Amidst all these open-ended regional issues an avoidable skirmish is between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other since June 2017 that appears to be heading to some accommodation and eventual resolution.
By Ambassador Anil Trigunayat
There are some visible though not necessarily verifiable signs of incremental peacemaking in various hotspots in the Middle East. The region has been in the throes of the self-inflicted adversarial relationships in a self-destructive matrix marked by egotistic invasions, Arab Spring 2.0 and consequent dislodging of entrenched leaders and general unrest. But some initial signs of thaw and positivity are being witnessed that might provide greater stability if pursued in right earnest. But much water has flown down their respective streams in the Persian Gulf, Arabian and Mediterranean seas. Amidst the biggest threats to regional and global peace( security, navigation and sea lanes, terrorism and trade) is the Iran vs. the US, Saudi and Israel conflict pursuant to signing and withdrawal of USA from the JCPOA ( Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear deal and Iranian heft to try and capitalise on the insecurities of the other five European participants of the deal.
China and Russia maintained their support to Iran while strengthening ties with all regional countries. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran have all claimed that they are ready for a dialogue and despite deep-seated historic and religious mistrust some low key direct and indirect meetings have been taking place to diffuse the situation. All have realized that further escalation will only be disastrous for all of them. Oman and Kuwait and even Pakistan have been trying to mediate. Only a few days ago the Omani foreign minister visited Tehran the second time after meeting with US Secretary of State Pompeo.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also tried his shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and Riyadh. There are ongoing efforts to bring the unwinnable Yemen War to a close as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has entrusted his younger brother to take charge. UAE has gradually withdrawn from the Yemeni front. Iranians have also said they are on board to resolve the issue and the delegations have been exchanged. They have also offered a direct dialogue or the Hormuz peace plan at the highest level but some confidence-building measures are necessary for its take-off. Despite General Haftar’s reluctance the Libyans are hoping for some way forward at Berlin Conference as the US has begun to call for a ceasefire among various fighting groups in the embattled country.
Syria is nearing some closure with Astana and Geneva processes that have been underway even if it will leave everyone bitter due to eight yearlong battle of opposing interests. Of course, power equations between Russia and USA and their constructive understanding could expedite the process of normalization. Algeria held post-Bouteflika elections on December 12 . Even though not many wanted it might lead to the way forward. Sudan also has arrived at some understanding as the political process is underway. In Lebanon and Iraq pursuant to demonstrations and widespread protests and entrenched and failed leaderships, corruption and unemployment and economic mess the Prime Ministers had to resign. For the time being people are not satisfied as they are seeking complete and not cosmetic overhaul.
Still, a move forward even though it is not easy to get the smoother succession due to political equations laid down by the constitution. The solution to the problems lies in gradually building workable trust and undertaking confidence-building measures among major players and simultaneous reduction of the influence of the external actors who at least should agree on a common minimum interactive base to deescalate the already volatile situation in all the theatres. If geopolitics and geo-economics become the primary movers’ escalation will simply be a given as there are enough incendiary flashes to do the trick.
Amidst all these open-ended regional issues an avoidable skirmish is between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other since June 2017 that appears to be heading to some accommodation and eventual resolution. King Salman of Saudi Arabia had graciously invited Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim to attend the 40th GCC Summit in Riyadh. Emir would wait for some real developments before attending the next Summit. Hitherto Qatari delegations were led at fairly junior levels.
However, this GCC Summit was attended by Qatari Prime Minister who was graciously welcomed by King Salman. Even Saudi TV welcomed him to his second home. Earlier Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin al Thani visited Riyadh giving rise to the hope that this unnecessary brewing conflict could be cooled down. During the past two and a half years Kuwaiti Emir and Omani leaders have made sincere attempts to bridge the dyke of mistrust but only peripheral gains were achieved as the extraneous 13 demands by the Quad could not be met by Qatar without compromising its sovereignty.
On the other hand, some of the demands especially pertaining to the Qatari dalliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and much closer relations with Iran and Turkey were an anathema to the Triumvirate and need attention. However, Qatar has successfully waded through extensive international diplomacy, localization and diversification of its economy and sourcing partners which was a blessing in disguise. But the fact remains that GCC and Gulf unity, however tenuous it was, and their economies and international esteem has been adversely impacted giving rise to further external intervention.
In any case, the sports diplomacy kept the hope of reconciliation alive. Most recently Qatar hosted the Arabian Gulf cup at which all the countries participated. Emir was there to cheer sportsmen at the finals played between Saudi and Bahraini teams. However, given the exceptional acrimony would be essential to find a face-saving for all involved if the issue is to be resolved for good.
Role of the US has become questionable as it also competes and threatens the hegemony of the oil-rich economies of West Asia. Turkey, a NATO member, with its Islamic leadership ambitions set up its base in Qatar. Closer defence and security cooperation, that arguably was necessary for the protection of desperate Doha given Trumpian uncertainties, has created a long term crevice in the shifting sands of geopolitics in the region.
Only last week a Joint Qatar-Turkey Command has been established while Qatar participated at the GCC Summit on December 10 terming the de-escalation with its Arab Gulf brothers a reasonable even if partial success. There is a realization in West Asia especially Gulf countries that any conflagration could decimate them and their economies in no time. Non-state actors can take advantage of the situation and create mayhem as happened in September when vital Saudi oil facilities were attacked by military drones apparently belonging to the Houthis even though the Iranians were accused of direct complicity.
Due to geopolitical changes in the region Israel has engaged in a meaningful dialogue with its Gulf neighbours as the Palestinian issue has become peripheral and entwined in the so-called “ Deal of the Century” proposed by President Trump and his son in law Jared Kushner. But the US statements on Jerusalem, Golan Heights and legalization of expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank have created new contours of negotiations while imposing additional constraints for the moribund Middle East Peace Process.
The fear of Iranian intervention and influence, as well as its growing clout in Iraq, Lebanon, GCC, Yemen and Syria and fight against terrorism and the need for alternative paradigms of economic and political cooperation imbued with realpolitik, have provided necessary and sufficient conditions for the Israeli outreach to its neighbours.
Meanwhile, as per reports, Israeli Foreign Minister Katz shared their flagship connectivity plan with his Indian counterpart that would connect the Mediterranean and gulf and through Israel and Jordan to India. This may also obviate the energy and trade supplies through Hormuz as Israel could become a potential land bridge in this regard. It is a welcome sign for India even as it remains committed to the Palestinian Cause and supports the resolution of all regional problems through direct and indirect dialogue.
Russia has emerged as a major bulwark of geostrategic influence in West Asia with declining and uncertain US strategic calculations even if it is not going to leave the region so soon. At the same time according to a survey Japan has emerged as one of the favourite interlocutors for resolving the regional issues while at the Middle East security Forum in Beijing leaders of 30 odd Think Tanks from the Arab world and Iran urged China ( already heavily invested) to become proactive for peace and to diffuse the regional hotspots.
Given Prime Minister Modi’s excellent personal rapport with the leaders and much higher stakes in the security and stability of the region there are voices for it to be a key and honest intermediary but whether it will bite it or not remains to be seen. For sure the predilection for the region is angling towards Asia where they naturally belong.
There is a growing realization among the key players in the region that they cannot wholly count on the external security guarantees in this most heavily armed volatile space. Hence, It is imperative to develop working regional mechanisms and safety valves through confidence-building measures. But for it to succeed “ A Sincere Dialogue” is a must.
(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at VIF. Views expressed are personal.)