The frenetic diplomatic activity in and around the Middle East has continued in July with a series of high-level meetings that have shown the outsized role played by Gulf countries in the new regional dynamics slowly emerging after the Abraham Accords. The visit of the US President Joe Biden in Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia has drawn most of the attention and the fist meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has been broadly interpreted as a new start in a bilateral relation fraught over human rights issues since Biden took office.
Despite the high expectations, fuelled by Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace to all carriers (including Israelis) as a goodwill gesture just days before the Jeddah Security and Development summit, no tangible progress has been registered on Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords and normalising its diplomatic relations with Israel. This eventuality has also been dismissed by the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who also denied discussing any military cooperation with Tel Aviv.
Talks about giving teeth to the normalisation front to face the security challenges stemming from Iran’s expanding influence in the region have abounded in the days before Biden’s visit to Jeddah where he met with representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) + 3 (Egypt, Iraq and Jordan). The perceived US’ disengagement has also led to fantasize about the establishment of an Arab NATO, a very distant prospect that bears clear risks for an already fragmented and turbulent region.
Riyadh’s reaction to this project has so far been cautious, probably aware of the likelihood to further antagonise the emerging regional blocs. In this context talks between Iranian and Saudi officials that have been going on in Baghdad for quite some time could offer an endogenous solution and lower the temperature in the Gulf. However, no clear and comprehensive settlement has yet emerged from the negotiations, which would likely touch upon several issues from Iraq to Yemen.
Uncertainty about the outcome of the negotiations to resume the Iran nuclear deal and increasing volatility in the energy markets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are certainly driving Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic outreach, that extends well beyond the region. Having successfully completed a complicated rehabilitation process, MbS embarked on a European tour for the first time since the Khashoggi affair. His visit to France and Greece at the end of July strengthened bilateral relations that had already took off in the last few years in a context marked by mounting tensions between all these countries and Turkey.
In particular, the meeting with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsokatis not only reinforces Athens’ chance to become Europe’s main energy hub in the Eastern Mediterranean, a prospect that, together with the strategic cooperation between Algeria and Italy, would certainly help the EU diversify its energy supplies away from Russia; but it also confirms the resilience of the emerging regional blocs in front of the normalisation trend.
While the strategic rapprochement between former foes is certainly a welcoming step to reduce unsustainable tensions, a closer look reveals the ongoing détente more like a provisional convergence than a structural adjustment. Just the same difference between a first handshake and a firm agreement.
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