A new Middle East is slowly starting to take shape

Saudi Arabia is not the only country headed in a different direction in the 21st century.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz uses binoculars to follow the “Gulf Shield 1″ military drills, on April 16.  (Saudi Royal Palace)
New dynamic. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz uses binoculars to follow the “Gulf Shield 1″ military drills, on April 16. (Saudi Royal Palace)

There is always something interesting happening in the Middle East. It’s a region that is sometimes marked by instability but its culture and ethos have remained stable for nearly a century. For decades, it has been relatively easy to predict moves on the regional chessboard.

That seems to be changing. The “Arab spring,” the Yemen conflict and the Syrian crisis have drawn the world’s attention in the past decade. Almost unnoticed, however, a new Middle East, including new alliances, is slowly starting to take shape.

The Middle East of the 21st century will not be the Middle East of the 20th century.

Take for instance Saudi Arabia. For decades, Riyadh pursued a policy of incremental change. When change did happen, it was often barely perceptible and made few waves around the world, within the region or in Saudi Arabia itself.

That started to change under the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. It wasn’t as if Saudi Arabia went from 0-60 mph but the changes initiated by him were significant. These included an expanded role for women and planning for a post-oil economy.

The changes picked up speed under King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. The crown prince, in particular, has been an engine of transformation. Many in the West focused on the changes to women’s lives — soon they will be able to drive — and cultural shifts, such as the reopening of movie theatres but the economic initiatives are more important.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s recent visits to the United States and Europe showed his desire to forge new business ties with the West. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is looking East, building economic ties with China and signing a massive deal with India.

This is a clear signal to the United States that, despite close ties to US President Donald Trump and long years of the Saudi-American compact, the new Saudi Arabia will work with anyone.

Another key change in Saudi policy is its more tolerant attitude towards Israel. While the relationship may never be as friendly as Tel Aviv might want, there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia and Israel see the potential for a mutually beneficial business equation.

More important, they see a common enemy, Iran. In a vivid illustration of the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” experts have said Saudi Arabia and Israel are working more closely together behind-the-scenes, particularly on security in a determined bid to undermine Iran.

Both countries fear Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its plans in Syria. Both worry about what they might mean for the future. Chances are that Saudi Arabia and Israel versus Iran will be the region’s dominant conflict in this century.

On its own, this new dynamic would be earthshaking enough but it is one of the other key changes under way in the region. Saudi Arabia is not the only country headed in a different direction in the 21st century.

Turkey’s transformation is more turbulent by far and is possibly disruptive in a negative way. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading his country away from its democratic past and towards a more authoritarian future. He has also placed limits on the long-held US-Turkey relationship. Erdogan’s Turkey is looking more towards Russia, which desperately wants a greater role in the region.

So which sphere of influence will Turkey inhabit 20 years on? It’s not easy to say because Erdogan is an unpredictable leader. However, whatever direction Ankara chooses, it will have important consequences.

There are other key changes that will play out in the region in the next decade.

What will emerge from the chaos of Syria? Will Bashar Assad remain in power? What will be the future of Iraq? Will it remain one country or eventually be forced to split into three? What about the future of the Kurds? Could we finally see the emergence of a Kurdish nation in 10-15 years? How will other countries in the region respond to that development? What kind of regional organisation will rise from the ashes of the Gulf Cooperation Council? Will Qatar and its neighbours be at loggerheads for years to come?

Finally, there is the question of the United States and Russia. Under the previous two US administrations, there has been a decline of US influence in the region. There has also been an expansion of the Russian presence. If this trend continues, there will be significant consequences, particularly for the Saudi Arabia-Iran question and it will affect the regional growth of democracy.

Indeed, the Middle East of the 21st century will be very different from that of the 20th.