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Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Quest for Stability in the Middle East

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Two important features characterize the role of the Arab Gulf States (GCC) in the Middle East in the current phase of the history of the region. The first is that the region is obviously going through a transition. The second is that these States are also going through a transition. The assumption that either can play the role of the anchor that could stabilize the other in a sustained way is at best doubtful.

At the last GCC summit in Doha, there was an agreement to form an effective joint force to enhance the region’s immunity from ISIL or Al Qaeda subversive or any other attacks. The decision was the logical extension of the more assertive role in the region that the GCC started to play a couple of years ago. Reports in the GCC capitals and Cairo indicated a possible role for Egypt’s military forces. Yet, the stability of Egypt, while more improved than what it was 3 or 4 years ago, is still an open question.

In theory, Egypt’s military role in the Arab Peninsula is a plus in security terms. But the Egyptian military is now bearing the responsibility of running that country. This role does not come without a price in popular support or institutional cohesion. The proposed Arab Peninsula role of Egyptian military forces should be carefully examined from all angles. This is not to say that the Egyptians should not play that role, but the fact is, considering the internal situation in Egypt, it may be a little too early.
The “independent” regional line emerging in the GCC is an outcome of deep suspicions and disappointments with the US regional policies. It is a magnified, collectivized and main-streamed Qatari concept of enhancing own security and relative weight through assertive regional policies. It reflects a specific stance: “we should do it ourselves because the Americans will not do it. And if they do it, it will be to serve their own interests even if it threatens us”. In a broader sense, this a reflection of an evolving global realignments and continuous change in relative weights and interests. It is an objective trend that should be shaped and influenced by all means.

The other regional anchor, that is Saudi Arabia, is also open to many changes that are difficult to predict. King Abdullah (90 years old) will not live forever. The powerful Minister of Interior, Prince Mohamed ben Naïf, who was on an official visit to Washington in the first week of December to discuss the joint force among other things, is facing quite some opposition to his uphill ascendance to the throne. A complex set of rules applied within the Saudi Royal family makes the competition the foremost source of concern to those who understand the crucial role of Saudi Arabia in stabilizing the region. While ben Naïf is gaining traction back home (the clout of the powerful Chief of Staff of the Royal Court Khaled Al Twaijery is rapidly diminishing), it will be a mistake to underestimate Naïf’s competitors. His brother just lost his post as governor of the security sensitive East Province.

Stability in Saudi Arabia, as in any other Arab state, is primarily a function of the domestic situation, not any external threat. This makes the issue of a joint military force less important than the way it seems at surface. The similarity of Saudi Arabia to the Arab State in general does not stop here. Domestic conditions in almost all of them are a live testimony to the unsettled contradictions postponed by history for one reason or another. The inability to deal openly with the most persisting issues is the problem that affects them all.

Oman is having its own source of chagrin as well. Sultan Qabous is suffering terminal colon cancer. In case the Sultan dies, his successor is picked through internal consultations within the ruling family. If no agreement is reached in 3 days, a closed letter from the deceased Sultan is opened. In the letter, the deceased ruler names the new one. This is happening while the country, a bastion of relative stability, is going through a painful reduction in revenues and is showing increasing signs of discontent.

Qatar is isolated. The talked about reconciliation between Doha and Cairo is still a work in progress. The last intra-GCC arrangement reduced the tension with Doha but did not alleviate the decade’s long suspicions. Qatar postponed the expulsion of a second list of Muslim Brotherhood leaders under the pretext that it is still looking for a host country. Doha’s media mouthpieces resumed attacks against the Egyptian President and covered what it still calls the “continuing Islamic Revolution” in Egypt.

Bahrain’s domestic troubles are known to everyone, but what is worse, is that there is no sign of a solution based on national reconciliation.

Does all this give the Iranians an opportunity to meddle with the transitioning situation in the GCC? If they do, they will be shooting themselves in the foot. We have learned the bitter lesson that Middle Eastern States are peculiar creatures. If you do not like them, wait to see what will follow. Those who hope for regime change in that region better be aware of what they hope for.

The region is an intellectual challenge. It is a security challenge. It is a political and historical challenge. It is a challenge in all its aspects. Neither preserving the status quo nor changing it the way usually happens is satisfactory for long term stability or reaching this elusive goal. The only way left is to “micromanage” the region that will not cease to surprise the world for decades to come. Helping the Egyptian “anchor” to reach a reasonable degree of stability through economic development, and helping the Saudi “anchor” to reach a safe transition and enhance its internal security, seem to be all that is available now. Those who talk about “ideal” and “politically correct” solutions should always remember: in the Middle East, there are no such things. Not now at least.

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