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Saudi Arabia-Egypt: An Arab Realignment?

King Salman of Saudi Arabia hosted Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi on April 23 for extensive talks on bilateral and regional issues. This marks a turning point both in Saudi-Egyptian relations as in the future approaches to regional problems. Any regional security plan would be ineffective without the participation of the two major powers in the region.

But would the visit, which ends a period of cold ties between Riyadh and Cairo, help implement a concrete regional security plan? And how?

It is important first to point out that the political change in the Washington, and the end of the era of “leading from behind”, played an important role in facilitating a realignment among Arab countries. However, even when the ultimate objective is to reach a peaceful “modus vivendi” with Iran, the itinerary from the current conflict between the Arabs and the Iranian would have to go through many turns and twists.

Peace is achievable either through surrender, or through a manifestation to all conflicting players that the continuation of the conflict does not fit within any meaningful benefit-cost sense. Neither the Arabs, nor the Iranians will surrender. And they, as any other two sides in a fierce conflict, cannot settle their confrontation around a warm cup of coffee or by eloquent exchange of niceties. The balance of force would have to be tested. It it must show both sides that none of them can win a zero-sum conclusion and that the costly continuation of the conflict is futile.

At one point on the course of testing the balance of power, and if this process is too costly and indecisive, one or both sides may reach this conclusion. However, the internal political power between the usual poles of “doves” and “hawks” in each side is capable of delaying this point or placing it within a relatively quick reach.

Where does the region stand now in this process? Unfortunately, it seems that it is not as close, as one should hope, to a detente between Iran and the Arabs. Though the Arabs responded decisively to stop Iran’s attempt to surprise them from their backyard in Yemen, and that the Syrian conflict did not bring down Iran’s ally in Damascus, the two sides seem to be unwilling still to look for a negotiating table.

The Arabs say that this is because of excessive Iranian ambitions and Tehran’s high ceiling of geopolitical expectations. The Iranians say that they are in Iraq or Syria to protect their own national security. This reveals that neither is still as close as hoped to the table.

A good portion of this intransigence could be tracked to the weight enjoyed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in the political balance in Tehran. Ideological and fanatic state of mind blurs any rational calculus of cost and benefit as part of the benefits is attributed to the other life, paradise and angels, which defy any earthly calculations.

Therefore, the Middle East is still standing in the middle of this bloody process of testing the balance of power. And in such cases, additional work is needed to alter perceptions and bring them back to earth. It is here that the Salman-Sisi meeting is as important as the new and proper firm position of the US administration.

The result of the meeting will impact regional security in many profound ways. The project of forming a joint Arab force may be revived, coordinating a unified political stand will be easier and the mere visibility of collective confrontation in case of any additional intervention in the part of Iran is in and of itself a deterrent.

From reading Washington’s recent moves and statements, and Arab efforts to close their lines, it is clear that the itinerary of the regional conflict will go first through a process of “convincing” the Iranians that the IRGC intervention brings too much pressure and too high costs. And this is where the recent Arab-Arab moves and US positions are effective.

The two partners focus now on preventing any Iranian zero-sum gain in Syria and Yemen. Washington is going the extra mile to convince Moscow that this is the only realistic way to pacify the Middle East. President Putin understands the validity of the American argument. However, his cautiousness and obligations to his allies in Iran and Syria may slow his response. Moreover, his hopes that the US considers Moscow a peer, not only in Syria but globally, is further slowing his cooperation.

In the Turkish and Arab sides, it is now clear that aspirations in Syria are downsized. Yet, from the point of view of Assad and Iran, they believe it is an opportunity to “take back every inch of Syria”. So, what we are heading into is a move to force the two to also downsize their objectives, in order to reach a reasonable solution. The same pattern is applicable in Yemen.

In other words, what we see is the patient work to get the two sides to sit and talk.

This is backed by a general realignment in the region. We see now a different position in Khartoum towards the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). For some time now, there have been simmering disputes between Egypt and Sudan. Sudan hosted many MB leaders, Egypt refused to negotiate a territorial dispute around a triangle on the eastern borders between the two countries, and Sudan was suspected to side with Ethiopia on its Nile-water-share conflict with Cairo.

But on April 21, the two sides seem to have established a dialogue, starting from Sudan’s commitment to get the MB gradually out of its territories or to guarantee their passivity in the current attempt to overthrow the Egyptian regime. Egypt and Sudan’s Foreign Ministers met in Khartoum and both reported the beginning of a joint and serious effort to clear the skies in their relations.

However, the central point in this changing strategic landscape in the region remains the effort to reach a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, hence normalize relations between Arabs and Israelis, per the late King Abdullah’s initiative. This will split the Arab World the same way it did following Sadat’s signing of the Camp David agreement. However, the opposition would be much smaller in this case.

This will lead to a certain impact on the regional balance of force. By closing their ranks, forming a joint Arab Stabilization Force, and pushing back their differences to a secondary place in their mutual relations, Arabs would have taken an important step towards protecting their own region.

April, 27 2017

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