Dubai: After years of looking abroad for answers, countries in the Middle East now appear to instead be talking to each other to find solutions following two decades defined by war and political upheaval.
The American withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq have played a part in that change. Once ostracised autocracies such as President Bashar Assad in Syria, and shunned former top figures such as Muammar Gaddafi’s son in Libya, are back in the political arena amid the still smouldering ruins of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Much remains unsettled and this inward search may not provide the answers most want. There are no quick fixes to Lebanon’s unprecedented economic free-fall, the plight of Afghans desperate to flee the country’s new Taliban rulers and Iran’s increasingly hard-line stance over its nuclear program.
But the diplomatic manoeuvring signals a growing realisation across the region that America’s interest is moving elsewhere and that now is the time for negotiations that were unthinkable just a year ago.
The United States still maintains a strong military presence, including bases across the wider Mideast. Tens of thousands of American troops operate tanks in Kuwait, sail through the Strait of Hormuz and fly missions across the Arabian Peninsula.
But its Arab allies also watched in stunned horror as desperate people clung to the sides of departing US military cargo jets during America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war and the Taliban takeover of the country.
Decisions by both the Trump and Biden administrations led to that moment - and upended strategic thinking calcified by the Cold War and the conflicts that followed the September 11 attacks.
American analysts now talk about the ‘great powers’ competition and point at Russia’s buildup of forces on Ukraine’s borders and China’s posture toward Taiwan. Those flashpoints, they say, need some of the personnel and equipment long stationed in the Mideast.
Iran’s uranium enrichment
Meanwhile, talks in Vienna aimed at restoring Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers appear to be floundering. With Iran’s uranium enrichment at levels never seen before, threats of military action by Israel have rekindled tensions and fears that an ongoing shadow war in could escalate into open conflict.
And with the border-locking chaos of the coronavirus pandemic largely behind them, Mideast leaders are now shuffling, talking face-to-face amid a flurry of diplomatic meetings, seemingly eager to hedge their bets.
It’s not just about Gulf nations engaging Iran. An intra-Gulf feud that saw Qatar boycotted for years by four Arab countries ended in January.
Considerations farther afield
While each of the Gulf Arab states conducts its own diplomacy, a unified GCC front could prove valuable if tensions rise further with Iran. There are also considerations farther afield. Turkey has sought warmer ties as it tries to halt the collapse of its currency, the lira.
The closing of ranks also brought a return of realpolitik to the region, a decade after the Arab Spring movements that aimed to topple the region’s autocrats.
Syria’s Assad has clawed his way back from the precipice. Another figure back on the scene is Saif Al Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s slain leader.
This new Mideast reassessment however, appears to have limits on what it can resolve.
The Mideast hasn’t rushed to embrace Taliban rule in Afghanistan and international recognition is still far off. The grinding civil war rages on in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition battles Iranian-backed rebels. Lebanon faces what the World Bank described as the world’s worst financial crisis in 150 years.
But the talking, for now, continues. And absent a major crisis that could draw America in again, those conversations likely will be where the deals get done.