The changing dynamics of Mideast politics

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are no longer dependent on other regional powers or super powers to protect their interests. Iran may have secured the deal of the century in Vienna last month with the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) over its nuclear programme and is now expected to give something tangible in return. But will it? Undoubtedly, it has been a long and extremely frustrating series of negotiations that started in 2003 with the EU-3 (France, Britain and Germany) before the US, Russia and China joined in in June 2006 after the United Nations Security Council adopted six resolutions related to Iranian nuclear activities.

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Iran is being closely observed by its neighbours

However, Tehran is presumably under the watchful eyes of the world community as to what course of foreign policy it is going to steer under the new circumstances resulting from the deal. While the world’s investors are anxiously waiting to fully throw their weight into the development-starved country after more than three decades of various forms of boycott, the immediate regional neighbours — namely the Gulf Arab states — are seriously weary, to say the least, of Iran’s post-Vienna intentions in the Middle East.

The Saudi Arabia-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — comprising the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia — is, or should be, free from American pressure post-Vienna and able to push ahead to lay down policies and agreements to contain Iran’s ambitions in the region. Tehran’s dangerous and direct influence is evident in at least six key Arab countries: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, (Eastern) Saudi Arabia and Yemen, i.e. in the heart of both the Levant and the Gulf directly at the doorstep and at the heart of Saudi Arabia. The GCC has been hard at work to push for some new policies, but it has been secretly requested by the US to halt its efforts until the end of the nuclear talks with Tehran. What the Saudis and other GCC countries seem to be looking forward to now is to perhaps achieve a formal ‘memorandum’, explicitly stating Iran’s interests, but simultaneously contain its influence in the region.

On Yemen, the Gulf Arab states insist on applying the political road map as sanctioned by the UN Security Council, but with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s support to Al Houthi militias, Al Houthi leadership now wants to turn the negotiations upside down based on their terms. Having produced sufficient evidence of Tehran’s direct involvement in Yemen’s war through Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, therefore, cannot but win this war.

According to various independent reports, at least three IRGC trainers have recently been detained in the southern city of Aden and later handed over to Oman. Yemen has now clearly become an Iranian-Saudi Gulf-led battleground and its outcome will most certainly determine the fate of other ‘wars’ and local conflicts in the region. At least five of the six Gulf Arab states are facing a two-pronged terrorist attack, internally and externally, both supported and funded by Iran — whether in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Iran’s involvement by proxy is also evident in both Iraq and Syria. Various pro-Iran militia groups in Iraq are maintaining the political balance in favour of the policies of the Tehran-backed government in Baghdad. Similarly, Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad would have fallen a long ago had it not been for the direct and physical aid from the pro-Iranian Lebanese militia of Hezbollah. The latter’s effective role in shoring up the Al Assad government prevented the possibility of cutting off Damascus from the coastal area as early as the beginning of 2014.

Countries like Saudi Arabia (above) and the UAE are no longer dependentWith Iran’s policy of prompting violent unrest inside the Gulf states and attacks by extremist groups like Al Qaida and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the political dynamics of these countries have totally and comprehensively changed. Countries such as Saudi Arabia (above) and the UAE are no longer dependent on other regional powers or super powers to protect their interests. Now, Saudi and UAE pilots are undertaking operations against their foes in Yemen as well as playing a major role in the US-led coalition in bombing Daesh targets in both Syria and Iraq.

With Egypt — the biggest regional Arab power, under the new leadership of Abdul Fattah Al Sissi — keeping itself away from any serious involvement in the Middle East crises, Saudi Arabia, militarily aided by UAE, finds itself in an unprecedented situation in its history as it is on the forefront of a very proactive regional role. In fact, Saudi Arabia finds itself caught in a vicious war over Yemen for the second time in the last 60 years. In an entirely different context, the then government of the late King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz had been challenged by the revolutionary regime of the late Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. The Saudis had then fought for their interests against the most powerful army in the Arab world. Under the new policy of expanding his revolutionary authority, Nasser had dispatched his favourite army brigades of 70,000 troops in aid of the leader of the North Yemen military coup, General Abdullah Al Sallal. Ten thousand Egyptian soldiers died in the Yemen war between 1962 and 1967. The Yemeni disaster, as experts call it, is said to have deeply contributed towards the Arab defeat in the Six-Day war against Israel in June 1967. As they did in 1960s, the Saudi government is once again fighting off regional challenges.

This article by Mustapha Karkouti originally appeared in Gulf News

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