Middle East Braces for U.S. Withdrawal Aftermath
The entire world is, legitimately, overwhelmed by the dramatic scenes of Taliban’s return to the peak of power in Afghanistan, following the haste and chaotic withdrawal of the United States and NATO forces. The situation is quickly evolving and everyone, including the United States, is shocked by Taliban’s swift and effortless seizure of power after the tranquil surrender of the US-backed Afghan government and the US-trained Afghan army of 196 thousand personnel on active duty and advanced US-made equipment. Ironically, the defunct Afghan army was bigger in size and stronger in power than some NATO allies.
Is the Taliban we are seeing today any different from the extremist brutal Taliban that wreaked havoc all over the country twenty years ago? Will Taliban’s Islamic Emirate be able to lead a country of thirty-eight million people without infringing basic human rights, especially for the vulnerable demographic groups of women and children? How can the international community guarantee that Taliban’s flawed interpretations to the Islamic Sharia Law will not revive the terrorist organizations, that have been wreaking havoc all over the world for years? The questions are many, and it is still too early to find compelling answers or predict when and where the situation in Afghanistan is going to settle.
Meanwhile, the Middle East needs to get prepared for dealing with the dire aftermath of US withdrawal from the region. The tragic scenes, at Kabul Airport, of Afghan people clinging to the wheels of the American warplanes to escape Taliban’s hell are nothing compared to the miseries expected to emerge after the US withdrawal from Syria and Iraq, which may happen sooner than we expect. Unfortunately, the future of the Middle East region appears to be dark and messy. Yet, there still a chance for Middle East countries to take a unified action to minimize the scale of unforeseen damages.
Afghanistan’s Echo at the Arab Gulf Region
We know for sure that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and soon from Iraq and Syria, marks the beginning of a whole new era for the Middle East and north and east Africa. The Arab Gulf region, in particular, is at great risk of being shaken and broken by the current events in Afghanistan, the same way other Arab countries were damaged by the security aftermath of the Arab Spring. Afghanistan troubles are quickly crawling downward the Arab Gulf region.
Immediately after Taliban’s capture of Kabul, on 15 August, the surrendering president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and his companions fled the country on a plane to Oman. Afghanistan’s neighbor, Tajikistan, refused to receive them. It is interesting to watch Oman being the first Arab Gulf country to get involved in this chaotic scene, as it has always kept itself a safe distance away from the political troubles of the region.
Two days later, the Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that UAE received the fleeing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his family, for humanitarian reasons. The next day, Ghani published a video wherein he confirmed that he does not plan to stay in UAE for long and as soon as circumstances allow, he will be back in Afghanistan. On the night of 16 August, some news sources at Kabul Airport mentioned that Acting Minister of Defense, Bismillah Mohammadi, has also escaped on a plane to UAE, after his army surrendered to Taliban.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are trying their best to keep a neutral position towards the events in Afghanistan. As soon as the turmoil erupted, Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement, calling on Taliban to preserve lives and property, reminding them that this is what true Islam instructs. At the end of the statement, Saudi Arabia chose not to take sides in Afghanistan by declaring that it “stands with the choices that the Afghan people make without any interference.”
Nevertheless, Taliban is already existent inside Qatar. They have been using their office in Doha to speak to the world media, since the beginning of the turmoil. Doha hosted a diplomatic representation office for Taliban, even after Taliban had been removed from power and a coalition government took the lead. The shadow government led by Taliban inside Afghanistan, during the past years, used to be administered by Taliban leaders, who lived in Doha. On 16 August, Qatar’s Foreign Minister said that his government is working closely with Taliban to evacuate the diplomatic missions and foreign nationals.
A Threat to Gulf Economic and Military Ambitions
The current risk posed at the Arab Gulf region is not merely resulted from the Gulf region’s geographic proximity to Afghanistan and Iran, but mainly because Afghanistan’s political troubles are quickly being exported to Gulf countries, at a time when disagreements between Gulf countries is at a dangerous peak point.
The Arab Gulf countries has been exerting a huge effort, in the past few years, to expand their military capabilities and diversify resources for their oil-dependent economy. Carrying the burden of Afghanistan’s political transitions and the potential of re-emergence of terrorism under Taliban, is a threat to Arab Gulf countries economic and military ambitions.
Over the past two decades, three Arab Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, have grown into modern pragmatic states with self-centered approach to expand their wealth and strength. This created a state of healthy competition that is currently shaping most of the political, economic, and security-related decisions of Gulf countries, and are consequently affecting the entire Middle East and North Africa.
