Mon, 18 Jan 2021

The US General Administration Agency (GSA) has acknowledged Joseph Biden is the winner of the 2020 presidential election. As Donald Trump backs down and the formal transition process begins, the president-elect's access to top security briefings would send shockwaves through the Middle East.

Before the US presidential elections, key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - established diplomatic ties with Israel. But the gamble, which was quietly endorsed by Saudi Arabia, failed to act as mainspring of Trump's election campaign and rather dismayed Palestinians, as well as compromising Arabs' moral standing in Muslim world.

Expecting a strong reaction from Biden - who pledged to reassess US ties with Saudi Arabia, demand more accountability over assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and withdraw support for Yemen war - the defacto Saudi ruler and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is quickly tuning up the Kingdom's foreign policy to make it more aligned with the unfolding realities.

After Saudi King Salman bin Abdual Aziz talked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and agreed to keep all the channels open to strengthen bilateral relations - the Kingdom's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud reiterated Saudi Arabia was trying to find a way that could facilitate the end of three-year blockade on Qatar, if its security concerns are addressed.

Diplomatic ties

Killing of the Post's columnist in October 2018 inside the Saudi consulate over the alleged orders of MBS in Istanbul busted Ankara's relationship with Riyadh. In June 2017, the Saudi-led quartet including Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE severed diplomatic ties and halted air, land and sea traffic with Qatar, accusing it for harbouring terrorist organisations.

While Donald Trump was due to arrive in Saudi Arabia to seal $110-billion defence deals and forge a Gulf alliance against Iran - the controversy spawned in the backdrop of the Qatari Emir's alleged criticism of the US president, calling Iran a "big power" and describing Qatar's relations with Israel "good", set the stage to ground for Qatari cordon sanitaire.

Trump says a close affinity with him helped MBS to ditch all efforts to make him accountable for the congressional probe over Khashoggi murder. As Biden prepares to swear in, the imminent extinction of immunity is pressing Trump to build on a flexible regional strategy. The hasty Saudi measures to engage Qatar, settle the spun out disputes with Turkey and soft stance on Israel suggest a changed placatory approach.

Since the quantum leap to establish ties with Israel cannot be believed to be an entirely sovereign decision by the Arab states historically subservient to Saudi Arabia, the bold step has some strategic undertones. The GCC wants to embrace Israel, which invariably maintains an influence in the US domestic politics, to play an intermediary role between them and the coming Biden administration.

Contrary to the wishes of GCC, the Democrat president wants to reinstate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal if Tehran drops its breach of agreement including excess stockpiling of enriching uranium. Arab nations, through an alliance with Israel, would seek to mount pressure on Biden to prevent restoration of the covenant and try tight screws on Tehran.

Iran's military engagement across regional countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and an everlasting influence in Lebanon, is the prime mover behind the GCC drive against Tehran. They credit Iranian aggressive behaviour for posing a threat to their hereditary rule and are approaching the Zionist state to curb this ubiquitous challenge.

The Kingdom denied Israeli media reports that MBS met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen in the presence of Mike Pompeo. But the US Secretary's arrival - after last month raising the US-brokered agreement, Abraham Accords about normalising the diplomatic ties with Israel, to Saudi foreign minister - described Saudi Arabia still look toward America to counter Iran.

A high frequency of internal revolutions and ideological conflicts continues to push the Middle East in brinkmanship. It is very important for rival countries to break this infinite loop of dominating each other through proxy wars and decode a reconciliation process in the middle of virus-hit global economic crisis.

GDP outlook

The International Monetary Fund has warned the region is facing an unprecedented nature of the current challenges. It forecasts the compound issues, together with elevated fiscal and external vulnerabilities, before the coronavirus could slash GDP outlook of the countries in the region by 12% in the next five years and it might take them more than a decade to return to the pre-crisis trend.

It's a watershed moment for the Persian Gulf. The nations in the region are heavily oil-reliant and the aftershocks of Covid-19 have severely impacted their GDPs. By opening new fronts or intensifying existing conflicts, they would only slow down their economic recovery and delay the transition from "rentier states".

About 70% of the Kingdom's Vision 2030 goals are tied with data and artificial intelligence (AI) agenda. During the Global AI Summit in Riyadh last month, Saudi Arabia signed agreements with Huawei and Alibaba Cloud to train Saudi AI engineers and erect world-class smart cities.

The partnership with Chinese tech giants would help Riyadh to rank itself among the top-15 countries in AI within next 10 years and intelligently manage responsive city services through collaboration in the area of safety and security, mobility, urban planning, energy, education and health.

Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have also been taking voluminous measures to diversify their economies and head for a technology-driven economy. Through a new regional political and economic contract and scaling back intervention in each other's territory, the Gulf countries can still work together and prevent inflicting further wounds to the decrepit economies.

Although any sort of convention or treaty won't ease off the decades-old rifts among regional neighbours in the blink of an eye, however, it could be a step forward to achieve respect for sovereignty of all the states and will potentially lower the harrowing economic burden engulfing governments and millions of people.

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Source: News24

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