by Jonathan Spyer*
A number of events in recent weeks cast light on the current intersecting lines of conflict in the Middle East. They reflect a region in flux, in which new bonds are being formed, and old ones torn asunder.
But amid the confusion, a new topography is emerging.
This was the month in which a long-existent split in the Sunni Arab world turned into a gaping fissure. On March 5th, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from the Emirate of Qatar.
This decision was clearly a response to Qatar’s continued support and sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. This movement is regarded as a subversive threat by the three Gulf states. They are worried by the Brotherhood’s capacity for internal subversion.
Qatar, by contrast, affords generous subsidies to its tiny citizen body, and has little to fear from potential internal unrest. It continues to support the Brotherhood and to domicile key leaders of the Egyptian branch of the movement. The latter is now engaged in an insurgency against the Egyptian authorities.
Saudi patience was at an end. The removal of the ambassadors reflects this.
On March 7th, Saudi Arabia made the additional move of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. A Saudi researcher and former general, Dr. Anwar Eshki, was quoted on the Now Lebanon website as asserting that the decision was made with particular focus on the Egyptian Brotherhood, which is involved in “terrorist” activity.
In the same week, an Egyptian court banned all activities by the Hamas organization in Egypt, and referred to the movement as a “terrorist organization.”
The proximity of these announcements reflects the very close emergent alliance between Saudi Arabia and the de facto Sisi regime in Egypt, which is likely to become de jure following presidential elections later this year.
This alliance is the core component of an emergent dispensation in the Sunni Arab world which also includes UAE, Bahrain and Jordan, as well as the fragile West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.
This alliance is set to emerge as the strongest element among the Sunni Arabs.
It is opposed both to the Iran-led, mainly Shia “resistance” bloc, and to what is left of the Qatar/Muslim Brotherhood alliance that just a short year ago was proclaiming itself the wave of the future in the Middle East.
The Hamas authority in Gaza has no buy into the new Saudi-Sisi bloc. Formerly aligned with Iran, it put its bets on the Qatar/Muslim Brotherhood axis.
But this putative bloc was fatally damaged by the Sisi coup in Egypt of July 3rd, 2013, and by the departure of the Muslim Brotherhood-related Nahda party in Tunisia.
Hamas appears to be trying to find its way back to the Iranians. Gaza’s “foreign minister” Mahmoud al Zahar and Iran’s parliament spokesman Ali Larijani both made statements this week suggesting that relations had returned to normal between Teheran and Hamas.
It is not clear what this actually means. But Iranian funding to Hamas in Gaza was slashed following the latter’s failure to offer support to the Iranian client regime in Damascus. It is unlikely that Iran has either forgotten or forgiven. Al-Zahar, in any case, is among those Hamas officials most closely supportive of Iran and his statements should not be taken as representing the movement as a whole.
This means that Hamas is probably stuck between Qatar and the Iranians, with the support of the former no longer worth what it once was, and the support of the latter available only in a truncated and reduced form.
The week’s events in Gaza, meanwhile, showcased the continued vigor of the Iran-led camp.
The most staunch supporter of Iran among the Palestinians, and now apparently the main beneficiary of Teheran’s largesse, is the Islamic Jihad movement. This is a purely paramilitary and terrorist group, with no pretensions to mass political leadership. As such, it is a less complicated prospect from Teheran’s point of view than Hamas.
The recent apprehending of the Klos-C arms ship by Israel, as it brought a consignment of weapons evidently intended for Islamic Jihad in Gaza, was the latest indication of Teheran’s willingness to offer practical backing to those it favors.
Islamic Jihad’s furious response to the Israeli apprehending of the craft, and to the killing in recent days of a number of its operatives by Israel, was certainly done with Iran’s blessing and probably at its instruction (along with tacit permission from the Hamas authorities in Gaza).
The interrupted route of the weapons intended for Gaza (from Syria to Iran, to Iraq, to Sudan and then to the Strip) and the subsequent rocket fire should remind us that the Iran-led Shia bloc remains a potent gathering, capable of coordinated, region-wide action.
So three power blocs currently dominate the Middle East — the Iran-led Shia group, a rival emergent Cairo-Riyadh axis leading a group of smaller Sunni states, and a smaller, much weaker Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance. Their competition is set to dominate regional affairs in the period opening up.
Israel, of course, will be a charter member of none of these groups. But Jerusalem is a de facto ally of the Saudi-Egypt camp.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, were in recent decades the main allies of the U.S. in the area. The former two countries are now in search of new friends, and have found each other. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried to lobby on Sisi’s behalf in Washington in recent weeks, though as yet with limited success.
The shifting sands of the Mid-Eastern strategic map are all the result of the perceived withdrawal of the U.S. from its role as a regional patron. This process is still underway and it’s too soon to draw any final conclusions regarding its results. But the current drawing together of Saudi Arabia and Sisi’s Egypt is surely among the most significant responses to it. It is likely to form the basis for the Sunni Arabs’ attempts to contain Iranian ambitions in the period ahead.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
Related: Arab/Muslim World, Egypt, Foreign Policy, Iran, Islam, Israel, Obama, Palestinians, Sectarian, Syria, Terrorist Groups