2021 was a year of reconciliation and diplomacy in the Gulf, and if recent signs are anything to go by, the next year may see more of the same.
Throughout 2021, a general trend in the Gulf was toward de-escalation. The historic Al Ula accord ended the 2017-2021 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis with a lifting of the blockade on Qatar.
At the same time, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia both made serious efforts to lower temperatures in their relationships with not only Qatar, but Iran too.
To be sure, Gulf countries did not resolve all their problems with their rivals in the neighbourhood in 2021. But these states, to their credit, did find ways to begin managing and containing, as opposed to escalating, such tensions.
Rather than deepening ideological divisions and polarisation in the Middle East, Gulf states spent 2021 prioritising trade, investment, and economic cooperation. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s improved ties with Ankara have also highlighted this trend. So has the warming of Saudi-Omani relations.
A few major factors have contributed to this new sense of pragmatism in the Gulf. The pandemic has harmed the Gulf's economies, incentivising GCC members to reduce the costs of conducting foreign policy. The end of Donald Trump’s presidency left some Gulf Arab states increasingly doubtful of Washington’s willingness to support their boldest and most adventurous conduct in the region.
Along with the GCC members’ health and economic issues, there are demographic and environmental challenges which “brought home the need to strengthen domestic institutions and reduce external distractions” as Gerald M. Feierstein, senior vice president at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former American ambassador to Yemen, recently explained.
There has also been a realisation of the limits of what hawkish foreign policies can achieve. The counterproductive blockade of Qatar and failed military campaigns in Libya and Yemen further exhausted Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. All the above factors have incentivised the leaderships in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to try to dial down tensions between them on one side and Tehran and Ankara on the other.
It seems safe to bet that much of the growing dialogue and cooperation between Middle Eastern countries will continue in 2022. The dynamics that pushed these states toward this new period of pragmatism in their foreign policies are set to remain in play throughout the new year.
Building on success
Within the GCC, the states which blockaded Doha beginning in mid-2017 realise that the FIFA World Cup 2022 is just around the corner. Their interests in benefitting economically from this global event have been one of a handful of factors prompting them to reconcile with the Qataris and restore economic and diplomatic relations with Doha.
Earlier this month, Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at the risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, toldthis author that “the UAE hopes to be a major transit point for World Cup tourists and wants the positive associations that will come with helping aid that event.”
Moreover, there is so much uncertainty in the region stemming from all the unknowns in the Vienna nuclear talks and uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan’s future against the backdrop of growing doubt about the US’s commitment to Gulf Arab states’ defense. Such dynamics have contributed to Saudi Arabia’s view that good relations with its GCC neighbors are important to Riyadh’s geopolitical and security interests.
As illustrated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Gulf tour this month, Saudi Arabia wants to assert itself as the leading power within this sub-regional institution which was on life support amid the 43-month-long siege of Qatar. Within this context, it’s fair to assume that Riyadh will continue attempting to build on its rapprochement with Doha, trying to further repair and strengthen bilateral relations in 2022.
We can probably say the same about the UAE and Qatar. Despite Abu Dhabi’s tensions with Doha running much deeper than those between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and even if the UAE was somewhat slow to embrace a rapprochement with Qatar, this year is ending with Emirati-Qatari relations in a positive place.
There is a determination on the part of Abu Dhabi and Doha to focus more on opportunities for economic cooperation as opposed to escalating their ideological differences.
Another relevant point is that with the forces of political Islam becoming much weaker in the Middle East and North Africa today compared to 5-10 years ago, officials in Abu Dhabi probably see less of an alleged Qatari threat than they did in the 2011-2017 period.
A big year for GCC-Iran dialogue
Saudi Arabia and the UAE took significant steps to de-escalate tensions with Iran in 2021. Riyadh initiated talks with the Iranians in Iraq which started in April. Earlier this month, the UAE’s National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan went to Tehran as the highest-ranking Emirati official to visit the Islamic Republic since the GCC-Iran crisis of January 2016.
None of this, however, is to say that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi cease to see the Islamic Republic as a grave threat. Iran’s missile activity, sponsorship of the Houthis and other anti-status quo regional actors, plus the growing use of Iranian drones in Iraq and elsewhere, are all extremely troubling from Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s perspectives.
Yet as GCC states prepare for a “post-American Gulf era”, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see engaging the Iranians as the most rational way to proceed given the current circumstances.
Ultimately, if nuclear brinkmanship between the US and Israel on one side and Iran on the other would ever spiral out of control, all GCC states would suffer immensely. For the Saudis and Emiratis, diplomacy with Iran is largely about mitigating such risks.
The Saudi government’s recent decision to grant visas to Iranian diplomats at the Jeddah-headquartered Organization for Islamic Cooperation can perhaps raise some hope of Riyadh-Tehran relations mending further next year. Official Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations, which Riyadh cut almost six years ago, will possibly be restored in 2022 if dialogue progresses positively.
Tehran would undeniably welcome better ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Improved relations with all GCC members can help Iran in terms of its position vis-a-vis the outside world and US-imposed sanctions.
“There should be no barrier in relation of the two Muslim nations of Iran and the [UAE],” declared President Ebrahim Raisi earlier this month. “It should not be affected by foreigners’ dictation.”
Israel and American neo-cons
Also important are questions about Israel and its views on the easing of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. A key dynamic contributing to the tacit Saudi-Israeli partnership has been a shared fear of Iran’s regional role. Put simply, Tel Aviv would not welcome new circumstances in which the Saudis are less adamant about constantly countering Tehran’s hand.
Israel knows that any real or major improvements in Saudi-Iranian relations would probably lower the possibility of Riyadh joining the Abraham Accords (a scenario that could remain unlikely even if friction escalates instead of cools between the Saudis and Iranians next year).
Neo-conservatives in Washington also want Riyadh to aggressively counter the spread of Tehran’s “malign” influence. Therefore, one can count on these voices to be against any Saudi-Iranian reconciliation in 2022. From the perspective of these neo-conservatives, such a development would greatly weaken the regional pressure on Tehran that Trump’s administration worked to build up during his presidency.
Yet regardless of those who don’t want to see all countries of the Gulf find ways to share the neighborhood and reach new understandings that deepen through trust and higher levels of cooperation, the general trend in the Gulf is toward de-escalation. For the sake of prosperity and stability in the Middle East, a continuation of this trend in 2022 would be extremely positive.
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