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Formalizing a Middle Eastern “Cold War”

More than ten years after the advent of the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, the original movements have largely been quashed, but the regional tremors unleashed in their wake have yet to settle. From Syria to Yemen and across northern Africa, regimes that were shaken by those events are still dealing with their delayed consequences. These consequences have not, as a rule, been positive; revolutionary changes that the Arab youth sought have backfired, leading in most cases to counter-revolution, regional intervention, and civil war. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which led the Arab coalition’s military intervention in Yemen in 2015, have for the past decade been mounting a region-wide competition for power with Iran and its allies. The balance of power in the region, too, is in flux. Much as the “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union needed to be managed in order to avoid a third world war, Middle Eastern rivalries would benefit from a system of rules that, while not eliminating regional competition, help to provide a framework for it to occur within and prevent a dangerous escalation. Direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran may or may not succeed in this endeavor, but the fact that they are being held is a positive step. Meanwhile, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait have all contributed to mediation efforts in Yemen and should be called upon to play an even more central role in easing tensions in the region.

The Players

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia assembled a broad coalition in 2015 to support not only its military intervention in Yemen but more broadly to form an anti-Iran front in the region. In principle, this coalition includes the six GCC countries, plus Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Pakistan. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ), have been the most active partners in the Yemen war, while other countries provided rhetorical, but sharply limited military, support. Oman never agreed to take part in the war, and Qatar withdrew its troops after the June 2017 diplomatic crisis began. North African countries and Pakistan have offered some logistical support, but generally did not send troops as MBS had hoped. Sudan’s military, generously supported by Saudi funds, did send highly effective troops at the start of the war, but eventually withdrew them after incurring heavy losses. In the broader conflict with Iran, Arab coalition partners have stood with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but with sharply varying enthusiasm, and some, like Jordan, prefer not to burn bridges and do not always go along with Saudi leadership.

Nor have the ambitious MBS and MBZ limited themselves to trying to influence the course of events in Yemen by force. Both nations have also thrust themselves into the post-2011 struggles for power in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa, generally in support of military coups and strongmen. The normalization accords with Israel, not yet encompassing Saudi Arabia, have to some extent emboldened this Saudi-UAE alliance, with the UAE in particular seeing eye-to-eye with Israeli leadership on most conflicts in the broader region.

Iran, which suffers from a dearth of conventional allies, has nonetheless secured the support of non-state actors such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and a few smaller Iraqi organizations formed under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi), funded and trained by Iran. Iran’s broader coalition, loosely referred to as the “Axis of Resistance,” has also included the Houthi rebels (officially known as “Ansar Allah”) since the start of the war in Yemen. In principle, the Assad regime in Syria is also a member of this alliance, albeit with limited ability for active involvement given the continued war and division of the country into various zones of influence.

Internationally, Russia has since 2015 played a pivotal role in the Syrian Civil War and has actively sought to expand its influence in the broader Middle East. Russian dominance in Syria resulted mainly from the Obama administration’s decision not to directly participate in that conflict, but also because the rivalry between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel gives them room to maneuver. This dominance has not, however, resulted in greater influence for Moscow in other Middle East conflicts, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the War in Yemen. Nonetheless, Russia has upgraded its relations with Gulf countries and Israel and plays a direct role in the Libyan conflict.

At the same time, China has gradually increased its involvement in the Middle East over the past ten years, alongside its growing economy and strengthening naval power. China’s longtime trade and commercial interests with the Middle East, through which it secures half of its annual oil needs, can now be backed up by a growing military presence and political involvement – though the latter two are still modest in comparison to ongoing U.S. involvement. China has rankled feathers in the West by continuing oil imports from Iran and refusing to participate in some U.S. and European sanctions against the Islamic Republic. China’s growing commercial and military presence could translate into broader influence should it choose to weigh in on regional conflicts.

Turkey, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has for the past decade tried to project itself as a powerhouse independent of the West and NATO. On the last point, though, Erdogan tries to bridge an impossible gap – coordinating with Russia and buying arms from it while keeping Ankara in NATO and continuing to seek advanced weaponry from the U.S. Having directly intervened in the Syrian war, Erdogan seeks to guard Turkey’s interests on its borders and influence a fluid political situation in Iraq as well. Turkey has also played a military role in the struggle for power in Libya, and threatened the use of force against Greece in the Western Mediterranean.

