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Nael M. Shama

A new Middle East?

Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags in support for independence referendum in September 2017 [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 September, 2017

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Comment: The Middle East's balance of power is undergoing a series of seismic shifts, as old alliances unravel as quickly as new ones form, writes Nael Shama.

Political affairs in the Middle East are on the verge of significant sea change, as maps, alliances and norms are being rewritten across the region. 

In this Middle East in flux, fundamental alliances are crumbling, old paths are being abandoned, political articles of faith questioned and new plots are taking shape. Emerging actors who don't like to play it safe are asserting their presence, and traditional powers are groping to find their way amid increasing difficulties.

The contours of some of these changes already manifested themselves in the crisis that erupted in June, between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain on one hand, and Qatar on the other.

The crisis marked the demise of the role of regional institutions, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, and their replacement by other, less formal and institutionalised groupings.

For instance, instead of its traditional reliance on the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Saudi Arabia has preferred to work within the so-called Arab Alliance in Yemen, and the Quartet in regional politics. If this trend continues - which seems likely - long-standing institutions run the risk of descending into total irrelevance.

In Gaza, an unanticipated political warming of relations between Hamas and its erstwhile bitter rival, Fatah's former security honcho Mohamed Dahlan, has been in the making for months. It has been widely speculated that Dahlan will return from his exile in the UAE to become prime minister of Gaza, while Hamas will retain its control of the security portfolio, and Egypt will reopen the Rafah Crossing.

The most striking outcome of this deal is that it may turn the cautious rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt into a substantial alliance

Obviously, this step is taken in open defiance of Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Dahlan has been at loggerheads for many years.

If finalised, the new arrangement - mediated by Egypt, financed by the UAE and indirectly backed by the United States - would significantly reshape Palestinian politics.

It would reinforce the current division between Gaza and the West Bank, and undermine the influence of Abbas over Palestinian political and armed factions. It would also subject solid regional alliances to a drastic reconfiguration. News of the plan has already drawn the ire of Abbas and strained Cairo's longstanding relations with Fatah.

Yet the most striking outcome of this deal is that it may turn the cautious rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt into a substantial alliance, an unthinkable development in light of the antagonism and mistrust that have governed their relations over the past decades.

Read more: Why Saudi Arabia's attempts to topple the emir of Qatar will fail

Hamas has already tightened its control of the Egypt border, and organised a huge rally to declare its support for the Egyptian army in its war against "terrorism". In return, Cairo has, as scholar Michele Dunne explained, "abandoned earlier efforts to isolate or crush Hamas", the Palestinian offshoot of its domestic nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Meanwhile, another political storm may be brewing in the heart of the Arab world. A solution for the Palestinian question - the "ultimate deal" in the words of Donald Trump, or the "deal of the century" as the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi dubbed it - has slowly come to the surface.

Donald Trump leaves Riyadh on the first ever direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel. May 2017 [Getty]

Donald Trump leaves Riyadh on the first
ever direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel. May 2017 [Getty]

The deal has apparently gained currency in Washington and Arab capitals in recent months.

US and Middle Eastern leaders have not explained what exactly is meant by these terms, and whether they describe a workable short-term framework agreement or just a distant long-term objective.

However, media reports indicate that the plan offers a formula to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that involves the entire Arab world, and imply that it would radically transform both Middle Eastern politics and geography.

According to reports, the vision includes the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza, which would include parts of northern Sinai, and would accommodate Palestinian refugees. Israel would in return concede parts of its territory to Egypt.

Full normalisation between Israel and Arab states would ensue, which might pave the way for the formation of an Israel-Sunni Arab coalition against Iran.        

The time-honoured norms of Arab politics are also slowly changing. Most Arab states no longer pay deference, or even lip service, to the ideals of pan-Arabism or Islamism, which have consistently been seen as sources of domestic legitimacy. 

Most Arab states no longer pay deference, or even lip service, to the ideals of pan-Arabism or Islamism

For decades following the inception of the modern Arab state system, Arab regimes used to agitate for Arab unity, and protest over the plight of the Palestinians and the wellbeing of the Islamic Ummah. But now they make no effort to hide that realpolitik, not ideology, has become a fact of life in Arab politics.

Saudi Arabia, for one, has to a large extent relinquished its historic role as a leading "Muslim" country as the guardian of the Muslim holy shrines. It is now wagering on military might, rather than Muslim diplomacy. That's not entirely a surprise in light of Riyadh's relentless bombing of a fellow Muslim country, Yemen, and its alleged endeavours to develop ties with Israel - both taboos in the eyes of Arab
people.

Other crucial developments include a possible rapprochement between two of the region's leading powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indications of a possible thaw in relations include a handshake between the foreign ministers of the two countries in Istanbul, a rare visit by Iraq's Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Saudi Arabia and a plan to exchange diplomatic visits after the end of the Hajj season.

A world of difference still exists between the expectations of Arab people and the foreign policies of their states

In the shifting sands of the Levant, the Islamic State group is losing territory and influence; the balance of power is tipping in favour of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad who is clawing back territory from the rebels; and a referendum for the independence of Kurdistan is slated for September 25.

The implications of these developments for the international relations of the Middle East are still not entirely clear, but are likely to be extremely significant. Assad's victory will likely embolden Arab autocrats and undermine the already meagre prospects of democratic transition in their countries.

The rise of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq will encourage separatist Kurds in Turkey to follow suit, and may ignite a new civil war in Iraq for the control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The "deal of the century" would, meanwhile, put an end to the 70-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

A shift in regional alliances would likely breed a change in the region's balance of power, disrupt the pecking order of the Arab state system and, perhaps even trigger the birth of an entirely new regional order.

Domestically, meanwhile, a world of difference still exists between the expectations of Arab people and the foreign policies of their states. Legitimacy deficits persist, patience is wearing thin and instability remains the order of the day.

 

Nael Shama is a political researcher and writer who is specialised in Middle East politics. 

 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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