The Mena region is teetering between conflict resolution and chaos

Countries have keenly sought to de-escalate tensions, but it would be easy for things to spiral out of control

Sudan has been rocked by successive rounds of violence this summer. AFP
Powered by automated translation

There is light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East. The region is slowly moving away from the geopolitical confrontations that dominated its landscape for decades to a promising new era of geoeconomic co-operation. However, a return to new era of chaos cannot be completely ruled out.

This perpetually tense region is finally leaving behind the “bad C” – confrontation – for a “good C” that stands for conversation and co-operation. The regional powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and the UAE, among others – are suddenly engaged in serious and productive dialogue the likes of which the region has not seen in recent years.

For the past decade or so, confrontation, chaos, civil war, cold war, as well as jockeying for power and domination was the order of the day throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But regional antagonists and political rivals are now reaching out to each other, seeking de-escalation.

Detente is the new buzz world in the Mena region, raising hopes of a possible decade of stability and prosperity. Arab Gulf states are opening to regional rival Iran, a precarious ceasefire is holding up in Yemen, the 12-year civil war in Syria is in its final stage and Libya is on a tentative course to political reconciliation. These developments are ushering in a badly needed period of normality in an otherwise insecure part of the world.

Regional antagonists and political rivals are now reaching out to each other

This new move from confrontation to conversation in the Gulf and throughout the wider Middle East stands in sharp contrast to what is happening elsewhere. Europe, for instance, is dealing with several security issues, ranging from the war in Ukraine, conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and rising tensions in the Balkans.

Asia, too, is experiencing growing geopolitical tensions around Taiwan, the Korean peninsula and the many island disputes in the South China Sea. Compared to all of this, the Middle East seems unusually calm.

Similarly, the Middle East is vastly better off compared to Africa, which has seen civil wars drag on in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Mali, to name but a few hotspots in a continent where there are more than a dozen active armed conflicts. In 2022, Africa and Europe each suffered more fatalities from political violence than the Middle East, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled).

Indeed, the Middle East seems to be moving away from being a red zone full of conflicts to a blue zone where neighbouring states want to build bridges and live in peace.

Much of the momentum towards the good C of “conversation” comes from the six Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have recently taken the lead in shaping peace and stability in the region by working for consensus and promoting good neighbourliness.

The UAE went to engage with Iran directly in the latter’s own capital. It also reached out to Ankara, taking everyone by surprise. It was the Emirates, moreover, that was daring enough to engage with Syria before anybody else. The UAE was first to disengage from the war in Yemen, too, and swiftly normalised relations with Israel when it signed the Abraham Accords.

For the first time in decades, Middle East capitals are taking responsibility for their own journey. They are in the driver’s seat, taking matters into their own hands. A regional, not global, agenda is responsible for the drift away from confrontation. The Arab League summit in Jeddah two months ago has accelerated this positive regional dynamism.

But how sustainable is this trend from geopolitics to geoeconomics, and from a red-zone Middle East to a blue-zone one?

The momentum is very encouraging, but its sustainability is very difficult to predict. As the budding forces of co-operation and conversation take hold, there are numerous potential forces of chaos waiting to be activated. Spoilers are all over the place, and at least three of them are worth mentioning. They represent the ugly forces of chaos.

Israel, feeling isolated, tops the list. (This week’s events in Jenin are a worrying sign.) An Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear sites, for instance, would severely derail the current positive momentum towards de-escalation. Radical and revolutionary forces in Iran, meanwhile, have the power to undermine regional rapprochement. And a possible Donald Trump comeback in 2024 could easily freeze the region’s drift into calm. Each one of these three spoilers can change the good C of “co-operation” not only into the bad C of “conflict” but the ugly C of “chaos”.

When we look underneath the current of progress, we can see that on some level that things remain precarious. On top of Sudan already being on fire, peace in Yemen is still fragile. The political track in Libya is, too. And the chances of another round of civil war in Syria cannot be discounted. The seemingly calm Middle East is just one inch away from falling back into the dark tunnel of perpetual tension.

Published: July 06, 2023, 7:00 AM