As we continue the cycle of interviews with different European experts and high officials, this time we have discussed the development in the MENA region with Vira Konstantynova, Associate Fellow at the Centre for Middle East Studies (Kyiv, Ukraine). The interview was conducted by Denys Kolesnyk, a French Consultant and Analyst based in Paris.
How could you describe major political and geopolitical challenges currently facing the MENA region?
I would say first of all that we should be aware of the fact that the main issue of geopolitical concern in the MENA region right now is the Iranian nuclear program, and of course, the global powers are devoted to solving this issue. And, according to the media reports, it’s possible to have another great war in the region due to the Iranian nuclear ambitions.
To be honest, I do not share the concern about a possible new great war in the Middle East due to several factors. One of them, of course, is the Russo-Ukrainian war, as well as the global destabilisation in economic, social and financial spheres. I think that all of the Arab leaders are aware of the necessity to ensure peace and stability in their region.
Another case is the Iranian nuclear issue which is rather sensitive for Saudi Arabia, Israel and other MENA countries. I believe that we would see some kind of changes within the position of global powers. Since, as you probably know, we have a so-called normalisation process between the KSA and Iran, both countries agreed to reestablish their diplomatic relations, including the appointment of Ambassadors. Of course, the US-sponsored normalisation between and the Arab nations has been underway during the Trump administration and is ongoing. That’s why I believe that there is an understanding of peace and stability in the region.
But, in any case, there is the Iranian regime, with its problems and issues, including the women’s protests. In other words, we cannot completely rule out an extraordinary event from happening, but I remain confident that we would avoid any unexpected bold moves that would jeopardise peace and stability in the region.
Let’s talk about Türkiye. President Erdogan was reelected recently in Türkiye. How does this influence Ankara’s policies towards the region?
I think we have to wait and see who will be appointed as the new Foreign Minister. As soon as we know who is in charge of Turkish diplomacy, we can start to decipher any changes in Turkish foreign policy. On the other hand, if Çavuşoğlu retains his post, these changes would not be very significant.
However, we can already say that we will see some changes in Türkiye’s foreign policy, because of internal problems. And this term Erdoğan will have to focus on addressing these internal issues as well as resolving economic problems. That would be the key focus of the policy, but at the same time we have to bear in mind that there were also parliamentary elections and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) obtained most of the seats, even though 27 seats less than the last time.
I would expect certain shifts within the Syrian dimension, especially in light of the recent reintegration of the Syrian regime into the Arab League. Another important issue, in my opinion, would be the US-Turkish bilateral track. While one of the main issues, both from a security and political perspective, will be the Kurdish issue. In terms of internal policies and humanitarian aspects, the return of Syrian refugees to Syria is expected to be on the agenda. However, it is yet too early to draw any serious conclusions regarding the future Turkish approach towards the region, since the elections have just happened and some time is needed to properly evaluate the internal dynamics that will influence the foreign policy agenda and any shifts in Ankara’s approach.
Türkiye intends to join the BRICS and the SCO. How could this influence Türkiye’s standing in the region?
It’ll have a positive impact on these organisations since Türkiye is a rather powerful regional player. Ankara is active both on a bilateral level and within different multilateral platforms, international organisations or forums, like MIKTA – an informal middle-power partnership between Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia. Turkey would do everything which lies within its national interests, and rapprochement, or joining different organisations will be high on the agenda.
We can also mention problems with Türkiye’s bid to join the European Union (EU). And, given that the process has stalled and there is no prospect of things evaluating in a positive direction for Ankara, in this context joining the BRICS or the SCO could also be a way to send a signal to Brussels, that Türkiye is a powerful enough player and if the EU integration is not working, there are other formats and frameworks with other regions.
However, currently, we cannot evaluate the particular goals that Ankara pursues in joining other regional organisations. For instance, if we mention the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is a Chinese project, it would be a successful project, especially with Iran’s accession to this organisation and, for instance, Belarus, which is a co-belligerent on the Russian side of the Russo-Ukrainian war, also is keen to integrate the SCO. As for BRICS, to be honest, I have significant doubts that Türkiye would join this organisation as a standing member, perhaps as an ad hoc partner, especially, in the financial context.
At the same time, Türkiye’s future accession to the SCO is a strong signal to the EU, as I have already mentioned, but also to the US. There are quite a few sensitive issues on the US-Türkiye bilateral track, but also the Türkiye-Russia dimension, where there exists not only military issues but also economic and energy issues. For instance, Russia’s Rosatom continues to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Türkiye. Therefore, it is obvious that there are several controversies within the US-Türkiye bilateral relations. At the same time, Türkiye is an important NATO member and is seen by Washington as one of the key allies within this block.
