From Cold War to Regional Reconciliation: The New Pragmatism in the Middle East 

The new pragmatism in the Middle East is leading to a regional reconciliation process that, though some critics doubt it, is showing signs that it can sustain itself in the near future.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Tehran, Iran, June 17, 2023. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

“The region has always had problems—but it’s now almost past the point of recovery,” wrote Steven A. Cook, a scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, in the 2020 article The End of Hope in the Middle East. Cook despaired of the region and all but wrote it off. The only positive development, he observed, was the recent normalization between a few Arab states and Israel.

However, the situation is different today. In today’s Middle East, there is a discernible pattern that could be described as a pragmatic trend to resolve regional disputes, be they military or political. Will this development endure to form a pragmatic peace in the Middle East, or is it a flash in the pan with the region likely to revert to its old games of inter-state conflict and great power competition? At this moment all bets are off. There are, however, hopeful signs that the current reconciliation processes between rival states will persist in the short to the medium run.

A Cold War in the Middle East

Two decades ago, the Middle East witnessed what can be termed a cold war between different state actors. The consequences of the Arab Winter of Discontent (2010-2011), otherwise known as the Arab Spring, accentuated the chasm between these actors. The causes are deep-rooted in threat perception, challenges, and opportunities presented in the changing landscape of the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Position

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the presumed status quo powers, did not totally oppose the Arab upheavals. In Libya, GCC countries were directly involved militarily to bring down Qaddafi’s regime. The GCC duly mediated the change in Yemen and eased Ali Abdulla Saleh out of power. The Arab Gulf States mostly supported the revolt in Syria and lent a helping hand to the rebels. In the cases of Bahrain and Egypt, the GCC forces propped up the Bahraini government and, with the exception of Qatar, demurred the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In other words, the GCC’s position on the Arab Revolts was far more nuanced than observers make it out to be. However, the consequences of the Arab Revolts drew the lines of confrontations between the parties and deepened the cold war that was already underway in the region. Turkey saw an opportunity in the rise of political Islam and a vehicle to expand its influence. Iran’s expansion into Yemen after the Houthi coup and its intervention in the Syrian civil war provoked the GCC—especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence was growing in Iraq by the day, and Lebanon was perceived as under the control of Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy. Iranian officials claiming that four Arab capitals are controlled by Tehran did not help assuage fears in the Gulf.

The war in Yemen was an unfortunate consequence of the revolts. The Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE was already fuming from Iran’s interference in Arab affairs. Then to have the Houthis—perceived to be an Iranian proxy—overturn all the efforts by the GCC to stabilize Yemen resulted in the launching of a military operation in 2015 to prevent the Houthis’ expansion to the south and to threaten Saudi southern borders.

Sectarianism and the Instrumentalization of Religious Sentiment

The most lethal dimension of the regional cold war is the geopolitical conflict with sectarianism in the blend. The region saw the rise of tensions between Sunni and Shiite. The war in Yemen, the sectarian confrontation in Lebanon, the Shiite domination of Iraq, Bahrain’s elites’ response to the Shiite movement, and the civil strife in Syria have all, among other elements, contributed to sectarian contention. In such a conflict, no one wins. The flames of ethnic and sectarian divisions are easy to start but hard to quench—ask the Irish, the Somalis, and the Lebanese.

The other front, as a consequence of the Arab Revolts, was the rise of Political Islam backed by only one Gulf state, Qatar, as well as Turkey. Both countries believed that Political Islam is a winning horse and they bet on the trend but eventually failed to make a killing. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates saw the Islamists as sworn enemies of the Arab Gulf monarchies and stood fast to staunch it in its own tracks.

Qatar faced some Arab countries’ opprobrium because of its support for the Muslim Brothers. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain boycotted the principality in 2017 for allegedly destabilizing and undermining the regional order. Qatar in turn upped the ante and forged alliances with regional foes Iran and Turkey. The divisions deepened and the swords were drawn. The region was on the brink of war had it not been for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s intervention at the last moment in the summer of 2017.

As the cold war was raging in the Middle East, COVID-19 hit hard at the region and the world. Economic woes and climate change had devastated already fractured lands. The realization that when it comes to the pandemic and climate change, nobody gets well unless everybody gets well was a factor that led the region toward pragmatism. Political exhaustion and perception of the US withdrawal from the region also contributed to this new direction.

A Conciliatory Mood

The third decade of the century began on a high note. Top GCC leaders and Egypt gathered in AlUla in Saudi Arabia to sort out disputes among boycotting states and Qatar. The gathering reached a positive conclusion when it signed the AlUla Declaration to “achieve coordination and integration between the Member States in all fields to eventually reach a union of states.”


