The New Middle East That’s Coming

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (left) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed

By Conn Hallinan

The fallout from the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities is continuing to reverberate throughout the Middle East, sidelining old enmities — sometimes for new ones — and re-drawing traditional alliances. While Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria is grabbing the headlines, the bigger story may be that major regional players are contemplating some historic re-alignments.

After years of bitter rivalry, the Saudis and the Iranians are considering how they can dial down their mutual animosity. The formerly powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf monarchs is atomizing because Saudi Arabia is losing its grip. And Washington’s former domination of the region appears to be in decline.

Some of these developments are long-standing, pre-dating the cruise missile and drone assault that knocked out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. But the double shock — Turkey’s lunge into Syria and the September missile attack — is accelerating these changes.

Saudi Arabia’s Slow Backpedal

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently flew to Iran and then on to Saudi Arabia to lobby for détente between Teheran and Riyadh and to head off any possibility of hostilities between the two countries. “What should never happen is a war,” Khan said, “because this will not just affect the whole region… this will cause poverty in the world. Oil prices will go up.”

According to Khan, both sides have agreed to talk, although the Yemen war is a stumbling block. But there are straws in the wind on that front, too. A partial ceasefire seems to be holding, and there are back channel talks going on between the Houthis and the Saudis.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war was supposed to last three months, but it has dragged on for over four years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was to supply the ground troops and the Saudis the airpower. But the Saudi-UAE alliance has made little progress against the battle-hardened Houthis, who have been strengthened by defections from the regular Yemeni army.

Air wars without supporting ground troops are almost always a failure, and they are very expensive. The drain on the Saudi treasury is significant, and the country’s wealth is not bottomless.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the Saudi economy from its overreliance on petroleum, but he needs outside money to do that and he is not getting it. The Yemen war — which, according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet — and the prince’s involvement with the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has spooked many investors.

Without outside investment, the Saudis have to use their oil revenues, but the price per barrel is below what the kingdom needs to fulfill its budget goals, and world demand is falling off. The Chinese economy is slowing — the trade war with the U.S. has had an impact — and European growth is sluggish. There is a whiff of recession in the air, and that’s bad news for oil producers.

Riyadh is also losing allies. The UAE is negotiating with the Houthis and withdrawing their troops, in part because Abu Dhabi has different goals in Yemen than Saudi Arabia, and because in any dustup with Iran, the UAE would be ground zero. U.S. generals are fond of calling the UAE “little Sparta” because of its well trained army, but the operational word for Abu Dhabi is “little”: the emirate’s army can muster 20,000 troops. Iran can field more than 800,000.

Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen are to support the government-in-exile of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi control its southern border and challenge Iran’s support of the Houthis. The UAE, on the other hand, is less concerned with the Houthis but quite focused on backing the anti-Hadi Southern Transitional Council, which is trying to re-create South Yemen as a separate country. North and South Yemen were merged in 1990, largely as a result of Saudi pressure, and it has never been a comfortable marriage.

Turkey’s Checked Ambitions in Syria

Riyadh has also lost its grip on the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar continue to trade with Iran in spite of efforts by the Saudis to isolate Teheran,

The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed for the 22-member Arab League to re-admit Syria. GCC member Bahrain has already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus. Putin is pushing for a multilateral security umbrella for the Middle East, which includes China.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the U.S. is not,” Middle East scholar Mark Katz told the South Asia Journal. And while many in the region have no love for Syria’s Assad, “they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s ally.”

The Arab League — with the exception of Qatar — denounced the Turkish invasion and called for a withdrawal of Ankara’s troops. Qatar is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for pursuing an independent foreign policy and backing a different horse in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is Qatar’s main ally.

Russia’s 10-point agreement with Turkey on Syria has generally gone down well with Arab League members, largely because the Turks agreed to respect Damascus’s sovereignty and eventually withdraw all troops. Of course, “eventually” is a shifty word, especially because Turkey’s goals are hardly clear.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to drive the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border and move millions of Syrian refugees into a strip of land some 19 miles deep and 275 miles wide. The Kurds may move out, but the Russian and Syrian military — filling in the vacuum left by President Trump’s withdrawal of American forces — have blocked the Turks from holding more than the border and one deep enclave, certainly not one big enough to house millions of refugees.

