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US withdrawal stirs the Middle East

Long-term adversaries are re-evaluating their allegiances in the wake of the US policy shift in the region

Shifting alliances and strategies, growing perceptions of US disengagement as well as tentative, exploratory rapprochement between rivals—look set to leave their mark on the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) in 2020. 

President Donald Trump’s America First policy and his aversion to projecting power are recasting long-standing relationships, including those with Saudi Arabia and even Israel. The trend may become even more apparent in the run-up to the American presidential election in November 2020. 

Trump’s controversial decision in October 2019 to withdraw US forces from northern Syria and effectively give the green light to a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces, despite their leading role in defeating Isis, was widely seen as a signal of Washington’s growing disengagement. It was accompanied by concern about the revival of the terrorist group following the defeat of its territorial Caliphate—even after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

The president’s decision to not respond militarily to Iranian harassment of Gulf shipping or sophisticated drone and missile attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil refinery at Abqaiq fuelled alarm in Riyadh about Tehran’s mounting regional influence going unanswered, through its proxy forces from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Overall, these trends benefitted Russia and Iran, the main supporters of President Bashar al-Assad since Syria’s crisis began in 2011. Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks after the latter’s public disagreement with Trump—and then symbolically flew to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to sign agreements on agriculture, railways, fertilisers and petrochemicals. Likewise, Iran clearly relishes Washington’s abandonment of the Kurds, promoting the view that it undermines America’s reputation for being a dependable ally.   

Israeli concern 

Trump’s softening on Iran was also keenly felt in Israel, where the Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dismayed by the easing of the policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran. The principal risk in the coming months and years is confrontation between an emboldened Iran and a nervous Israel keen to maintain its deterrent. 

Israel mounted repeated strikes during 2019 against the “precision project” to upgrade Hezbollah’s missile arsenal. A wider crisis could involve escalation between Israel and Hamas, supported by Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, in the Gaza Strip. Israeli strikes against pro-Iranian militias in Iraq were a worrying pointer to possible future developments. 

Stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian front looks unlikely to break given the lack of movement towards Trump’s “ultimate deal” and the country’s domestic political uncertainty following two inconclusive elections in 2019. Palestinians—weakened by continuing divisions between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the blockaded Gaza Strip—have long held the view that the US is not an impartial broker. 

Unrest in Iraq has highlighted the extreme dysfunctionality of the government in Baghdad, as have the far less bloody mass protests in Lebanon. Both could constrain Iranian plans to confront Israel militarily. 

Saudi compromise 

Arab disillusionment with Washington may have a positive effect elsewhere. Worried about Iran, and anxious about his own image in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi murder, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman appears increasingly uncomfortable about the war in Yemen and has reportedly opened a back-channel with the Houthi insurgency in neighbouring Yemen. 

Divergence with its increasingly independent UAE ally, as expressed by its partial withdrawal from Yemen and reaching out to Iran, may also pull Riyadh in the direction of rapprochement. The signs are that Oman and Iraq—enjoying better relations with Tehran—are playing an intermediary role. 

The Saudis look ready to improve relations with Iraq. While they are not expecting Baghdad to go as far as severing its multiple ties with Tehran, it is pursuing a new strategy of trying to win influence and access to balance the Iranian presence. 

Unlike the US, the EU remains committed to the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPoA) but French President Emmanuel Macron wants Washington to lift sanctions on Iran and allow it to export oil in return for a commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons and help ensure Gulf security. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and Riyadh. 

It is unclear whether there are improved prospects for ending the regional standoff between the Saudi and UAE partnership and Qatar, which appears to have weathered the three-year blockade. Doha’s support for Erdogan’s Syria offensive reinforced the perception in other Arab capitals of a hostile pro-Islamist alliance in which Turkey plays a pivotal role. 

Mena 

Repression in Egypt seems set to continue, with no sign that the US or Cairo’s other western allies are inclined to pressure President Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi on human rights. Trump jokingly referred to him as “my favourite dictator” in September and he armed forces play an increasingly important role in the economy, especially in key infrastructure projects. 

Leaders have been toppled by people power in Algeria and Sudan, but the military remains influential in both countries. Libya’s internal problems have sucked in not just Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE but also Russia and the US. 

The main bright spot in the Mena region is Tunisia, where the election of the independent politician President Kais Saied, the overwhelming choice of young people, demonstrates a functioning system. It remains the standout positive legacy of the Arab Spring. 

Dr Ian Black is Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics  

Keep up-to-date with how the predictions in Outlook 2020 are playing out and get a first look at the themes that will shape Outlook 2021, as well as with relevant events such as the Outlook launch party and publishing schedules, by subscribing to Petroleum Economist’s bi-monthly Outlook newsletter. http://go.pardot.com/l/45692/2020-01-17/89x558

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