Turkey formed one side of the triangle of the regional cold war alongside Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey had many trials and tribulations from 2011 to 2021 during the lost decade of the cold war, when the region was polarized and civil wars broke out in several states. Its hopes for accession to the EU were dashed. Ankara faced a coup that could have toppled Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. Political Islam’s fortunes became well-nigh moribund. The economy, once Erdoğan’s single most important achievement, tanked as the lira lost its value precipitously. Relations with Washington went south, especially under Donald Trump. Saudis, Egyptians, and Emiratis formed a front to contain Turkey’s attempt to dominate the region, which was dubbed “neo-Ottomanism” by these states. On top of all that, COVID-19 took its toll on Turkey, as the number of tourists visiting Turkey dwindled.

The combined effect of all these forces at work made Ankara rethink its foreign policy. Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE has started in earnest. Erdoğan played host to the UAE’s leader Mohammed bin Zayed in November 2021. The UAE committed billions of dollars in investment to Turkey to shore up its faltering economy. The relationship took off to new heights when Erdoğan visited Abu Dhabi in February 2022.

During his visit, the Turkish president declared, “It gives me great pleasure witnessing the recent acceleration in high-level contacts between the two countries and the visit of my dear brother His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, last November to Turkey”

Likewise, relations with Saudi Arabia have seen a marked improvement. Erdoğan paid a visit to Saudi Arabia and met both the King and his heir apparent in June 2022 to break Turkey’s isolation and Saudi unofficial boycott of the former’s goods. It was the economy that ultimately pushed Ankara toward a pragmatic entente. Tukey’s economy saw its worst record since Erdoğan came to power two decades ago. According to historian Pınar Dost and analyst Jonathan Panikoff, “Improving economic relations with Saudi Arabia is expected to contribute to easing the economic pressure on Turkey.” Worsening tourism and commercial ties between the two nations led to normalization, which was hoped “to bolster both trade and tourism between the two countries.”

The Saudis saw an opportunity in opening up to Turkey. Besides its huge economy, Turkey is an important and powerful regional state. Its membership in NATO and aspiration to be part of the EU is a significant political and military asset.

In addition, Turkey—from Riyadh’s perspective—is a sizable Sunni country flanking a Shiite and revolutionary Iran who has regional and nuclear ambitions. Turkey is a potential counterbalance to Iran’s ambition for regional hegemony. “It isn’t a coincidence that this rapprochement is happening at a time when Turkey-Iran tensions are growing both in Iraq and Syria,” write Dost and Panikoff.

Another dimension in this matter is Egypt’s reconciliation with Turkey. Erdoğan’s Turkey played host to the exiled opposition of the Muslim Brothers. The latter set up shop to launch their media campaign on President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his government. Now, however, with the reconciliation process underway, the Turkish government restricted Muslim Brotherhood-aligned media outlets from criticizing Egypt and el-Sisi.


The third side of the cold war triangle is Iran—perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the enfant terrible of the region since the 1979 revolution that swept the Shah from power. The regional perception of Iran is of a revolutionary riddle, wrapped in a theocratic mystery, inside a geopolitical enigma—to paraphrase Winston Churchill.  On one hand, it peddles Shiite ideology, and on the other, it backs Christian Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan. It declared the US the great Satan and was ready to trade arms with it, even with Israel—which it termed the little Satan—as intermediary.

All the same, Iran is part of the regional equation, and cannot be disregarded. The GCC countries by and large consider Iran a major threat in the region which imposes its will on countries like Iraq and Syria, or by using proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

The UAE made a significant drawdown of its forces from the Yemen War in 2019, leaving only small numbers behind. A meeting between Emirati and Iranian coast guards took place afterward, which served as an opening to a more diplomatic process. The famous visit to Tehran in December 2021 by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, UAE national security advisor, was the crowning of the new thaw in the relationship.

The new pragmatism in the region drew the conflicting parties together. Although the UAE arrived earlier in Tehran, the recent Saudi-Iranian agreement in Beijing under the auspices of the Chinese was the biggest breakthrough in the region; unable to dominate the other, they moved to manage their differences.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, its ambitious leader Mohammed bin Salman has a vision to transform the country economically, culturally, and by extension, in terms of its foreign policy. The 2030 Vision is about “Saudi dreams of becoming a regional and global hub especially for cloud computing, logistics, trade, and industry,” according to political scientist Yasmine Farouk. Diversifying away from oil by investing in other sectors of the economy like tourism is a strategic goal of the Kingdom.

