by Dalia Ziada
For better or worse, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is rapidly transitioning into a new geopolitical structure, with new centers of influence and diverse agendas of individual and collective priorities. The ongoing transition process started over a decade ago with the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions (2010 – 2011), and reached a peak point, last summer on August 2021, following the haste and chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan. The main characteristic defining the new regional order, in light of this unavoidable transition, is the fracture of Egypt and Syria as the main complementary poles responsible for keeping the MENA region in balance, and the growing reliance on Arab Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, in designing and leading the future of the Middle East.
Arab Youth Look Up To Saudi Leadership
Given the fact that the vast majority of the population of Arab countries are youth under 35 years-old, the data provided by the “Arab Youth Survey” of Asda’a-BCW, on annual basis over the past thirteen years, could further clarify the new reality of the region, in quantitative terms. For the past six years, in particular, the surveyed Arab youth selected Saudi Arabia as the most influential leading power in the Arab region.
For example, in 2020 and 2021, the survey ranked Saudi Arabia as the Arab country that has the most influence over the Arab world; respectively with 39% and 29%. Meanwhile, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) used to interchangeably occupy the second position, with 34% for Qatar in 2020, and 23% for the UAE, in 2021.
In contrast, Egypt, which used to lead the Arab world for many decades before the Arab Spring, has been ranked at the tail of the list. In 2020, Egypt was seen by only 5% of the surveyed Arab youth as an influential regional power. However, in the 2021 Arab Youth Survey, Egypt’s position dramatically leaped, with 11%, to the third rank after Saudi Arabia and UAE. That is perhaps due to Egypt’s successful mediation in the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, during their latest round of war in May 2021.
Saudi Monarchs’ Game-Changing Interventions
In fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the Third Saudi State of King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, has always been a key player in determining the course of events in the Middle East and neighbor regions. Even when Egypt was the one holding the steering wheel, calculated political interventions by Saudi monarchs, at critical times of political and security turbulences, kept the region moving on the right track.
One recent example is KSA’s immediate intervention to clean the mess of the Arab Spring and rescue affected countries from political failure or economic collapse. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia played a tremendous role in managing the Gulf War and helping Kuwait recover from the Iraqi aggression. In the 1950s and 1970s, KSA challenged western powers to support Egypt in its war with Israel, which paved the way for Egypt to eventually win the war in 1973 and restore peace in the region. The current Saudi King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and his brothers, personally volunteered to fight as soldiers in the ranks of the Egyptian army against the British and French aggression, in 1956.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s glorious history of rescuing brotherly Arab countries, at critical moments, stepping up to the forefront of leading the Middle East towards and throughout the new era will not be an easy mission. That is not only because of the many geopolitical and security complications of the region, but also because the new regional order dictates the death of old pan-Arab values and the birth of a whole new culture that values individuality and pragmatism, among the states of the region, when handling domestic and foreign affairs.
Challenges in Shaping the New Regional Order
At least, since the severe political earthquake of the Arab Spring, the Nasserist ideology of Arab Nationalism, which remained the mantra of the region for decades, has disappeared. In the past two years, we have seen an increase in the number of Arab countries, extending from the ocean to the gulf, that took individual initiatives to normalize ties with regional non-Arab neighbors (e.g., Israel, Iran, and Turkey), which were labeled, in the recent past, as rivals of the Arabs.
Around Valentine’s Day this month, for example, UAE showered the Turkish President Erdogan with love at a festive reception in Abu Dhabi, while Bahrain warmly received the Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, with the playing of the Israeli national anthem in the Capital City of Manama. A month before that, UAE’s National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed paid a rare visit to Tehran to meet with senior political and security leaders in the Iranian regime to explore means of normalizing ties, following the same pattern of rapprochement that his country used with Turkey and Israel. However, unfortunately, such a positive initiative did not deter the Iran-backed Houthis militia, in Yemen, from targeting Abu Dhabi, in January, with Iranian drones and missiles.
As the big sister of the Gulf region, and thus the most politically and diplomatically experienced, the Saudi leadership has been calmly working on fixing strained ties with neighbor non-Arab countries, with the understanding that building steady foreign relations requires time and guarantees. This is also the same approach that Egypt adopts, in that regard. For the past few months, diplomatic, security, and economic talks between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on one hand, and between Egypt and Turkey on the other hand have been building up towards the ripe momentum of renewed friendship.
Cleaning After Flawed Western Policies
Sadly, some western powers, who claim to be allies to Saudi Arabia are purposefully making decisions to weaken KSA in face of the rising Iranian threat, at its borders. In the United States, for example, immediately after President Biden’s inauguration, in January 2021, the U.S. State Department decided to review the Trump Administration’s decision to designate the Houthis in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
The next day, the State Department announced holding for review arms and ammunition sales agreements that the Trump administration signed with Saudi Arabia, and to temporarily pause the sale of F-35 fighter jets that are due to UAE upon a contract signed with Lockheed Martin under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced its intention to revive talks with Iran on the nuclear deal and ease the suffocating economic sanctions imposed by Trump.
