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The Middle East’s Kumbaya Moment Won’t Last

The diplomatic resets and outreach underway are just competition by another means.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In a photo supplied by the Saudi Royal Court, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embraces Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In a photo supplied by the Saudi Royal Court, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embraces Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In a photo supplied by the Saudi Royal Court, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 28. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court via REUTERS

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. In late April, Iranian media confirmed that senior security officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran had met for a fifth round of normalization talks held under the auspices of the Iraqi and Omani governments. In March, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, visited Turkey—the first visit of a senior Israeli official to that country in 14 years. The same month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dropped in on Dubai’s Expo 2020 and met with Emirati leaders. Erdogan paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates in February after Abu Dhabi’s crown prince traveled to Turkey last November. And over the winter, the Emiratis and Iranians exchanged trade and investment delegations.

All this diplomatic activity has certain corners of Washington buzzing about regional “de-escalation” and “realignment.” It is a data point for advocates of U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East, the logic being that if regional actors are behaving responsibly and settling their differences, then the United States can draw down and only return in the event of a crisis.

That sounds great, but I don’t buy it. Not the arguments in favor of retrenchment and offshore balancing; those make sense (though mostly only in journal articles—when the United States tried this in the 1970s, it didn’t work, resulting in a long-term U.S. commitment to Gulf security). What I don’t buy is that this recent flurry of diplomacy heralds some new era of peace, love, and understanding in the Middle East. Rather, the various resets and outreach underway in the region are merely another means by which its leaders can pursue the same competition and conflicts of the past decade.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. In late April, Iranian media confirmed that senior security officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran had met for a fifth round of normalization talks held under the auspices of the Iraqi and Omani governments. In March, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, visited Turkey—the first visit of a senior Israeli official to that country in 14 years. The same month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dropped in on Dubai’s Expo 2020 and met with Emirati leaders. Erdogan paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates in February after Abu Dhabi’s crown prince traveled to Turkey last November. And over the winter, the Emiratis and Iranians exchanged trade and investment delegations.

All this diplomatic activity has certain corners of Washington buzzing about regional “de-escalation” and “realignment.” It is a data point for advocates of U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East, the logic being that if regional actors are behaving responsibly and settling their differences, then the United States can draw down and only return in the event of a crisis.

That sounds great, but I don’t buy it. Not the arguments in favor of retrenchment and offshore balancing; those make sense (though mostly only in journal articles—when the United States tried this in the 1970s, it didn’t work, resulting in a long-term U.S. commitment to Gulf security). What I don’t buy is that this recent flurry of diplomacy heralds some new era of peace, love, and understanding in the Middle East. Rather, the various resets and outreach underway in the region are merely another means by which its leaders can pursue the same competition and conflicts of the past decade.

Even for someone as deeply cynical as myself, it is good news that regional powers are talking to each other. The conventional wisdom is that money is driving a new regional atmosphere that puts a premium on investments and economic cooperation instead of proxy wars and troll armies.

Since Ankara is pushing much of the regional reset, that makes a lot of sense. Erdogan’s economic mismanagement has contributed to a yearslong lira crisis, and with inflation running at about 70 percent, the Turkish leader has vowed to grow the economy out of the calamity of his own making. Thus, he has dropped the bellicose rhetoric about the Emiratis being—among other nasty things—pirates, ignorant, and incompetent. Erdogan also transferred the trial (in absentia) of the individuals charged in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, ending any possibility that they will be held accountable. This is the geopolitical version of going hat in hand hoping for some investment from enormous Gulf sovereign wealth funds, trade deals, currency swaps, and perhaps drone sales.

In fairness, the Turkish government’s rapprochement with Israel is less about money—or even about Israel—than many might believe. Officials in Ankara reason that if they come to terms with the Israeli government, it will relieve pressure on them in Washington. There is something to this, of course. After all, a trilateral logic underpins Egypt’s relations with the United States in which Israel plays a role. The Turks seem to believe that pro-Israel and Jewish organizations in the United States will advocate on their behalf if Erdogan welcomes his Israeli counterpart and the two exchange phone calls.

Setting aside the crude view concerning the influence of these groups, there is little evidence advocacy groups representing American Jews or Israel’s supporters want to help Erdogan, whether to get Turkey out from under U.S. sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system or to make the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into alleged sanctions-busting and other chicanery by the Turkish government-controlled Halkbank go away.

When it comes to de-escalation with Iran, the Emiratis have reportedly expressed interest in investment opportunities there, in particular a renewable energy project. The Saudis and Iranians have not come that far. The best one can say about those meetings is that they continue to happen.

Still, even with all the smiles and talk of cooperation, it is hard not to believe something else is going on. After a decade of calling each other terrorists, accusing each other of being sources of regional instability, and arming each other’s opponents, the current declarations of a new era in brotherly relations are too neat and pat.

Having proved unable to impose their wills on their antagonists by force, regional leaders are now trying a different tack. The Emiratis, for example, have hardly fallen in love with Erdogan, and the smug grin on the Saudi crown prince’s face in one of the photographs taken during the Turkish president’s recent visit suggests that the Saudis, like the Emiratis, are well aware of Erdogan’s desperation over a failing economy and soft poll numbers.

This makes it a propitious moment for these Gulf states to gain some leverage with Ankara through their financial power—something they were unable to develop by, for instance, supporting Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who sought to overthrow a Turkish ally, the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli.

For their part, the Israelis are being cautious with the Turks. They do not trust Erdogan, but they seem to be playing along, especially if they can get something out of the Turkish leader’s need to improve his position in Washington. Getting Erdogan to clamp down on the Hamas terrorists operating out of Turkey, for example, would be a win for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

At the same time, the Israelis are not willing to give up their strong economic and security ties with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus—two longtime nemeses of Turkey—for the sake of improved relations with Ankara. That’s similar to Egypt’s approach to Turkey’s concerted and thus far unsuccessful effort to court Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Think about that for a moment: The Turkish government wants to reset its relations with Israel and Egypt. Why the change of heart? In two words: Greece and Cyprus. The Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks, and Cypriots all tightened their ties with each other in response to Turkey’s needlessly aggressive posture in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lost in all the happy talk of de-escalation and realignment, it seems clear that Turkey is trying to peel two powerful friends away from Athens and Nicosia. Indeed, with Russia’s blitz into Ukraine dominating everyone’s attention, few have noticed the recent precipitous increase in Turkish incursions into Greek airspace over the Aegean Sea. It seems Turkey wants to de-escalate in some places so it can escalate elsewhere.

Then there is Iran’s dialogue with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. When the Emiratis and the Saudis sit down to talk with the Iranians, their vulnerability to Tehran—both its missiles and its proxies—is all too evident. Thus, they have good reason to reduce tensions, especially since they believe they can no longer count on the United States as a source of regional security and stability.

Let’s be clear, though: This de-escalation is intended to buy Saudi Arabia and the UAE time to figure out how best to meet the Iranian threat—be it by drawing closer to Israel, working with the Chinese and Russian governments, or developing nuclear technology. Sharing the region with Iran is not something its neighbors on the western side of the Gulf—with the exception of Qatar—are inclined to do.

Too often over the last two decades the United States has pursued policies based on faulty assumptions about the Middle East. Inferring that the current moment of seeming rapprochement is anything other than competition by another means would be another bad assumption on which to justify retrenchment. This kumbaya moment will not last.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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