Changing face of Middle East geopolitics: Growing realignments
Until very recently, it was a recognized reality that the greater Middle East was divided into two greater blocs, where Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah were spearheaded by Iran (often addressed as Shia or Shiite bloc) and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar were spearheaded by Saudi Arabia (often addressed as sunni bloc). However, a new reality is trending.
The Sunni bloc has been increasingly experiencing fractures within itself because of the differences of views between two further sub-groupings within the bloc. While one group includes Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, the other group consists of Turkey & Qatar.
The traditional sunni bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Morocco and Turkey, are using the sunni brand in order to rally the sunnis around the world behind their back against their rival Iran.
On the other side, Iran is playing the same game by using the card of shia-ism in pulling the shias around the world towards its cause of portraying Saudi Arabia an evil power.
Growing Iranian influence in the region
The Iranian influence in the region is growing and such an increasing trend is perceivable from a number of developments. First, Iran-backed Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been operating inside Syria and Iraq. Secondly, Iran was successful in establishing its influence substantially within the Lebanese social fabric and there is a strong presence of Hezbollah within Lebanon. Thirdly, the Iran-influenced government of Iraq consults with Iran about each and every matter, even on petty issues. Fourthly, a pro-Iranian regime, led by Bashar-al-Assad, is still holding onto power in war-torn Syria, Fifthly, Iran has been increasingly attaining a good control over the Shia community within Bahrain.
Sixth, Iran has backed the Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, to successfully capture Yemeni capital Sana, and also to hold onto it for a long while until now. Finally, the nuclear done deal among the six nuclear powers and Iran was a landmark political, diplomatic and economic achievement for Iran, creating the possibility for strengthening Iran’s regional influence against its major foe Saudi Arabia.
Saudi led sub-group
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Morocco — all share many social, political and economic characteristics in common. The most notable common characteristic is, without any doubt, the fact that all of these countries are monarchies.
Egypt, under a Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (el Sisi), has been maintaining good relationship and deep cooperation with Saudi Arabia due to a number of common interests between these two countries. Saudi Arabia prefers to keep the Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood largely ineffective by making sure that the government of Egypt is neutralizing the organization inside Egypt, from where the organization runs its regional campaigns.
As Egypt’s current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, came to power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood backed president Mohammad Morsi, Saudi Arabia finds him the appropriate leader to contain the organization’s activities.
Besides keeping Muslim Brotherhood under check in the region, Saudi Arabia needs Egypt for overall balance of power in the region. Availing an ally like Egypt, which is a sunni populated regional military power, gives Saudi Arabia a boost against its regional foes, especially against Iran and Muslim Brotherhood.
Sub-grouping of Turkey & Qatar
The point of views regarding the practice of democracy collides between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar, despite being a monarchy, supports a version of ‘so called’ Islamic democracy in line with their own interpretation.
Because of such a mindset, Qatar has been backing Muslim Brotherhood across the region. The Qatari policy makers, compared to those of Saudi Arabia, do have a lesser harsh approach towards Iran because of the same.
Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party, otherwise known as the AK Party, professes a ‘so called’ Islamic democracy similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, among all the regional sunni populated countries, has the least harsh approach towards Iran & the likes (developments centring Syria is an exception though).
There have been incidents of withdrawal of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s ambassadors from Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, including within Egypt. Saudi authority strongly opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and the organization is banned in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia & Egypt.
Is Iran factor keeping them together?
Many analysts believe that while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain & Egypt have many differences with Qatar & Turkey regarding many aspects of foreign policy, their greater shared and common interests with regard to their rivalry with the regional axis of Iran-Iraq-Assad-Hezbollah have been keeping them together.
However, there is doubt about this particular believe. Contrary to what is expected from them by their Sunni Middle Eastern allies, the actions of Qatar & Turkey with regard to Iran and its allies do not seem to be very unfriendly. Rather, it seems both these countries somehow seek good working relations with Iran.
Turkey’s dealings with Iran in economic front portray Turkey’s softness towards Iran, while many Qatari moves, including its Aljazeera network’s less concern for Iranian misdeeds and more focus on Saudi mistakes, show Qatari softness towards the Shia (Shiite) majority country.
Today, the greater Middle East, especially the Western Asia, is the most polarized and conflict-plagued region in the world. With the passing of time, the polarization within the region is only getting worse. Furthermore, there remains no doubt that the interferences and interventions of the extra-regional powers have been serving only to fuel further the regional rivalries.
The greater Middle East is undergoing a massive change in its geopolitics. Shifts in foreign policies of many Middle Eastern countries are clearly noticeable. Massive realignment efforts by the above mentioned regional countries have been taking place and more realignment efforts from other regional countries seem underway.
Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst & columnist, focusing on greater Asia Pacific, Indian Ocean & Middle East geopolitics. Besides, he infrequently writes his perspectives on European affairs and worldwide deteriorating environmental conditions & refugee scenarios.