After a year of bitter political fights that have divided the Gulf Arab region between two camps — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates versus Qatar — recent statements point to more acrimony and little resolution for 2018.
If anything, the Saudi-U.A.E. coalition seems to be expanding its list of enemies, formally accusing Istanbul of trying to impose influence on the Arab world after a senior U.A.E. official declared that Iran and Turkey won’t play leadership roles in a tweet on Wednesday night, Bloomberg reported.
“The Arab world is at an impasse and the solution is to cooperate in the face of surrounding regional ambitions,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. “The sectarian and partisan approach is not an acceptable alternative. The Arab world will not be led by Tehran and Ankara,” he added.
Gargash’s statement came after Turkey and Sudan agreed to cooperate on military and civilian port projects in the Red Sea, where the U.A.E. is hoping to extend its military reach.
But he might be looking in the wrong direction in trying to spot undue influence, failing to note Russia’s growing shadow in the region — from close ties to Iran, Turkey, and Egypt to increasing military presence in Syria and possibly Libya.
The background to the Gulf drama is straightforward: Predominately Shia Iran has always been a regional foe to Saudi Arabia. The Gulf Kingdom led a blockade along with the U.A.E., Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar starting in June 2017, with Egypt’s role having far more to do with Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt than with its relationship with Iran, the closeness of which Saudi and U.A.E. listed as one of the many reasons for the blockade.
So far, the blockade has resulted in even closer ties between Qatar and Iran (the latter allowed the former to use its airspace) and has brought Turkey and Qatar closer, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sending additional troops to Qatar as a show of support.
The other big move made by Saudi and the U.A.E. has been to announce the formation of a new committee — so far including only the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia — as a means of subverting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Qatar as well as more neutral parties, such as Kuwait and Oman.
But while the U.A.E. and Saudi — with the support of President Donald Trump — point fingers and exclude parties from talks, the rest of the region, their allies included, are moving on.
Egypt has shown little interest in flexing its muscles against Iran — and certainly not Turkey — as it is in the midst of a major battle with self-proclaimed Islamic State fighters launching major attacks within its borders. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has been strengthening ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin: Egypt and Russia earlier this month signed an agreement for Russia to build nuclear facilities in the North African nation, and to possibly resume flights between the two nations.
Russia, Iran and Turkey have also cooperated in the fight against ISIS in Syria and are forging strong ties around natural gas pipelines and oil fields in the region.
Putin is even reportedly considering lifting the arms embargo against Libya’s General Khlifah Haftar, who is leading the eastern government against the U.N.-backed government in the capital in Egypt’s restive neighboring country.