The Middle East’s season of reconciliation

Earlier this week, Mevlut Cavusoglu became the first Turkish foreign minister to visit Egypt in 10 years

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Sun 26 Mar 2023, 8:54 PM

A season of reconciliation has blossomed in the Middle East. Aside from the headline-grabbing agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which promises a restoration of diplomatic ties and much more, there have been other welcome efforts at rapprochement across the region. Beyond diplomatic overtures and calls for dialogue, these steps point toward the region’s collective yearning for peace and realisation that they are better off talking to each other and resolving disputes.

Geopolitical analysts are busy weighing the consequences of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, and the jury is still out on its long-term repercussions. Understandably, the air of expectation is mixed with caution, and it will take a lot more than just talking to end years of misunderstandings and misadventures. The two sides — and the mediating party, China — have done well to insert a cooling-off phase to ensure both sides go step-by-step instead of hastening to spoil the opportunity.

More participants are joining the peace bandwagon, adding to the momentum built by these reconciliation efforts. Egypt and Turkey are moving forward “step-by-step” to normalise relations, trying to end a decade-long rift. Earlier this week, Mevlut Cavusoglu became the first Turkish foreign minister to visit Egypt in 10 years. Days ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani was in Turkey to discuss scarce water resources and other political issues.

Considering the Middle East and North Africa are home to seven of the 10 most water-stressed nations, this is an existential threat worth addressing, notably because it has doubled over the past 30 years. Moreover, the United Nations ranks Iraq among the most vulnerable countries to climate change, and Turkish dams on the Tigris and Euphrates have worsened matters.

Considering the region’s complexities, the sudden spurt in conciliatory visits, engagements, and announcements rapidly changes the Middle East’s diplomatic landscape. The postponement of a meeting of the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria scheduled for last week notwithstanding, a lot has already happened in the region in recent weeks to encourage pacifists worldwide.

[subhead] Across familiar borders

Such is the euphoria built over the bonhomie that even routine exchanges are acquiring a bigger significance. For instance, Iran and Iraq recently signed an agreement to enhance security cooperation. Driven by the dire need and a shared desire to safeguard borders, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Ali Shamkhani, landed in Baghdad — incidentally, days after his Abu Dhabi visit — to sign the accord in the presence of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani. Iran has also announced it wants to improve ties with Egypt and even wants Jordan to join the “thaw in regional ties”.

Amid persistent acrimony and pitched street battles, even the Palestinians and the Israelis are talking to curb violence, at least during the fasting month of Ramadan. In a recent meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Sharm Al-Sheikh, the two sides agreed on a plan to halt the escalation of violence. Reports suggest the meeting was a continuation of talks last month to halt fighting before the Jewish feast of Pesach, or Passover, which coincides with the fasting month of Ramadan this year.

These frenetic diplomatic overtures are unfolding even as Iraq marks 20 years since the United States-led coalition forces invaded the country. As it picks up the pieces after two decades of death and destruction, it is heartening to see Iraqis making progress, albeit slowly, and trying to find the groove with its immediate neighbors. They have managed to do so despite extremism, lack of cohesion, and rampant corruption. Iraq’s need of the hour is more of the same as the country gathers strength and resources under a new dispensation.

Syria’s summer of contentment

Syria’s reconciliation efforts, directed beyond its immediate neighbourhood, suggest more than mere green shoots in the desert, eliciting adequate responses. As President Bashar al-Assad entered the UAE airspace on March 19, Emirati fighter jets escorted his plane, welcoming his visit. When he sat down with the President of the UAE, High Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the discussions revolved around the two countries’ “fraternal relations” and ways to “strengthen cooperation”.

The conciliatory tone among big guns has also inspired some domestic reconciliation efforts. Following 10 days of negotiations in Geneva, the Yemeni government and the Houthis recently agreed to release 887 detainees. Domestic stakeholders in Sudan also realise the value of rapprochement as the country’s military leaders and pro-democracy forces agreed on a political process to take things forward.

Jordan’s Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi and UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen have also discussed an initiative to solve the Syrian crisis through direct Arab-Syrian government dialogue. Call them realigning of major powers, a long-awaited churning, an invoking of the peace dividend, or just realpolitik — the region would do well to prolong this season of reconciliation.

Ehtesham Shahid is an editor at Emirates Policy Center.


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