The Biden push-button to West Asia’s diplomatic resets

Major West Asian nations have recently embarked on new diplomatic engagements with erstwhile rivals that could in time overturn existing regional alignments and possibly end ongoing conflicts that have wreaked havoc in several states.

The most dramatic interactions have been between senior Saudi and Iranian officials. After their meeting on April 9, the first since diplomatic ties were broken in January 2016, there have been other interactions, with technical committees set up to look at specific topics.

Again, since early this year, following the removal of the diplomatic and economic blockade on Qatar that was imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, Doha has made efforts to mend ties with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in tandem with similar initiatives of its doctrinal and political ally, Turkey.

On May 5, Turkey and Egypt had their first diplomatic meeting in Cairo after they had broken diplomatic ties in 2013, when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. The two countries, on opposite sides on almost all regional issues, are now exploring how to address their differences.

Casting the Asian dice on a West Asia board

The Biden challenge

The driving force behind these unprecedented engagements is the advent of the Biden administration at the helm of politics in the United States. Within his first 100 days in office, Mr. Biden has signalled a fresh U.S. approach to West Asian affairs. He has taken a tough line on Saudi Arabia, indicating a closer scrutiny of its human rights record and strong opposition to the war in Yemen.

Egypt too has concerns on the human rights issue, while seeking regional support for its differences with Ethiopia. It now seems the U.S. could re-enter the nuclear agreement, but Iran has concerns about the limitations to be imposed on its regional role.

Turkey could also experience fresh winds from Washington. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has built close ties with Russia, while threatening U.S. allies in Syria, the Kurds, with military force. Mr. Biden is expected to be less accommodative; his recent recognition of the Armenian “genocide” is already a fresh rebuke.

Besides concerns in West Asian capitals about a new U.S. approach to each of them, the broader message from Washington is that the U.S. is now likely to be less engaged with the region’s quarrels. Mr. Biden seems to be reiterating earlier messages from his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump that regional states should be responsible for regional security.

These signals of new U.S. policies have occurred even as the novel coronavirus pandemic is devastating West Asia. Besides the widespread infections and deaths, the viral epidemic has severely damaged regional economies, while oil prices remain in the doldrums, creating uncertainties for the producer states.

Finally, one major factor that is encouraging these unprecedented interactions among rivals is the recognition that the ongoing regional conflicts, in Syria, Yemen and Libya, despite the massive death and destruction, have yielded no military outcome and now demand fresh diplomatic approaches.

Recent engagements

Following the first meetings in Baghdad, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have made efforts to improve the atmosphere. In a recent interview, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke of seeking a “good and special relationship” with Iran. The Iranian spokesman responded by referring to a “new phase of cooperation and tolerance”.

The priority for the kingdom is to end the Yemen conflict: the lethal attacks from the precision missiles of the Houthis, said to have been provided by Iran, are a threat to national infrastructure and morale. The recent Houthi attack on oil-rich Marib is also a Saudi concern, while Iran would like the blockaded Hodeidah port which is partially open, to be used to rush humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Houthis. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has supported the Saudi offer of a ceasefire in Yemen.

Both countries also share concerns relating to the political impasse in Lebanon and the security of the waters of the Gulf and the Red Sea where a “shadow war” on oil and merchant vessels could escalate into a larger conflict. So far, both have paid a heavy financial price for their rivalry: Iran’s role in Syria costs its exchequer a few billion dollars every month, while Saudi Arabia has spent several hundred billion dollars in buying weaponry to sustain its partnership with the U.S.

Turkey is also exhibiting diplomatic dexterity. Despite differences with Egypt over Libya, the East Mediterranean waters and Turkey’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey now sees Egypt as a valuable partner to promote peace in Libya and pursue their interests jointly in the East Mediterranean by challenging Greece, Israel and Cyprus.

Turkey has also made overtures to Saudi Arabia. Besides accepting the Saudi court verdict on the Khashoggi murder case, Turkey has indicated it could work with the Saudis against the Houthis and facilitate the post-war political process through the Islamist Al-Islah party. Turkey has also offered the kingdom its advanced drones to be used against Houthi missiles.

Qatar’s outreach to Egypt has been well received, since it appears to have moderated its ties with the Brotherhood, toned down anti-Egypt broadcasts on Al Jazeera television, and is a major potential investor in Egypt’s flagging economy. To promote regional peace, Qatar’s Foreign Minister has called for a structured dialogue of the Gulf countries with Iran, affirming its view that Iran is a major presence in the regional security scenario.

Regional security

These are very early days and all sides concerned have a long way to go in resolving their differences. Egypt remains uneasy about Turkey’s ties with the Brotherhood and its regional ambitions. Saudi Arabia has similar concerns about Turkey’s doctrinal affiliations and its relations with Iran.

There are difficulties in reshaping Saudi-Iran relations as well. Iran may ease the pressure on the kingdom in Yemen and gradually yield ground in Iraq: the latter has already conveyed its desire to be free from all external influences. However, Syria will test their diplomatic skills as they explore how to accommodate their competing strategic interests in that devastated country.

Still, this is truly a historic period for West Asian diplomacy: the major states are displaying an unprecedented self-confidence in pursuing initiatives without the heavy hand of western powers that have dominated regional affairs for at least a couple of centuries, and, in pursuit of their own interests, have nurtured deep animosities between many of them. This has left a pervasive sense of insecurity across West Asia and made the countries dependent on western alliances to ensure their interests.

A role for India?

Today, states in West Asia appear poised to negotiate their strategic interests without outside intrusion. But, given that regional contentions are inter-connected, third-party facilitators will be needed to promote mutual confidence and prepare the ground for a comprehensive regional security arrangement which will bring together regional and external states with a stake in West Asia security.

This arrangement will have provisions for participating states to uphold regional peace and promote mutually beneficial cooperation in energy, economic and logistical connectivity areas.

Given its close ties with all the regional states, India is well-placed to build an association of like-minded states — Japan, Russia, South Korea — to shape and pursue such an initiative for West Asian peace.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 12:08:57 AM |

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