By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Why A Spate of Diplomatic Deals Won’t End Conflict
The History of the Middle East had a checkered early history.
Forwind, in mid-July 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan completed a high-profile tour of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, bringing tens of billions of dollars in investment deals to Turkey’s struggling economy. After nearly a decade of icy relations, the trip culminated in a growing diplomatic thaw between Turkey and the Saudi and UAE governments. This rapprochement was made possible by Turkish ally Qatar’s resumption of ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi after a years-long rupture. In June, just weeks before Erdogan’s visit, Qatar and the UAE had themselves renewed formal diplomatic relations.
These are only some of the deals taking place in the Middle East. In 2020, Israel agreed to open relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the Abraham Accords—the first such act of normalization between Israel and Arab states since the Israel-Jordan peace treaty 1994. A few months later, Morocco and Sudan also joined the Abraham Accords. In March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume diplomatic relations after seven years of mutual antagonism. And in May, even Syria’s dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, was brought in from the cold when he was welcomed back to the Arab League after more than a decade of isolation.
At first glance, the swell of normalization deals rolling across the region seems to mark a break from the decade of turbulence set off by the 2010–11 Arab uprisings. States that had pursued military approaches to some of the region’s conflicts, directly or by proxy, have decided, for now at least, that diplomacy is a better way to advance their interests. A case in point might be Yemen, where Riyadh has talked with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels over the past few years to end the long-running civil war or at least Saudi involvement. Such are the perceived benefits of normalization. The Biden administration now suggests that a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia might help rescue the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But observers should be careful not to overstate this apparent sea change. Many of the underlying drivers of the region’s conflicts remain largely unaddressed: the debate over the role of Islam and Islamists in government; the long-standing enmity between Iran and both Israel and some Arab states; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which faces precipitous new violence amid the rise of a far-right government in Israel; and the region’s debilitating lack of effective governance, reinforced by a regionwide reassertion of autocratic rule, including in Tunisia, whose leader is reversing post-2011 democratic progress. Indeed, the normalization of relations between the various governments may have further entrenched some of these problems.
The Emirati Entente
Diplomacy is doubtless important. The establishment—or reestablishment—of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israel, and several Arab countries, Qatar and its Gulf Arab rivals, as well as Turkey’s recent overtures to Egypt and several Gulf states, will accomplish several things. These moves open new communication channels, vital to preventing violent incidents from escalating into something more significant by improving mutual understanding between rivals or antagonists. Maintaining regular high-level contacts is essential in a region beset with old, deep, and seemingly intractable conflicts. But does the swirl of recent diplomatic maneuvering amount to more than that? If so, what is it, and what are its limits?
The normalization wave arguably began in 2019 with the UAE and Iran. That summer, Emirati officials sought to dial down tensions with Tehran following a series of unclaimed attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf. The leadership in Abu Dhabi interpreted these incidents as Iran’s warning that there would be consequences if the Gulf Arab states supported U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic. In visiting Tehran that year, senior Emirati officials signaled that the UAE did not wish to be associated with U.S. attempts to coerce Tehran, particularly in the wake of Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the Iran nuclear deal, his predecessor had signed in 2015.
More parleys between the UAE and Iran followed. The opening offered Iran a possible escape from its relative isolation in the region, with the prospect of Emirati investments in its ailing economy. The UAE sought a new security strategy amid the dangerous standoff between Iran and the United States. Notwithstanding the UAE’s potent military, Emirati officials had witnessed the mixed results of military interventions in Libya, where the UAE provided military support to one side in the armed conflict, and in Yemen, where it joined a Saudi-led effort against Houthi rebels who had seized the capital. Those military efforts hit significant roadblocks in each case and brought limited rewards. Meanwhile, U.S. security guarantees seemed increasingly unreliable: not only was the Trump administration pushing Iran into a corner, but it was also, in Gulf Arab eyes, failing to extend its protective umbrella when Iran retaliated.
Emirati leaders perceived new vulnerabilities and took a more diplomatic approach to the region. Following the opening to Iran in 2019, they decided to formalize their long-standing but mostly covert relationship with Iran’s archenemy, Israel, in the Abraham Accords. Paradoxically, the UAE’s improved ties with Iran may have facilitated its deal with Israel: had Abu Dhabi taken this step under different conditions, it might have given Tehran less reason for restraint when it felt its core interests threatened. In the event, Iran merely indicated a red line: no Israeli military presence in the Gulf. Meanwhile, and though it was not the Emirati leaders’ main objective, formalizing UAE relations with Israel covered their backs with the Trump administration, which in principle demanded no letup from Washington’s Gulf partners in putting pressure on Iran.
