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‘We need jobs, we need a strong economy’: Covid and Biden allay Middle East tensions

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Secret talks between longtime foes. Letters exchanged between leaders who have been adversaries for years. Television networks typically critical of opposing regimes now moderating their language.

All have fed into a mood of de-escalation taking hold in the capitals of some of the Middle East’s perennially competing powers — one that would have been unimaginable 18 months ago in a region blighted by rivalries and sectarian divisions.

Arab officials put the tentative trend down to the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic, its devastating economic impact and the election of Joe Biden as US president. Together, these have combined to push regional leaders to recalibrate their foreign policies.

“Everybody is fed up with how complicated things have been. And don’t underestimate the economic effect of Covid and saying ‘look, we will not be able to go forward unless we stabilise things politically’,” said a senior Arab official. “We need jobs, we need a strong economy — we can’t do that if we are not talking to each other.”

Diplomats and analysts caution that it is a cold peace; a pragmatic shift after the tumultuous period of Donald Trump’s presidency, when his hostility towards Iran exacerbated regional tensions. They add that it could easily be derailed.

Accusations that Iran was responsible for a deadly drone attack on an Israel-linked tanker this month and cross-border clashes between Hizbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant movement, and Israel underscore how tensions can soar at any moment. The repercussions of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan may yet ripple across the region.

“This [de-escalation] is fragile and reversible because it is a product of temporary regional circumstances . . . not a widespread change in mindsets,” said Emile Hokayem at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The first test of whether the momentum will be maintained will be Iraqi efforts, backed by Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, to persuade regional leaders to sit with their rivals at a “neighbours” conference in Baghdad planned for this weekend.

If Saudi and Iranian officials attend, it would be the first time they have publicly gathered at a regional event since they cut diplomatic ties in 2016. “Getting everyone to sit around the table will help strengthen that mood towards de-escalation,” a senior Iraqi official said.

Iran and Saudi Arabia

Baghdad has already hosted the clearest example of a shift — the secret talks revealed by the Financial Times between arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. There have been three rounds of talks in Baghdad since April, according to people briefed on the matter.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in the wake of the pandemic and last year’s oil price crash wants to focus more on his plans to modernise the kingdom, said in April that he wanted to build a “good and positive relationship” with the Islamic republic.

Iran has reciprocated. Its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, said he wanted to extend the “hand of friendship and brotherhood” to all our neighbours. A regime insider said that Tehran could use Saudi influence to “curb Israel’s increasing role in the region”.

Supporters of Iranian president elect Ebrahim Raisi celebrate in Tehran last month: he wants to extend the ‘hand of friendship and brotherhood’
Supporters of Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran last month: he wants to extend the ‘hand of friendship and brotherhood’ © ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The secret talks have mostly focused on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen’s civil war. Riyadh intervened in the conflict to counter the Houthis. But Prince Mohammed has become more serious about ending the war, diplomats say.

Riyadh and Tehran have also discussed the possibility of opening consulates as a goodwill gesture: the Saudis in the Iranian city of Mashhad, the Iranians in Jeddah, according to people briefed on the matter. 

The two cut ties in 2016 after the kingdom executed a senior Shia cleric and the Saudi embassy in Iran was ransacked. Riyadh then supported Trump’s decision in 2018 to abandon the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers and impose crippling sanctions on Iran.

But the election of Biden, who pledged to return to the nuclear accord if Iran meets its commitments to the pact, reassess relations with Saudi Arabia and reduce regional tensions, has caused a rethink in Riyadh, analysts say.

Whether Riyadh’s talks with Tehran continue “depends on Iran”, said a senior Saudi official, adding that the kingdom wanted to see actions, not words from the republic.

The official said that Trump was so focused on Iran “we didn’t need to be”. He insisted that the kingdom’s foreign policy had not changed but acknowledged that “recent international events have certainly meant more of a shift in focus towards domestic issues, partly due to the pandemic”.

Riyadh’s entente with Doha

In an early sign of changing regional dynamics, Riyadh began the year by lifting a more than three-year diplomatic, travel and trade embargo against Qatar. That helped ease a crisis that pitted the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-Egypt-Bahrain axis against a Qatar-Turkey alliance. A desire by Prince Mohammed to curry favour with Biden was widely perceived to be behind the move.

Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic language channel has since taken a less aggressive tone towards Saudi Arabia, run positive features on the kingdom and invited Saudi commentators on to its shows.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar in January: Riyadh is lifting the diplomatic, travel and trade embargo against Doha
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar in January: Riyadh is lifting the diplomatic, travel and trade embargo against Doha © Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters

Easing the dispute also helped thaw relations between Egypt, and Qatar and Turkey. Egypt has long accused both countries of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, designated a terrorist organisation after he ousted an Islamist president in a coup in 2013.

Yet in recent months, Sisi and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, have invited each other to visit their capitals. In June, Cairo appointed its first ambassador to Doha since 2014. It also asked Qatar to restart investment projects frozen after Sisi’s coup, another Arab official said. Qatar named an ambassador to Cairo the following month.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has taken a similar line. Ankara has held talks with Cairo, and asked Egyptian opposition TV channels in Istanbul to tone down their criticism of Sisi, according to an Egyptian journalist in the city.

Erdogan, who had sided with Qatar during the embargo and criticised Saudi’s Prince Mohammed over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, also appears keen to mend fences with Saudi Arabia.

A Turkish official said that Biden’s election was a factor that nobody could ignore, adding that everybody “in our region is trying to adapt”.

Many of the region’s problems “have been lasting for a long time” and “there are limits” to what can be achieved.

“The economy is also important,” the official said. “If everything is strong, and giving confidence to any regime, of course they can act bravely. But because of the pandemic, the economies aren’t going well and everybody needs each other.”

Abu Dhabi’s policy in flux

Over the past decade, the UAE has pursued the Arab world’s most muscular foreign policy in its efforts to counter Islamist movements and Iran’s influence. But now Emirati officials talk of a shift to economic diplomacy and the UAE is pushing ahead with its efforts to improve relations with Turkey and Iran.

Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser, has held talks with Erdogan in Ankara, the clearest sign yet that the two countries want to resolve what became one of the region’s bitterest rivalries. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, deputy prime minister, has met the Iranian chargé d’affaires in the UAE in recent weeks.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey meets Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser: the two countries want to resolve one of the region’s bitterest rivalries
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey meets Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser: the two countries want to resolve one of the region’s bitterest rivalries © via REUTERS

The cessation of the civil war in Libya, where the UAE, Egypt and Russia backed one faction against a UN-backed government supported by Turkey and Qatar, has also helped cool hostilities.

There are still hotspots in the region from the decade-long conflict in Syria and Yemen’s civil war to attacks by Iran-backed militias against US forces and facilities in Iraq. But officials and analysts say any sign of de-escalation is progress. 

“There’s de-escalation, but there’s still stuff going on beneath the surface — there’s still support for militias, lobbying against each other, the more subtle stuff,” said another Arab official. “But it’s positive, it’s as good as you get, I don’t think you will get any better than this.” 

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Victor Mallet in Paris

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