The Arenas

Nearly every local conflict in the Middle East, regardless of its origins, has been absorbed into the broader Saudi/Emirati-Iranian cold war. From the JCPOA to the conflict in Syria and Yemen to the ongoing Israel-Palestine dispute, the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran are diametrically opposed. Nowhere in the region is this confrontation more dangerous today than in Lebanon and Yemen. The tempest swirling over the Lebanese minister of information’s comments on the Yemen conflict (calling it absurd and recommending immediate Saudi withdrawal) is not so much about his specific comments, per se, as about the dominance of Hezbollah over political life in Lebanon. In spite of early support, Riyadh cut off its support for former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri because he agreed to work with Hezbollah and Hezbollah-allied Lebanese President Michel Aoun in forming a consensus government. The current campaign against the government of current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in essence a part of the competition between the two regional giants, is more aggressive and threatens to push Lebanon over the edge.

Whether real or perceived, mutual suspicion and a sense of threat is behind regional Saudi-Iranian tensions and power struggles. In particular, the rivalries in Lebanon and Yemen are seen as a zero-sum game, in which every advantage for one side leads to a direct loss by the other. In Yemen, Saudi leadership perceived the Houthi takeover of the capital city Sana’a in 2014 as directly inspired by Iran’s desire to expand its influence to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, making it a direct threat not only to the Saudi border with Yemen but also to international shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb and the Red Sea. From Iran’s perspective, the Arab coalition’s military intervention in Yemen results from a desire to expand their influence throughout the region, and therefore a need to control Yemen and ensure compliant leadership and an anti-Iran foreign policy within that country’s government.

The Need for Mediation

The balance of power between the two camps is roughly in equilibrium – at least in terms of influence in the region. Iran is dominant in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen and generally regarded to be more influential than the Saudis in Iraq. On the other side, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are dominant in the GCC countries, Sudan (prior to the chaos unleashed by the October 2021 coup d’etat), Egypt, and North Africa generally. The two sides have sensibly avoided direct confrontation, but given the heightened tensions between them, the potential escalation in Yemen and possible total collapse in Lebanon, a dangerous blow-up cannot be ruled out. Complicating the picture is the fact that the balance of power in the region is no longer bipolar, between the U.S.-backed Saudis and the anti-American Iranian bloc. Russia, Turkey, and Israel are major players who have thrown their weight around to upset the balance in local arenas in favor of one side or the other, leading to an increased risk of miscalculation and war.

Ongoing talks between Saudi and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad have largely stalled, but a serious mediation effort is of critical importance. Such mediation ought to aim high, with the goal of achieving the kind of clarifications that kept the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States cold for the better part of fifty years. This would mean both sides voluntarily collaborating to end their support for factions within Yemen, tamping down on proxy conflicts in Lebanon, and agreeing not to contest regional influence, with neither side trying to upset the cart where the balance of power is not in its favor. Given its past alignment, the U.S. cannot reasonably be expected to serve as a neutral mediator in such an agreement, but alternatives exist. Oman, Qatar and Kuwait have often played the mediators in regional conflicts, with Muscat currently front and center in both UN and U.S. efforts to end the war in Yemen. Qatar has a long history in mediating regional conflict, including in Yemen, and has in recent years played a central role in Afghan peace talks. Kuwait, too, has had its share of sponsoring peace talks among Yemen’s main protagonists. All three could collaborate in calling for and sponsoring summit talks with an ambitious agenda for region-wide peace.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Nabeel Khoury is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. His commentaries appear on the Atlantic Council’s MENA Resource, The Hill, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs and on his own blog, Middle East Corner. After 25 years in the Foreign Service, Dr. Khoury retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He taught Middle East and US strategy courses at the National Defense University and Northwestern University. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Khoury earned his BA in political science from the American University of Beirut and his MA and PhD in political science from the State University of New York at Albany. Before his Foreign Service career, Khoury was an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, and earlier, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jordan in Amman. Dr. Khoury has published articles on issues of leadership and development in the Arab world in The Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and The International Journal of Middle East Studies. Articles on the regional impact of the Arab uprising and on U.S. policy in Yemen appear in the summer 2013 and summer 2014 issues of Middle East Policy. In 2019 Dr. Khoury published his book “Bunker Diplomacy: An Arab-American in the U.S. Foreign Service: Personal Reflections on 25 Years of U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”


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