In the past five years alone, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar spent billions of dollars on expanding and strengthening their military structures. According to Global Firepower military strength ranking for the year 2021, Saudi Arabia and UAE are among the top six militaries of the Middle East, side by side with the old established militaries of Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. Several military analysts call UAE “the Little Sparta” for its superior military competence compared to its relatively small population and size of geographic area.
The growing ambitions of Arab Gulf countries have also extended to the economic arena, in a way that threatened the coherence and feasibility of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Since 1970s, the economies of Arab Gulf monarchies depended, almost entirely, on locally discovered wealth of petroleum resources. However, in the past few years, the most politically and economically active Arab Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE, started to work on diversifying their oil-dependent economies, and seeking to attract western partnerships and investment opportunities.
In a TV interview in April, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, discussed the most critical mission of developing the Kingdom’s economy, with the ambitious Saudi 2030 Vision. He admitted that this requires modernizing the Saudi society and changing the state system in a way that encourages foreign investment and opens Saudi Arabia to the world, without risking the country’s unique cultural heritage. But bravely, the Crown Prince said he is up to the mission that promises to modernize the entire Gulf region.
Unfortunately, earlier this year, this competition resulted in a political tension that was quickly resolved by the wise leaderships of Saudi Arabia and UAE. However, entering the new gloomy era of the Middle East post US withdrawal without solidifying the bond between all Arab Gulf countries and reviving the role of the Gulf Cooperation Council in leading the region is very dangerous.
The New Alliance to Lead the Middle East
Out of this competition among Arab Gulf countries, the traditional coalitions and alliances of the Middle East region are experiencing an inevitable reshuffle. The United States’ withdrawal from the Middle East, highlighted by Biden Administration’s indifference towards the many plights of the region, and the recent decisions to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, is playing an obvious role in accelerating the Middle East reshaping process.
In other words, the stage of the Middle East is no more a scene where Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt stand together in one camp against an adversary camp of Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Since Joseph Biden Administration took office in the United States, at least one of these camps fell apart, while the other strengthened further. This availed a space for forming a new alliance of odds that is supposed to lead the region for decades to come.
This new alliance is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey. Perhaps, UAE may desire to join this alliance in the future, especially after the recent sudden rapprochement between the UAE and Turkey after years of widely declared animosity. The next day of Taliban’s seize of power, in mid-August, UAE’s National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed visited the Turkish President Erdogan and offered UAE pouring economic investments in Turkey. The UAE’s move towards Turkey, after years of exchanging threats and declaring hostility, took most observers by shock, especially Egypt which has been delaying its reconciliation with Turkey in order not to offend UAE.
The new coalition, which is currently being formed, on a very slow pace though, could mitigate and control most of the strategic threats the region is expected to face, in the next years. That is mainly because of these countries’ strategic geographic locations, at the gates of the main three continents, as well as the complementary military and economic powers they enjoy.
Pakistan and Iran are also considered an integral part of this new alliance. Pakistan is considered the perfect backer for this coalition, in the south eastern strategic depth of the Gulf region. Pakistan is the direct neighbor to the full-of-trouble zone of Afghanistan and Iran. That is in addition to Pakistan’s historical ties and strong military cooperation with Turkey. At the same time, Pakistan managed to create balanced relations, especially in the military sector, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, during the past two years, despite its ongoing relationship with Qatar.
However, bringing Iran to support this coalition sounds like mission impossible at the moment. Since the beginning of the year, Saudi Arabia have been already declaring its interest to start talks with its historical enemy, Iran. Some reports mentioned talks, on security and intelligence levels, between the two countries, in March.
On another level, Qatar has been exceptionally active in reconciling between Turkey and Egypt, following the signing of Al-Ula agreement, in January, that ended four years of Arab boycott to Qatar. However, unfortunately, the rapprochement efforts between Turkey and Egypt fell into a weird lag, over the past two months.
In light of the recent developments in Afghanistan, the already existing alliance of Turkey, Qatar, and Pakistan is expected to play a crucial role in cleaning up the mess, after the US completes its withdrawal from the Middle East. Pakistan is the immediate neighbor of Afghanistan and its leadership have an influence over Taliban. Turkey has borders with Syria and Iraq, and got a strong military presence, since many years, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Qatar is the host of and biggest supporter for Taliban, in the region.
Currently, Turkey is insisting on keeping its military troops inside Afghanistan, despite the withdrawal of all other NATO troops, and Taliban’s loud refusal for the continued presence of Turkish forces inside Afghanistan. One day before Taliban takes over Kabul, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, was in Pakistan seeking Pakistani leadership intermediation in negotiations with Taliban for letting Turkey forces, of about 600 troops, to continue with running Kabul Airport.
