Russia and China are back in the game as the US focuses on the Indo-Pacific and are instrumental in some parleys.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
Last few weeks have been an interesting time in the Middle East which is often a cause of concern for many hotspots because of deep seated regional and extra regional reasons, interventions, and expectations. But whether Trump’s four years in White House or President Biden’s equanimous approach towards the region or US’s perceived retraction or for that matter emergence of a complex and not yet conceived conflictual dynamic in this strategic region are the reasons, is a matter of scrutiny. Could it simply be the realisation that the infructuous conflicts are draining them out especially as the pandemic mortally stalks them all! Only time will tell how these will eventually unfold and what impact they will have on regional developments. But for the time being there are serious efforts or at least attempts to diffuse the volatility among traditional rivals or estranged friends that makes it interesting.
Russia and China are back in the game as the US focuses on the Indo-Pacific and are instrumental in some parleys. Some of these initiatives include Talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran via Baghdad; US and Iran via Vienna; Saudi and Qatar Via Al Ula; Warming up between Turkey and Saudi Arabia; Rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey; Lebanon and Israel on the Mediterranean; In Palestine Fatah and Hamas patch up; and Islamabad trying to make it up with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and Tehran via Afghanistan; or for that matter, breaking ice between India and Pakistan by Abu Dhabi . Abraham Accords of course were a game changer of sorts and perhaps a Trump legacy.
While each of these friendly gestures have a significant potential to impact on the regional dynamic some are even more potent than others. In recent years Turkey under Erdogan has emerged as a major actor and has often been equated with his personal ambition to lead the Islamic world, militarisation of its interventionist policy in Syria, Libya, Nagorno and the Eastern Mediterranean without flinching to exert its independence in foreign policy much to the chagrin of its NATO allies. European partners and Arab countries felt that it was neo-Ottomanism on display. Route chosen was to also support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) internationally, banned in many countries especially in the wake of Arab Spring and their victory in Egyptian elections.
The political Islam -the brand of democracy of Ankara and Tehran caused shudders among the Gulf monarchies. Egypt’s support to first MB Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his eventual execution and virulent criticism of next President Sisi led to rupture in diplomatic relations between two strong regional powers with a glorious past. However, for some time Turkey has changed tracks and a delegation led by my friend and a fine diplomat Vice Minister Amb Sedat Onal had detailed discussions in Cairo to subsume the differences and work on a minimum common programme with CBMs ( Confidence Building measures) to normalise ties after nearly eight years . State media criticism on both sides has significantly reduced the vitriolic compared to last year when the two were nearly battle ready in Libya and the East Mediterranean. This could defuse the tension in Libya and the GNU (Government of National Unity) could perhaps move forward as the two military powers would look to encash the immense business and reconstruction opportunities while maintaining their geo-economic interests on the anvil.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also trying to patch up differences even if Ankara’s support to MB may not be weaned away and the two are in a superficial contestation to lead the Islamic Ummah. Tonal quality of criticism on both sides has lost high decibels. Ankara has stopped giving primacy to Khashoggi murder and has accepted and endorsed the action taken by Riyadh and Crown Prince MBS to fix responsibility. Last year because of enhanced tensions Saudi Arabia had restrained nearly $3bn imports from Turkey. During the 2017 Qatar blockade by Saudi, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt one witnessed an opportunity fully exploited by Ankara when it not only supported Doha but also established a base there. Now, fortunately resolution of tensions between Doha and Riyadh -a parting gift of Trump- removed an irritant between Ankara and Riyadh. Trump was also dabbling intensively both with Turkey and Saudi Arabia but with the onset of Biden that has changed qualitatively. Hence, MBS’s recent televised interview acknowledged the need of many friends which was welcomed by Moscow and Beijing. Even Erdogan and Putin have good relationships and are being targeted by the Biden Administration even more. Hence it makes sense to iron out differences bilaterally and regionally to scupper the impact. How, UAE and Turkey will play out depends on its relationship with other GCC countries and Tehran and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, on May 6, King Salman and President Erdogan had a telephonic discussion on bilateral and regional issues while exchanging traditional greetings of Ramadan.
Amidst this one of the key players was Pakistan. PM Imran Khan who had apparently burnt his boat with the Saudis and Emiratis when casting his lot with Turkey and Malaysia to forge a new Islamic alternative to OIC. In his view it had failed to address the Kashmir issue and abrogation of Art 370 despite his veiled threats and pleas to Riyadh and others. They were also unhappy when in 2019, Abu Dhabi invited Indian Foreign Minister Late Mrs Sushma Swaraj to address the plenary of the FM’s OIC meet. Tepid reactions to Balakot and Pulwama were interpreted as the Gulf Countries blindly supporting India due to her economic clout and potential. Saudi Arabia has been a major benefactor of Pakistan but they have begun to see the extremist direction Islamabad was taking and was overtly critical of its sustaining masters. Hence both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh called off their billions of dollar credits lines and loans which made the country further economically unstable despite Chinese lifeline. Hence, realising their mistakes General Bajwa and FM Qureshi tried their bit with limited success. Finally, PM Imran Khan visited Jeddah (April 8) and has tried to bury the differences and signed two agreements in the presence of MBS pertaining to combating crime and illicit drug trafficking as well as financing ($ 500mn) of the projects in energy, transportation and infrastructure including at Gwadar port. As per reports they discussed means to bolster economic and trade relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and explored opportunities for investment in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. They underscored the military and security ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and agreed to deepen them further to achieve joint goals. They stressed the need for Islamic efforts to combat extremism, violence and terrorism and shunning sectarianism. More importantly, they agreed to establish a Saudi -Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council headed by the two leaders. Preceding the Saudi visit, FM Qureshi had visited UAE, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran to facilitate Afghan Peace Process and to re-emphasise their own arbitration credentials.
One of the most significant interactions has been between Riyadh and Tehran promoted by Iraq as well as Qatar and Oman to diffuse tensions in the region and specially to close the Yemen chapter as it has become most probable that Iran and the US will return to JCPOA. Apart from a few meetings between the officials of the two sides, Crown Prince Salman in his interview, while expressing concerns on Iran’s negative behaviour and nuclear enrichment quest as well as its ballistic programme and proxies, was most convincing in his recent TV interview stating that “Iran is a neighbouring country, all what we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world”. Iranians have also been making similar statements and FM Zarif recently went to several GCC countries to follow up on the demarche to convince them of Iranian sincerity for the regional peace, security, and stability.
Palestine, the oldest and most virulent issue once again brought all Muslim countries together to condemn Tel Aviv for the violence at the holy Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and forced evictions at Sheikh Jarrah as the UNSC convenes to discuss the matter and UNSG Antonio Guterres urged Israel to maintain maximum restraint. This is the holy month of Ramadan and forgiveness might be a good thing so that region, despite the geopolitics, internal socio-political dynamic and intra-regional and inter-State contradictions among major powers, could find its own security imperative and matrix so that the extreme challenges posed by the pandemic and economic downturn could be addressed for the regional peace and development. No easy rides there but Inshallah, good sense will prevail!
(The author is Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta. Presently, he is President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)