Erdogan’s invasion is popular at home — nationalism plays well with the Turkish population and most Turks are unhappy with the Syrian refugees — but for how long? The Turkish economy is in trouble and invasions cost a lot of money. Ankara is using proxies for much of the fighting, but without lots of Turkish support those proxies are no match for the Kurds — let alone the Syrian and Russian military.

That would mainly mean airpower, and Turkish airpower is restrained by the threat of Syrian anti-aircraft and Russian fighters, not to mention the fact that the Americans still control the airspace. The Russians have deployed their latest fifth-generation stealth fighter, the SU-57, and a number of MiG-29s and SU-27s, not planes the Turks would wish to tangle with. The Russians also have their new mobile S-400 anti-aircraft system, and the Syrians have the older, but still effective, S-300s.

In short, things could get really messy if Turkey decided to push their proxies or their army into areas occupied by Russian or Syrian troops. There are reports of clashes in Syria’s northeast and casualties among the Kurds and Syrian Army, but a serious attempt to push the Russians and the Syrians out seems dubious.

The goal of relocating refugees from Turkey to Syria is unlikely to go anywhere. It will cost some $53 billion to build an infrastructure and move 2 million refugees into Syria, money that Turkey doesn’t have. The European Union has made it clear it won’t offer a nickel, and the UN can’t step in because the invasion is a violation of international law.

When those facts sink in, Erdogan might find that Turkish nationalism will not be enough to support his Syrian adventure if it turns into an occupation.

The Middle East That’s Coming

The Middle East that is emerging from the current crisis may be very different than the one that existed before those cruise missiles and drones tipped over the chessboard.

The Yemen war might finally end. Iran may, at least partly, break out of the political and economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Israel has imposed on it. Syria’s civil war will recede.

And the Americans, who have dominated the Middle East since 1945, will become simply one of several international players in the region, along with China, Russia, India, and the European Union.

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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5 Comments

  1. EU is incapable of doing anything and China won’t.

    That leaves US and RF as the foreign powers, one against the Shia Crescent and one for it.

    Business as usual.

  2. @FYI – Given agreement by Iran and Saudi Arabia to a regional security framework and real progress with the Constitutional Committee process for political settlement in Syria with the framework of the UN the EU would have the capacity and strong reasons to invest in reconstruction in Syria. Russia has very limited capacity for this and the U.S. is seeking to remove itself from the further developments in Syria. It appears that the EU is likely to emerge as a major player as reconstruction in Syria gets underway.

  3. VIDBELDAVS

    The Constitutional Committee is a sham, its deliberations and recommendations do not confer any obligations on the Syrian government.

    EU, is the proverbial Yellow Dog, brother to US Jackal. There would be no hope of any help or succor from EU, they will not go against the Global Dictatorship of US – they have amply demonstrated that in case of Iran.

    EU, in any case, will not support the further strengthening of the Shia Crescent, the enemies of Israel.

    The Americans are opposed to any rapprochement between Iran and the Persian Gulf Arabs. They are also opposed to ending the Yemen War because ending it would mean ceding all of Yemen to pro-Iran Houthis. MBS is their man, and he, like the Shah of Iran, is going to carry US policies.

    Look to Spain after the end of Civil War there to get a glimpse of Syria in the coming years and decades. Her recovery will have to be predicated on the internal capacities of the Shia Crescent.

    The silver lining in this is the social problems that anti-Assad Syrians in Europe and in Turkey are going to pose to those countries. Together with migrants from Africa that are using what used to be called Libya, EU will pay for decades for her malevolent policies in the World of Islam. God is Just, as the Shia believe.

  4. I can see that Arabs may respect Putin standing by Damascus against the rebels, while Trump mainly stands by his bank account. But I wonder how they respond to Putin allowing Israel free bombing rein over Syria for a long time now. Putin arguably could have stopped that but he didn’t. How does that make them feel?

  5. Great article summarizing the present. But the article said the coming Middle East and I saw not forecasts of what will happen except one to the last paragraph ? Please elaborate.

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