Cooling-off: How Europe can help stabilise the Middle East

As countries across the Middle East pause to take stock of recent conflicts, Europeans need to do more to support dialogue

Children sit on top of a destroyed building in Gaza

As the latest war in Gaza has once again demonstrated, the Middle East continues to play host to a series of seemingly intractable conflicts, from Western Sahara to Yemen, via Libya and Palestine. Over recent years, battle lines have hardened across the region. These run via Iran’s network of state and non-state actors and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel. The region’s geopolitics have also laid bare a deepening rift between states more friendly towards political Islam, such as Turkey and Qatar, and those deeply opposed, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These battle lines have gradually extended into North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Yet, the countries ranged along these fault lines appear to now be de-escalating. New talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia indicate a shift in favour of dialogue, as do conciliatory signals between Turkey and its rivals.

This change appears to have been spurred by a collective sense of exhaustion following the failure of  confrontational policies pursued by either side over the past decade, as well as the economic pressures brought about by covid-19. The change is also taking place to the backdrop of a new US administration that is prioritising political pathways rather than the “maximum pressure” approach favoured by Donald Trump, which delivered only insecurity to the United States’ regional partners. But, for the moment, the shift remains fragile, driven more by a desire for a time out than a decisive embrace of regional diplomacy and a meaningful desire to cement a stabilising regional order.

Europeans should now be considering how they can best support this tentative opening. For too long Europeans have been hamstrung by their inability to navigate hard-power conflict. But it is in their clear interest to more effectively use peace-making tools to help strengthen these fragile gains.

The Gulf region

The defining regional fault line of the past decade has been the conflict between Iran and its Gulf Arab rivals. This crescendoed into a zero-sum confrontation that drove conflict in Yemen and Syria and threatened wider conflagration. But since Iranian-linked attacks against ARAMCO facilities in Saudi Arabia and oil tankers in Emirati waters in 2019, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have opened channels of dialogue with Iran. Both feared further escalation given the United States’ unwillingness to step in to provide deterrence. This feeling persists under Joe Biden, with the US engaged in diplomatic outreach to revitalise the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and support for regional dialogue. This has further encouraged a change in regional positioning, with Iranian-Saudi intelligence channels now moving into direct talks hosted by Iraq.

For the time being these talks are only exploratory. The dialogue appears to be narrowly focused on addressing immediate security threats, with Riyadh convinced that Tehran still ultimately seeks regional hegemony. While Tehran has seized this opportunity to calm regional tensions amid domestic economic and political challenges and attempts to revive the JCPOA, it has shown little willingness to make concessions across the regional theatres. Tehran appears to still suspect an ongoing Saudi-Emirati effort to maintain US sanctions pressure against it. It has also come under intensified Israeli covert attacks, further encouraging its sense of siege. Here, while the new Israeli government – formed without Binyamin Netanyahu – may adopt a less publicly confrontational stance, it will likely continue to pursue clandestine actions to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme.

The potential election this month of a conservative, hardline Iranian president with stronger links to the IRGC may actually be viewed by Riyadh as an opportunity for more serious engagement

From the Saudi perspective, the litmus test of Tehran’s sincerity remains Iran’s approach to Yemen, a conflict from which the kingdom increasingly wants to extricate itself. Riyadh sees serious steps towards de-escalation in Yemen as a prerequisite for progress in wider talks. But, in the past few months, the Houthis have intensified their assault on Marib in Yemen and have escalated attacks against Saudi Arabia. During this time, Iran appears to have increased its support to the Houthis rather than pressing them to enter into meaningful political talks. While Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has publicly supported a ceasefire, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran’s leverage over the Houthis rests with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which, in its view, wants to maintain an ability to threaten the kingdom from Yemen via the Houthis. The Houthis have rejected concerted UN and US efforts to advance a Saudi-backed ceasefire proposal, including a partial lifting of the Saudi blockade, which would boost the availability of humanitarian aid and facilitate the reopening of Sana’a airport.

The prospect of a summer breakthrough in Yemen now appears to lie with Omani-mediated talks with the Houthis. Ironically, the potential election this month of a conservative, hardline Iranian president with stronger links to the IRGC – as is likely given the status of current favourite Ebrahim Raisi – may actually be viewed by Riyadh as an opportunity for more serious engagement on Yemen and other regional issues given that the government will be seen as better reflecting hardline positioning. 

Meanwhile, efforts may be under way to find a regional detente in Syria. Saudi intelligence chief, Khalid al-Humaidan, is thought to have travelled to Damascus in May and there is talk that Riyadh could support Syria’s return to the Arab League. Such a move would follow the lead of the UAE – which has already restored diplomatic ties with Syria – and reflects a growing sense in the Arab world that Syria should be brought back into the fold rather than left uncontested to Iranian, Russian, and Turkish influence.

Turkey’s relations with the Gulf and Egypt

To this backdrop, the region is simultaneously witnessing an effort to normalise relations between Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, the UAE. After several years of trying to position itself as a regional hegemon facing an expanding anti-Turkey axis and fighting on multiple fronts including Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara seems to have abruptly switched course. It is now interested in breaking its regional isolation, which is not just exacting a cost from it in military terms but also economically, with a severe decline in Turkish exports across the Middle East and North Africa. With the Trump administration gone, Erdogan feels Ankara’s assertive posturing is no longer shielded from the vicissitudes of Turkish-US relations and international pressure.

