There are no alliances in the Middle East

Commentators, government officials and the media, especially those from the West, like neat, clean stories of alliances. This is a historical bias.

THE SHADOWS of men walking are seen in front of graffiti depicting relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Cairo last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE SHADOWS of men walking are seen in front of graffiti depicting relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Cairo last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a December interview with CBS 60 Minutes Lesley Stalh asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if Israel was “dramatically” improving its relation with Egypt. Yes. And Jordan? Yes. And Saudi Arabia? No comment.
Actually Netanyahu did comment on the Saudis, in a roundabout way. Asked about an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East, he said that such an alliance didn’t need to be developed because it was “there anyway.” In January 2016 Netanyahu told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria at the World Economic Forum that “Saudi Arabia recognizes that Israel is an ally rather than an enemy because of the two principle threats that threaten them, Iran and Daesh [Islamic State or ISIS].”
According to a report by Jacki Hogi in The Jerusalem Post on February 27, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz also said the “cooperation is going to be significantly upgraded, because the US is going to lead. The goal will be to push Iran out of the area.”
All of this is cryptic, but Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region are paying attention. Their media reports about Israel’s blooming relations with countries such as Saudi Arabia. The problem is that Israel is likely to be disappointed. There are no alliances in the Middle East. All the talk of an “Arab NATO” is premature. Abdulrahman al-Rashed at Al-Arabiya discussed it last month, noting that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan might work together against Iran. He noted that the weakening of US power in the region under president Barack Obama had led to a “vacuum” that Iran’s octopus-like foreign policy had slipped into.
Commentators, government officials and the media, especially those from the West, like neat, clean stories of alliances. This is a historical bias. The same Western colonial powers who drew many of the modern borders of the Middle East, ignoring local people’s rights, were the same ones that went to war in 1914 because of a complex series of alliances. Later, alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact were drawn up during the Cold War. In the Middle East there was the Baghdad Pact (1955) that included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. States in the region also joined other organizations including the Arab League (1945), the Non- Aligned Movement (1961), OPEC, the Organization of African Unity (1963) the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (1969), the Gulf Cooperation Council (1981) and most recently the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (2015).
Many of these organizations are highly formalized with complex rules and ostensible guarantees relating to economic or state sovereignty. But their formality is contrasted with the actual chaos the region has gone through in the last decades. During the Cold War the cleavages of pro- and anti-Soviet papered over certain differences, much as the Arab-Israeli conflict did.
But cracks emerged in each. Jordan and Egypt made peace with Israel. Iran went from being open to Israel to being the fountainhead of Shi’ite revolution. Monarchies in Egypt, Libya and Iraq fell. Arab nationalists and socialists rose and fell. Secular Lebanon became a battleground and is now held hostage to Hezbollah. The Palestinians became a focal point of conflict, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, but also in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Kuwait and elsewhere, before ossifying into the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-led Gaza.
In recent years the simplistic narrative of the Cold War and Arab-Israel conflict has been replaced by a narrative of “Shi’ite vs. Sunni.” In this paradigm the Sunni powers, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are supposed to be fighting Iran and its proxies in Baghdad, Yemen, Syria and Yemen. But nothing is exactly what it seems. In late February Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who has been a harsh critic of Iran, visited Baghdad and met with its Shi’ite-backed government. On February 20 Iran summoned the Turkish envoy after Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavosoglu made comments at the Munich Security Conference accusing Iran of a “sectarian policy” designed to “expand its zone of influence.” Commentators could say “ah-ha” and claim this is classic “Sunni-Shi’ite” conflict. However on March 1 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Islamabad, Pakistan during a plenary session of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The Iranians appeared to chide the Turks over violations of “territorial integrity,” an allusion to Turkish troops in Syria and Iraq, but sought to smooth over relations.
Egypt also balances its leadership in the Arab and Sunni world with nuanced relations with Iran and Syria, the implacable “enemies” of Saudi Arabia. Haisam Hassanein and Wesam Hassanein wrote in The Hill on March 3 that there is a “thaw” in Egyptian relations with Tehran. Egypt has also broken with the Sunni-Arab block on dealings with Baghdad, which is closer to Tehran. In October of last year Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar Ali al-Luaibi met with the Egyptian ambassador in Baghdad and said he sought to “strengthen relations.” At the same time Egypt has an on-again-off-again war relationship with Saudi Arabia. On the one hand Saudi Arabia was deeply displeased that Egypt abstained from condemnations of Syria at the UN and has instead aligned itself more closely with the Russian camp. Yet Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said last October that strong relations with Saudi “guarantee the future.”
Nothing is perhaps more complex than the relations between the Kurds and their neighbors. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s President Masoud Barzani was recently in Ankara for meeting with the Turks. Turkey showed respect for Kurdistan’s autonomy by placing the Kurdish flag at the meeting. This is a signal to Iraq, where Turkey maintains several bases, that Turkey remains close with the Kurdish region. At the same time Turkey has threatened to attack the Kurdish region in Syria which is run by the PKK-aligned YPG.
There are certain givens in the region.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is not going to Riyadh anytime soon. The street is often more hostile than some leaders. During the Cairo Book Fair a Salafist claimed that Shi’ite publications were spreading Iranian influence. The Turkish Nationalist MHP condemned the Kurdish flag being flown in Ankara.
Fortunes change in the Middle East.
Where once Saudi Arabia helped craft the Taif Agreement in 1989 the influence of Saudi Arabia has greatly diminished in Lebanon.
Where once Palestinians cheered Nasrallah, they are now reticent. Iran tried to cultivate Hamas but has been frustrated.
In 1990 Saudi Arabia expelled Jordanian diplomats and cut off oil supplies due to Jordan’s relations with Saddam Hussein.
Nowadays Jordan is among Saudi Arabia’s closest allies. Qatar too got the cold shoulder from the GCC due to Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt and Turkey also fell out over the toppling of the Brotherhood in 2013.
But none of this is permanent. There are no real alliances in the Middle East. Israel’s imagined anti-Iranian bloc is destined to remain a dream. This is because although Saudi Arabia offered Israel a plan for peace and recognition 15 years ago, and although there is today more animosity based on sectarian lines than there is for Israel, there are no concrete blocs. One day in 2015 Turkey appeared to almost come to blows with Russia over Syria when it downed a Russian jet, but then Turkey and Russia healed the breach. The fantasy of some Western policymakers is to get a declarative answer from countries in the region. But there is no declarative answer. Economics binds Turkey to Iran and to the Kurdish region in Iraq. Countries that once seemed to support Islamist extremism now claim to be the main leaders against it. Countries that spawn antisemitism may be closer to Israel, whereas countries like Iran with low levels of antisemitism officially hate Israel the most. The best advice for policymakers is to neither accept at face value what is said, nor believe that the actions one sees represent the true police of countries.
There are layers of history, religious, ethnic, multi-lateral, bilaterial, economic and complex tensions that underpin the region.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.