Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 18, 2019
Of shifting sand dunes in West Asia

In quoting Ella Leya from her brilliant debut on fiction, “The Orphan Sky”, a certain piece embodies the Middle East, “.. is a desert of shifting sand dunes. Unpredictable. Erratic. Harmony changes into dissonance, the immediate outlives the profound, esoteric becomes cliched. And all, vice versa”

For a region without one dull day, Middle Eastern (West Asia) history has been replete with incidents barely predictable until a few days into their existence, the immediate always outliving the profound, with harmony and dissonance being as interchangeable as the central characters behind them.

Around 2 years ago, the Middle East was a house split down many rooms. The coalition of Saudi Arabia, UAE & Bahrain had imposed a blockade on Qatar, and severed diplomatic ties, in an effort to bring about regime change in the small emirate. (In a war of narratives and information, the troika had accused Qatar of being the world’s leading sponsor of terror and state sponsored news outlets had been spewing venom ever since)

The traditional rivalry between Saudi and Iran had touched new heights, with proxy wars in Yemen & Syria & re-imposing of US sanctions on Iran (Trump had visited Riyadh in 2017, and in the backdrop of a sizeable arms deal, had articulated an agenda for empowering the Arabian side of the gulf against Iran, and of re-imposing sanctions on Iran). The Saudi-UAE coalition seemed unstoppable in Yemen, while the future looked bleak for Iran and Qatar, economically and militarily.

“We are a primary target for the Iranian regime,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi said in 2017. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Circa Nov 2019, there seem to be thawing of tenuous relationships in war-ridden Yemen, easing of the blockade by Saudi-UAE against Qatar and most unbelievably, the semblance of some reconciliation between Saudi and Iran. And there’s one reason for this extremely inexplicable chain of events - USA’s clear intentions not to soil their hands in the Middle East anymore.

Thought through or not, two clear indications by the USA in the last few months have made the previous blur on the wall writing extremely clear to Saudi. That the USA has little interest in partaking in any conflict in the region. US withdrawal from Syria, and their non-response to the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities by Houthi rebels (Iran was accused of the attacks by proxy but has denied responsibility), have had a painful awakening to a new reality for Saudi.

Trump did some tough talking against Iran after the attack, but avoided any military response. This would have raised serious questions for the Saudis about US commitment to Saudi security, which has underpinned the strategic relationship for years now.

For a coalition, previously used to raw power, by mutual support, the hold is not as mighty as it used to be. Fitch downgraded Saudi Aramco's rating following the September 14 attack on the key oil facilities that temporarily slashed its output by half. This sent a shiver down the Saud family, as Aramco was preparing for an IPO, and the timing could not have been worse.

Qatar, on the other hand, held on almost seamlessly despite the sanctions and the blockade and managed their international media narrative well. Hardly a dent to the previously imagined regime change and economic collapse.  The decision that the football teams of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain would now take part in the Gulf Cup in Qatar is a clear sign of reconciliation.

The Iranian ploy to keep its heels dug in, despite mounting international pressure, seems to have paid off, at-least in some quarters. Recently, the UAE held direct maritime security talks with Iran, and pulled back from the war in Yemen, where it had allied with the Saudis in a battle against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A larger reconciliation with Saudi here seems around the corner.

In recent weeks, there were reports of an olive branch from the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, asking for de-escalation with Iran (The leaders of Iraq and Pakistan had offered to mediate). Iran welcomed the gestures, stating publicly that it was open to talks with Riyadh.

In just about two years, the world, its players and their roles seem to have drastically changed in the region. Mohammed bin Salman’s decisions now seem to be products of re-think on a variety of issues.

A possible power sharing arrangement with the Iran backed Houthis in Yemen, complete reconciliation with Qatar, and a larger conciliatory approach to issues might be grudgingly added into the Saudi playbook, as it has belatedly realised that it alone has to bear the burden of war or dissonance in the region.

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Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel

Avijit Goel is a Senior Director with Flipkart. An alumnus of the Oxford University

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