Despite the recent conflagration in the Palestinian occupied territories, proving yet again that without a just settlement to the Palestine question, the region will continue to fester causing regional instability, there is evidence that the winds of détente are blowing. Yesterday’s foes are rebuilding bridges of communications and are engaging in tentative but serious dialogue to reach common ground and overcome challenges.
Such positive signs can be seen in the recent surge in diplomatic activities across the region. Turkey and Egypt had just launched negotiations aimed at normalising ties after many years of tension and enmity. Ankara is courting Riyadh as Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu makes a key visit to Saudi Arabia. King Salman received a call last week from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the second in the span of a month.
Last week a Turkish delegation visited Cairo and discussed ways to reset relations between the two countries. Cavusoglu is expected to visit Cairo in the coming weeks. Egypt had submitted a list of demands that include ending all media attacks, the withdrawal of Turkish military from Libya. The negotiations will prove tough, but both countries appreciate the need to rebuild ties amid changing geopolitical realities.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the confirmation by both Riyadh and Tehran that secret and direct talks had begun in Baghdad in the past few weeks; the first of their kind in many years. This coincided with a TV interview with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman two weeks ago during which he issued a goodwill gesture towards Iran while maintaining his reservations over Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program as well as its regional meddling especially in Yemen.
The strategic talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where both sides pledged to support, is a major regional development that could lead to de-escalating tension and violence across the region’s hotspots. “De-escalation of tensions between the two Muslim countries in the Gulf region is in the interest of both nations and the region,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a televised weekly news conference last week.
On his part a Saudi Foreign Ministry official responded that talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran aim to reduce regional tensions, but added it was too early to judge the outcome and Riyadh wanted to see “verifiable deeds”. Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran in 2016.
One main driver behind the recent flurry in diplomatic activities is the fact that the United States under the Biden administration is slowly decreasing its direct involvement in the region. For the White House the priority is to negotiate the revival of the Iran nuclear deal in a bid to rejoin it and restore Tehran’s commitments and international inspection. With Biden’s decision to set a deadline for US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US is working to reduce its military involvement in the Middle East. That raises questions about its final objectives with regard to its presence in Iraq and Syria.
Washington is ending military backing for war efforts in Yemen and is supporting the latest Saudi initiative to reach a political settlement to the civil war there. For Syria, the United States will maintain economic sanctions against the regime but will do little else to push for a political end to the crisis.
Before the latest eruption between Gaza and Israel, the Biden administration sent signals that it was not working on launching a new peace initiative. The latest showdown may alter that position, but the message from the White House is clear; it wants to reduce its involvement in the region’s endemic problems.
That message was picked up by regional leaders. With reduced US presence, the region must find ways to adapt to new geopolitical conditions. Reports that senior Saudi intelligence officials have met with Syrian counterparts recently is another sign of possible détente. The reality is that the great powers have failed to deliver peace and stability across the region and one must believe that their bitter rivalry had come at the expense of the people of this region.
While current efforts to change the prevailing paradigm are to be lauded, one must realise that while the US may be on its way out, other superpowers are stepping in. Russia was quick to fill the vacuum left by the US in Syria, Libya, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. Still, the spirit of détente must be lauded. Saudi-Iran reconciliation will certainly bring stability to the Gulf region. Tehran’s support of a peaceful process in Yemen is the only way to ensure the territorial unity of that country while ending a bloody civil war.
But challenges remain: Iran’s meddling in Iraqi politics will continue to hinder efforts to reach an end to that country’s political and sectarian disarray. The same can be said of Turkey’s involvement in Syria and Libya.
What the region needs at this stage is a new inter-organisational structure for peace, cooperation and conflict resolution. It can be cofounded by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt as a start. These countries must build on the current spirit of détente as they try to adapt to evolving regional realities.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.