The Houthis launching Iran-provided missiles into Saudi territory does not align with such a vision. Did the Beijing agreement have a clause on ending the grinding war in Yemen? According to one report by Al-Monitor, a “Saudi official said the talks produced ‘concrete commitments’ on Yemen, but he would not disclose them.”

The Wall Street Journal also confirmed that Iran committed itself “to halt covert weapons shipments to its Houthi allies in Yemen as part of a China-brokered deal to re-establish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.” Sure enough, a Saudi delegation accompanied by Omani officials arrived shortly in Sana’a. Prisoner swaps ensued immediately, and the prospects of ending the war never looked better.

Iran has its set of motives to enter into such an agreement. First, the Houthis are mere pawns in Iran’s regional chess game. The commitment to the Houthis is not like that of either Syria or Hezbollah. Secondly, Iran has faced external pressures for its nuclear program, and what some see as malign activities. Thirdly, Iran’s economic woes have produced widespread popular opposition to the regime. Every now and then, the Iranian government has to crack down on protest movements for one issue or another. Lastly, soon Iran will go through a leadership transition, and factions are jockeying for power. No government can fight on two fronts. A reconciliation with the neighbors bodes well for a smooth changing of the guard.

After Iran and Saudi Arabia restore their ambassadors, the only remaining major player in the region lacking relations with Iran on the highest level would be Egypt.

Egyptian-Iranian relations were always fraught since the early days of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. The late president of Egypt, Anwar El-Sadat, gave the deposed Shah refuge in Egypt. Not to be outdone by Cairo, Iran later named a street in Tehran after Sadat’s assassin.

Egypt is not the regional center of gravity it used to be, with that center seen by many to have moved to the Gulf. However, Egypt carries weight in interregional politics. Cairo is the seat of the Arab League and its influence is widespread in the region and beyond. Iran knows the importance of having friendly ties with the largest Arab country that sits at the heart of the Arab World. Any rapprochement in the region is incomplete without Egypt. Iran always sought good relations with Egypt, but Cairo was reticent or unwilling.

Recently with the new trends hovering over the region, Oman’s Sultan, Haitham bin Tarik, succeeded in mediating the conflict between the two countries, and both countries are expected to tie a diplomatic knot. For normalizing its relationship with Iran, Egypt hopes that Tehran will rein in its Palestinian allies, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Such a reconciliation would strengthen the pragmatic peace in the region, lowering hostilities to mere tensions and possibly foster positive relations.

Even Bahrain is bandwagoning with the rest and has started talks with Iran. Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state, told lawmakers that Bahrain would restore diplomatic relations with Iran soon. That is a very significant step, given Bahrain’s avowed enmity toward Iran. One, verily, will be remiss if they do not heed the multiple signals coming from the region.


A corollary to the new trend, Syria’s rehabilitation and return to the Arab fold was underway. The UAE again led the way. Bashar Al-Assad paid a visit to the UAE twice. However, he was brought in from the cold by the new winds gusting over the region. It is an irony that many Arab countries were hard at work to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran, and now Iran is a factor in reintegrating Syria into the Arab World.

Assad found his seat at the Arab League summit last month in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. Arab states—except Qatar, Kuwait, and Morocco—were ready to let bygones be bygones. According to analysts Giorgio Cafiero and Emily Milliken, “The move is a pragmatic one, with Riyadh and other Arab capitals choosing to deal with Damascus based on how they perceive their countries’ national interests”—The Western strategy to isolate Syria is unsustainable and counterproductive.

Mirage or Oasis?

The question remains, are all of these movements going to amount to real change or a passing moment spurred by circumstances that will soon fade? To be sure, circumstances change, the process is dynamic, and only time will tell. Nevertheless, it does look like there is enough political will and real interest by all actors to bridge gaps and make amends. Already there are practical signs besides the declarations of intentions. Earlier this month, Iran announced a “naval alliance with Gulf states to ensure regional stability.” More foreign investments are flowing from the Gulf States to Turkey and Iran. Syria is getting aid from the Arab countries like never before. The Houthis are willing to extend the ceasefire and talk about ending the war. The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister held talks in June with E3 counterparts (Germany, Britain, France) in Abu Dhabi, not Europe, to discuss “a range of issues and mutual concerns.” The pouring of aid from Arab countries to both Syria and Turkey after the horrendous earthquake was staggering—to mention but a few examples of the new trend in the region.

