It would be easier to cheer the Middle East’s new diplomatic activism if so many of the problems it hopes to solve didn’t start out as “own goals.”
By Bobby Ghosh
April 25, 2023, 5:00 AM UTC
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time. @ghoshworld
For the past three years, the ruling elites of the Middle East and North Africa have been congratulating themselves for what they claim — or at any rate would like the rest of us to believe — is a new era of Arab diplomacy. The narrative, echoed in American foreign policy circles, goes something like this: As the US loses interest (or, in some renditions, abandons its commitments) in the Arab world, regional leaders are adroitly making accommodations with each other and other world powers to solve longstanding problems.
From the Abraham Accords with Israel to the Saudi-Iranian agreement, many recent regional initiatives have been held up as examples of this newfound diplomatic deftness. The underlying message is that Arabs don’t need Western solutions to crises in their midst.
The narrative conveniently ignores how many of the crises were created by the actors now taking center stage as statesmen. Consider just one example: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the prime mover of the Yemeni quagmire from which he is now trying to extricate himself by agreeing terms with the Islamic Republic. This is not statesmanship so much as submission.
The cease-fire engineered by the US, the European Union and United Nations never took hold: The protagonists — army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and paramilitary head Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo — have shown little interest in standing down their forces. Both are vying for supreme leadership of Sudan, a country that is as Arab as it is African.
As with Yemen, the Sudanese crisis is in no small part of Arab making. When the 30-year military dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by a popular peaceful uprising four years ago and replaced by a transitional government of civilians and generals, the major Arab states chose to back the latter. Egypt, led by a general who had himself taken power in a coup, aligned itself with Burhan. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed Hemedti, who obligingly sent RSF fighters to serve their interests in Yemen. It mattered not a jot that both Burhan and Hemedti are accused of participating in the genocide in Darfur.
When the generals, then acting in concert, tossed the civilians out of government and took control in Khartoum, the Arab states cared little for the dashed aspirations of the Sudanese. The military leadership was suitably grateful: Last December, after the generals announced a transparently insincere agreement to restore some civilian participation in the government, an Emirati consortium signed a $6 billion preliminary deal to build a new port and other infrastructure on the Red Sea coast.
The fighting between the forces of Burhan and Hemedti should demonstrate to their Arab patrons that the generals are not to be trusted. It would be better to make deals with a civilian government that is free of military interference.
Given that the generals have few other financiers and suppliers of weapons, Arab states have the ability to rein them in. They should also be able to use their deepening ties with Moscow to restrict the role played by Russia’s Wagner group.
But the biggest challenge for the Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis is to break from their historical tendency to favor strongmen and warlords. Now that would be a credible demonstration of the “new Arab diplomacy.”