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The Arab Approach to Mediation—Reshaping Diplomacy in a Multipolar World

The Arab Approach to Mediation—Reshaping Diplomacy in a Multipolar World

Given their unique cultural concepts and major economic and political clout, the Gulf states are poised to play an even more significant role in future peace and security initiatives.

The increasing engagement of Gulf states in mediation efforts is a testament to the growing influence of middle powers in international politics. It is also a reflection of the struggle of traditional mediators to adapt to the complexities of an increasingly multipolar, interconnected, and networked world.

Amidst the growing need for cooperation in conflict resolution, the current system of international relations is strained by the burden of longstanding and emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic rivalries. In this context, new actors like the Gulf states are stepping into the international mediation arena, playing a significant role in filling the gaps left by traditional powers. Their fresh perspectives on conflict resolution in an increasingly complex world are invaluable.

Traditional powerhouses in mediation, such as the United States and European nations, sometimes find their tried-and-tested methods ill-suited to the specifics of new conflicts, deeply rooted in local contexts and regional power dynamics. Their approach to mediation, which often relies on formal, structured, and legalistic processes, may need to be more flexible to adapt to these conflicts’ fluid and dynamic nature. Moreover, the history of political, economic, and military involvement in conflict regions, which can lead to a perception of bias or vested interests, makes it increasingly difficult for some countries to be seen as neutral and impartial mediators. Under the pressure of public opinion, prioritizing quick, tangible results may push for rapid settlements that do not adequately address the underlying root causes of conflicts. This approach often stems from a lack of sensitivity to historical drivers, a culture of ‘progress’ at all costs, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach to both political and governance systems. Such an approach has inhibited effectiveness and is not shared by regional actors. In contrast, the Gulf states’ mediation style may be better suited to navigating these challenges.

Gulf countries have been critical in mediation efforts across regional and international disputes. For instance, Qatar has been active, with its successful mediation in the 2008 Lebanese crisis, hosting the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, and most recently mediating between Israel and Hamas. Kuwait played a crucial role in attempting to resolve Qatar’s feud with some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries from 2017 to 2021. Saudi Arabia has traditionally tried to mediate the intra-Palestinian conflict with the Mecca Agreement and hosting the Jeddah talks between warring Sudanese factions. Oman’s discreet diplomacy facilitated the early discussions between the United States and Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. The United Arab Emirates has actively stepped into the mediation arena, notably with its pivotal role in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement in 2018, facilitating prisoner-of-war exchanges between Russia and Ukraine and in the multilateral arena by hosting the COP28 summit in Dubai.

An obvious starting point would be to consider the mediation style of Gulf countries and why it might be more appropriate for the current geopolitical turmoil. Although defining a specific ‘style’ of mediation and conflict resolution may be premature, several common elements are emerging. One such element is the concept of “Sulh,” a traditional Arab method of conflict resolution that emphasizes reconciliation and restoration of relationships. This concept, deeply rooted in the Arab culture, plays a significant role in shaping the Gulf’s mediation style. Nonetheless, each country contributes its unique cultural and historical perspective, which defines its added value to international efforts. Many factors, ranging from the role of the majlis and the concept of Sulh to more modern factors like the federal structure of the United Arab Emirates, the region’s foreign policy of multiple overlapping alliances, or its strong links with the Global North and South outline the emerging style of Gulf mediation and conflict resolution.

Some analysts opine that the personal nature characteristic of the Gulf’s mediation approach is intertwined with its monarchical governance, where decisionmaking is highly centralized. This stability, they argue, allows for a consistent approach to policy and diplomacy, including mediation efforts, which could be advantageous when cultivating trust and understanding among conflicting parties.

However, attributing the Gulf’s mediation style solely to its political system might overlook a more profound cultural inclination toward fostering enduring relationships to resolve conflicts. In contrast to the more Western focus on swiftly identifying problems and executing interventions, the Gulf approach significantly emphasizes the slow and careful building of trust and rapport.

The Distinctive Features of the Gulf’s Mediation Style

There is a growing recognition in the Gulf of the symbiotic relationship between regional stability and national prosperity. This is most evident in the United Arab Emirates, which has focused on de-escalation and normalization with the region’s vital states—namely Iran, Israel, Turkey, Qatar, and Syria—and focused on diversifying its economy. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s de-escalation with Iran is part of a more significant foreign policy focus on supporting its socio-economic development plan, Vision 2030.

As all countries in the region strive towards a future beyond hydrocarbons, they are increasingly aware that sustainable economic diversification relies on peace and security in the region and beyond. Thus, the Gulf states’ involvement in mediation is as much about contributing to a regional agreement as it is about protecting their economic interests, resource supply lines, trade routes, and ultimately, the success of their economic diversification strategies.

