We have already reported extensively in the past few weeks on the approaches of past rivals in the MENA region.
Today we want to focus on the geopolitical consequences: Do the new declarations of friendship in the Middle East mean a fundamental shift of power in the region, what role can Europe play, what does it mean for the proxy war in Yemen?
In recent decades, the Middle East, its politics and its economy have been characterized by the ideological opposition between Riyadh and Tehran. Syria and Yemen are the clearest consequence of this power struggle. After the first attempts at rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is certainly still too early to nominate the two protagonists for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Saudi Arabia in particular sees what has been achieved so far more as a safeguard against Iranian attacks than as a real strategic realignment.
Rather, it can initially be assumed that the peace doves were the consequence of the US refusal to take stricter action against its archenemy in Iran, i.e. to offer the monarchies in the Gulf a protective shield. Iran has long indicated that it would target the Gulf monarchies if Israel or the US attacked their nuclear facilities. The states of the Arabian Peninsula have also explored closer ties with Israel through the Abraham Accords to build a regional anti-Iran front. But while Israel continues to seek confrontation with Iran, the Emirates, and now Saudi Arabia, see engagement as a necessary element of a viable containment strategy.
And the mullahs in Tehran? Iran wants Riyadh to withdraw its support for the Iranian opposition in exile. Iranian leaders have publicly accused Riyadh of fueling recent protests in Iran, including through its support for opposition television channels, which are widely viewed in Iran. The regime likely hopes that the agreement’s stipulation for not interfering in each other’s internal affairs will help weaken the Islamic Republic’s opponents. So far, Tehran has also lacked the big player Saudi Arabia: There have already been negotiations and rapprochement with other Gulf monarchies, only the most important regional power was still missing. It remains to be seen to what extent Iran can use Saudi Arabia in its efforts to ease Western sanctions, as so far it has been Riyadh that has continued to urge Europe and the US to maintain the sanctions regime against Iran. It will therefore be interesting to see whether Saudi Arabia continues to make these demands: Iran will not be enthusiastic about it.
The rapprochement with the Gulf could be an opportunity for Europe, also in terms of its regional influence in the coming decades. Although the states of Europe will continue to be no decisive actors in shaping a political and security policy agenda in the Middle East, they can play a part in strengthening regional cooperation in the MENA region, not only on security issues, but also on economic consolidation. All Gulf countries will have to grapple with the question of how to prepare their economies for a time when oil and gas will no longer guarantee prosperity in the coming decades. Renewable energies and water scarcity will play a major role. These issues reflect acute challenges faced by states in the region and are areas where Europeans have a clear advantage over other external actors. The European Union could use tools like its Global Gateway Initiative and the European Green Deal to improve cooperation.
Saudi Arabia has long made resuming diplomatic relations conditional on an Iranian commitment to de-escalating steps in Yemen, including ending cross-border attacks on the kingdom.
Like many Western industrial nations and the neighboring countries, China also has an interest in a further de-escalation of the conflict. Millions of barrels of crude oil are shipped to Asia every day through the Bab al-Mandab Strait between Yemen and Djibouti, which is why China also benefits from reasonably reliable security guarantees from the most powerful conflicting parties. In the shadow of China’s strong engagement in the Horn of Africa, which includes a military base in Djibouti, China’s increased military and maritime role in the Gulf of Aden is already becoming apparent.
As expected, the most important inner-Yemeni conflict parties reacted differently to the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. The Houthis explicitly welcomed the move as a gain in security for the region and, encouraged by the course of their own bilateral negotiations with Saudi Arabia, showed little concern about a lack of support for Iran in the future. In the camp of the internationally recognized government, on the other hand, there is skepticism about being able to achieve much-needed success in the negotiations between the Yemeni groups without the support of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, there are growing concerns that the Houthis, bolstered by Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal and without the threat of the Saudi air force, could go back to the military offensive.
Recent progress in ongoing negotiations, such as the exchange of prisoners of war, gives cause for hope, although given the current strength of the Houthis, Iran’s will or ability to force them to make substantial concessions should not be overestimated. It is also unlikely that Yemen’s neighboring states will no longer use their opportunities for influence, which have increased enormously as a result of the war, for their own benefit. Rivalries over geostrategically important sea lanes, territory and resources persist. However, the détente at the regional level can create new scope for negotiations, which, in addition to the division of power according to military strength, can also look at the reconstruction of political institutions, which in turn can moderate or consolidate the non-violent balance of interests at the national level.
A mere stabilization of authoritarian, para-state structures, with which the actors of the agreement of March 10th could probably live well in view of their own inner constitution, is not expedient and harbors the constant danger of renewed escalation. In order to achieve a sustainable and lasting peace, European nations in particular should start at the local, national level, but also in dialogue with neighboring countries, and keep their stamina.
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