x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A concert of the Middle East

The Middle East today is confusing, because each player is readjusting its policy on its own. It is like the din one hears before the performance of a symphony, when musicians tune their instruments.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

This is a heady time for Middle Eastern politics, and not just because of the continuing Arab uprisings. The entire regional system is undergoing seismic shifts, often in contradictory directions, of the kind that have not occurred since at least the end of the Cold War. As Barack Obama said at the General Assembly of the United Nations this week: "The way things have been is not the way they will be."

A not inconsequential part of this story is that the order that is collapsing is in large part an American one, and that the one that is coming together will in all likelihood be less American. The question is not one of American eclipse — Washington will continue to be an important, if not the most important, player in the region. The question is how it might envision its new role in a region in flux.

Like any transition of this magnitude, it contains dangers. We see this today in the prospects for civil war in Syria, the disintegration of Yemen, the unanswered questions of post-Mubarak Egypt, the fragility of a new state in South Sudan, the lead curtain that has fallen over Bahrain, and the wilderness that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process finds itself in.

At the end of 2010, when a wave of protests in disadvantaged provinces of Tunisia sparked by the self-immolation of a street vendor did not yet threaten the Ben Ali regime or the regional order, I wrote in these pages that the region was addicted to America. Some countries now seem to want to quit by going cold turkey, others are beginning to wean themselves off, and still more are angry at Barack Obama for having let the old order go. Or, in the case of Libya, they owe Washington gratitude for having helped removed their dictator even as they still resent the US. But none of the region's players, big or small, are likely to wait for America to take action first before tackling the region's problems.

The first major test of this may very well be the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN. It is not that it is expected to change much for the beleaguered Palestinians, or even that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a diplomatic priority for anyone anymore. It is that the coming US veto at the Security Council - or even if that is averted, the humiliation of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas - could stir up once again the deep distrust of Washington in Arab public opinion, which now matters again.

Regional powers are attuned to this: consider the warning Prince Turki bin Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and occasional messenger to Washington, gave in a New York Times op-ed last week. In case of a US veto, he wrote, "Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to co-operate with America in the same way it historically has," because "Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy."

They may be spearheading the counter-revolution, but the Saudis are not just a status-quo force anymore. Like other states, they are restructuring to the new reality — preventing change in Bahrain, but backing it in Libya and, perhaps soon, in Syria. Having moved on from their anger at the Obama administration's abandonment of Ben Ali and Mubarak, they realise that for things to remain the same (for them), everything must change.

Two weeks ago, at a meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Geneva that I attended, Prince Turki outlined his proposal to deal with the region's most urgent issues through two broad arcs: reviving the Arab Peace Initiative (ie a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace rather than a separate Israeli-Palestinian one) and the decades-old idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (ie tackling the Israeli and Iranian nuclear issues together, rather than ignoring the former and focusing on the latter.) The proposal was interesting not so much on its details as what it implied: a much more multilaterally-driven agenda for Middle East diplomacy. No more waiting for Washington to act first.

Elsewhere, the edifice of the Washington-driven Middle East is collapsing. The Camp David framework for US-Egypt-Israel relations has frayed dramatically, with public opinion making the old status quo untenable. Just ask the Egyptian prime minister Essam Sharaf, who echoed the opinion of most of his country's parties and presidential candidates in saying the treaty must be revised. The trick is how Egypt can play the regional role it aspires to, thus liberating itself from the Camp David shackles, while preserving an Israeli-Egyptian peace that it cherishes. Today's Egypt is too bogged down in a messy, uncertain transition to provide the answer to that question, but within a year or two the question will have to be addressed, with all the consequences this may have for the 36-yearUS-Egypt alliance. A full rupture is unlikely, but the resentful kowtowing of the Mubarak era is over.

Turkey's recent spat with Israel also points to a break with another Washington ally. It does not just have to do with Turkish-Israeli relations: it points to a more bullish role in the region's politics. Turkey may be cheered in the Arab world for its anti-Israel rhetoric (which, as its leaders say, is entirely the result of Israel's own intransigence) but it is elsewhere that its actions are more significant. Its Syria policy is in tatters and it will soon have to decide whether to act there. The resurgence of Kurdish separatism, including a terrorist attack in Ankara this week, pushes it further into northern Iraq. It is reasserting itself in the Cypriot conflict, vowing to send ships to defend Turkish Cyprus's claim to offshore oilfields.

These are just some of the initial moves in the complex Middle Eastern chessboard, but the general trend is one of a new assertiveness and independence from the US's traditional allies. It will not be cost-free, either. A restructuring of the region entails more instability. Some of it will be unavoidable, and may come at a great cost, as many fear in Syria and Yemen. In those cases, the regional powers - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, eventually Egypt - will have to get involved and attempt to do damage limitation. So will the smaller, but wealthy and diplomatically hyperactive states like Qatar and, increasingly, the UAE. In other cases, the same actors can play a role in preventing crises, nipping them in the bud before it is too late.

There are no good guys or bad guys, no "rogue states" and "moderates" in this new Middle East. Some states may make a democratic transition, others not; progressives and reactionaries will co-exist. Some states may be failed states; then the concern will be how to quarantine them. There will be only states with various degree of influence, resources and clout.

The situation is remiscent of Europe after Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Then, the Congress of Vienna set up a diplomatic process for managing crises and preventing them from leading to new European wars. There is something to be learnt here from the master diplomats of time, like Talleyrand and Metternich, who created a system, which they called the "Concert of Europe", that maintained peace for a century. This system was made up of states with a history of hostility to each other, was full of spying and intrigue, and allowed relatively weaker states like Austria to guide European diplomacy through the talent of its diplomats, while containing large, ambitious ones like France. It was not perfect, and often reactionary, but it worked, getting statesmen to sit down with one another and find solutions to the crises of a Europe going through a turbulent transformation.

The Middle East today is confusing, because each player is readjusting its policy on its own. It is like the din one hears before the performance of a symphony, when musicians tune their instruments. With so much dissonance, it may be time for a Concert of the Middle East.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo