A new era of Middle Eastern peacemaking
Regional power dynamics throughout the Middle East and North Africa have long been guided by Western involvement. However, as new regional agreements, alliances and relations come to light, the region is facing a new era of peacemaking whereby Middle Eastern countries are having a ‘main character’ moment. In the past decade, there has been an upward trend in regional players, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, making agreements towards peace. Most importantly, there has also been a shift from Western-centric soft power to Arab regional influence throughout the Middle East. This is the result of multiple factors, including the decline of trust and the United States (US) pulling back its stronghold in certain countries including in the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict and in Afghanistan. This retreat has allowed regional players to step up and facilitate peaceful relations in their own region.
Approach to diffusing regional tensions
The Gulf states, along with Egypt, have made significant efforts to increase bilateral cooperation throughout their regions and approach situations in a more moderate manner than previously done. Without the brute force of the US military, the Middle East has seen such states rise to the challenge and create a more stable and trustworthy region where conflict can be resolved through agreements rather than hard power.
2020 kick-started this era of peace with several normalisation agreements being struck between Arab countries and Israel, albeit aided by the involvement of the US. Despite the West playing its part in reimagining Arab-Israeli ties throughout the region, it has been the Arab states who have continued to advance such ties.
Egypt is a prime example of how regaining “its former role as a major regional player” has enabled it to act as a mediator in both the Israel-Palestinian dispute as well as other long standing regional disputes, such as the Qatar blockade. In a major de-escalation of tensions in Gaza, Egypt helped broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on May 21, 2021. Further diplomatic engagement by Egypt in the region saw the country deliver an impassioned speech to the Arab League in a meeting held in May, pleading with Israeli authorities to stop denying and targeting the “Arab identity of Jerusalem”. Having recovered from the chaos of the Arab Spring in 2011, Egypt has now emerged as a key mediator in the Middle East and has since aided in the continuation of peaceful negotiations.
Further regional influence from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt has enabled the Qatar blockade to be lifted. The Al-Ula Declaration, as it is called, allows for the “resumption of travel and trade between Qatar and the blockading countries”. While this blockade had the potential to sour diplomatic relations between Qatar and parts of the Arab world, it ultimately had the opposite effect – it allowed for Qatar to strengthen its independence, forge new partnerships with Turkey and diversify its supply chain routes throughout the region. Not only does this strengthen the country’s economy, but it also has the potential to introduce alternative ways of business in the Gulf as a result of the blockade being lifted. Overall, a more independent and enhanced ability to sustain one’s economy, without the drawcard of overreliance, boosts the cooperation of the Arab region as a whole. Now resorting to more diplomatic means, rather than leaning on hard and fast military action, the Arab world is able to more effectively diffuse escalating tensions without the potentially escalatory effect Western assistance can have.
Taliban rule in Afghanistan
With the recent withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the Arab world is poised for more engagement with the country given the unique political space. Although neighbouring countries are cautious about the Taliban’s takeover of the country, Qatar has led the way in holding the door open to diplomatic discourse with the new government. Throughout the past decade, Qatar has played the neutral actor by hosting Taliban-US talks and continues to provide aid and resources to the newly formed Taliban government. Qatar has also called on its neighbours in the region to address the humanitarian issues facing the country instead of resorting to the hard power reactions they have historically imposed. Turkey also weighed in on the matter by urging Western countries to keep dialogue open with the Taliban in order to gently guide the country into forming a more inclusive government. Not only are these Middle Eastern countries laying the foundations for peace throughout the region, but they are also joining forces to influence the broader Western world to consider a more diplomatic approach to disputes rather than putting boots on the ground.
It’s not all bad. Although Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs is often criticised profusely for its hard power approach including occupying states, imposing restrictions and even declaring wars, the West have significantly contributed to the ability of the region to now resolve disputes via more diplomatic means. However, the civil war in Yemen may just be the one that can’t be solved with mere regional diplomacy. The Saudi-led military coalition has come under heavy criticism from the West, and even neighbouring Lebanon, since 2015 when they began their efforts to free Yemen from Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia has suffered at the hands of the Houthi movement over the decades, experiencing missile and drone attacks on their own soil. With such a provocation, Saudi Arabia has continued its military operations in Yemen to try and restore the former government. With such an extreme enemy, diplomacy has failed with Houthi rebels rejecting a Saudi-proposed deal earlier this year. As such, regional diplomacy can only thrive if all parties are willing to come to the table. Despite such an ongoing crisis, Arab states have rebuilt their confidence and taken up positive dispute resolution mechanisms, including agreements and lifting hard measures in order to rebuild stronger ties, as a result of years of trying to prove they can manage their own region. Not only has years of occupation and interference created a more independent Middle East, it has also encouraged further cooperation throughout the region especially among unlikely allies, such as Qatar and the Gulf states. Understandably there is always room for improvement, but the last few years and events have proven that this is a new era in Middle Eastern regional diplomacy and peacemaking with countries stepping up to the mark in order to protect and sustain their region.
Elle Greaves is the Middle East and North Africa Regional Correspondent for Young Diplomats Society. She is a qualified lawyer and has a special interest in public international law, modern weapons, religious extremism and counterterrorism.