The foreign ministers of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other Arab states agreed last month in Jeddah that the Arab world must play a leading role in efforts to broker an end to Syria's ongoing conflict. This not only highlighted the attempts to rely less on foreign hegemons for regional policy stances, but also served as a reminder of the very obvious fact that the Middle East has long had a huge gap where regional order should sit, whether ideological or structural.
In the post-colonial era of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, that order may have been the dominant ideology of pan-Arabism, as the pro-Nasserist and semi-socialist movements and officer revolutions swept through the likes of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq. That brought with it an era of anti-western and anti-Israel fervour, the militarisation of societies and economies, and lengthy rule by authoritarian regimes.
It was a conscious effort on the part of monarchies like Jordan and those in the Gulf to resist that influence and prevent similar coups befalling them.
Then came the Arab Spring years from 2011 onwards which saw a wave of anger and resistance against regimes across the region. In the countries in which uprisings did succeed, most of the revolutionary movements fell apart due to the lack of agreed principles and leadership figures. Democratically elected leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, for example, were overthrown in coups and replaced by new/old authoritarian systems.
The potential new regional order of democratic governments, Muslim Brotherhood-inspired leadership, and new foreign policy initiatives failed to take root; the possibilities they provided were fleeting. Even Turkiye and Qatar were forced to abandon their open support for opposition groups in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, recognising the reality of the situation.
Now, in 2023, the formation and advancement of a new regional order is apparently taking place led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE; their efforts can be detected in the ongoing armed conflict in Sudan. The backing of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as the absence of attempts to rein the militia in, suggests that Gulf hands are directly involved in the RSF's attempted coup, although a careful strategy is at play, with no overt backing in order to maintain plausible deniability and keep those hands clean.
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The coup has, at the time of writing, not gone to plan, and the Sudanese army's successful resistance has made the Gulf's covert-overt strategy a useful contingency. Saudi Arabia's attempt to mediate between the two sides may be a tactic to bail out the RSF and ensure its continued existence and active role in Sudan; reconciliation could also save the RSF for a future purpose.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have employed such methods in conflicts within the wider region. We saw a similar situation in Libya with both indirectly backing warlord Khalifa Haftar against the internationally-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli. His military offensive was defeated and he failed to take control of western Libya, but his forces survived and remain a potential tool and proxy for the Gulf states in any future crisis, even as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi promote themselves as mediators and neutrals.
Saudi Arabia, of course, has long been a giant in the politics of the Middle East, acting more as an influencer, financier and power broker than a state to be reckoned with militarily. From its finance for schools and institutions in Pakistan and the West, as well as infrastructure in Sudan and East Africa, Riyadh has been a major player upon which the Muslim world and many Third World countries have depended in one way or another. Leaders from South Asia to North Africa still visit the kingdom in times of crises or development, hoping for financial or diplomatic support, or both.
The UAE has used its energy wealth and status as an economic hub to throw its weight around in regional and international affairs. Apart from investing heavily in Africa and attempting to assert its influence over east African ports, it has also backed figures such as Haftar, the RSF's Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) and, in recent years, Syria's Bashar Al-Assad. Abu Dhabi, like its larger neighbour, is no military threat in itself, but wields significant influence in its utilisation of foreign and Western mercenaries and advisers, as well as the ability to finance proxies abroad.
What these regional dynamics in Sudan and elsewhere represent is the changing role of the Gulf states from financiers of economic and infrastructure development to power brokers and backers of militant and paramilitary proxies.
READ: Sudan bloody war shows UAE is an agent of chaos and instability
That formula must not be mistaken as their total regional strategy, of course, and it is not necessarily their aim to fuel conflicts or to back warlords. They also employ a policy of normalisation and reconciliation, with Saudi Arabia in particular having pulled back from the ongoing Syrian conflict and opted to resume ties with the Assad regime. That strategy also resulted in the dramatic and unexpected restoration of Saudi ties with Iran in March, with an apparent end to the kingdom's efforts to counter Tehran's regional and international influence.
As monarchies intending to preserve prosperity at home for their citizens, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek regional conditions that suit their interests; it matters not if this means that they prop up dictatorships. They are cautious about the unpredictability of democratically-elected governments in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region that tend to be "Islamist" in nature.
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When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman spoke publicly five years ago about his "war" to remake the Middle East, saying that the region could be the "new Europe", he was speaking primarily regarding economics and development. Perhaps futuristic smart megacities and grand entertainment projects were not the only things on his mind, though; maybe he was also considering major diplomatic and political shifts, with Saudi Arabia and its like-minded neighbour the UAE as the leaders of such changes.
The kingdom and the surrounding region " will be completely different in five years," he said at the time, and it looks increasingly that he was right. The new Middle East shaped by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is one that will welcome infrastructure development and social liberalisation, and will be pragmatic in terms of balancing between the West and its rivals China and Russia. However, it will also be authoritarian and anti-democratic at heart.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.