Mideast Reorders Amid Afghanistan Fallout

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• This week's US withdrawal from Afghanistan is triggering a reordering of regional and global power dynamics. • In the Mideast, the new dynamics could reinforce a shift away from adventurism amid concerns about the US' security guarantee. • Politically driven energy deals could also be favored for the added stability they appear to offer. Afghanistan itself was created as a strategic buffer between Russian and the UK's rivalry in what became known as the Great Game in the 19th century. In the 1980s, the country played a critical role in settling the fate of the Cold War. And now, the country has been propelled again to international prominence, with events of the last few weeks potentially to help decide who will dominate the Great Game of this century. America's strategic rivals, China and Russia, are strengthened by the nature of the US exit, as is Iran. But all are only too aware of the risks presented by the new Taliban regime and will work to minimize these (EC Aug.20'21). For US ally India, the Taliban's victory holds no silver lining whatsoever, with Chinese power enhanced and Islamic jihadism emboldened. And for Pakistan, the ostensible victory of its Taliban clients also brings with it risks of both domestic radicalization and potential conflict with arch-rival India. Gulf Detente Regionally, one immediate after-effect of the fast-track collapse of American power in Afghanistan has been a wholesale reassessment by Mideast Gulf states of their new security environment. A key initial conclusion has been to reinforce recent Gulf misgivings over the nature of the US security commitment. It is early days, but the signs are this will lead to greater regional self-reliance, less adventurism and a focus on avoiding unnecessary conflict -- all positive developments. The US exit from Afghanistan has added momentum to ongoing efforts at rehabilitating Abu Dhabi-Qatari and Abu Dhabi-Turkey relationships. Doha and Ankara have each hosted United Arab Emirates National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan in recent weeks, marking the highest ranking bilateral meetings in over 3½ years. A real thaw could be under way. Nothing was said about any bilateral meeting between Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers at last Sunday's Baghdad regional security summit (EC Apr.23'21). But logic would point to both Tehran and Riyadh seeing an increased need for regional de-escalation in the current uncertain times. And high-level attendance at the summit, including at heads of state level by Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and France, would suggest others too see a need for a closing of ranks. Gulf instincts as far as a deeper US drive to disengage from a hands-on role the region are probably on the money (EC Aug.13'21). But in the short to medium term, Washington is likely to be a robust and forceful defender of its security interests in the region as it seeks to visibly demonstrate that friend and foe should not extrapolate any wider US global capitulation from the messy Kabul exit. “If you are trying to get out of the Middle East, this is not the way to do it,” notes Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And air bases in Qatar and the UAE “arguably have become more important to the US in this next phase,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Rice University's Baker Institute. Politics Lead Mideast Energy Policy A less secure regional security environment should make for more state-to-state, high-level energy deals as Gulf states seek build up the economic resilience of their allies. To a certain extent, this is simply accelerating ongoing processes triggered by the energy transition (EC Aug.27'21). As on other key issues, the UAE appears to be responding quickest to the changes. The UAE provided asylum for Afghanistan's fleeing former president, Ashraf Ghani, but it clearly also wants to build a relationship with the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan. On Aug. 31, Abu Dhabi announced it was awarding Pakistani state firm PPL its first upstream block in the emirate. And notes Knights, UAE-backed projects -- a 1 gigawatt solar project promoted by Abu Dhabi's Masdar and a major real estate development on the Baghdad airport road -- are top of an Iraqi government to-do list. Iraq, for its part, is trying to rehabilitate its image as a graveyard for profitable oil investments and a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions. The summit was part of a push to get some major deals approved before elections in October. Events in Afghanistan have reinforced a need for major investment to keep a lid on seething popular resentment at the lack of economic progress. Concerns over US regional security commitment call for new foreign investment to make sure others have skin in the game (EC Aug.20'21). In addition to the Masdar deal, Baghdad is prioritizing a planned multiproject integrated deal with TotalEnergies. Total has long been looking for commercial terms that would enable a bigger Iraq investment footprint. Recent experience shows these integrated deals are extremely politically challenging to get over the line. But the strong energy transition focus of the Total deal, with 600 million cubic feet per day gas capture and 1 GW of solar components planned, should help. French security support could also play into Baghdad's calculations. “No matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight against terrorism,” French President Emmanuel Macron pledged at a Baghdad news conference. Mideast Mavericks Set to Benefit Qatar's policy of setting itself up as a mediator for radical groups such as the Taliban and Hamas has attracted criticism over the years. But in Afghanistan Doha has been vindicated, with Qatari mediation and facilitation efforts in the Kabul airlift widely perceived as being invaluable. Together with its ally Turkey, Qatar offers a critical line of communication to the Taliban and potential lever with which to influence the group. A proposal for joint Turkish-Qatari management of Kabul airport is being worked out. But even if it comes to nothing, it is clear that if this Taliban 2.0 has any future, Ankara and Doha will play pivotal roles. For Turkey, the Afghan crisis has thrown it a potential lifeline in its troubled relationship with the EU, with the latter viewing the threat of a flood of Afghan refugees the biggest threat. In such delicate regional circumstances, it is likely the US will postpone any confrontation with Ankara over its S-400 missile purchase from Russia (EC May14'21). Rafiq Latta, Nicosia

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