The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president in 2020 accelerated the sense among Arab leaders that they would need to draw more on their diplomacy to address regional tensions. Confronting a period of profound social and political polarization at home, the United States appeared to be looking inward, and in foreign policy, the Biden administration was reviving the “pivot to Asia” orientation set by the Obama administration. Soon after coming to office, Biden indicated his wish for the war in Yemen to end—though the United States did very little to push things along. A year later, he also spurned Emirati entreaties to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist entity following drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in January 2022.
Washington’s relations with Riyadh, in particular, deteriorated. Upon entering the White House, Biden ostracized Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often called MBS), holding him responsible for the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden also wanted the United States to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran. Although Saudi officials have remained noncommittal about whether and under what circumstances they might pursue a nuclear program of their own, they are deeply concerned about how Iran might seek to project power in the region—either by itself or through its allies—if Washington provided sanctions relief in a new nuclear deal.
In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, the growing uncertainty about U.S. security guarantees fueled regional diplomacy. In 2021, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies decided to end a four-year-old blockade of Qatar, which had resulted from Qatar’s stubbornly independent foreign policy and support of Islamists during the Arab uprisings. Even though Qatar had not met any of the blockading countries’ original demands, Riyadh brought about the Al-Ula agreement, which renewed Qatari ties with Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members Bahrain and the UAE, and Egypt, which had also joined the boycott. Although it is unclear how far this symbolic reconciliation will be matched with substance—and although Saudi-Emirati relations began to sour around the same time—the turnabout was significant. It allowed Saudi Arabia to project a new foreign policy demeanor based on diplomacy rather than bullying and enabled Qatar to stage a successful football World Cup in 2022.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government in Turkey has had its motives for returning to diplomacy. For over a decade, Ankara’s ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt had badly frayed. Although Turkey had prevailed in Libya and successfully helped Azerbaijan capture back parts of the disputed Armenian exclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby areas in 2020, its support of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in the region had infuriated those Arab governments. Nonetheless, they saw that their efforts to put the Islamists back in a box had primarily succeeded, first in General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 coup against President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and then gradually elsewhere. As Erdogan’s recent trip to the Gulf has demonstrated, a normalization of relations, at least in trade, can mean a significant boost to Turkey’s mismanaged economy; for their part, Turkey’s interlocutors understand that checkbook diplomacy is a better way of dissuading Ankara from supporting behavior they regard as subversive.
Some of the most dramatic results of the Middle East’s new normalization drive have come in the first half of 2023. In a particularly noteworthy move, after years of mutual enmity and suspicion, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations in March. In pursuing a détente with Iran, Saudi officials recognized that the Trump “maximum pressure” approach had failed and that they needed an alternative way forward. Senior Iranian and Saudi security officials maintained an intermittent bilateral dialogue for a couple of years until, early this year, China stepped in. By this point, the Biden administration faced sinking relations with Iran amid faltering nuclear talks, popular protests in Iran, and Tehran’s supply of weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. With Washington out of the picture, Beijing likely realized it had an uncommon opportunity to help the two sides cut a deal.
The breakthrough was particularly welcome given how destructive the Iranian-Saudi rivalry has been over recent years, especially in Yemen. It also raises the possibility of a broader regional dialogue on issues of shared concern, such as the impact of climate change, the energy transition, and Russia’s war in Ukraine. Moreover, as was the case with their Emirati counterparts, by lowering Iranian threats to oil infrastructure, the Saudis have put themselves in a better position to normalize relations with Israel if and when they choose.