This comes after the closure of the rift of the last four years among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which in turn reflects Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of the need to resolve its differences with Qatar and Turkey despite still holding opposing views on Islamist groups. This pivot was once again a response to a stepped-up US push, which started in the dying days of the Trump administration, to end the GCC’s internal dispute.

Turkish officials are now engaged in quiet diplomacy, sending peace offerings to Cairo, Riyadh, and even Ankara’s fiercest opponent, Abu Dhabi. These talks have also been accompanied by more discreet Turkish outreach to Israel. The recent war in Gaza has meant a temporary halt in the prospects of normalisation between the two countries, but the departure of Netanyahu will allow Turkey to switch to a new narrative on Israel.

While regional players may now be willing to accept Ankara’s extended hand, they all understand that Erdogan is vulnerable and they are trying to extract a high price for any detente

Yet, while regional players may now be willing to accept Ankara’s extended hand, they all understand that Erdogan is vulnerable and they are trying to extract a high price for any detente. For Egypt, this means ending Turkey’s close relations with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and preventing Istanbul from becoming a centre of gravity for the Egyptian opposition. Egypt has also demanded the withdrawal of Turkey-backed Syrian fighters from Libya – something that Ankara is willing to do, although only in small numbers at this stage.

Turkish-Saudi talks are essentially a by-product of their shared desire to avoid isolation amid colder relations with the new US administration. Turkey is also attempting to peel Saudi Arabia away from the UAE camp and open up new economic opportunities with the kingdom. Bilateral relations have been strained over recent years not only because of ideological differences but also because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Turkey’s vocal criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Ankara has now given its seal of approval for the Saudi legal process on the Khashoggi case, but Riyadh also expects a public embrace of the Crown Prince.

For its part, the UAE is also not immune from this regional return to diplomacy, though it is treading more carefully. While it has shown little desire to soften its ideological positions or truly reconcile with Ankara or Doha, Abu Dhabi is moving away from a foreign policy centred on military assertiveness. The UAE is now doing more to prioritise diplomacy, planning to make full use of its position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2022-23, and the deployment of economic tools to consolidate its position. The UAE also continues to deepen ties with Israel, relations that were brokered by the Trump administration as part of the recent normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Libya and the eastern Mediterranean

Libya has been the key theatre for this Turkish-focused rivalry and is now witnessing the fruits of the emerging detente. While the 2020 Berlin conference, which relaunched Libya’s UN-backed peace process, was an early indicator of the coming turn towards regional diplomacy – and was the first forum to formally convene senior officials from Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE around the same table – it took a military stalemate to generate progress. This was marked by Turkey’s intervention in Libya to block Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s UAE-backed assault on Tripoli. This UN-led process has now created a new unity government, and the country is inching towards promised elections at the end of the year.

But a lot could still go wrong. On the one hand, the revived political process risks ignoring the conflict’s root causes, which are the political and economic factors that have led to a decade of instability and conflict. On the other hand, external actors continue to support opposing factions on the ground and are clearly seeking to leverage the UN process to secure their influence in the country. 

Europeans will need to do more to help shape inclusive political tracks that can deliver positive outcomes rather than just acting as conveners

Tensions also continue in the eastern Mediterranean, despite the easing of tensions between Turkey and Egypt. This stems from the continued lack of resolution of key outstanding issues, from the future of Cyprus to continued competition over maritime gas reserves. The rising profile of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and Philia Forum – both of which still appear to be geared towards containing Turkey’s regional influence – and the expansion of political and security ties between Greece and the UAE are a reminder that the region’s traditional fault lines will not easily be overcome. 

European encouragement

The current shift from hard to soft power manoeuvring has decreased friction between competing regional alignments, even if the openings remain fragile and regional actors are still seeking to edge out their rivals. Europeans now need to increase their efforts to sustain the diplomatic shoots breaking out if they are to help secure a more stable neighbourhood. Moreover, the current moment may actually play to European political and economic strength, as opposed to hard-power conflicts, which have long left Europeans marginalised.

European support for these diplomatic tracks should acknowledge – and encourage – regional ownership and responsibility for de-escalating tensions. This is the only path towards sustainable de-escalation and is one positive outcome of perceived US regional retrenchment. An independent and empowered European approach should now centre on proactively supporting emerging multilateral regional tracks, prime examples of which include the EU-mediated JCPOA talks and the German led-Libya process. This model could be extended to other theatres, such as Yemen and Gaza where Egypt is working with Qatar to shore up a fragile ceasefire. But Europeans will need to do more to help shape inclusive political tracks that can deliver positive outcomes rather than just acting as conveners. Europeans also need to try to maximise any momentum generated by a possible revival of the JCPOA. Gulf Arab states and Israel continue to fear that a new agreement will give Tehran renewed financial resources to support its network of regional allies and Europeans will therefore need to focus on ensuring subsequent regional talks to prevent renewed escalation. With Gulf monarchies embracing greater multilateralism, Europeans can also offer their leadership to harmonise their current disparate stabilisation and de-escalation initiatives.

These political tracks should be strengthened by a smarter deployment of European economic tools. Europeans need to better deploy financial resources, including large existing aid and development cooperation programmes, to incentivise stabilising tracks and positive regional interlinkages, while also offering an alternative to Russian and Chinese investment offers. To be effective, though, these must be accompanied by a sustained European focus on institutional reform and governance support – both of which are prerequisites for meaningful stabilisation efforts.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow

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