Photo via Reuters
Here is an English version of my latest piece for Al-Hurra
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on his first overseas tour. This tour will attract attention to Saudi Arabia and its new leadership. Importantly, it is crucial to understand that this new leadership in Saudi Arabia also factors into a larger and very important contemporary Middle East context. Within the continuously evolving reality of the Middle East, amid the blurring complexities and contradictory rhetoric, there are now three main camps dominating the scene: an Islamist Iranian, an Islamist Turkish camp, and a third “maverick,” collaborative trio made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE.
This new collaborative triad of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and UAE emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The leaders of the three countries are uniting together to provide the region with a new state model that is different from past authoritarian governments. The new alliance has an ambitious plan to counter political Islam from both Iran and Turkey.
As I wrote previously, the new trio sees political Islam as a joint enemy that aims to undermine not just their leadership, but also the very essence of nationhood. This nation-based system was forged following WWI, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the end of colonialism. Any existential ideas that go beyond nationhood are a grave treat, exemplified by the ideology put forward by the Mullah regime in Iran, and the regional ambitions of Turkish president Erdogan.
While the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is not new and has been on going since the 1979 revolution in Iran; what is new, is the collaboration between the three countries that compose a trio now united in fighting against the basic essence of political Islam. This is a change from past selective fighting by each respective individual country. For decades, Saudi Arabia thought that the best way to counter Shia Islamism was by fortifying and empowering Sunni Islamism. That policy backfired everywhere in the region, from Iraq to Syria to Yemen. After enduring aggressive Iranian regional meddling, coupled with relentless terror attacks by ISIS that even reached inside the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has finally realised that all forms of Islamism are an enemy and have to be confronted. Along with the rise of anti-Islamism from Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in Egypt, the UAE leadership has also joined this trio to pave a path forward.
These are still early days, and the fight against Islamism is within a complex region full of contradictions and upheavals. For decades, Islamism has gained on various fronts, with patrons in Tehran, Ankara, and Doha. Each capital has its own agenda and has been willing to go to great lengths to bolster support. Moreover, many Islamist groups have gained sympathetic ears in Western capitals, portraying themselves, disingenuously, as pro-democracy and human rights against Arab authoritarian order.
Thus, the trio of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and UAE have decided to adopt a pragmatic collaborative approach that denounces emotionalism and grand dreams. Gone are the days of farcical unions, such as the Nasser’s failed United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria in the sixties. The days of a dominant one-man model are also bygone relics. The trio has lost appetite for a repeat of Saddam or Gadhafi. All three current leaderships understand their own limitations, and in contrast to past Arab autocrats, are now unwilling to embark on grand adventures.
The first test for this trio was the Qatar crisis. After boycotting Qatar and accusing the tiny Gulf state of sponsoring terror Islamist groups, many analysts predicted a collapse of the unity among the anti-Qatar camp. Many assumed that Gulf identity would overcome political differences, and leave Egypt alone against Qatar. Surprisingly, the anti-Qatar camp, mainly Saudi Arabia and UAE are still firmly united with Egypt, resisting pressure to resolve the conflict with Qatar.
Policymakers in DC need to understand this fast-evolving regional reality. Gone are the days of revolts and spring, and also lost to history are the days of cluttered autocracies. The new generation of Arab autocrats are savvy and united together in a struggle to survive within a rough neighbourhood and are now willing to confront their Islamist enemies. This is an important shift that the U.S. should adeptly consider.
Navigating US interests and values in the Middle East has always been a complex and tricky task. From Afghanistan to Iraq, the US has failed in various efforts to garner support and loyalty from Islamists. The attempt to tame the Iranian regime has also fallen short, and even the democratic model in Turkey has been sabotaged by a Turkish president and is increasingly hostile to the United States. Pundits in DC have long argued that democracy can tame Islamism. This is naïve foggy-bottom DC thinking. The ultimate proof comes in the form of the overtly authoritarian president Erdogan.
Looking forward, however, there is a real chance for the US to rejuvenate its policies by supporting this new Saudi, Egyptian, and UAE trio by pledging to take a firm stance against Turkish and Iranian ambitions, while pressing for democratic reforms. Fighting ruthless Islamist regimes is probably the only way to convince new Arab autocrats to loosen their grips on power and embrace democracy and human rights. Thus, the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince is an important opportunity to work towards salvaging the region from its own miseries.