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Regional Realignment in the Middle East? 

Regional Realignment in the Middle East? 
 Brandon Friedman
Director of Research at MDC, Tel Aviv University

Members of two rival camps in the Sunni Middle East - Qatar and Turkey on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, on the other - have continued a sustained diplomatic effort at reconciliation this summer. In mid-August the UAE's National Security Adviser, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met with Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This was followed two weeks later by a "positive" phone call between Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and the Turkish president. On September 7-8, Egyptian and Turkish officials held their second round of talks in Ankara. The earlier round, held in Cairo in May, was the first effort to normalize relations between the two states since 2013. Turkey also made efforts in April and May to repair the rupture in bilateral ties with the Saudi Kingdom. In January 2021, Qatar publicly reconciled with the Saudis at a very high profile summit in Al Ula. In February and March, Qatari officials held high-level meetings with the Saudis, Emiratis, and Egyptians. On August 25, a senior Qatari official delivered a personal message from the Emir to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, and the next day Emirati Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed visited Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. In a sign of the delicate progress between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, on September 17, the Saudi Gazette tweeted a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman standing beside Qatari Emir Tamim Al Thani and Emirati Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, all casually dressed, in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. 

These two camps have been mainly divided over their conflicting attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood since the 2010-2011 Arab Spring. Qatar and Turkey have been pro-Muslim Brotherhood, hosting and funding Muslim Brotherhood media organs, while Egypt (post-July 2013), Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have viewed the Brotherhood as a threat to domestic and regional security and stability. The two camps also viewed Iran differently. Qatar and Turkey have had important economic relationships with Iran, while Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis have viewed it as an expansionist threat. Egypt, for its part, has tried to stake a middle-ground with respect to Iran. The rivalry between these two camps has played out across the region and perhaps most visibly in the wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where each camp has actively supported rival groups with material aid, manpower, and arms. While policymakers in the West focus on the Iran-Saudi rivalry, (often framed in religious terms as a Sunni-Shiʿi divide), the intra-Sunni hostility has fueled conflict across the region since the 2013 coup d'état in Egypt. What accounts for this intensive diplomatic effort to end these hostile rivalries that have riven the Sunni world over the last decade and led to competing military interventions across the region?

Regional incentives for intra-Sunni diplomacy 

There are five overlapping explanations for these developments. First, the leaders in the two rival camps have understood that the Middle East will not be a priority for the Biden administration. Second, this intra-Sunni diplomacy is a response to the Iranian-Saudi talks that have been taking place in Baghdad since April. Third, the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood has retreated, in Egypt and elsewhere across the Sunni world, has removed some of the ideological intensity of the rivalry between the two camps. Fourth, Turkey’s growing isolation on several fronts has led Erdoğan to seek a reset with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. Fifth, global shocks - skyrocketing natural gas prices, the severe effects of climate change across the region, and the pandemic-induced damage to global trade, as well as sharper great power competition - have created new economic incentives to explore détente.

The intra-Sunni diplomacy is an indication that alignments in the region appear to be shifting in response to new centers of competition and conflict in the region.

But perhaps most importantly, the intra-Sunni diplomacy is an indication that alignments in the region appear to be shifting in response to new centers of competition and conflict in the region. Some have argued that this intra-Sunni diplomacy taking place alongside the Iranian-Saudi dialogue are signs that the region is finding its own way towards a new formula for regional cooperation. However, increasing tension between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea, between Turkey and Iran in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Turkey and Iran in northern Iraq, and the confrontation between Israel and Iran spreading into Azerbaijan all suggest the opposite.

As Vali Nasr has correctly observed, competition between non-Arab powers is shaping the next round of conflicts in the Middle East. However, his claim that it is realpolitik, and not ideology, that is the new driving force in the Middle East underestimates the extent to which the domestic Turkish and Iranian agendas are driven by nationalism. 

