Stuck Between US & China, Middle-East Looks At ‘Middle Path’ To Ease Tensions, Stabilize Region

Realignment with explicit results is noticeable in Middle East Arab countries. The process started last year with the deterioration of relations between Riyadh and Washington when the former refused to produce more oil to compensate for losing Russian supplies to Western sanctions over the Ukraine war.

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Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has received education in the United States and understands the value of independent or at least a popular foreign policy.

He envisions an enlightened, progressive, and socio-politically modern Saudi Arabia.

Apart from the commercial element declining to produce more oil on the behest of Joe Biden, Prince Salman (MBS as he is called) had a greater reason for pulling him away from American camaraderie.

Indeed, it was not his growing closeness to Russia as well.

MBS’ compulsion was precisely and succinctly described by Hisham Hellyer, a Centre of Islamic Studies research fellow at Britain’s Cambridge University.

He said, “Riyadh was on a geopolitical offensive after emerging from pariah status in the West following the brutal murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 by security agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.” (Tom Hussein in South China Morning Post of May 24, 2023).

MBS took great pains to utilize the May 19 meeting of the Arab League summit in Riyadh to impress upon the Arab world the imperative of closing ranks almost for the first time in over a decade.

He visualized asserting “strategic sovereignty of the Arab world” for putting an end to the prolonged wars among Arabs, which had not only become a drain on their resources and a cause of the destruction of human resources but had also given space to foreigners to meddle in the internal affairs of Arab States for self – aggrandizement.

Mohammed bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman

The Prince gave adequate proof of his diplomatic skills and sincere intentions about Arab unity that was convincing for the 22-member Arab League leaders in Jeddah. Analysts called it remarkable for its diplomatic signaling to the United States. How do we explain his “geopolitical offensive?”

The most significant thing was that he persuaded the Arab leaders to re-admit President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to the League after a gap of twelve years.

He had been expelled from the League for not conforming to the League’s convention and for his closeness to Iran and Russia. Of course, Kuwait and Bahrain did not support the move, but then the League went by a majority vote.

The second significant step was to offer a platform to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was formally received by the host in Jeddah.

Extending an invitation to the Ukrainian president served two purposes. One was to send a message that Saudi Arabia was neutral in the war in Ukraine, a policy that favored Russia.

Secondly, it balanced the role of proxies – Russian vs. Western powers. It could also be considered a Saudi signal of observing the recently signed peace deal with Iran through Chinese mediation.

The third significant step was that the Arab League resisted American pressure to normalize relations with Israel. It hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and recalled its demand for a two-nation solution to the Palestinian logjam. This decision of the Arab League would, once again, go well with Iran.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

It is a different thing that Israel has been inching forward in establishing bilateral understanding and relationships with individual Arab States, be it the UAE, Saudi, or any other country in the Middle East.

Mahmoud Abbas was received by the Deputy Amir of Makkah, Prince Badr bin Sultan, on his arrival at Jeddah.

Pro-Arab media carried a favorable impression of the proceedings of the meeting. Salman al-Ansari, a Saudi political commentator, described the Jeddah meeting as “the summit of Arab strategic sovereignty.”

It implies adopting a de-escalatory direct approach to regional conflict management in the Middle East and not depending on the mediation or counseling of foreign powers as has been the practice in the past.

This is no small or insignificant policy move on the part of the Arab League. The commentator says that the event established outright rejection of (a) political polarisation, (b) militias, and (c) ideologies. Analyzed simply, it means that the Arab States would not be divided through political machinations or on account of imported ideologies.

And more significantly, the event rejected religion-based terrorism to resolve disputes. The question is, will the non-Arab states like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey take some lessons from the resolution of the Arab League?

At the same time, the summit approved three actions for adoption, viz. sovereignty, unity, and partnership. In other words, these would be the guiding principles.

This could be called the crux of the theory of “geopolitical offensive.” Arab sovereignty means doing away with the client state concept and conceding that each state is sovereign in framing its policies. Independent policy framing should not cause damage to unity nor disrupt partnership.

The partnership is perhaps most important in balanced trade and developmental practices. However, the concept asks for a clear definition. It could be interpreted as the “union of independent states,” something we find among the European States. The League does not give any direct hint to the imitation of the EU, but the module it suggests in broad terms is almost akin to it.

The Arab League Summit of May 19, 2023, has special significance for the Saudi Kingdom. It has taken a bold step in inviting the West’s most iconic military-geopolitical leader into some conversation with all Arab leaders.

We may say that the Arab States could think of having a better understanding of the European States with a favorable impact on bilateral or multilateral trade.

In all probability, the Saudi relations that had soured ever since the pumping of more oil was turned down by Riyadh, there is a glimmer of hope that a new leaf will be turned in their relations after the Arab League has concluded.

Saudi-Qatar relations suffered a setback during the past two years. But reconciliation between them has ultimately prevailed. Along with that, rapprochement with Iran – the decades-old arch rival – has strengthened Saudi role and influence in the Middle East. It would strongly contribute to Muhammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” of diversifying and growing its economy away from dependency on oil revenues.

The summit was designed to meet the kingdom’s security goals of seeking to “stave off future waves of unrest and instability” like the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010 era.

Washington had limited its involvement to the Kurdish-controlled northeast and thus left a vacuum in other parts of the country where Arab states looked to Russia and Iran.

The League’s decisions give a new shape and spirit to the Arab countries. Now the expectation is that the Arab world should be able to finally resolve the Syrian, Yemen, Palestinian, and other issues that have been bedeviling relations between the Arab states for a long time.

There are other serious challenges before the Arabs and the world, like terrorism, narcotics trafficking, refugees and climate change, etc. The world needs to deal with these challenges in unison.