Back-channel diplomacy is the flavor of the month — and it involves nearly all the region’s major players: Saudi Arabia and the UAE are talking with Iran; the UAE and Egypt are talking with Turkey. Even the warlords in Yemen and Libya have been exploring peace deals. Asked to explain the change of mood, American and Arab officials say many countries were “scared straight” by the risk of all-out war and the unreliability of the U.S. military umbrella under the past three presidents.
Sadly, the outlier in this diplomatic revival is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This week’s explosion of violence showed that it remains as toxic as ever. Normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel is a blessing, but it won’t make the Palestinian problem disappear. Officials told me even the UAE, the most forward-leaning of the Arab states, warned Israel that police actions in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque would embolden Hamas extremists.
A senior State Department official said in an interview Tuesday, “There is sufficient momentum that we can keep moving forward” despite this week’s volleys of Hamas missiles and Israeli reprisals. The United States needs to rebuild a peace process, but it won’t stand a chance unless Israelis and Palestinians conclude, like their neighbors, that endless war doesn’t make sense.
The UAE is the best example of the quiet transformation underway in the region. After years of costly proxy battles — against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and against Turkish-backed forces in Libya — the Emiratis have pulled back to focus on domestic economic issues.
The turnaround began in 2019, with the Iranian missile attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq. The Emiratis received warnings that they could be next, and that Iranian rockets could shatter the gleaming towers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, officials told me. Soon, the UAE began secret outreach to Tehran. The result appears to be a quiet, unwritten nonbelligerence pact, with the UAE halting its support for troops fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Talk of the UAE as “Little Sparta” is gone. That nickname, bestowed by former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, suggested an outsized role in regional conflicts that proved exhausting and ultimately counterproductive for the Emirates. The covid-19 pandemic, too, was devastating, with the UAE losing more than 50 percent of its revenue as tourism and oil processing collapsed, according to one official.
So the Emiratis, always something of a weather vane, recalculated. Following the 2019 outreach to Iran, they began similar de-escalation with two other regional rivals, Turkey and Qatar. The Emiratis this year have halted their military support for rebels in Libya fighting the Turkish-backed government, U.S. officials told me.
Egypt, which the UAE hoped to protect with its Libyan intervention, is getting into the back-channel business, too. A delegation from Ankara traveled last week to Cairo for the first serious dialogue in years.
Saudi Arabia back-channel talks with Iran have been brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief who’s one of the region’s most interesting leaders. He brought together Saudi spy chief Khalid Humaidan and Iran’s deputy national security adviser Saeed Iravani. The talks are more symbol than substance, so far, but Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq have stopped firing rockets into the kingdom, U.S. officials say.
Saudi Arabia badly wants an exit from the war in Yemen and through U.S. special envoy Tim Lenderking has offered the Houthis a peace deal that meets most of their demands, including reopening Hodeidah port and Sanaa airport. A Houthi spokesman in Oman appeared to support the plan, but the military leadership in Sanaa is still pushing for a decisive victory in the city of Marib, U.S. officials say. Iran’s foreign minister is heading for the UAE for talks that could include Yemen. Best advice to the Saudis: Cut the knot; open the port and airport; end this disastrous war.
The United States tried to transform the Middle East and failed. Now our erstwhile allies are trying to pick up the pieces. Iran’s revolutionaries aren’t on the peace train yet, by any means. But I like this Middle East version of build back better.