Turkey on a tightrope

Turkey's outreach to the Sunni Arab world appears to be a response to its growing isolation in the Middle East, as aforementioned. It has experienced tension with Russia and Iran in Syria, Iraq, the Black Sea, and Azerbaijan. While Russia and Turkey have been effective partners in the Middle East since 2016, they have supported opposing sides of ongoing conflicts in Syria's Idlib Governorate, in Libya, and in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia's more assertive military deployments in the Black Sea have also given Turkey cause for concern. Turkey has drawn Russia’s ire for selling its drones to Poland and Ukraine and for publicly declaring its refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. More recently, Turkey appears to be deflecting Russian pressure by entering into gas and arms contracts, which, if successful, will make Turkey even more dependent on Russia. 

Turkey’s relationship with Iran has also frayed in 2021. Turkey’s continued occupation of northeast Syria and rejection of the Asad regime, its staunch military support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 2020 war, its joint naval exercises with Azerbaijan in the Caspian Sea, its joint military exercises with Pakistan and Azerbaijan near the Iranian border on September 12, and its military incursions in northern Iraq have all created serious tension with Iran on several fronts this year. These specific developments reflect more fundamental differences between Iran and Turkey on the future of Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Afghanistan. 

Erdoğan’s attempt to repair relations with his Sunni Arab rivals in the Middle East appears to be a gambit to avoid being left behind as several diplomatic initiatives reshuffle relationships in the Middle East. The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on August 28 was co-organized by France, with whom Turkey has had major disagreements in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and elsewhere. While the Baghdad Conference may have been light on substance, and held in part to bolster the re-election prospects of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, it did succeed in bringing many of the major regional actors and multilateral institutions together. It was notable that Qatari Emir Tamim met with Egyptian President Sisi for the first time

Erdoğan’s attempt to repair relations with his Sunni Arab rivals in the Middle East appears to be a gambit to avoid being left behind as several diplomatic initiatives reshuffle relationships in the Middle East. 

It was the Egyptian-Qatari rift that helped bring Turkey and Qatar together in 2013. The Baghdad event should also be seen as a larger outgrowth of a series of tripartite meetings held between Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq to facilitate cooperation in ways that serve their interests. Turkey also finds itself under pressure to repair ties with the Asad regime following King Abdullah of Jordan's effort to reintegrate the government in Damascus back into the Arab fold. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and the Abraham Accords are two additional multilateral initiatives that have also contributed to Turkey's isolation in the Middle East. The EMGF's success has attracted Saudi and Emirati support, and led to Saudi- Emirati military exercises in Greece that included the Greek and Egyptian militaries. At the same time, Greece and France have entered into a new defense pact, independent of NATO, that appears to be directed at Turkey.

The collective need to weather economic shocks

Turkey’s diplomacy, and the broader intra-Sunni diplomacy, also reflect a greater region-wide attention to economic recovery in the midst of a double shock from the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s stark report led to a global call to arms on climate change. Turkey and others in the Middle East experienced the effects of global warming first-hand during a summer of devastating forest fires and unprecedented flooding. Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan faced a summer of drought and water shortages. In Iran, water shortages triggered social unrest in Khuzestan. Turkey’s lack of rain led to a 21% drop in its hydroelectric power production in 2021, slowing its ability to diversify its sources of energy. Extreme weather also contributed to a dramatic rise in the price of natural gas in 2021, particularly in Europe. 

The spike in gas prices could not be worse for Turkey, which is set to renegotiate unfavorable, long-term gas contracts with Russia’s Gazprom

The spike in gas prices could not be worse for Turkey, which is set to renegotiate unfavorable, long-term gas contracts with Russia’s Gazprom, scheduled to expire in December 2021. Between 2016 and 2019, Turkey had significantly reduced its gas imports from Russia (by 35% in 2019). It planned to further reduce its dependence on expensive Russian gas imports by negotiating better terms for its piped gas and increasing its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imports.