So, from my standpoint, I consider Türkiye’s probable accession to the SCO as a positive step for Ankara. But, Türkiye has its initiatives, for instance, the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), with Central Asian states being a part of it together with the SCO. And, of course, after the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there is an understanding among the Central Asian states that Russia is not so powerful country anymore and also may constitute a threat to their independence and territorial integrity, therefore those countries would look to other strong partners to increase ties, and those are China and, to a certain extent, Türkiye. So, joining the SCO fits well for Türkiye and will improve its standing.
And as for Syria. Damascus has been reintegrated into the Arab League. How would you evaluate the mechanics and logic leading to this decision and its implications?
To be honest it’s a complicated question. According to my reading of this development, Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League has just started and it’s a process, but I wonder how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a host country sees the final goal. Bashar al-Assad’s presence during the conference was an attempt to try to figure out a solution for Syria. But also the Arab leaders can no longer reject the reality that since 2011 Assad managed to remain in power and a solution should be found, without further deteriorating the situation. Here adds the difficult issue of Syrian refugees, which is not only an important question for Ankara but for several European states. Overall, it’s a good opportunity for the Arab nations, and especially for Saudi Arabia to lead in resolving this issue.
From the perspective of normalisation, I would say that it’s a triumph of the Saudi leader, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who organised this event and his word mattered a lot in terms of this move. Without his approval and support, there would be no such move. And, of course, it seems that bin Salman as a regional leader tries to find a solution not only to the Syrian crisis but also to the Palestinian issue. And, I believe that after the normalisation between the KSA and Iran, Riyad as the regional player will improve its position not only as a regional leader but as a global power. And in this regard, the invitation of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is also a demonstration of Riyad’s will to play a broader role in the world.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the dynamic behind Syria’s reintegration may include the idea to decrease Damascus’ reliance on Iran and Russia, in terms of security and political dimension. But the success of this reintegration remains to be further observed, due to some divergences among the Arab leaders regarding Assad’s apparition at the summit.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a new reality in the Euro-Atlantic space. But how did it influence the key players’ relations with Russia, Ukraine and the West?
I would say that I was very happy when I saw the news of President Zelenskyy participating in the summit and the visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister to Ukraine and it happened for the first time since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Kyiv and Riyad. And it’s also a sign that Ukraine becomes more active in this direction and that the Arab countries also have noticed Ukraine and, paradoxically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine became a catalyst for the idea of intensifying ties.
However, I have to mention that the Russian propaganda and activities in the region play its role, as well as Ukraine’s focus mostly on European affairs since the first wave of Russian aggression in 2014. But the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait resonates within the Arab world and draws parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And this parallel helps to clarify Ukraine’s position and explain the real essence of Russia’s war against Ukraine to the Arab countries as a neo-colonial attempt to re-establish the Russian empire. The imperialistic thinking of Russian leadership caused damage to global stability.
As for Russia, it is difficult to identify crucial changes in its ties with the region. One of the changes was the deepening of the relations between Moscow and Teheran, not only within the economic field but also within the security and political fields. And constitutes a concern for the Arab states, especially due to the consequences that I have already mentioned, especially in terms of Iran’s nuclear program and a nuclear Iran is a disaster for the region.
However, Russian diplomacy was very active in trying to find support within the region for its war against Ukraine, but apart from Syria and Iran, there was no appetite for supporting Russia.
Given that the MENA region is often associated with the Global South, how could you perceive the future of this region and who will be the key players in the years to come and why?
First of all, I don’t like the term Global South. To me, the MENA region is a different space in comparison to, for example, India or the African continent, or Latin America. We have to differentiate. So, I’d like to avoid this term due to leaving no room for any North-South confrontation relative approach.
Speaking of perspective, the key player will be Saudi Arabia and I believe that all bin Salman’s global projects will be implemented. And if it comes to the external players, I’d say that the main actor could be China. And, in part, this is because there is a certain scepticism in the region regarding the US and, in general, the Western countries. Moreover, economically speaking, China is an important partner.
However, Russia will also remain a player, whether we like it or not, because, despite the reduction of its power and opportunities and capabilities, they are still strong enough to project its power and have issues to propose to the region. But, they won’t play the key role. Two main players – the US and China – will compete in the region. But we also have to wait for the US presidential elections in 2024, to understand how Washington’s policies toward the region may evolve.
But, most likely two key issues will dominate the US foreign policy priorities – the relations with Israel and dealing with Iran.
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