New regional balance enters new year

New regional balance enters new year

The Middle East entered the new year with a new balance of power.

Two weeks ago, Qatar and Egypt started normalizing their relations. This reconciliation, however, affects not only these two countries, but also the wider region to a great extent and implies a newly emerging equilibrium.

Qatar’s relations with Egypt have been strained since the Hosni Mubarak era. The only exception to this are the 369 days during the rule of former President Mohamed Morsi, who is a Muslim Brotherhood member. The tensions between the two countries reached an apex during the governance of the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who helped to topple before replacing Morsi himself.

The main reason for the tensions has been Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood. Egypt has always claimed that Qatar has been funding the organization to undermine Egypt’s stability. Moreover, el-Sisi put the MB on a list of terrorist organizations in December 2013.

The other reason is Hamas. Qatar has been one of the main supporters of the Islamist organization. El-Sisi, on the other hand, put Hamas on the terrorist list right after he seized power in July 2013. The Egyptian court also banned all activities of Hamas in Egypt, ordering the closure of its offices. El-Sisi also readopted Egypt’s “pre-Morsi” Palestine policy by trying to isolate Gaza which is under Hamas’ control. In addition to all of these, Qatar has also revealed its discomfort with Morsi’s removal by el-Sisi.

Qatar’s relations with the Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Jordan have also been tense. These countries have been strongly opposed to the MB. Last March Saudi Arabia declared the MB a terrorist group. And so did the UAE last November.

Qatar and the Gulf have been at adds also over the coup in Egypt since Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been the most generous supporters of el-Sisi. And as a result of these tensions, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar on March 5, 2014.

However, the ISIL threat has turned the balances upside down. Countries in the region have grouped together. In September, Qatar expelled seven MB leaders from the country upon U.S. and Gulf pressure. Then on Nov. 11 at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain decided to return their ambassadors to Qatar. And two weeks ago the Qatari emir’s special envoy visited el-Sisi in Cairo. Following their meeting, the emir’s office made the statement that “the security of Egypt is important for the security of Qatar. The two countries are linked by deep and fraternal ties.” 

These developments imply the possible next step: Qatar might cut off its funding for Hamas and expel its leadership, namely Khaled Mashaal, from the country. The Kuwaiti press has recently reported that Qatar has already committed to stop all funding of the organization.

In short, Qatar, the Gulf and Egypt are forming a strong alliance. No need to mention that Israel would also be on their side. Tel Aviv has had close security cooperation with Egypt since the countries signed a peace treaty in 1979.

Egypt’s relations with the U.S. are also flourishing. On top of that, Egypt is building up a new energy equilibrium in the Eastern Mediterranean by signing energy agreements with Greece, Cyprus and Israel on the exploration of offshore oil and gas resources.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which are opposed by the Gulf-Egypt alliance, are left today with only two supporters: Turkey and Iran.

This new equation urges Ankara to make a strategic choice. It would only weaken Turkey’s hand if it were to stay out of this emerging alliance. Amid the regional turmoil, Turkey needs regional allies offering stability more than ever. And today the only countries in the region which offer stability are Egypt and Israel.

Apparently Ankara is making this strategic re-evaluation too. A high-level official who I talked to last October said that “normalization with Egypt will take some time.” Last week, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç delivered this message on a TV show more concretely, saying: “We need to swiftly bring our relations with Egypt to a healthier ground.”

Arınç’s words also reflected the pragmatism Turkey needs to make this strategic shift: “A country’s foreign policy is defined by its national interests. We are against coups. However we may need to take steps [toward Egypt] considering Turkey’s interests.”