The diplomatic recovery of 2023 and regional multipolarity without proper economic (projects already exist) and institutional consolidation of normalization agreements have the risk of a rollback to armed confrontation. A commitment to inclusive regional development and equality, rather than individual big players, could be the basis of a new regional order, writes Ruslan Mamedov, Senior Research Fellow, Center for the Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
New global conditions are affecting the regional order of West Asia and North Africa (WANA). The author of this article has already noted that in the context of global transformations, the return of the “Arab voice” was expected. In this regard, reflections on a multipolar world raise the important question of whether or not the representatives of this new world act as equals. A situation is emerging in which the world of multipolarity is still the world of major regional players and their politicking. Multipolarity means having multiple agendas promoted by different players. Equality, on the other hand, could be ensured by multilateralism, when there is a balance of interests, traditions, cultures and rights among large, medium and small actors. But is this state of affairs suitable for large players? To what extent are the states promoting multilateral rhetoric able and ready to take into account the rights of their smaller neighbours? These issues have their own features in WANA.
One of the key changes in the regional order concerns the influence of external actors. The decline in US influence has occurred simultaneously with the strengthening of the role of the states of the region. Regional dynamics began to change in connection with the activities of a new generation of leaders of the Gulf states, the growing role of Russia and China, and the transformation of the world order as a whole.
Once the former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) declared that “the keys to the region are in Washington.” He also expelled the Soviet Union’s specialists and military from Egypt; the USSR had begun grandiose projects back in the days of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is unlikely that Sadat, an extremely pragmatic Egyptian leader who achieved an unpopular peace with Israel among the Egyptian people, would say so today. Regional leaders largely dictate the agenda themselves. Among them are three non-Arab players – Iran, Turkey and Israel, with a history of conflicts and agreements with their Arab neighbours. What is typical for 2023 is the improvement of regional relations. Israel continues to pursue its normalization process in certain areas with the Arab world, and Turkey has moved away from confrontation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the restoration of relations.
One of the key events in the first half of 2023 was the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The countries have finally come to the conclusion that open clashes in various parts of WANA and the use of proxy forces are not necessary or useful foreign policy tools. It is clear to Saudi Arabia that its grandiose future development plans cannot be realized for as long as its immediate neighbourhood is stricken with conflict. We are talking about the Syrian-Iraqi crisis zone in the north, the Yemeni crisis zone in the south, as well as the existence of a number of unstable partners like Egypt. At the same time, it is quite clear to Iran that the further expenditure of additional resources on regional struggle seems no longer to be intrinsically valuable. This is due to the fact, that Iranian resources are not unlimited in the face of sanctions pressure and regional competition. The domestic political agenda is increasingly based on the need to find resources for internal development, as well as meeting the expectations of the population. Riyadh and Tehran can continue the competition, but transfer it from a military plane to more responsible ones – political, diplomatic and economic. Relations with regional neighbours remain a priority for both countries.
For Saudi Arabia, this is a chance to “activate” the Arab world, and for Iran – to “fit” into the region, using its diplomatic leverage. Of course, Tehran and its allies are interested in the post-conflict reconstruction of crisis states, but reconstruction requires financing (Tehran, Moscow, or even Europe do not have these funds). In this context, it should be noted with what speed that the agenda the Gulf states and the Arab League is returning. This organization was in a desperate state. In the 2010s it became obvious that the Arab League did not have the necessary resources, or that it was split and useless in solving major regional problems. In 2023, a number of key decisions were made within the framework of the Arab League, including the return of Syria to the organization. In many ways, all this normalization is connected with the vigorous activity of Saudi Arabia, the core and financial source for the structures of the Arab League.
It seems logical that the goals and objectives for the development of Arab societies are formed in countries with a vision, and the impetus comes from those countries that have the necessary financial and economic resources. First of all, we are talking about the Gulf Arab states. In this regard, properly the quality of the new Arab leaders that is fundamentally important. The pragmatism that they have does not give way to exclusively reactionary and tactical actions. Arab leaders retain pragmatism and room for reaction, but now they emphasize combining pragmatism with the need to form a shared vision. For example, the leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, sees, in his words, “his war” for the “New Europe” in the Middle East.
In addition to the leaders of the Gulf states, the heads of individual Mashriq states are also busy looking for integration formats. There are various initiatives between Egypt (located at the junction of Mashriq and Maghreb), Jordan, Iraq and Syria (however, US sanctions against Syria, as well as conflict itself hinder its participation in regional initiatives). Iraq (especially Baghdad) is currently experiencing a construction boom, the strengthening of statehood, despite the continuing risks associated primarily with the dynamics of the US-Iranian confrontation and intra-Shiite elite split. Iraq offers strategic projects, such as the famous “development road” from the Gulf to Turkey (including railway construction). There is a project that will connect Iraq to the Gulf states’ electrical system. Similar projects exist between Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Arab world is paying more and more attention to nuclear energy, as evidenced by the work of nuclear power plants in the UAE, the project to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt, Saudi Arabia's plans in this area (nuclear giants are currently fighting for a Saudi tender).
These trends could be relevant for the region of the Arab Maghreb. However, these states are largely divided – their ties with external players (not always the same) are stronger than ties with each other. Today it is clear that Tunisia - despite the fact that it has ceased to be considered a democracy and is increasingly moving towards authoritarianism – counts on financial support from the West. It received the necessary loans from Western financial institutions, including the European Union. Morocco also continues to move in the wake of American foreign policy, not to mention the tension between it and Algeria on a number of issues, including the protracted conflict in Western Sahara. In turn, Algeria is actively developing an anti-Western policy, paying court towards Moscow and Beijing. Libya has returned to the agenda, but is limited to issues of oil exports and the role of a platform for interaction (previously there was an open confrontation) of regional forces. That is, its regional initiatives, including as an influential participant in them, should be forgotten for a while. A similar situation, but in a negative way, is characteristic of Sudan, which has plunged into a conflict. Conflicts in Sudan and Niger could negatively affect other areas in Africa. Egypt, on the other hand, seeks to take an equidistant position in relation to regional and global players, which it succeeds due to its important logistical and regional significance.
Today there is a serious demand for the economic integration of the Arab states of the Gulf, Mashriq and Maghreb. But the main question along the way is: to what extent are global and regional leaders committed to multilateralism, and not to multipolarity? Obviously, if global and regional leaders follow the path of multipolarity, it can be achieved by levelling the interests of small and medium-sized states. Moreover, the diplomatic recovery of 2023 and regional multipolarity without proper economic (projects already exist) and institutional consolidation of normalization agreements have the risk of a rollback to armed confrontation. A commitment to inclusive regional development and equality, rather than individual big players, could be the basis of a new regional order.
This is exactly what Moscow and Beijing offer in their rhetoric regarding the region, a somewhat different concept – bloc, Indo-Abrahamic alliance (India, the United Arab Emirates, Israel with the support of the United States, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are not yet included in the alliance) is promoted by Washington. But the last word rests with the regional actors and the synchronization of their vision of the future with their smaller neighbours.