In less than a year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE started to pay for the flawed policy of the Biden Administration. The missile and drone attacks launched by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia intensified and frequented, targeting strategic economic sites in the main Saudi cities. By the beginning of this year, the Houthi started to expand their operations to target the UAE with a deadly drone attack that hit an oil facility close to Abu Dhabi Airport.
There is no logical argument that can appropriately explain why the American President is adopting such a policy that is militarily weakening Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while re-empowering Iran and its affiliated proxies and militias.
The rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, following the United States withdrawal and the revival of the Islamic State (IS) terrorists in Syria and Iraq are additional threats at the eastern gates of the Arab Gulf region, that are not expected to fade away any time soon. Out of this reality, Saudi Arabia’s main role in the next phase will be forming new coalitions, inside the Middle East, and with neighbor regions and countries, that can block the rising security threats and keep the region moving in the right direction.
One proposed coalition, with high potential of success, is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey. The new coalition, which is currently being formed, on a very slow pace though, could mitigate and control most of the strategic threats the region is currently facing or expected to face, in the future. That is mainly because of these countries’ strategic geographic locations, at the gates of the main three continents, as well as the complementary military and economic powers they have.
Fresh Blood in the Saudi Leadership
In face of the aforementioned complications, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is blessed by a young leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who understands the size of the challenge and is actively preparing himself and his country for it, despite the many obstacles thrown his way by some western powers.
In a TV interview, in April 2021, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, discussed the most critical mission of developing the Kingdom’s economy, through the ambitious “Saudi 2030 Vision.” He admitted that this requires modernizing Saudi society and changing the state system in a way that encourages foreign investment and opens Saudi Arabia to the world, without risking the country’s unique cultural heritage. But bravely, the Crown Prince said he is up to the mission that promises to modernize the entire Middle East region, not only Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries.
In the interview, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed threats against the Saudi national security and the need to neutralize them, especially the threat posed by the Houthi militia and their backer Iran. The Crown Prince confirmed that his hands are always extended with peace for those who want peace, including Iran. At the same time, his country will continue to develop the military system and strengthen the army, which has already become among the five most powerful militaries in the Middle East region. According to Global Firepower ranking for 2022, Saudi Arabia comes in the fourth place after the strongest and oldest armies in the region: the Turkish, the Egyptian and the Iranian militaries.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also, discussed the most critical issue of developing the economy. For this to happen successfully, it should be accompanied by opening the Saudi society and changing the way the government and the political leadership system in the country works. That is not an easy mission. One of the most important features of the economic development that Saudi Arabia seeks to achieve by 2030, according to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is openness to foreign investments and the development of tourist areas with a pure Saudi identity capable of attracting tourists from all over the world. This shall create more jobs that will help decrease unemployment. The prince confirmed that there is an urgent need to end the dependence of the Saudi economy on oil as the only source of income.
Since Prince Mohammed bin Salman took office, in 2017, he has been aware that his many ambitions for modernizing Saudi Arabia should be preceded by smashing a few idols that has tied Saudi Arabia down for a long time. The most challenging idols are eliminating extremism and empowering women to play an influential role in public life.
In November, the Crown Prince said in a public speech that “Saudi women in the past could not travel without a permit, could not attend sports shows and cultural events, could not drive a car, could not do a lot of work, and could not appear for their legal cases at court without a male guardian. Women suffered from that for decades. But today Saudi women are experiencing an unprecedented phase of empowerment. We have worked to empower Saudi women in the field of work and personal status, and today they are effectively a partner for the Saudi man in the development of our entire homeland without discrimination. I do not only address the issue of women driving cars, but also driving the development process, in the broadest sense. For example, the rate of women’s participation in the labor market doubled from 17% to 31%.”
On another note, the Crown Prince spoke about the phenomenon of extremism among Saudis and described it as “rampant.” He said: “We reached a stage in which we aim, in the best case, to coexist with this scourge, and eliminating extremism was not an option, nor was it possible to control it. In 2017, I promised to eliminate extremism immediately, and we have actually started a serious campaign to address the causes and address the phenomena. Within one year, we were able to eliminate an ideological project made over 40 years, and today extremism is no longer acceptable in the Kingdom, and it no longer appears on the surface.”
Let’s Embrace The Change
Anyone in the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s shoes would have preferred to build on what he found, without trying to change it. But, very bravely he decided to take the challenge of smashing the idols of extremism and freeing Saudi Arabia from the heavy burden that tied it down for centuries. Saudi Crown Prince’s efforts will not only benefit Saudi Arabia, but also the entire Middle East during this critical transition. This could be the end of the Middle East as we know it. But it will be the beginning of a stronger more stable and more powerful region, that can rely on its own feet to stand tall. The current reshuffling of political alliances and leading roles in the Middle East, based on pragmatic, rather than fiery and emotional, agendas may be the beginning of establishing long-term peace and stability in the ever-boiling region. Let’s not fear the change. Almost always, change leads to positive outcomes.
Article first published on Majalla.
Dalia Ziada is Director of Liberal Democracy Institute. She writes on Militancy and Islamism, and about MENA affairs. She tweets under @DaliaZiada.