Gulf cohesion crucial for Mideast region

The repercussions of the Arab Spring have complicated the map of strategic relations in the Middle East and highlighted the importance of cohesion among Gulf states.

al-monitor Foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council's countries attend a meeting in the Saudi port city of Jiddah, Sept. 10, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Al Qarni.

Topics covered

turkey, syrian civil war, saudi arabia, revolution, iran, gulf union, gulf states, arab spring

Feb 23, 2014

It is obvious that there is an intense regional competition over influence in the Middle East. Even though it is not new, the accelerated changes and regional political shifts, as well as the dynamics of regional events, have particularized the foreign policy trends of the main forces in the region. This is more evident regarding Turkey, Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in light of the Arab Spring’s repercussions — particularly the Syrian crisis and the regional and international polarization it has triggered.

Turkey had clearly converged with Iran prior to the Arab Spring’s repercussions, regardless of their competition over influence in Central Asia. This convergence was a fruit of the zero-problems policy embraced by the Turkish government over the past few years. At the time, Turkey succeeded in reaching a nuclear swap deal on its territory with Iran in 2010. However, given the contradiction between the Turkish position, which supported the burgeoning Syrian revolution, and the Iranian position vehemently supporting the Syrian regime, a political deadlock between them was generated. Nevertheless, the nuclear agreement reached last November between Tehran and international actors, as well as declining Turkish enthusiasm for the Syrian revolution (for political calculations related to Turkey’s security and sovereignty in the first place) have offered a chance to mend bilateral relations, especially after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Turkish government was betting on forming a regional axis linking Ankara to Islamist governments in the Arab region, in addition to Qatar. Even though Iran may not be a part of this axis for sectarian reasons, it is not far from it and has good relations with it.

This is in addition to the extensive damage inflicted upon the Turkish economy due to impeded trade with Syria, making the Iranian market particularly important for Turkey. [Turkish-Iranian] trade volume reached nearly $20 billion in 2013, at a time when Iran is Turkey's third largest export market.

In this context, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Iran last month. The visit focused on strengthening economic and political cooperation and on breaking the stalemate in the bilateral ties witnessed over the past two years, especially in light of the pragmatic foreign policy of President Hassan Rouhani’s government. During the visit, it was announced that both parties are determined to increase bilateral trade up to $30 billion in the coming two years.

The Turkish-Iranian rapprochement may be a positive reflection on the promotion of Iraqi-Turkish ties, which have deteriorated as a result of security and oil issues, among others, in the past period. It may also contribute to a future harmony of views on the Syrian crisis and the negative consequences of this crisis on Syria’s neighboring countries — especially concerning refugees, terrorism and the future of Syria and the region. It is worth mentioning that these countries have already tried to engage in trilateral cooperation, which failed.

Iran, for its part, aspires to achieve the best possible gains by mainly relying on two factors: first, the good use of the pressure cards it has in the Arab region — in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq — and second, the exploitation of the rapprochement with the international community — especially the United States — to market itself as a force that must be part of any perceptions or regional arrangements. Although it has not seemed evident until this moment that Saudi Arabia is targeted by the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, under the zero-sum [game] in international relations any gain for my enemy is a loss for me, and vice versa. The Iran-Iraq-Turkey triangle will exert more pressure on Saudi foreign policy, especially in light of blurry US foreign policy in the Middle East and an inability or unwillingness to settle, which is a result of the United States' declining commitment to supporting the interests of its traditional allies in the Arab region.

Under such circumstances, Saudi foreign policy requires redoubled efforts and greater ability to maneuver in the face of regional challenges. Regardless of Riyadh’s attempts to restore the Saudi-Egyptian axis, Cairo is not currently in a position to achieve balanced relations between regional powers, given its preoccupation with the political and economic reconstruction, which will take a long time. Egypt is also confronted with real challenges related to its African depth and the future of the Nile waters. However, this option remains better than that of losing Egypt. It even remains important to promote Arab solidarity, which suffers from a chronic defect as a result of the weak cohesion of the official Arab order.

For its part, the Gulf axis does not seem able to achieve balanced ties between regional powers for clear strategic reasons. Moreover, political views in terms of the regional relations network may not be congruent among its members, particularly regarding Iran’s role in the region.

However, the cohesion of the Gulf axis remains an urgent matter. Some have even demanded that a real Gulf Union be established, which seems doubtful. The Gulf rapprochement with Morocco and Jordan will not reach its objective, and the deepening of cooperation with Pakistan remains more profitable to Saudi Arabia even though the desired regional balance was not achieved.

There is also talk of engaging in regional arrangements under international cover, based on cooperation between regional powers — including Iran and Turkey — and under international supervision from the United States and European powers. This requires the settlement of some outstanding issues — especially the sectarian crisis — and the relative balance of powers between these countries based on a win-win approach. This does not seem possible for several reasons. Rather, its details seem complex and results unguaranteed.

It can ultimately be said that achieving a strategic balance through external alliances is something common in international politics, as is betting on the weakness or the weakening of opponents in the same way. However, there may not be plenty of time, which makes the promotion of political and military capabilities more urgent for Arab Gulf states.

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