Rail diplomacy between Turkey, Pakistan and Iran

Struggling to stay on the fringes of the decisive 21st century war in Ukraine, the nations of the Middle East are discovering that they may be fighting their battles with an outdated toolkit.

As a result, the war in Ukraine could shake the legs under the table of detente in the Middle East that are already built on shaky ground.

For 18 months, the Middle East rivals – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran and Israel – have sought to hedge their bets by diversifying their relationships with the major powers, United States, China and/or or Russia.

Increasingly, the rivals are discovering that the Ukrainian conflict threatens to reduce their ability to cover. Regardless of the outcome of the war, the conflict not only reduced great power competition to a two-horse rather than a three-horse race, but also opened the door to Cold War-style international relations based on the principle “you are with you”. us or against us.

While portraying the Ukrainian conflict as a confrontation in a titanic battle between democracy and autocracy may be misleading and/or exaggerated, it does not detract from the fact that the war has shaken, if not undermined, a major pillar of the autocracy, Russia.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel could privately welcome the potential Russian sabotage of negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, given that they see it as deeply flawed. Middle Eastern states may also find the sabotage one of Moscow’s last hurrahs as it is hit with harsh Western sanctions and dragged into what is likely to be a consuming quagmire.

As fears grew of a Russian wrench, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended Iran’s support for militias in various Arab countries, including the Houthis in Yemen who fired missiles and drones on targets in both countries. On Thursday, a Houthi drone attacked a refinery in Riyadh, causing a small fire.

“Our presence in regional issues is our strategic depth… (It’s) a means of power,” Khamenei told Iran’s Council of Experts, which includes the country’s most powerful clerics.

Turkey and Israel have so far been able to prepare their cover by exploiting their close ties with Russia and Ukraine to play the role of mediator, even if mediation at this stage of the war has little or no value. chance of success.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates find themselves far more exposed and in the ironic position of sharing a boat with their enemies Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah as they maneuver in a field of geopolitical mines. Like the conservative Gulf states, Iran has also sought to remain on the sidelines of the Ukrainian conflict.

More fundamentally, the conflict could upset the house of cards on which detente in the Middle East rests. The driving principle of this détente is to kick the road on significant disagreements on issues, including political Islam and Palestine in favor of economic rapprochement, and in the case of Israel, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and potentially Qatar, a rapprochement of security cooperation.

This week, Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi reportedly discussed military cooperation with his Qatari counterpart, Salem bin Hamad bin Mohammed bin Aqeel Al-Nabi, during an official visit to Bahrain. Unlike Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar has refused to formalize its informal relations with Israel until there is a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine resonates among smaller Gulf states, three of which know firsthand what bullying by larger neighbors means in violation of international law. Iran has occupied three Emirati islands in the Gulf since 1971. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 as fears of military intervention accompanied an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for 3.5 years.

This week, Washington Post columnist Farid Zakaria said the conflict in Ukraine ushered in a new era “marked by the triumph of politics over economics. Over the past three decades, most countries have acted with one common thread in mind: economic growth. They embraced trade, technology and domestic reforms, all to produce more growth. This kind of choice is possible in an atmosphere where one does not have to worry so much about the central issue of national security.

This could be as true for the Middle East as it is for much of the world, especially if staying on the fence becomes less of an option and the fault lines widen if the Vienna talks fail.

Already, the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, may find they overplayed their cards when they reportedly refused to take a phone call from US President Joe Biden to discuss cooperation to increase oil production in order to reduce prices.

Mr. Biden eventually spoke to King Salman, with Mr. Bin Salman listening but not participating. Mr Biden had previously offered to speak with Mr Bin Salman, breaking a boycott of the crown prince over his alleged involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr. Bin Zayed turns out to be the most overexposed. The UAE has already started dithering over oil production with its powerful ambassador to Washington, Yusuf al-Otaiba, suggesting the Emirates is considering a hike, only for Energy Minister Suhail Al Mazrouei to reiterate the commitment. country at current OPEC+ production levels.

Emirati officials insisted the two statements were not contradictory. They said the UAE was in favor of increased production but was bound by OPEC+ agreements. OPEC+ is due to meet on March 31.

The maneuver was partly an Emirati effort to cover the country’s flank and partly a demonstration of the UAE’s ability to help bring prices down. Oil prices fell 13% after Mr. Al-Otaiba’s remarks.

The influx of Russians looking for places to park their money and belongings safely; leaks of the real estate of the oligarchs in Dubai, including those belonging to now sanctioned individuals; the surge in private jet traffic between Moscow and Dubai, and the sighting of Russian-owned superyachts off the coast of the United Arab Emirates couldn’t come at a worse time.

Earlier this month, the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based international anti-money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, graylisted the UAE for delaying identify illicit funds entering the country. The list, which includes the United Arab Emirates alongside 22 others, including Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Myanmar, has dealt a blow to the country’s image as a go-to global financial hub.

“What separates Dubai from other traditional havens for dirty money is the incredible secrecy. As a fugitive in Dubai, you can seize property, hide your yachts and open bank accounts with very little hurdles It is also one of the few autocracies that is a destination – rather than a transit place – for illicit flows,” said Jodi Vittori, co-author of a study on Dubai’s financial flows.

Sharon P. Juarez