UAE and Saudi diplomacy shift strategy for new era - analysis

Media accounts of recent developments in Saudi Arabia and UAE diplomacy paint a picture of major accomplishments with Iran and Turkey.

 Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021.
(photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

The United Arab Emirates is spotlighting regional diplomacy and peace efforts amid new outreach to Turkey and Iran.

This is important because it comes in the wake of the Abraham Accords and positions the UAE to once again be a leader in the region.

This comes after many years of tensions in the region, not only between Saudi Arabia and Iran but also between the bloc of countries led by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and those linked to either Iran or Turkey.

Saudi Arabia is also embarking on major regional diplomatic strides with new agreements in Oman and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman heading from Oman on a Gulf tour that will include the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.

Media accounts of recent developments in Saudi Arabia and UAE diplomacy paint a picture of major accomplishments.

 Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER) Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)

Al-Ain media, for instance, praised the trip by UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Iran this week. It said he met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

What matters here is not just what comes out of the meeting but the perception and narrative behind it.

According to official accounts, the Emiratis and Iranians discussed consolidating bilateral ties and discussed an “array” of other issues. Tahnoun also met his Iranian counterpart, Ali Shamkhani. According to English daily The National in the UAE, Dr. Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said in a tweet that the visit of Tahnoun to Tehran comes “as a continuation of Emirati efforts to strengthen ties and cooperation in the region and in line with what serves national interests.”

Bilateral relations could be strengthened. Reports pointed out that Iran’s deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Baghreri Kani, met with senior Emirati officials in Abu Dhabi in November.

An Egyptian academic and expert named Tarek Fahmy was quoted in Al-Ain discussing how UAE diplomacy has read the changes in the Middle East and “set the desired goals during the coming period. Therefore, the Iranian-Emirati rapprochement will reap political gains that will not stop at the borders of Tehran and Abu Dhabi, and its impact will extend to the Arab Gulf states and Egypt in particular,” the report said. “Fahmy considers that the first steps of the Emirates, in which it deviated from the norm, is the file of dealing with Israel, and the conclusion of a peace treaty that changed the old concepts in dealing with Israel. Then [the UAE] opened [new ties] to Turkey and from there to Iran, and in this way it reaped major regional gains.”

EXTRAORDINARILY, THE report noted that “these gains qualify the UAE to play the role of mediator between Tehran and Tel Aviv – according to Israeli media – which may lead to bridging the rift and achieving mutual benefits for all countries in the region, completing the peace process and achieving major economic returns.”

The article, which likely reflects larger regional thinking in Egypt and the UAE, links the Iranian trip with reconciliation between the UAE and Turkey, which could influence reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE has also reached out to Syria, and this could bring the Syrian regime in from the cold. It should be noted that Syria’s foreign minister was in Iran this week as well. In meetings with the Iranians, the Syrian and Iranian ministers praised the UAE’s role.

The UAE’s diplomacy has received widespread coverage in the Gulf. Presented alongside the Turkey and Syria discussions, it presents a case for a new regional order. It comes as Saudi Arabia and Oman signed 13 memoranda of understanding “for joint work on specific projects within economic sectors through several companies owned by the Oman Investment Authority and Oman’s private sector alongside their Saudi counterparts,” according to Al-Arabiya.

Bin Salman will go from Oman to the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, according to the reports. This is important because Saudi Arabia and Qatar had a difficult Gulf crisis from 2017 to 2020.

Oman is a key state in the region that has attempted to be neutral during the various contretemps between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oman also hosted prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018. This means Oman has tried to be a bridge in the region and push coexistence. In many ways, its opening to Israel and Bahrain’s comments and moves before the Abraham Accords helped lay the groundwork for peace between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. There are hints of Israel’s reconciliation with Turkey.

ALTHOUGH THE UAE and Saudi Arabia are making major strides, there are also those in the region who prefer conflict. Reports on Monday said Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran, fired missiles at Saudi Arabia. Fars News in Iran highlighted the attacks approvingly. Meanwhile, Qatar is still trying to pay salaries in Gaza, via talks with Egypt. All of this is connected because Turkey and Iran back Hamas. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Doha last week to meet Qatar’s emir. Also, Defense Minister Benny Gantz will head to Washington on Thursday.

On December 5 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with the UAE’s Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“Secretary Blinken and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed discussed important regional matters, reaffirmed their countries’ strong partnership and discussed ways to broaden and deepen their wide-ranging cooperation,” the State Department said.

It remains to be seen whether the regional diplomatic moves will result in actual changes in the region. The region has seen major conflicts over the last decade.

The Arab Spring resulted in changes in governments, and then civil war and the rise of extremists. Libya and Yemen fell into chaos, and Syria into civil war.

With ISIS mostly defeated in Iraq, the country was beset by new pro-Iranian militia threats and increased bombing by Turkey of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, potentially destabilizing the Kurdistan autonomous region. ISIS threats also brought US forces into eastern Syria, but US-Iran tensions rose in 2019.

Proxy conflicts have grown with Turkish, Russian and Egyptian involvement in Libya. Lebanon is on the brink of financial collapse.

However major peace initiatives have also happened. Israel and Morocco grew closer, and Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE grew closer.

Large countries are exerting more influence, and extremism may be waning. It is this context, as well as a US shift to focus on China and Asia, that underpins the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s new initiatives. With the global war on terror dialed back, new state-to-state discussions can grow.