Turkey became the second biggest LNG importer in Europe and the eighth biggest in the world in 2019, thanks to low LNG prices and its decision to invest heavily in LNG infrastructure between 2016 and 2019. In 2020, the vast majority of its LNG came from the US, which charged one sixth of the price of Turkey’s Russian and Iranian gas imports. However, in 2021, prices for LNG skyrocketed, undermining Turkey’s attempt to use American-supplied LNG to diversify its gas supply away from Russia. The rise in prices was largely due to a combination of increased demand and constrained supply, which included economic recovery in Asia, drought in Brazil, and a combination of industrial recovery and an unusually cold winter and an extremely hot summer in Europe. Turkey spends between $12 and $15 billion per year on its gas imports. The higher gas prices it will face in its upcoming negotiations with Gazprom come at a time when its economy is already suffering from a liquidity crisis due to its weak currency, which reached a record low in October (9.19 Turkish Lira to the US dollar on October 14). Turkey's dependence on Russia also includes the large volumes of imported wheat, which Turkey uses to supply its profitable flour exports, another important source of foreign exchange for Turkey.

Turkey's precarious relations with Russia and the US, along with its confrontation with Greece, have pushed Turkey to court Egypt. Egypt has the potential to supply Turkey with affordable LNG, which would help Turkey diversify its gas imports until it is able to begin producing its own natural gas from the Sakarya field in the Black Sea (prospectively in 2023). However, it seems unlikely that Turkey will be able to peel Egypt away from its deepening ties with its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the key question is whether Turkey is willing to compromise on Eastern Mediterranean maritime boundaries in order to work with the broader multilateral Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which includes Cyprus, Greece, and Israel (as well as France, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority). Whatever the case may be, Turkey’s interest in repairing ties with Egypt appears to be driven in no small part by its desire to avoid a renewed dependency on Russian gas

Finally, the intra-Sunni diplomacy reflects a greater need for intra-regional trade and investment opportunities, given the global economic downturn. The global economy is still experiencing the shocks from the pandemic, which include global supply chain disruptions and higher transportation costs. Therefore, the potential for greater intra-Sunni trade, tourism, and investment represent significant opportunities to bolster liquidity and capital flows in the region. The UAE's strategy is to leverage its geography and become a global hub for multinational trade and investment.

The intra-Sunni diplomacy reflects a greater need for intra-regional trade and investment opportunities, given the global economic downturn.

It views trade as jump-starting economic growth, and it would like to drive more inter-regional trade, linking Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. As a result of the intra-Sunni rift, UAE and Turkey bilateral trade dropped from $14.7 billion in 2017 to $8.5 billion in 2020. The Turkey-Emirati rapprochement has led to a rapid return of Emirati foreign direct investment in Turkey, particularly in health, goods processing, fintech, and, perhaps most interestingly, energy. Turkey, who is facing US and EU sanctions, views Egypt as a large consumer export market and a gateway to reach potentially lucrative consumer markets in Africa and the Arab world for its industrial exports. Turkey may have believed it could capitalize on the sharper economic competition between the Saudis and the Emiratis, which emerged during the pandemic, but Turkey's outreach to the Saudis in April has not ended the unofficial Saudi boycott, with Saudi imports from Turkey remaining at a record low. 

Where is the détente headed? 

The intra-Sunni détente has not been evenly pursued. Turkey and the UAE, for different reasons, appear most committed to it. But unresolved personal and ideological conflicts make it difficult to characterize this diplomatic engagement as a reconciliation. The Emirati and Turkish détente appears to be quite transactional. The ideological differences between President Erdoğan and President Sisi remain a major stumbling block in the Egyptian-Turkish normalization. Similarly, the deep mistrust and animosity between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed and President Erdoğan has limited any progress between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On the other hand, Qatari Emir Tamim's late August meeting with President Sisi at the Baghdad Conference suggests a real opportunity to break the longstanding Qatari-Egyptian impasse. The rapprochement between Qatar and the Saudis and Emiratis also appears to be moving forward. It would be premature to suggest these developments represent a breakthrough. The relationships remain fragile and will be tested by the Muslim Brotherhood's continued presence and media activity in Turkey and Qatar; Turkey's military engagement in Libya; developments in Syria and Iraq; and, continued tension over maritime boundaries and gas infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean. Global shocks have paved a way to détente, but greater cooperation remains contingent on unresolved and newly emerging regional conflicts.  



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