Changing global strategic environment, in the aftermath of recent developments, has left serious concerns for developing as well as developed states. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has added fuel to the fire and created severe global food crisis. With regards to China, there is an unfortunate tendency in US strategic circles to compartmentalize by geography as China watchers look at Beijing, but for too long ignored its inroads in Africa and Americas. Russia specialists watch Kremlin but ignore Moscow’s inroads far beyond Russia’s borders.
Similarly, Middle East may have been the focus of US strategy for past quarter-century, but both US State Department and Pentagon divide it between EU, near Eastern and African bureaus. So, it is with recent Middle East peace moves. What is happening in Arab-Israeli peace is historic, and no amount of partisanship in Washington can credibly detract from it. But as momentous as slow collapse of Arab-Israeli conflict and strategic reorientation within Middle East is, its impact on South Asia will also be momentous.
At the same time, strategic pundits in New Delhi increasingly embraces the new order. There can be no mistaking importance of strategic realignment in Middle East. The decision first by UAE and next Bahrain to normalize their ties with Israel formalize a détente that has been years in the making. All indications are that KSA could be next, which is possible but not in near future.
For greater so-called regional political, economic and strategic integration, Arab capitals are recognizing Israel because they want to enhance their outreach. Iran is a major reason for change. From its foundation, Iran has brought Israel’s genocidal eradication as core policy. While Iran’s post-revolutionary policy toward Gulf Arab states has been more nuanced, Iranian government’s willingness to export revolution throughout Middle East and incite unrest in Bahrain, Kuwait, and KSA had led Gulf states to view Iranian regime through the prism of fundamental challenge particularly in the region.
KSA has been suffering from direct attacks, emanating from Yemen, launched by Iranian backed proxies. Sudan, which once pledged firm rejection of negotiations with let alone recognition of Israel now seeks to join moderate camp. Iraq, once home to the most radical Palestinian factions, may not have peace with Israel on its agenda, but no longer seeks to obstruct it either. Likewise, Middle East realignment may also reverberate through South Asia, albeit not in entirely positive ways.
Moreover, Israel and India have already broken the ice, notwithstanding India’s substantial economic ties to Iran. However, Saudi pivot toward the peace bloc is causing Pakistan to move the other directions as well and to seek comfort. Islamabad will have to act promptly in order to accomplish its political, economic and strategic objectives. It cannot ignore its bonding with Gulf allies, who are the life support of Pakistan’s economy. Policy makers in Islamabad will have to maintain balanced diplomacy keeping in view Pakistan’s strong bonding with Tehran and Doha.
US State Department and Pentagon must recognize the importance of Pakistan’s shifting alliances. The Trump-era peace deal with Afghan Taliban has been empowering radical Islamists (TTP/ ISKP) to further and formalizes their de facto safe-haven. Countries that prioritize ideology above both peace and their economic development tend to spiral downward into ever more radical postures as they seek to distract from their own failings. It seems strange to consider, but gradually KSA has been quickly becoming a moderating force in region
Still, the ideological divergences and conflicts of interest both are likely to continue to cause tension among Arab states. Despite reconciliation, rich Arabian organization GCC is still far from being an effective regional organization. It is acting like defensive alliance rather than being an offensive one. It has failed to show its strategic pivot at global fronts despite having massive economic opportunities for rest of the world. The described normalization processes and rapprochements reflect the power shifts of the last decade. They can be explained by countries’ changing assessments of regional security situation, shared threat perceptions and converging interests especially of Gulf States and Israel.
Likewise, US government can rebalance America’s policy in Middle East through diplomacy, economic statecraft, and security cooperation while shifting away from direct military action. Even with the revival of the nuclear deal, it is unlikely that US or its security partners will be able to reach a viable grand bargain with Iran any time soon. Only with time and generational change in Iran’s political leadership will actual, sustainable rapprochement prove possible.
Lastly, the Abraham Accords and Arab-Israeli strategic partnership, which was concluded through mediation of Trump administration, were diplomatic achievements that broke the inertia of regional conflict even though they did not address Palestinian issue as a priority. As a result, Biden administration will keep US embassy in Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv and should be prepared to endure Palestinian criticism.
In addition, US Middle East policy faces several ongoing obstacles, including Russia’s increasing regional influence, the rise of China, and the intensification of proxy civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The strengthening of anti-US solidarity between Russia, Iran, and China will also be a serious challenge.
The writer is an Islamabad based expert of strategic affairs.