by Rana Allam
Since the wave of revolt shook the Middle East beginning in 2011, alliances have been shifting with the change of leaderships. Most of those who once shaped the region and balanced the powers are no longer in charge. With wars, conflicts, and leadership changes, stability and synergy seem unlikely in the near future. The biggest powers in the Middle East, namely Saudi, Egypt, Iran, and the GCC, don’t agree about such issues as Syria, Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran. Adding to the mix are the possible changes in US policy with the Trump presidency.
Egypt has had two presidents in the past four years. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi opposed both Bashar al-Assad and Iran, and thus he should have found common ground with Saudi Arabia. But the late King Abdullah had very strong ties with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s deposed autocrat, and was vehemently against the Muslim Brotherhood, so an alliance was not formed. When the military-backed government in Egypt declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, Riyadh followed its lead by declaring them terrorists too. King Abdullah gave Abdel Fattah al-Sisi all the support he needed, from verbal assurances to billions of dollars in aid. That too did not last. Salman became king of Saudi in 2015, and with him came a whole new strategy.
Salman and Sisi do not see eye to eye on Syria, and Sisi provided no assistance in Salman’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. To make matters worse, the new Saudi government seemed to reverse its stance on the Brotherhood when its foreign minister said that Saudi Arabia had “no problem with the group.”
Reactions within the Gulf Cooperation Council to Riyadh’s reversal of opinion on the Brotherhood are not publicly known. Qatar, however, must be relieved since it has supported the Brotherhood all the way, which created tensions with Abdullah and the GCC. The UAE, though, is another matter, since their strong opposition to the Brotherhood has always been clear and vocal. There’s no telling now how this will affect UAE-Saudi relations, though formal ties remain cordial. The Saudi proposition to transform the GCC into a union is facing major challenges, and the opposing positions of the GCC members on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood don’t help matters.
The Iran Factor
The Iran nuclear deal with the US and the P5+1, which has involved a partial lifting of sanctions and a provisional welcome of Iran back to the international community, has also played a part in the shifting regional dynamic. The deal delivered a blow to both Saudi Arabia and Israel and comes on top of other tensions. U.S.-Saudi relations in particular have encountered considerable frictions, from disagreements over oil prices and Syria to the recent congressional vote for the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). U.S.-Israeli relations, too, have experienced their share of tensions, despite continued U.S. military support of Israel. There was never great affection between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Iran deal and Bibi’s speech to the US Congress provided a new low for the relations. Obama’s ongoing push for a two-state solution and continued criticism of Israel’s settlements policy further complicated the relationship.
Although Israel has enjoyed “warming relations” with Egypt’s Sisi, based on their mutual interest in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas as well as their military cooperation against insurgents in Sinai, this alliance seems shaky. Sisi’s new ties with Iran have probably displeased Israel as much as they did Saudi Arabia. Also, with its crumbling economy and failure to control the insurgency in Sinai, Egypt’s stability is at stake, which puts Saudi and Israel’s stability at stake too.
The Obama administration was unsupportive of Sisi’s coup. It suspended military aid to Egypt for two years after the coup, and it has continuously criticized the human rights abuses of the Sisi regime. The military aid has resumed, but relations remain cold.
The Trump Factor
The world now awaits the potentially radical shifts expected in US foreign policy, particularly on Iran. President-elect Trump and his team have been attacking the Iran deal even before they take office. Trump’s candidate for defense secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has hawkish views of Iran, and VP-elect Mike Pence said that the Trump administration would “rip up the Iran deal” at a campaign rally. This should indeed please Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump previously blamed Saudi Arabia for 9/11, but his business relations with Riyadh proceed as before.
US-Egypt relations may get better, at least for a while, given the “good chemistry” between Sisi and Trump when they met. Trump and Putin also seem to “admire” each other. Israel sees a “true friend” in Trump.
However, given how unpredictable a Trump presidency can be, it’s unclear how it will affect the shifting partnerships and strategic alliances in the Middle East. An era of long-term policies shaped by administrations has been replaced by an era of leaders who decide for the nations based on their own agendas. The current leaders—Trump, Sisi, Salman, Netanyahu, and Assad—are all too happy to wage wars. Peace in the Middle East seems like a far-fetched notion at the moment.
Rana Allam is former chief editor of Daily News Egypt, with a journalism career dating back to 1995. She is currently an advisor and editor to the International Civil Action Network (ICAN) and the Women Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) organizations. Photo courtesy of Alisdare Hickson via Flickr.