As indicated earlier, the region has to face the music of climate change, health security issues, and economic decline. Even Gulf states, which are more economically successful because of huge oil returns, are realizing the necessity of accepting the bitter bill of economic reform: oil is depletable and technology might make it obsolete.

Nevertheless, cynics are casting doubt on the recent diplomatic activities. Cook, the ever-despondent of the Middle East, questioned the durability of the positive diplomatic buzz. He recently wrote that what he doesn’t “buy is that this recent flurry of diplomacy heralds some new era of peace, love, and understanding in the Middle East”. Moreover, he insists that “the various resets and outreach underway in the region are merely another means by which its leaders can pursue the same competition and conflicts of the past decade.” Cook ends his article with a declaration, ex-cathedra, that the Middle East’s “kumbaya moment will not last.”

It is too early to reach a decisive conclusion on what is going on. Nonetheless, it looks like a new dawn of pragmatic peace is descending upon the region; too much political capital has been expended on the new regional rapprochement to leave it to peter out.

Regional dynamics will govern the direction the normalization will go. It is a ship in troubled water and sails have to be set according to changes in the weather.

One dynamic that will have an influence is great power competition. Washington has been sidelined throughout the recent diplomatic activity, but it will be a mistake if regional actors believe the US is already irrelevant. In a leaked document, the Saudi crown prince vowed to “not deal with the U.S. administration anymore,” and threatened, “major economic consequences for Washington.” How that will play out in the region is a guessing game. The region, especially the Gulf, is too important for the US to allow one power to dominate—as the fierce competition with China is soaring—be it Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Israel.

Israeli Frustration

Israel, the known unknown, to borrow the late defense secretary Ronald Rumsfeld’s words, is an important part of the dynamic of the region and the recent developments. Benjamin Netanyahu is frustrated at what is happening. He hoped for normalization with the Saudis to score a big diplomatic win and increase Iran’s isolation. The wishes of a realignment and change from an Arab-Israeli conflict to an Arab-Iranian conflict have evaporated because of the Iran-Saudi Arabia entente. Instead, Iran emerged from its isolation and Israel feels cornered, as a recent article explained.

Netanyahu has been warmongering about Iran’s nuclear program, and otherwise blasted the IAEA for saying that “Iran had given a satisfactory answer to explain one of three sites at which uranium particles had been detected.” To put his money where his mouth is, The Israeli Prime Minister carried what was described as “a rare cabinet war drill”. Netanyahu averred that Iran will only yield to military pressure. “Israel has redoubled threats to launch preemptive military strikes if international diplomacy fails.”

If Israel starts a war in the region by attacking Iran or its proxy, Hezbollah, then the pragmatic trend will most likely dissipate. An attack on Iran and a retaliation by Iran might drag the US into the conflict. The Biden administration is not looking to pick a fight with Iran. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, two analysts, Eric Brewer and Henry Rome, claimed that Biden “shied away” from “heaping economic, political, and military pressure on Tehran,” as many have advocated for, including Israeli officials.

Another development that would rile Israelis and could make them jump the gun is a secret new deal between Washington and Tehran, which is a ‘less for less’ gambit. A report by risk analysts the Rane Network’s Worldview says “that Iran and the United States are nearing an interim agreement that would see Iran reduce its uranium enrichment activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief”. The arrangement will oblige Iran to stop enriching up to 60 percent and continue to cooperate with the IAEA in exchange for access to Iran’s funds abroad and limited oil export.

Nonetheless, a US official warned that “Certain actions by Iran could lead us to a very dangerous situation; Iran and the world knows that, so we’ve been clear they should avoid escalatory actions to prevent a crisis”.

Then, there are the unknown unknowns, to use Rumsfeld’s words again. Those unexpected events could derail the entire pragmatic trend in the region. Though unexpected, examples of a general nature can be illustrated. Iran passing the uranium enrichment threshold would serve to reignite tensions in the region. A massive attack and occupation of the West Bank or a dissolution of the Palestinian authority may inflame hostilities with Israel. Great power competition could spill over into the region and redraw fault lines.

With these caveats in mind, one may cautiously be sanguine about the current developments in the new Middle East.

The relationship between the Abraham Accords and the pragmatic peace process is a curious one and worth exploring. Will both processes run parallel? Or will they intersect at some point? If the regional peace outpaces the Abraham Accords, which seems likely, it will eventually undermine it or render it obsolete. However, if a bridge is built between the two, the two processes may reinforce each other. That bridge, too far now, is finding a genuine solution to the problem of Palestine. Relaunching the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis with a clear roadmap may serve as such a bridge. On this last point, however, one is a pessoptimist, to borrow a word from the late Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi.