With the wars in Syria and Yemen largely out of the public eye, the Middle East and North Africa may appear more stable than in previous years. However, the potential causes of instability have not disappeared; instead, they have shifted to other areas of risk.
One important issue is the changing dynamic among GCC countries. The enmity between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has all but ended, just as the economic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE will increasingly define their relations in the future. The Saudi Vision 2030 challenges the Emirates’ position as the regional business hub, and Riyadh is working hard to draw firms and people away from the UAE in particular. Abu Dhabi responds by liberalizing business and social norms to make the country a more attractive place of residence. This includes greater acceptance of religious minorities, the introduction of a three-day weekend (i.e. extending to Sunday), and offering long-term residencies or even citizenship to foreigners. So, when the CEO of state carrier Etihad recently rejected such incentives and accepted an offer to head Saudi Arabia’s new national airline, Abu Dhabi reportedly was furious. Such spats increasingly pit the two countries against each other and exacerbate tensions between them.
It is unclear how the warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will play into this. Doha will seek to reap the rewards of the successful completion of the football World Cup and the soft power the tournament has brought it across the Arab world. However, most analysts suggest that the respective bilateral relations of the three countries – Saudi, the UAE, and Qatar – cannot be equally harmonious.
Elsewhere, Iran is grappling with three months of unbroken unrest that threatens the country’s leadership and, depending on further developments, possibly the region’s stability as well. Despite a heavy crackdown, protesters continue to challenge the Islamic regime, with no return to ‘normalcy’ in sight. The revolt has further complicated the already tenuous prospects for a restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal, as it appears increasingly unthinkable for Europe and the US to lift sanctions on a brutal and repressive regime. The election of Benjamin Netanyahu as old-new prime minister of Israel also increases the risk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program (or the perception of it), although it could also help soften Iran’s position, as was the case when the deal was first struck.
The continued expansion of security cooperation between the GCC countries and Israel undermines Tehran’s influence in the region and its ability to strike certain targets in particular. Through increased early detection, interception, and retaliatory capabilities, Iran has in effect been deterred from renewed drone attacks and missile strikes. Instead, Teheran has repeatedly signalled its willingness to address and resolve differences with the GCC in order to reduce tensions. Since April 2021, five rounds of Saudi-Iran talks have taken place in Baghdad, and Saudi and Iranian officials recently agreed to continue this dialogue when meeting at an Iraq-focused conference in Amman in December 2022.
Instead, Iran has taken to destabilizing the region by less direct means. It plays an active role in supporting the weaponization of drug production in Syria, seriously affecting neighboring countries such as Jordan. It also undermines political progress in Iraq after an Iran-friendly government has come to power and former Shiite militia leaders took up top government positions. Quite likely, Iran will also try to threaten the growing gas infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
Several other factors affect stability in the Middle East, most notably the state of relations between the US and GCC countries and the widespread perception in the Gulf that US security guarantees no longer hold. GCC states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe that Washington is too preoccupied with Russia’s war in Ukraine, its rivalry with China, and the domestic political situation to meaningfully engage in the region. The OPEC+ autumn snub to cut oil production shortly before the US midterm election further deepened the estrangement especially with Riyadh, adding to the personal animosity between US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Saudi Arabia could even seek Israeli support in containing any harsh US reaction, even though the eventual strength of the GCC-Israel partnership will also be determined by the anti-Arab elements in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s extreme-right coalition. Still, the hosting of Chinese president Xi Jinping in Riyahd in mid-December underlined the country’s desire to keep all options in a geopolitically bifurcated world.