In a region characterised by a normalisation trend that has raised hopes for a prompt end to decade-long conflicts but still lacks realistic solutions, a closer look shows some cracks in what have been considered so far solid alliances. The rapprochement between Turkey and its regional foes is certainly a case in point, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprisingly shaking hands with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Doha.
Turkish officials have also reiterated that there will be no turning back on warming ties with the Gulf, resuming a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy that reminds the era of former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. At the same time, Qatar itself is playing a central role in the regional détente, also using the World Cup to further elevate its status in the region.
On the other side of the fence, the announcement of plans to build a six-runway airport in Riyadh shows how competitive collaboration increasingly seem the new paradigm to decipher geopolitical developments in a region where middle power competition has so far only created havoc. Replacing the current King Khaled airport, the future King Salman International Airport will be able to accommodate up to 120 million travellers by the end of this decade.
The project will undoubtedly contribute to diversify the Saudi economy and implement the Vision 2030 project initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), now immune from US prosecution over the Khashoggi affair after having been appointed Prime Minister. More interestingly, the new hub would represent a significant challenge to the Dubai International Airport, the largest in the Middle East and the busiest in the world by international passenger traffic.
Having joined forces during the difficult years of the Arab Springs, that have put traditional monarchies in the region under further stress, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have now regained free rein, a peculiar situation in which the two heavyweights could potentially part ways on specific issues.
Egypt, for example figures prominently on the agenda. While Saudi Arabia has just confirmed the extension of the term for a US$5 billion deposit in the central bank in Cairo to alleviate the financial pressure stemming from the major spike in oil prices and the food crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UAE’s strategy of diversification in Libya is causing resentment in Egypt’s policy-making circles. In particular, Abu Dhabi’s relations with the Government of National Unity are coming under increasing scrutiny in Cairo, given the Egypt’s staunch support for the rival Government of National Stability.
In a context marked by the growing influence of China, with President Xi Jinping expected to visit Saudi Arabia this month, the Saudi-UAE adversarial collaboration seems not limited to the geographic scope of MENA, but clearly extends further east with the hope of further consolidating respective positions and winning lucrative contracts at the same time.
The G20 Summit in Bali has provided the UAE’s President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan with the opportunity to consolidate ties with Indonesia signing a flurry of deals on climate action, infrastructures and artificial intelligence among other fields.
On the other hand, MbS’ visit to Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit confirmed the restoration of bilateral ties after more than 30 years; and his trip to Seoul confirmed South Korea’s interest in the futuristic desert city project known as Neom, which seems destined to rival Dubai in a race that alongside the producing reverberations in other theatres, will definitely shape the Gulf for the years to come.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region