The Shifting Tides of Middle Eastern Diplomacy | Opinion

Something interesting is happening in the Middle East, a region normally associated with sectarian conflict, state-on-state rivalry, violence, nepotism and proxy conflict. For the first time in a long time, diplomacy is making some headway—and the United States is staying out of the way.

There are multiple diplomatic initiatives going on simultaneously. The thread that has the most potential to inject a dose of stability in the region is the ongoing negotiation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two main antagonists who often find themselves on the opposite side of the Middle East's major disputes. Those talks, which began in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in April, have proceeded to the point where Saudi and Iranian officials are comfortable acknowledging them openly. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan talked about the meetings with the Iranians in measured tones for the first time last week. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was more upbeat on Oct. 8, describing the discussions as moving "in the right direction." According to a foreign diplomat aware of the negotiations, Riyadh and Tehran are close to re-opening consulates. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who in 2018 claimed that Iran's supreme leader wanted world domination, is now expressing his desire to improve the kingdom's relationship with Iran.

Riyadh is undergoing a diplomatic rapprochement of sorts with Qatar as well, the small, wealthy, proudly independent Gulf monarchy to the east that up until January was the subject of an intense trade, diplomatic and travel embargo from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt. Now, sensing that Washington is no longer interested in responding to every Saudi and Emirati demand, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been reaching out to the Qataris in an attempt to instill some Gulf Arab unity. Last January, less than two weeks before Joe Biden was inaugurated, the three-year embargo over Qatar was officially lifted. Qatari, Saudi and Emirati ministers have been meeting with one another ever since. On Aug. 25, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed greeted Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani in the Saudi city of Neom to talk about regional developments. A day later, the brother of the UAE's crown prince traveled to Doha for a sit-down with the Qatari monarch. Qatar's foreign minister returned the favor on Oct. 6, jetting to Dubai.

There's a reconciliation going on with Syria's strongman president, Bashar al-Assad, as well. Before Russia and Iran rode to Assad's rescue, he was a pariah in his own region, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Turkey all calling for Assad's resignation and arming opposition groups committed to his ouster. Now, many of those countries are trying to get back in Assad's good graces—or at least explore whether they can get back to business as usual. The UAE recently announced that it intended to increase economic links with Syria, notwithstanding the U.S. sanctions in place against Assad's government. Last week, for the first time since he called for Assad to leave his post, Jordan's King Abdullah called the Syrian president on the phone. The call came days after Jordan re-opened the Jaber border-crossing with Syria in an attempt to kickstart trade between the two countries.

Finally, a warming of ties is slowly melting the frost on another of the region's bilateral relationships: that between Egypt and Turkey. Ever since Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 and won the presidency for himself by a ridiculous 96 percent margin, Cairo and Ankara have been throwing rhetorical barbs at one another for meddling in one another's internal affairs. Egypt's Sissi is notoriously opposed to political Islamist movements, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly backed (Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has strong relations with the Muslim Brotherhood). Egypt and Turkey are also on opposing sides of Libya's decade-long civil war.

U.S. soldiers patrol Syrian village
U.S. soldiers patrol in the Syrian village of Jawadiyah, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey on Aug. 30, 2021. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Ankara and Cairo, however, are both experiencing economic distress due in part to the lingering coronavirus pandemic. While the two countries won't be friends in the short or medium term, they both seem to have concluded that animosity isn't in their interest either. This May, the Turkish and Egyptian deputy foreign ministers met in Cairo, the first time in seven years the two states held direct talks outside intelligence community channels. The National newspaper in the UAE reported last month that Egypt and Turkey are nearing an agreement to grease the skids on more amicable relations, with Ankara extraditing two dozen people accused of terrorism by Egyptian prosecutors and Cairo curtailing anti-Turkish programming on Egyptian television channels.

What does all this diplomatic movement mean for the United States? In reality, not much. U.S. interests in the Middle East are the same today as they were before the region's diplomats started shaking hands: protecting against anti-U.S. terrorists who have the capacity and intent to attack the U.S., and ensuring there aren't long-term disruptions to the region's oil supply.

But there's a lesson attached to the months of frenetic Middle East diplomacy: While the U.S. is still the world's preeminent power, sometimes the U.S. is better off by not tilting the scales in local and regional disputes. It's no coincidence Saudi Arabia is more disposed to the carrot rather than the stick. With the Biden administration withdrawing missile defense systems from Saudi soil and making it that Washington will no longer reflexively support Riyadh's foreign policy, the kingdom now feels the pressure to make nice with its neighbors. The same goes for Sissi and Erdogan, who now face a U.S. administration far less sympathetic to their autocratic ways.

The U.S. is slowly but surely diverting its focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. For leaders like Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed who are used to being catered to by the U.S., times are changing.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.