A SHAKY NEW REGIONAL ORDER
Beyond their repercussions within Arab countries on societies, economies, and politics, the aftermaths of the three shocks—the pandemic, the Ukraine invasion, and the already felt threat of climate change—are also rippling across the region’s geopolitics, reshaping relations between Arab states. They are affecting how these states position themselves toward other Middle Eastern powers and within the broader global order—an order that itself is shifting toward multipolarity.
Most notably, longtime rivalries and disputes have been shelved, if not settled. The motives for this bridging of differences are varied: exhaustion from wasteful and fruitless military adventures, economic constraints imposed by the pandemic’s fallout, and the perception of American capriciousness and lack of protection from Iran are the factors most commonly cited.
Less noticeable, but perhaps more significant, is the newfound confidence Arab rulers have enjoyed since surmounting the internal political challenges of the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath—a confidence that makes these leaders less likely to project their insecurities onto regional rivals and more inclined to find common cause with like-minded autocrats. Such assuredness seems particularly evident in the recent halt to the famously personal and ideological discord between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, on the one side, and Qatar and Türkiye, on the other.
The split manifested itself in a harmful economic blockade and a low-level surrogate war. More recently, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed in March 2023 to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies, shuttered since 2016, in a deal that was brokered by China and that built upon previous mediation by Iraq and Oman. And, following similar moves by Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals, Riyadh also began talks on normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—talks that were facilitated by Russia, illustrating Moscow’s continued clout in the Middle East, despite the battering it has suffered because of its war on Ukraine.
Still, the exuberant proclamations that accompanied these de-escalation moves—and the expectation of a new era of calm in the region—need to be tempered by a dose of reality. This is shown most recently and starkly by the April 2023 eruption of fighting in Sudan, where other Arab states have long had interests and influence and where two key players, the UAE and Egypt, find themselves on opposite sides of the factional divide.
The seemingly transformative Saudi-Iran accord also needs to be heavily caveated, since it hinges upon both powers fulfilling pledges of noninterference and is unlikely to completely resolve the rivalry between them. Nor has it addressed the two other axes of Iran’s confrontation in the Middle East: First, its shadow war with Israel could very well escalate. And second, its conflict with the United States, which Tehran clearly compartmentalized from its pact with Riyadh, has continued as Iranian-backed drone and rocket strikes in Syria in March 2023 killed a U.S. contractor and injured other U.S. personnel and elicited an immediate American retaliation.
The deal certainly signals Beijing’s desire to expand its influence in the Middle East from relationships based on trade, energy, and technology—where it has outpaced the West—to more robust political and security ties. That said, it is unlikely that China’s nascent activism in this direction—which some commentators inside and outside the region have lauded as a refreshing change from the militarized, interventionist approach of the United States—will offer a path toward lasting stability.
Like other great powers that have ventured into the Middle East, Beijing too will confront the challenge of balancing its relations with competing poles and interests. And it will likely discover that it is far easier to broker settlements than to institutionalize them and make them stick.
The Saudi-Iran agreement, then, is hardly the harbinger of a post-American moment in the Middle East that some breathless commentaries portray it. Measured by foreign aid, arms sales, and its downsized-but-still-present military forces, Washington still commands significant influence. It remains the security patron of choice in many areas for many Arab governments, some of which have perfected the game of courting other powers to extract concessions and more lenient deals from the United States.
For its part, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was drawn back into the Middle East, a region it had pledged to exit, as it sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to boost oil output and lower prices. The failure of that appeal, along with Riyadh’s decision to join with Moscow in cutting oil production, confronted the administration with the reality of growing agency and autonomy by its Arab partners—a trend that the Ukraine war did not create but rather clarified.
Looking ahead, it still not clear that the recent wave of moves toward reconciliation among Middle Eastern rivals or the region’s growing multipolarity will produce an enduring peace or sustainable domestic orders. Ultimately, these intraregional accords are a form of authoritarian consolidation by ever-repressive dynasties, dictators, and theocrats with little to no input from their societies.
Even the much-touted Abraham Accords and other Arab-Israel agreements accelerated a boost to Arab autocrats in the shape of surveillance technology transfer and other security assistance by Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Israel’s democracy is itself fraying and its politics are lurching further to the right, which has had devastating consequences for Palestinians and is also prompting criticism from the Arab signatories of the Abraham Accords, whose citizens, according to polls, increasingly oppose the agreement. Still, these Arab regimes are unlikely curtail their burgeoning defense, trade, and energy ties with Israel.
Similarly, Gulf Arab outreach to China and Russia is not simply about pragmatic security considerations, hedging, and diversification. It is rooted in a shared illiberalism and common worldview which, for Arab states, translates into little-to-no conditions placed on sales and transfers—a welcome relief from the scrutiny on human rights that some U.S. presidential administrations and Congress have applied to U.S. interactions with Arab partners (albeit unevenly). China has long exerted a particular appeal for Arab regimes: the clichéd and o
￼ften vaguely defined “China model” promises economic growth and prosperity without meaningful reforms to existing ruling arrangements. But such a template, however applied, will be insufficient to meet the challenges many Arab governments face at home, including the long-standing problems of poor governance and socioeconomic exclusion that sparked the Arab uprisings, along with the effects from climate change and the difficulties of the transition to the post-oil era.
Left unaddressed, these impending challenges could very well flare up in the not-too-distant future, especially in weaker Arab states and as the traditional financial bailouts from wealthier Arab states and international donors become more constrained and subjected to stricter conditions. This, in turn, could jeopardize and possibly upset the current stability of the regional order—a stability that seems mostly bonded by the brittle mortar of authoritarian solidarity.
CLEARER VIEWS OF THE ARAB WORLD
Upon closer inspection, the shifting and complex tableau of Arab polities and societies defies simple narratives and comfortable tropes. Some of the Middle East’s headline-grabbing conflicts may have subsided, but this is a region still in the throes of great change, emanating from within and without. Capturing the contours and implications of this dynamism requires a lens that is at once granular, panoramic, and attuned to both local specificities and worldwide trends.
The authors of the ten essays in this collection do just that. Drawing from a range of disciplines and marshaling an array of sources, they analyze the forces that are reshaping the region, including shifts in the global economy, the transition away from hydrocarbons, climate change, advances in digital technologies and artificial intelligence, and great power rivalries.
The authors home in on the local Arab actors that are both affected by and contributing to this transformation: regimes, security institutions, publics, civil society actors and Islamists, and increasingly imperiled populations like refugees and migrants, among others. The essays offer no easy solutions or packaged prescriptions, nor do they claim to be definitive in their conclusions. At best, they aim to advance the conversation and propose new lines of inquiry in a way that is both rigorous and accessible for public audiences and policymakers—and most crucially for the people of the Arab world.
Collectively, the authors of this volume are grateful for the generous financial assistance provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and in particular for the support of Dr. Toby Volkman, the former director for policy initiatives at the foundation, and Dr. Jonathan VanAntwerpen, the foundation’s program director for religion and theology.
At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we extend our deep thanks to Haley Clasen and Natalie Brase for adroitly editing the essays, to Madison Andrews for keeping the project on track, and to Jocelyn Soly for designing the compelling graphics.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.