Conflict in Ukraine: How long can the Middle East walk a tightrope?

For now, Ukraine is far from my bed for most countries in the Middle East. The question is not if but when Ukraine will arrive on their doorstep.

Two centrifugal forces threaten to push the nations of the Middle East off a tightrope: an increasingly divided world populated by a multitude of civilizational leaders in which “you are with us or against us”, and a growing need for consistency in the application of the law and the observance of human and political rights standards.

It wouldn’t take much to unbalance the riders.

The Biden administration plans to send special forces to guard the new US embassy in Kyiv. What if Russian forces hit the embassy much like US forces bombed the Chinese mission in Belgrade in 1999?

At the time, China did not respond militarily, but China was not supporting any side in the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the same way the United States and its allies are helping Ukraine.

Likewise, the risk of escalation exists if the United States, NATO or individual European countries decide to train Ukrainian forces on Ukrainian soil and are attacked by Russia.

True, Russia, like NATO, does not want the war to turn into a direct confrontation, but it would not take much for events to spiral out of control.

Similarly, Gulf states’ options could shrink if talks in Vienna fail to revive the 2015 international accord that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

US President Joe Biden and Iran both tried unsuccessfully to use the talks to achieve goals beyond the original deal, which then-President Donald J. Trump pulled out of. in 2018.

“We don’t have a deal … and the prospects of getting one done are, at best, dim,” Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran, told the Senate Relations Committee. foreigners this week.

Malley’s statement came as a covert war between Israel and Iran appeared to be escalating and US officials sought to restore relations with Saudi Arabia, possibly paving the way for a visit to the country. the Kingdom of Mr. Biden.

Israel reportedly informed the Biden administration that it was responsible for the recent killing in Tehran of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) colonel. No one has officially claimed responsibility for the shooting.

Similarly, a drone strike targeted a highly sensitive military site outside Tehran, where Iran is developing missile, nuclear and drone technologies. The drones exploded in a building used by Iran’s Defense Ministry to conduct research on drone development.

Meanwhile, a Saudi official noted that Saudi Arabia and Iran had not scheduled a sixth round of talks to resolve disputes that have helped destabilize the Middle East because the exchanges had “no quite” progressed.

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been cold since Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr Bin Salman over the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr Bin Salman denied any involvement, but said he accepted responsibility for the murder as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Following the spat, Bin Salman rejected US demands that the kingdom increase oil production to lower prices and inflationary pressures and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy .

In doing so, Saudi Arabia is playing the same game with the United States as Turkey is playing in NATO. Both want to capitalize on US needs for support to Ukraine without risking US, and in Turkey’s case, NATO security guarantees.

Turkey has set conditions for Sweden and Finland to join NATO, but ultimately wants the United States, NATO and the European Union to develop a Black Sea strategy that would have Turkey at its heart. Turkey is effectively on its own without being integrated into a broader regional approach.

A failure to revive the Iran nuclear deal would likely make it clear that countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have no recourse but the United States when seeking guarantees for their security. .

China is unwilling and unable to replace the United States as the guarantor of security, and Russia has taken itself out of the equation.

The US and European window of opportunity to include human and political rights meaningfully in its discussions could be while China maintains its current position.

If this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos was any indication, the US and Europe are not about to seize the opportunity. Demonstrating confidence, Saudi Arabia, buoyed by soaring oil prices, has captured attention as a land of economic opportunity in a world battered by inflation, food shortages and climate change concerns. ‘offer.

“Biden should use positive inducements to alter the Crown Prince’s repressive behavior. MBS, driven by self-interest, would respond to U.S. human rights demands if they were accompanied by inducement and devoid of humiliation,” said U.S.-based tech entrepreneur and cardiologist Khalid Aljabri. . Two siblings of Mr. Aljabri, who referred to Mr. Bin Salman by his initials, were detained in the kingdom.

Following missile and drone attacks by Houthi rebels earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to bolster written bilateral defense agreements with the United States, if not a formal treaty.

Two of Mr Biden’s top advisers visited Saudi Arabia this week to discuss oil, Iran and security, including finalizing the transfer of two strategic islands – Tiran and Sanafir – in the Red Sea from Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi sovereignty with Israeli consent.

US officials were to travel to Washington in the following days to brief Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata on their discussions in the kingdom.

Curiously, the Israeli media reported recent secret meetings between Israeli and Saudi officials that focused on security issues, including Iran.

Like the Gulf states, Israel has indeed seen its options for coverage shrink in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, but it has been less hesitant than the Gulf states.

However, in the final analysis, Middle Eastern states realize that the United States, in the words of former White House Gulf director Kirsten Fontenrose, “can still easily build global coalitions when it is necessary. While Russia will be radioactive, more of a predatory pariah than a partner.

Ms Fontenrose warned that “it would be foolish for nations that previously enjoyed beneficial relations with Russia to invite this radioactivity upon them now, in the emerging world order where Russia is not the unipolar power it hoped to become, but rather a failed bet. ”

This may be true for Russia and ultimately obvious for Middle Eastern states once they have exploited the opportunities for what they are worth.

It could be quite different if relations between the United States and China deteriorated to the same degree as between Washington and Moscow. This is perhaps even more the case if the United States continues to be seen as selective and hypocritical in its respect for human rights at home and abroad.

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