Yet another striking normalization move has been the efforts of some Arab leaders to restore ties to the Syrian regime. The UAE led the way by sending its foreign minister to Damascus last November and increasing aid and trade. Then in May, the Arab League readmitted Syria into its ranks following a final push from Saudi Arabia. In taking these steps, Gulf Arab leaders effectively acknowledge that Syrian dictator Assad has prevailed over the opposition he violently suppressed. But they are also adding to a long-standing effort to pry Assad away from his Iranian protectors and to deal with the growing problem of state-sponsored drug smuggling from Syria to the Gulf. (Customs authorities in Jordan and the Gulf have seized millions of Captagon pills, and Jordanian forces have gone after traffickers, killing some even inside Syria.) Adding to the Syrian regime’s rehabilitation, Turkey resumed discussions with Damascus this spring, prodded by Russia and keen to proclaim ahead of presidential elections in May that it was actively seeking a way for Syrian refugees to return to Syria; and the UAE spoke with to the commander of Kurdish rebels in northern Syria to bring the group closer to Damascus.
Surface Over Substance
From a conflict prevention perspective, the Middle East’s turn to diplomacy and normalization offers indisputable benefits. Several of the region’s intertwined conflicts—between Israel and Hamas, Israel and Iran, and Israel and Hezbollah—are only a hair trigger away from a significant escalation. A single miscalculation, miscommunication, or rocket hitting a school or shopping center rather than a military target or an open field could create an uncontrolled chain of events. In such a situation, having preexisting lines of communication and active diplomacy are critical, even if those channels do not involve the immediate belligerents.
However, whether all this talking can help address the deeper forces driving conflict in the region is far less specific. The long-standing debate over the role of Islam in government, and especially in its most organized expression, the Muslim Brotherhood, is one such driver, leading to recurring instability and tension in countries such as Egypt and between Qatar and the UAE. To complicate matters, the Islamist issue is mediated and reshaped by ethnic and sectarian differences and some states' regional dominance aspirations.
Today, for example, two years after the Al-Ula agreement, the UAE remains far apart from Qatar and Turkey, let alone Iran, on the question of Islam’s role in government. And although Islamists are unlikely to take power anywhere anytime soon, the popular support they still enjoy across the region, and their organizational acumen are a matter of abiding Emirati concern. The Al-Ula agreement also highlighted Mohammed bin Salman’s intentions: to transform Saudi Arabia from an oil-dependent and socially conservative country into a global middle power on par with Indonesia or Brazil. To this end, he is sidelining the hard-line clerics who for decades dictated repressive social controls, diversifying the economy away from its overreliance on oil income, as in his “Saudi Vision 2030” strategy, which calls for a dramatic modernization of the Saudi economy and society, including massive investments in the energy transition as well as a broad social opening; and seeking a new role in resolving regional conflicts, most recently in the civil war in Sudan. (Besides evacuating stranded foreigners and distributing humanitarian aid, Riyadh has, together with Washington, brokered talks between the two Sudanese rival leaders to reach a cease-fire, so far unsuccessfully.) In other words, MBS’s primary aim in turning to diplomacy has not been to encourage greater Gulf unity but to reassert Saudi regional dominance.
Similarly, it is unclear how much the Saudi-Iranian agreement will change Iran’s regional power projection. The deal could significantly lower regional tensions in the near term, especially in Yemen. But although Iran may nudge the Houthis to strike a deal with the Saudis, it is unlikely to reduce its regional footprint or lessen its support for such proxies and allies as the Houthis, Hezbollah, paramilitary groups in Iraq, or the Syrian regime. Assad may have secured Syrian reentry into the Arab League, but the league is a deeply divided and toothless amalgam of Arab states. Gulf investments will not arrive significantly in Damascus if Western sanctions on Syria remain or if Assad continues to rely exclusively on Iran and Russia for his survival. In any case, Saudi Arabia and Iran will likely continue to spar over regional power and influence.
The Abraham Accords also come with significant limitations. Although they constitute a considerable change of regional alignments, they have left many underlying conflict drivers, especially concerning Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, unaddressed or further entrenched. Israel and the UAE derive mutual benefit from bringing out a relationship they had been nurturing in the shadows for many years. In addition to trade and—so far, one-sided—tourism, the UAE has been eager to purchase advanced U.S. weaponry with an Israeli green light (a traditional prerequisite for U.S. arms deals in the Gulf), along with Israeli surveillance technology, developed and honed by Israel in the Palestinian territories it occupies. Yet the new Israeli-Emirati relationship falls well short of Israel’s desire for an anti-Iran alliance. Gulf Arab states, which fear becoming collateral targets in a war between Iran, Israel, and the United States, have made clear they want no part in such an undertaking. Saudi and Emirati rapprochement with Iran has buried the prospect of such an alliance.
