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The web of new relationships in the Middle East

January 24, 2014 at 3:26 am

It seems like the first major fruit of the so-called Arab Spring has crystallised in a web of new relationships across the Middle East between Arab states and beyond the region to America and the West and Russia; even China is getting a look in.

We can see increasing cooperation between the Gulf States and Israel, bringing into the public domain what many long suspected was happening behind closed doors. Saudi Arabia is at the top of the list of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members working strategically with Israel.

In parallel to this we find a complete break in relations between Syria and the GCC members, especially Saudi and Qatar. Both are supporting the Syrian opposition with money, arms, political backing and media support.

The relations between Egypt and Syria are lukewarm; if Morsi had indeed severed diplomatic ties with Damascus, Al-Sisi has not yet restored them post-coup. This is quite significant given that Syria supported the coup against Morsi and its media has published vicious attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

On the fringe of the Middle East, Turkey’s status has declined. The glow from Erdogan’s star that lit-up the Arab world with his opposition to Israel and support for Gaza has dimmed. On the other side of the region, Saudi hostility to Iran has increased due to Tehran’s support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

As far as relations with the wider world are concerned, Russia has re-emerged strongly after its long decline in the Soviet era, which formed the basis of its relations with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya and South Yemen. This has been accompanied by a slight decline in US and Western influence due to their generally opportunistic and self-interest policies and their abandonment of regional allies.

However, it is necessary to employ a degree of caution in this regard as some shifts, such as the intention by Egypt and Saudi to buy Russian arms, have been over-stated; it doesn’t necessarily mean that a total shift in their relationships is taking place. Egypt and Saudi Arabia cannot leave America’s orbit permanently; all that has happened is that they are exercising a little bit of freedom to look elsewhere. The simple truth is that Saudi cannot manage without US protection; its purchase of weapons from Russia may not be much different from its purchase of Chinese “East Wind” missiles 30 years ago, even though the Russian move is an angry response to America’s shift towards Syria and Iran.

Moreover, security links between Egypt and the United States are very close, which also ties in with their security relationship with Israel, which has immunity in the face of policy changes and shifts. Anyone observer of the coup regime’s treatment of Gaza can see that Egypt’s security relations with America is at its strongest; in any case, Al-Sisi wouldn’t have been able to overthrow Morsi without the consent of the United States. The context of the Saudi purchase of Russian arms also applies to Egypt.

The new web of relations in the Middle East, regionally and internationally, will maintain the old links created by geographic, political, economic, cultural and security realities which cannot easily be overcome. Furthermore, just as America adapted to the strong Soviet links in the Arab world during the Cold War, so too will it adapt now, with Russia relatively free of the tensions and internal disagreements which marred by the Soviet era.

In today’s global village, international relations exist on many different levels and extend in all directions. Saudi and Egypt may be buying arms from Russia but the sums involved are miniscule in comparison to the amount spent on weapons from the US, Britain and France.

A possible new line in the relationship web will link Syria, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah as the possibility grows that the axis will be victorious in the Syrian conflict. In such a scenario, this link in the web will have both positive and negative effects on other relationships across the region. We have a web of new relations in the Middle East, but it is changing almost daily and is certainly not set in stone.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.