At the end of the year, the MENA political and strategic scenario seems to be facing a phase of precarious and gradual transition. Since the January Al Ula summit, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have taken some steps towards reconciliation and the other regional players have recalibrated their regional policy. However, a number of uncertainties remain and the main powers in the region continue to pursue policies that are not exactly convergent and could lead to increased friction in the medium term.
Let us therefore take a look at the paths taken and the risk factors facing some of the main regional and external actors.
The Arabic-Turkish reconciliation: between convenience and uncertainties
After years of strong opposition, the GCC countries, partly due to pressure from Washington, have decided to try the path of dialogue with Qatar and Doha. In particular, Riyadh has tried to improve its relations with Doha, given that the opposition had had the effect of bringing the small emirate closer to the Islamic republic of Iran, considered the main competitor and regional adversary by the Saudi leadership. Abu Dhabi, in turn, is tending towards reconciliation with Ankara, with which it has made numerous agreements in the economic and financial spheres, perhaps also to obtain greater negotiating leverage in the future. Turkey, largely due to the state of its economy, has opted for a less aggressive regional policy. As well as taking its first steps towards Abu Dhabi, it seems to be continuing on a timid path of reconciliation with Armenia, after having supported its Azeri rival in the recent conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. Moreover, Ankara has, for the time being, stopped gunboat diplomacy in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and has not carried out a new military operation against the Syrian Kurds.
Relations with Cairo have also certainly improved since 2020, but both countries still seem to be at odds over their respective strategies in Africa. Egypt is concerned about the expanding Turkish influence on the continent. The two countries have relentlessly pursued a path that has led them to enter into military cooperation or arms sales agreements with various other regional players. While Turkey signed agreements to sell Bayraktar TB2 drones to Morocco and Ethiopia, Egypt made military and intelligence cooperation pacts with Uganda, Burundi and Sudan. In particular, Cairo is carrying out a diplomatic courtship to deepen relations with Kenya, also with a view to encircling its Ethiopian rival, supported in the dispute over the Nile dam and in the civil war by Turkey.
Regional and external powers: a complex relationship between conflicting agendas
Despite a precarious truce in most of the tense contexts, priorities and hierarchy of priorities differ widely between regional actors and their extra-regional allies.
While difficulties remain in the dialogue between Iran and its Western partners over the nuclear deal, Israel continues to move to counter Tehran's expansionist policy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, worried by the American disengagement, is also preparing its own countermeasures to deal with the threat posed by the Persian power and its Arab proxies. According to the reports of American intelligence agencies, Riyadh is going ahead with the construction of its own missile system with the help of China. Even the UAE's mercantilist policy does not seem to be in total harmony with American strategic concerns and imperatives in the region. Between November and December, Washington managed to stop a shipbuilding project by Chinese logistics giant COSCO in an Emirati port through strong diplomatic pressure. Subsequently, the Arab country threatened to withdraw from the agreement for the sale of F-35s in dispute with the stringent American demands regarding the protection of the weapons technologies in question. This Emirati decision could be a negotiating tactic or even a distancing signal to Tehran, which is worried about the possible military build-up of its Arab neighbours. In addition, it seems likely that Syria will be reintegrated into the Arab League, an option that is unwelcome to Washington but supported by many Arab countries in the region.
Greece and France, which have invested a great deal of energy in building a trans-regional Euro-Arab axis to counter Turkish assertiveness, are also having to deal with an apparently changing regional context. The thawing of relations between Ankara and its Arab allies is forcing these two countries to rethink their strategy for containing the Turkish threat in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
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