Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya on August 16, 2020. Photo: AFP / Jack Guez

After the dramatic announcement of the intention on the part of the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations with Israel, which has given rise to extensive and mostly positive commentary in the Western press, in another dramatic move, the UAE sent planes from its air force to join in training maneuvers with the Greek air force.

It is natural that this development would arouse less interest in the media and among the commentariat. Nevertheless, its significance, along with the announcement by a top Israeli military official that Turkey is an even more dangerous threat to Israel and the region than Iran, cannot be overstated.  

It is in light of this assessment that the gesture by the UAE should be seen – namely that it is another move in the chess game being played in the Middle East currently, in which two distinct blocs are being formed, innately hostile to each other and with the potential at any time to break out into armed action.

An informal coalition is in the process of being formed, potentially including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and eventually Saudi Arabia, facing an equally informal, but very real, opposing coalition, comprising Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, with Jordan and Kuwait for the time being maintaining an uneasy neutral position.

There is every reason to believe that the two blocs will harden and that confrontations will continue and become more serious over time.

It is assumed in all this that the current pathetic excuse for a government in Jerusalem will manage not to derail the normalization with the UAE – by avoiding in future such egregious mistakes as emphasizing publicly that the nascent agreement does not permit the US to sell F-35s to the UAE, promptly denied by Washington.

Which brings us to the question of the role in all this of countries outside the region, namely the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, and various European states.

Under President Donald Trump’s administration the position of the US is unequivocal – strong support for the anti-Turkish/Iranian coalition. The fact that the influence of the US in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East has lessened should not be over-emphasized: The US is still very active diplomatically and has significant air and naval forces in the region, which it is not hesitant to use. 

The US may be a wounded giant, but it remains a giant nevertheless, and the rest of the world would do well to remember it.

More to the point is the fact that as of January 20, 2021, the Trump administration may well be replaced by a Joe Biden administration. Should that be the case, there is little doubt that the desire and willingness of the new administration in Washington to intervene on the side of the Saudi/Israeli/UAE/etc coalition against the Iranian/Turkish coalition would significantly lessen, and that former president Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Iran would be renewed.

Pakistan is strongly on the Iranian-Turkish side, but Pakistan itself is in such a weakened state that its role will inevitably be minor.

The significance of the positions taken by China and Russia is more enigmatic. China is clearly interested in increasing its presence in the Middle East/eastern Mediterranean regions, through its Belt and Road Initiative and naval bases in Gwadar, on the Pakistani coast, and Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea. 

It enjoys excellent relations with Israel, to the discomfort of the US, and with the Arab Gulf states. It also has friendly relations with Iran and Turkey, however, so that its overall strategy is likely to be one of attempting to remain on reasonably good terms with both emerging coalitions, an attempt that may or may not prove feasible in the medium term.

The future role of Russia is more significant. Russia under President Vladimir Putin has achieved strategic dominance in the Black Sea and has succeeded in creating a significant presence in the eastern Mediterranean, with military intervention in the Syrian civil war and naval and air bases on the Syrian coast. 

It, along with France, supports the Greek/Cypriot position with reference to the Turkish attempt to create an “economic” zone of dominance in the eastern Mediterranean, stretching from the Bosporus to Libya, threatening not only Greece and Cyprus, but also Egypt. 

Russia maintains good relations with Israel and the Gulf states, but also has reasonable relations with Turkey and Iran. In other words, Putin’s continued ability to juggle with the various forces in the region will be severely tested in the future.

Taking all these factors into consideration, it is clear that the opposing coalitions will continue to coalesce (barring regime change in one or another of the players). Outside influence will continue to be ambivalent, especially if Biden wins the election in November in the US. The likelihood of eventual armed conflict between the coalitions will inevitably force outside actors to take sides or forfeit any influence over the outcome. 

It has been said that the only thing we know nothing about is the future, and in this case the future is a mixture of very clear and very obscure.

Norman A Bailey is the author of numerous books and articles and recipient of several honorary degrees, medals and awards and two orders of knighthood. He also teaches economic statecraft at The Institute of World Politics and has experience on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House, in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and in business, consulting and finance. He is professor of economics and national security at the National Security Studies Center, University of Haifa, and a columnist for Globes, the Israeli business and financial newspaper.

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