Shifts in diplomacy have been increasingly visible in the last few months in the Middle East, where local leaders have finally promoted a gradual détente. The most recent regional tour of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (commonly known as MBS) is just a case in point that shows how far we have moved from the power politics that engulfed the region during the mandate of former US President Donald Trump.
Echoing the move from the ‘America First’ to the ‘Diplomacy First’ doctrine that has prevailed since the change of administration in Washington, on 21 June MBS embarked on a broad visit in the region, meeting with long-standing partners such as President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and King Abdullah II in Jordan; but also making a short stay in Turkey, his first since the Khashoggi affair, which alongside casting a long shadow over his democratic credentials, irremediably worsened relations with Ankara at a critical juncture. Four years after the gruesome murder of the Washington Post journalist in the Saudi consulate of Istanbul, the high honours with which the Saudi Crown Prince was greeted by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirm the progress made in a bilateral rapprochement not only driven by pragmatism.
Underestimating the political aspects of the current realignments is certainly misleading, especially in a context that seems increasingly characterised by the establishment of new regional blocs that are resulting from recent geopolitical trends, the most prominent of which seems to be the normalisation drive. Indeed, pushing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords seems also the main goal of US President Joe Biden, who is expected to make a much-expected visit to Riyadh in July as part of a regional tour that also includes Israel and Palestine.
Reports about US efforts to push Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords were frequent in recent weeks and include roadmaps and territorial concessions from third parties like Egypt. However, most of these reports came from the same source, Axios, a recently established US media that has provided extensive coverage to a normalisation process that undoubtedly enjoys broad support in both Israel and the US.
Despite the promises of a ‘reset’ made during his presidential campaign, Biden seems thus promoting the same policies of his predecessor, also in response to an international landscape dramatically altered by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if Washington’s pressure would be enough to turn Riyadh.
In an optic of growing competition driven by the ambitions of young and energetic leaders such as MBS and now President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, by not following in the footsteps of the UAE Riyadh would undoubtedly carve itself a distinct role. In fact, it would stand out from the normalisation front and, at the same time, from the anti-normalisation bloc including the likes of Iran, Qatar and, for now, Turkey.
This could partly explain MBS’s recent visit to Ankara and the inclusion of Egypt and Jordan in his tour, given the fact that both Amman and Cairo, together with Baghdad, have been relentlessly looking for a third way to evade from a new regional polarisation that would prove detrimental to the ongoing détente and aggravating the persisting split within the Gulf, where the normalisation front may risk to evolve into a military alliance to contain and deter Iran.
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