Time to go it alone in the Middle East? Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey
These three countries have the potential to offer something positive to the region’s development trajectory
The U.S. administration is only concerned about a few particular issues in the Middle East and is aiming to achieve the earliest possible exit from the region. The Iran deal was a tick mark and another item on the list is the anticipated elimination of chemical weapons in Syria.
The last item is probably a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Then it is time to pack up and leave the region with some good memories. The U.S. administration is not paying serious attention to the frustration among its traditional allies and it sounds like Washington has no medium-to-long term plans for the region.
The U.S. withdrawal creates significant room for maneuver and also leaves regional actors to deal with a number of national and transnational problems. The region is shifting towards a new geopolitics of flexible alliances.
The regional dynamic also faces the challenges of the Arab Spring, the popular uprisings that have ranged from peaceful demonstrations to civil wars. The issues at stake are more transnational than ever, at least in relation to the recent history of the Middle East. This process has empowered sub-regional actors and transnational loyalties, in addition to further destabilizing the already fragile state structures in the Middle East.
Responses to these challenges include re-strategizing robust authoritarianism in domestic landscapes, giving rise to a complex pattern of involvement in developments across other regional countries.
The countries enter into flexible alliances along strange axes, shifting from one country to another. These flexible alliances have sub-national actors as allies, or sometimes foes. This multi-dimensional and multi-actor game of flexible alliances is subject to rapid re-positioning, sometimes reflecting a complete break with previous positions.
The future of regional alliances
The logic behind this structure of flexible alliances is the perception that countries need to go it alone in the Middle East, as articulated by the Saudi Ambassador to London in a recent New York Times opinion piece. There seem to be three main alternatives in relation to the future if the region.
One is that the region drifts into a tense flexible alliance system, as is already taking shape, shadowed by uncertainty and disappointment. The second is that states employ isolationist policies of securing borders, controlling their populations and turning a blind eye to regional developments. The third is seeking refuge in international alliances to preserve the hold on power at home. The political atmosphere created by this shifting of alliances does not seem sustainable. It is risky and self-destructive without any promise for real problem solving processes in the Middle East.
The only chance for normalization in the region is to think about a new order that is based on regional ownership. There is an obvious need to involve a number of countries at the outset, to mobilize an inclusive political structure in the region. The early grouping should consist of countries that collectively can provide both stability and prosperity. A meaningful regional vision would also develop a constructive relationship with the U.S..
The strategic three
Such an understanding between Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Turkey would provide sufficient capability in the political, economic and security spheres to avert the current destructive course of politics in the region. A trilateral consultation mechanism should be established to pursue policies along three different tracks.
These three countries have the potential to offer something positive to the region’s development trajectory, secure their own interests and shape future U.S. policies in the region.Bulent Aras
The first is rethinking regional problems and creating mechanisms and processes that initiate a problem solving agenda in the region. The second track is designing policies to bridge the gap between conflicting views and perspectives, which require out-of-the-box thinking in its true sense. This is a legitimate way to avoid the destabilizing impact of the region’s chronic problems and pave way for a more inclusive political order. The third is to develop a constructive dialogue with external countries, in particular the United States.
The Saudi motivation to act alone, UAE in its balancing role, and Turkey’s soft power capabilities cannot individually address the challenges. These three countries have the potential to offer something positive to the region’s development trajectory, secure their own interests and shape future U.S. policies in the region. A clear game plan presented by this group would be welcomed in Washington policy circles.
The differences between these three countries are not insurmountable, and the stakes are high enough to make cooperation a compelling prospect. This group would have access to all the relevant actors both inside and outside the region. The 3 state group is likely to expand in a short period of time.
The Middle East is currently facing enormous challenges and it is likely that some tough times lie ahead. A meaningful regional response could turn the crisis into an opportunity. Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia would make a good initial grouping for initiating a course for visionary planning and constructive action in the region. The alternative is facing the prospects of failed individual action and becoming even more deeply mired in the vicious cycle of flexible alliances.
Bulent Aras is the Professor of International Relations at Sabanci University and Head of the Board of Academics and Experts, HASEN. He was head of Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Center for Strategic Research in 2009-2013. This piece first appeared in his blog at HASEN web.
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