February 21, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 458

Three Kings And One Joker: The 'Return' Of Arab Diplomacy

February 21, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, North Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 458

Diplomacy is, of course, a tool of statecraft. It is one important way states exert influence and seek to project power on the international stage. All nations do so, constrained only in their ability to carry out effective diplomacy by factors such as their strength, location, connections, ambitions, and leadership.

In the broader Middle East, it has long looked – and it was generally true – that Arab states were in disarray. Torn by war, extremism, major social, political, and economic problems, corruption, and poor leadership, the Arab world looked very much at a disadvantage compared to more assertive non-Arab powers in the region: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. That reality has not fully changed, although both Turkey and Iran are currently undergoing major difficulties associated with the nature of those two regimes.

Everyone in the region does diplomacy but that does not mean that they can do it equally well. The diplomatic skill may be there but a country may be constrained by its dependence on foreign powers (or foreign money), internal strife or political considerations. Some countries in the region are basket cases, making them passive players when it comes to diplomacy. Other states play their role well – one thinks of Oman – but otherwise are small actors on the stage. Countries like Jordan and Egypt, skilled diplomatic players still, are limited by their dependence on others because of economic or security considerations. Iraq – a substantial country like Egypt – could play a more consequential role in the region but it is somewhat limited by internal struggles for power not yet fully resolved.

But over the past few years we have seen a resurgence in Arab diplomacy by a few countries in the region that have stood out in terms of their independence, impact, and single-minded will to exert influence and advance their interests. All four are important. In my view, three of these states are generally exerting this diplomacy with a view toward  a more stable and ultimately better region while a fourth plays a spoiler role enabling some of the region's most retrograde and destructive tendencies. I have dubbed these four states, after the playing cards, three "Kings" – Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – and one "Joker" – Qatar – the troublemaker. These states, all of them authoritarian hereditary monarchies, have undertaken policies and initiatives for their own reasons and agendas and while I may disagree with some of these policies, sometimes strongly, I can see the logic of what they are trying to do as seen through their own eyes.

All four states are in a general sense "independent," in that they are motivated almost entirely by purely internal self-interest and have been able to maneuver successfully even when confronted with pressure from outside powers, including the United States and the European Union. 

Morocco under King Muhammad VI has been able to make major breakthroughs in consolidating its hold over the Western Sahara region, getting Western recognition for it, and has leveraged a combination of factors, including being a "gatekeeper" for the EU, to gain the advantage over its neighbor Spain and bitter rival Algeria. The fact that Morocco was also caught up in the "Qatargate" scandal trying to influence Eurocrats only underscores its ambitions. This is a country that is playing its diplomatic cards very well despite lacking the oil riches of the other three states.

The UAE has perhaps been the most able player for some years now in the region in combining soft and hard power to advance its interests. It is a player throughout the region, from Libya and Sudan to Yemen to Syria. I am no partisan for the odious Assad regime but one can understand the logic of the UAE seeking to bring the regime in Damascus back into the Arab fold in order to blunt Iran's ambitions. Whether this can actually work is another question but one can only respect the breadth of their ambition. The UAE has worked hard, and successfully, to position itself even beyond the Middle East as a voice on religious tolerance – see the Abrahamic Family House complex which came out of the 2019 Document on Human Fraternity signed in Abu Dhabi – and on climate change with the hosting of the COP28 climate change talks later this year.

Perhaps the biggest change in effective diplomacy has come from Saudi Arabia, long an under performer that spent much in the past and got little to show for it historically. Under the leadership of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) – much derided in the West but also underestimated – the Saudis seem to have settled into an effective rhythm combing steps toward internal reform, rebranding and marketing, and real diplomacy such as the recent comprehensive security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.[1] Again, the effort to wean strategically important Iraq away from Iranian tutelage may not ultimately work, but it is smart politics to try to do so. Saudi Arabia's pledge at the recent Davos World Economic Forum to end "unconditional" foreign aid that was often wasted or counterproductive was also overdue. It certainly was a message that needed to be heard in places like Ramallah and Beirut, traditional Saudi money black holes.[2]

The Saudis in 2022 also showed their hardball diplomatic and media chops during the visit of President Joe Biden and in having Turkey's Erdoğan also come hat in hand to Riyadh after years of Turkish provocations against the Kingdom (and against the UAE and Egypt).[3] It is the Americans that have had to tone down and adapt their policies on Saudi Arabia and not the other way around.[4] Both the Saudis and Emiratis have handled the tension involving the Russia-Ukraine War and America's obsessions in that conflict rather well, not burning their bridges with anyone. And, of course, in all three of these countries a new approach toward Israel has been part of an independent and assertive foreign policy. The UAE enthusiastically and openly and Morocco more gradually have moved in that direction. And while Saudi Arabia has been more cautious and will likely continue to be so, the trend towards better – for the time discrete and indirect – relations with Israel is obvious as well.

As for Qatar, the wild card in the bunch, it has also been very successful in its diplomacy, to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. Their priorities have consisted in enabling the Taliban and Islamist political and terrorist groups, fronting for Erdogan and for Iran while at the same time finding ways to seem to be useful to the West, in a way serving simultaneously as both arsonist and fireman. Here Qatar is motivated not so much by a national interest but by an overriding ideological one – Islamism – which differentiates it from the three other states in both its worldview, agenda, and in the destructive and destabilizing nature of its policies.

Qatar is in a sense the oldest when it comes to its policies. Its predictable support for Islamism goes back decades (indeed decades ago the Saudis and the Emiratis, before radically altering their paths, used to support some of the same extremists that the Qataris still embrace) and they are just continuing to do what they have done before.

The new energy and the vision reside in the other three states where this new assertiveness and clarity aims to extend and deepen its influence, change conditions to benefit national interests and bring, if not reform (although reform is essential) some sort of move toward stability and progress in a region that has seen neither and still totters on the edge. All three are trying to do things worth watching.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], accessed February 21, 2023.

[3] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 396, Biden's Saudi Close-Up, July 11, 2022.

[4], February 18, 2023.

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