This focus on stability—a departure from Western nations’ approach that typically centers on promoting democratic values and human rights in conflict resolution efforts—is a key aspect of the Gulf states’ mediation strategy. Their approach is more pragmatic and less prescriptive, which can provide a sense of reassurance in the face of complex conflicts.

The Gulf states have also cultivated distinctive approaches to mediation characterized by discretion and a focus on forming enduring relationships. This method is rooted in the sociocultural fabric of the region, where diplomacy is often conducted away from the public eye and where the subtleties of negotiation are valued over overt displays of disagreement. It is an approach steeped in Arab tradition. By emphasizing this style, the Gulf states have become adept at offering a secure and trustworthy environment for conflicting parties who may be wary of the potential repercussions of high-profile public diplomacy.

From a country that almost intervened on the side of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s Iraq-Iran War by allowing its facilities to be used for Iraqi strikes against Iran to the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East,’ Oman has embraced the role of a backchannel and quiet facilitator. In 1980, the United States had to mediate to avert Oman’s involvement in the strikes on Iran. In 2015, Oman helped quietly broker the U.S.-Iran deal that led to the JCPOA, turning it into what James Worrall has aptly called an ‘interlocutor state,’ a term that refers to a state that acts as a mediator or facilitator in international negotiations, often due to its perceived neutrality and diplomatic skills.

This focus on discretion and quiet diplomacy has also characterized the UAE’s successful effort to mediate the largest exchange of prisoners of war between Russia and Ukraine in January 2024. Most recently, it has also been critical to ensure agreement between the European Commission, Cyprus, the United States, and the United Kingdom on activating the maritime corridor to deliver humanitarian assistance to Gaza. During its two-year successful tenure in the UN Security Council (2022-2023), the UAE focused on being a “bridge builder” between the Global North and South while representing Middle Eastern sensitivities and demonstrating that national interest can be subtly served through altruism. This approach has successfully gained support for their initiatives by adopting a “positive” mediation style that focuses on achieving broad objectives rather than maintaining rigid redline positions.

In this vein, it is essential to note that the Gulf states’ approach to conflict resolution is not only strategic but also culturally sensitive. The emphasis on consensus-based solutions reflects a deep understanding of the importance of face-saving in diplomatic relations, particularly in a region where honor and reputation carry significant weight. Quiet diplomacy, which operates on mutual respect and confidentiality principles, has proven particularly effective in resolving disputes that might otherwise escalate under the harsh spotlight of social media polarization and global attention. It is worth noting that these methodologies do not adopt the common Western carrot and stick approach, partly due to a cultural antipathy to this tactic and partly because it is not so obviously available. Instead, the Gulf states leverage their economic strength as middle powers with a more potent tool than the political-military prowess of superpowers.

Moreover, the Gulf states’ mediation approach is more than just about brokering deals; it is about fostering relationships. These nations believe that conflict resolution is not a singular event but a process that requires nurturing understanding, cooperation, and interdependence among former adversaries. Qatar, for example, has received widespread attention for facilitating the Afghan peace agreement in 2020 and, most recently, brokering the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza. Its ability to take on such high-profile mediations is shaped by its long-term relationships with the Taliban and Hamas. Doha has been adamant that it has engaged in these high-profile cases at the request of the United States. Long-term relationship building is critical to the Gulf’s approach, not just in the high-profile examples above. Saudi Arabia’s longstanding relationship with Sudan is instrumental in bringing together the warring factions in the Jeddah process. Similarly, the UAE’s deep relationship with Egypt and Ethiopia has allowed it to mediate the GERD dispute between the two countries.

The Gulf states’ strategic positions as crossroads endow them with symbolic and practical roles as bridges in international affairs. This geographic advantage, combined with their robust international trade relations and ambitions to become global hubs for business and innovation, adds substantial layers of influence and capability to their mediation efforts.

The significance of these attributes for the Gulf’s approach to mediation—focus on stability and economic interests, discretion and confidentiality, and consensus-building—cannot be overstated. In conflict-ridden regions, where the balance of power is delicate or the potential for miscommunication and escalation is high, the role of a mediator should extend beyond mere facilitation of dialogue. The Gulf states’ commitment to such principles has thus transformed their mediation services into a valuable diplomatic tool, one that is sought after for its ability to produce outcomes that are both effective and respectful of the parties’ needs for privacy and trust.

The Gulf states, each with unique foreign policy nuances, share a foundational approach to conflict resolution deeply rooted in cultural values of honor and consensus. However, there are also subtle differences.

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