The Accords’ impact has been particularly destructive on the ever more precarious search for Israeli-Palestinian peace. To those in Washington who think that normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel could bring progress to the Palestinian situation, it is worth looking at the results of the existing deals. Emirati officials argued that closer UAE relations with Israel would positively affect the issue, but they have almost nothing to show. Instead, now led by a hard-line right-wing government, Israel has expanded settlements and pursued even harsher military measures in the occupied territories while counting its splitting of the Arab camp as a significant victory. The Accords drove a nail in the moribund Arab Peace Initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states two decades ago. In response, Saudi diplomats have tried reaffirming the initiative’s enduring importance. Still, such efforts seemed aimed more at staking a bargaining position than a genuine bid to revive the plan. Most Gulf Arab states can agree that today is some economic peace for Palestinians under Israeli control, as Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” tried to force through in 2020. But Palestinians have never shown any appetite for such proposals. In the face of all odds, they continue to aspire to an independent state of their own or, failing this, the application of equal rights for all people in the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—a nonstarter for most Israelis. What is emerging instead is a system of control that leading Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations say meets the legal definition of apartheid—now with adequate backing by the Arab parties to the Abraham Accords.
Meanwhile, the Israel-Palestinian conflict grinds on, erupting into violent outbursts on various fronts with accelerating frequency. Israeli and Palestinian societies are so polarized that neither can deliver a sustainable negotiated settlement to the conflict. And although Israel may claim a resounding success in colonizing the West Bank, sooner or later, it will have to face the reality of demographic changes that challenge the very foundations of the Jewish state. Within the broader Middle East, the fact that the protagonists in the region’s rawest conflicts—Israel and its enemies—are not even talking to each other heightens the risks of a significant flare-up in Lebanon or Syria, if not Iran.
Neither does U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara—Trump’s gift to the kingdom for agreeing to normalize relations with Israel—do much to resolve this postcolonial conflict, almost half a decade old. It could make a peaceful negotiated solution even more difficult as the sides dig in.
Tiptoeing Around The Tinderbox
Perhaps most importantly, the Middle East’s normalization wave seems unlikely to help the region’s suffering populations. The most profound driver of conflict has little to do with elite diplomacy and everything to do with how the individual states manage their economies and govern their societies. After all, it was indignity and widespread anger at ruling elites—their cronyism and inability to reliably deliver essential services or, amid belt-tightening, distribute largesse to those who needed it most—that sent people into the streets during the 2011 revolts and produced a familiar cry for social justice. Some countries that escaped the turmoil in 2011—Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan—experienced a form of it eight years later, and Iran had its version last year.
The regimes that managed to weather the storm of popular fury—Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and perhaps now also Tunisia, though today under a different autocratic leadership–have reconstituted themselves as “fierce” states: internally weak but with maximum resources directed toward policing their people with enhanced surveillance and social controls. The Gulf Arab states that spearheaded the post-2011 counterrevolution (instigating the 2013 coup against Morsi in Egypt) showed the way—with the help of Israeli technology. Past decades have demonstrated that super-repressive states can survive for quite some time, but their growing inability to cope with accumulating social and economic pressures eventually ends. The incisive UN Arab Human Development reports from the early years of this century warned that an Arab state system lagging in human development and, with all its other socioeconomic ills, was unsustainable—foreshadowing the uprisings a few years later. Today, however, the challenges have only grown worse. The Middle East now faces the scars of war, the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid population growth, widespread youth unemployment, and uncontrolled urbanization, not to mention climate change and the nascent transition to clean energy. No government in the region is currently capable of seriously confronting these issues.
It is good news that, at the highest levels of government, much of the Middle East seems to be opting to get along. But the glass is only half full. One Houthi drone striking an Abu Dhabi shopping mall, a Lebanese man climbing over the border fence with Israel and attacking a bus, Israeli security forces killing Palestinian youths inside the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and inflaming the entire Muslim world, or Egypt defaulting on its debt and having to slash bread and fuel subsidies—it is all too easy to imagine an event that could quickly upturn the current semblance of regional stability. And even if people may not soon again take to the streets in great numbers, public pressure for improved governance will continue to fester. Autocratic regimes may come to appreciate how putting their own houses in order may allow them to confront better the tough challenges that global disorder continues to throw at them. The question is, will they seize the opportunity?