Iraqi government to regularize relations between the two countries, and promote strategic coordination mechanisms.
The gulf interest is clear: fear of escalation with Iran in the absence of American assistance; the ongoing campaign in Yemen and its heavy toll; and the desire to initiate reforms and economic steps while maintaining security-related stability. Iran, for its part, is seeking to break free of its isolation, crack the "Abraham alliance", and generate positive economic potentials. These signs of de-escalation between the Gulf states and Iran are viewed positively by Washington as indications of enhanced regional stability that could alleviate the risk of a military campaign involving the United States in the Middle East while incentivizing Iran to make concessions in its nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
Meanwhile, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States are using economic and political "carrots" to establish their clout in Syria, expressing public support of the need for Syrian unity and stability. This step is aligned with the New Levant Initiative designed to minimize Iranian impact in the region, and have Syria and Lebanon reenter the Arab sphere, as well as with the "Egyptian gas pipeline to Lebanon" project due to pass through Syria. To date, the United States has not curbed the Arab initiatives despite the fact that they fundamentally conflict with the sanctions it had imposed on Assad's regime. De facto, the Arab states are slowly but consistently legitimizing the Assad government, while coming up against no American objection.
Implications and Recommendations
- The regional system is "breaking ranks" and promoting an ad-hoc pragmatic policy to fortify its security and economic interests. Nevertheless, Israel should not dismiss regularization processes with Turkey, but rather review its steps in the context of its long-term national security interests. Jerusalem would do well to continue tightening its relations with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on the security and economic fronts, while adjusting its bilateral relations with Turkey.
- In recent years, Turkey's policy under President Erdogan included poignant criticism of Israel and the initiation of steps against it in the international arena. Israel should strive to lessen its friction with Turkey by regularizing the two countries' bilateral relations, primarily on the state and civic-economic fronts, while being cautious and understanding the dynamics in their relations that could lead to quick shifts in Ankara's policies vis-à-vis Israel.
- Such a policy requires gentle steering and necessary adjustments to the national strategy in view of regional dynamics, but it will allow Israel far greater flexibility in the promotion of its security objectives in the region.
- The developing détente between Iran and the Gulf states primarily reflects the latter's realization that Washington's overt strategy has its weaknesses, as well as their need to create mechanisms that would lessen their friction with Tehran. Israel is advised to deepen the Abraham Accords and establish its status as a key, valuable actor for regional stability. The Israeli Prime Minister's publicized visit to the United Arab Emirates (December 2021), as well as that of the Commander of the IAF (November 2021) demonstrate the leap in the two countries' strategic relations.
- However, the steps taken by the Gulf states vis-à-vis Iran and Syria reveal the security-military "glass ceiling" of the collaboration in view of Iran's effective deterrence on the Gulf states, and the White House's weak regional policy.
- Israeli deterrence should, therefore, continue to be reinforced by the war between wars against Iranian entrenchment, while Jerusalem strives to tap into the potential of setting up a regional air defense array that would strengthen the strategic collaboration with the Sunni states, and enable the strategic depth required to address Iran.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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