The Geopolitical Realignment in the Middle East

The middle east is the most troubled and militarized area in the world. Its geographic area extends from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The birthplace of several civilizations and of the three biggest monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity -, this geographical space proves to be central to international stability and security. The abundance of energy resources, namely natural gas and oil, is crucial to keeping the world economy turning smoothly, which makes this a place of confluence of interests by several foreign powers, such as the United States of America (USA) and Russia.

The particularity of this geographic area is the fact that it has the highest rates of authoritarianism in the world, having intensified after the ‘’Arab Spring’’.   In the 18th century Immanuel Kant wrote the “Perpetual Peace“, in which he stated that international peace and democracy were closely related. He argued that Republics (currently referred to as liberal democracies), would be the forms of state less susceptible to conflict. In the case of the middle east, we may never know, because liberal democracy has not spread in this region and it has remained a hotspot of hostility and geopolitical tension.

The creation of the state of Israel, in 1948, after the Second World War, changed the political landscape of this region. The Arab League, mainly the members of the Persian Gulf, have always maintained a rigid stance regarding the recognition of Israel. This position solidified when, at the end of the Six-day War in 1967, the Arab League published the resolution of Khartoum, which claimed that its members refused to conceive peace with Israel, or even to recognize this state or negotiate with it.

Traditionally, and taking into account the events that followed September 11, 2001, such as the ‘’War on Terror’’ or the invasion of Afghanistan, the USA maintained a vigorous position in the Middle East, dominating the region and forming strategic alliances with many countries. When analyzing this geopolitical chess, we can verify that the United States is allied with Israel, providing them with military equipment and economic aid, vital to the survival of this state, whose size is small compared to its peers in the region. The USA is also allied with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states of Sunni majority (considered the largest branch of Islam, followed by more than 80% of the approximately 1.5 billion believers) and of Arab ethnicity. These three countries had a common enemy, Iran, with a Shiite and Persian majority. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, despite being enemies and being both countries with opposing religious majorities, have in common the distrust of Israel. The Palestinian cause, in this geopolitical play, was secured by the Arab League and by the remaining Arab states materializing in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Russia, in this context had as main allies Iran and Syria, while keeping an intense presence in the region.

Recently, it has been noticed that this scenario has been changing significantly, with the USA progressively abandoning its influence in the region, something that although some analysts say results from Donald Trump’s nationalistic policy, is mainly due the discovery of shale gas  and the fact that the US has become self-sufficient at the energy level, currently being a net-exporter of this resource and with plans to create supply networks for Europe. On the one hand, Russia has been strengthening its position in the Middle East, especially after the Syrian war and Bashar al-Assad’s stay in the power and by fostering its relationship with Iran. At the regional level, changes were also significant, with the approach of some Arab States to Israel, namely the United Arab Emirates, a monarchy which is constituted by 7 States, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital.

These two countries reached an agreement on August 13, mediated by the United States, to normalize diplomatic relations, including in the agreement the suspension of the annexation of the Jordan river valley by Israel. Even before the formalization of the agreement, there were already suspicions that both countries had started the normalization of diplomatic relations, by sharing intelligence and arms sales to promote anti Iranian groups and to promote their fighting against terrorist organizations. This agreement offers significant advantages for the three states involved: the historical need for Israel to increase regional recognition of the Jewish state, as well as the need for President Netanyahu to deflect attention from his trial for corruption; the fact that Emirati financial centers could benefit from connections with the region’s cyber and security power; and the president of the USA, in this moment, is under pressure due to his handling of the pandemic crisis and the American elections, and could proclaim his role as a peacebroker in the Middle East. However, perhaps the most important aspect of this agreement is related to the fact that it marginalizes the Palestinian cause. The Palestinians say that this agreement breaks years of Arab solidarity – and influence – against land occupation that they consider essential for the creation of a future state. The decision to normalize relations with Israel opposes the Arab League’s view, which is to support the so-called Arab peace initiative. The 2002 plan states that Arab governments would establish diplomatic relations with Israel only if the state withdrew from the occupied territories and accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state. Between the causes that led the Emirates to proceed this way are pointed Iran’s regional rise and friction within the Gulf Cooperation Council with Qatar.

Following this agreement, the first direct flight from Israel to the UAE took place, and it was granted permission to cross Saudi airspace, normally blocked for Israeli air traffic.  There are also other advances in the resumption of relations between these countries, more precisely the plan that both have to establish a base of espionage on the Yemeni island of Socotra, according to a report by the Jforum, the official sites of the Jewish and French-speaking community. This island is in a strategic position in the Arabian Sea, about 350 kilometers south of Yemen, and its aim would be to collect intelligence in the entire region. The report also claimed that Tel Aviv surveillance centers monitor the actions of Houthi militants in Yemen and Iranian movements in the region, in addition to examining air and maritime traffic in the southern region of the Red Sea.

In order to try and encourage other Persian Gulf states to follow the same course as the UAE, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, as well as other senior US government officials are visiting several countries in the Middle East.  After the 1979 Egypt-Israel and Jordan’s peace treaty, UAE is the third Arab country to normalize relations with Israel. It is, however, the first of the six Arab states in the Persian Gulf to do so. Initially there was speculation that Bahrain and Sudan could follow the example of the UAE, but both countries rejected such claims. The visit also serves a second purpose, to convince some States from that area to participate in a signing ceremony in Washington between Israeli and UAE officials, which is expected to promote the diplomatic achievements of the Trump administration in the Middle East, in an attempt to win supporters for the November presidential elections. In this puzzle, it remains to be seen what part the Palestinian cause will fit into and what path the remaining Arab states will take, in a region that is increasingly seen as turbulent and complex.

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