On 17 August, former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hikmet Çetin, who also previously served in Afghanistan as part of NATO mission, said that the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, arranged the departure of Afghan former and present foreign ministers, Renkin Dadfar Spanta and Mohammad Hanif Atmar, from Kabul Airport to Istanbul, after Taliban elements forced them to get off their plane that was supposed to fly them to Doha.
The Stuck Turkey-Egypt Reconciliation
In Egypt, the political leadership is closely watching the situation in Afghanistan without issuing any statements or taking sides. Egypt has strong economic and military ties with Russia and China, which are showing the biggest and the quickest support to Taliban. At the same time, Egypt does not want to lose its long-term status as a strategic regional ally to the United States.
On the same day of Kabul’s fall in the hands of Taliban, William J. Burns, Director of CIA, visited Cairo and met with the Egyptian President El-Sisi. Among the issues they discussed is Afghanistan and the US withdrawal from the Middle East, in general. However, no details were disclosed to the media about the role that Egypt may play in the post-US-withdrawal era. Whatever this role is, Egypt needs to strengthen its relationship with the alliance of Turkey, Qatar, and Pakistan to succeed.
The Egyptian-Turkish reconciliation process, which intensified between March and May, is currently standing on the brink of failure. Political clashes between the two countries are once again heating up the region. In June, Egypt’s President voiced absolute support to Greece in its historical maritime conflict with Turkey. In August, Turkey’s President Erdogan declared his absolute support to Abiy Ahmed government in Ethiopia, whether for the domestic conflict with Tigray or the regional conflict with Egypt over the Nile River. Also, in Libya, once again, Egypt and Turkey returned to standing against each other, as the divisions between political factions in eastern and western Libya are escalating.
When the Turkish military intervened in Libya, in December 2019, Egypt objected the presence of Turkish troops at its western strategic depth. This created a series of clashes that almost reached the brink of a military fight between Egypt and Turkey. As a result, a series of security talks had to be initiated between Egyptian and Turkish intelligence bureaus. This was the first direct dialogue between the two countries in about eight years, during which the two countries were deliberately hurting each other’s economic and political interests.
Only in March, talks of reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey began to take a serious form, especially after the success of the Arab Gulf reconciliation, and Qatar’s intervention to reconcile between Egypt and Turkey. At that stage, the dialogue between the two countries moved to the diplomatic track. In May, a meeting was held in Cairo at the level of Egyptian and Turkish deputy foreign ministers in order to hold exploratory talks on reconciliation.
Optimism about the success of the reconciliation talks between Egypt and Turkey dominated the scene, between March and May. That is especially after Turkey took deliberate steps to control the propaganda against the Egyptian state and president, driven by the Muslim Brotherhood members, who are living in Turkey. Yet, all of a sudden, the talks were paused and the two countries returned to taking contradicting moves against each other.
The second round of exploratory talks between Egypt and Turkey was supposed to be held, in Ankara, in June. Yet, that never happened, and there is no clear official statement explaining why. Some analysts claim that this is due to political pressures on Egypt by UAE. However, there is no single evidence to support that claim. Most likely, the Egyptian court decision, in June, to execute leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood is the real reason behind the renewed tensions. There was a strong objection in Turkish media and political circles on the Egyptian court decision. Egyptian leadership saw this as an intervention into a domestic issue by Turkey and thus breaks one of Egypt’s provisions to proceed with reconciliation.
Meanwhile, following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, UAE took quick steps to fix its relationship with Turkey, given Turkey’s prospected regional role in the post US withdrawal era. Despite the strong rivalry between the two countries on several regional issues, the UAE leadership decided to open a new page with Turkey, through economic cooperation. On August 18th, the UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, visited Ankara and met with Turkish President Erdogan to re-initiate the relationship between the two countries in light of the recent developments in the region.
The US withdrawal from the Middle East has become a fact that the Middle East countries have to accept and adapt with, as fast as they can. The rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, and the prospected rise of other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, following the completion of US withdrawal, is also a fact that the Middle East, especially Arab Gulf countries, need to prepare for. Therefore, accelerating the process of Turkey’s reconciliation with Egypt and Arab Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, has become an urgent priority. The renewed tensions between Turkey and Egypt, in particular, are delaying the formation of a strong coalition that can lead the region through the difficult decade to come. Letting the political rift between Egypt and Turkey to crack again, at this critical time, shall expose the entire Middle East region to an existential threat. Unifying Turkey and Egypt regional visions and missions is critical to protect the Arab Gulf region, the only survivor of the Arab Spring aftermath, against the storm of uncertainties to be blown by the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the other tragedies expected after the completion of US withdrawal from Syria and Iraq, in the near future.
A modified version of this analysis is published in Majalla