A New Regional Order

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak are seeing the region they used to lead slipping out of their grip and into that of new players.

The heat in Alexandria is not as fierce as it is in Cairo. It is even refreshing compared to the scorching record temperatures in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. For Abdullah, the Saudi king, who visited Hosni Mubarak's palace in Alexandria on Friday, the visit must have been a pleasant repose.

He was able to observe the thousands of Saudi nationals vacationing in Egypt, and maybe mumbled something about the more liberal demeanor displayed by female Saudi tourists in Egypt.

But the talk between Mubarak and Abdullah did not revolve around fashion or tourism. The two elderly leaders, Abdullah at 84 and Mubarak at 80, are seeing the region they used to lead slipping out of their grip and into that of new players - mavericks over whom they have no sway, bright new stars in the Middle Eastern skies.

These include Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is half their age; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is repositioning the former Ottoman Empire into power; and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is blazing like a menacing meteor over the Arab Middle East.

The cardinal Middle Eastern conflicts - between Israel and the Palestinians, within the Palestinian Authority, between Syria and Lebanon, between Syria and Israel, the Iraqi conflict, the Iranian threat - they have all changed hands and are now under new management.

Erdogan is involved in the Syrian-Israeli conflict, the U.S. is managing Iraq, and Qatar of all countries has stepped in to solve the Syrian-Lebanese crisis - despite being lampooned as an entity whose entire population can be accommodated in one five-star hotel.

As for the internal Palestinian dispute between Fatah and Hamas, one need only recall Mubarak's pathetic statement that, "Egypt has sent the invitations and is expecting the reply of both parties."

It is against the backdrop of Egypt's focus on its own affairs that one can fully appreciate Turkey's diplomatic boom.

Until just a fortnight ago, Erdogan was in danger of having his nomination nixed and his term cut short, had the constitutional court opted to shut down his party and ban him from politics for allegedly engaging in "anti-secular activity."

He only just narrowly escaped this threat, but like Popeye flexing his muscles after wolfing down a can of conserved spinach, Erdogan is posing for the cameras.

Last week the Syrian president came to spend a vacation chez Erdogan. On Wednesday the Turkish leader worked out a cooperation clause with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to prevent future crises in the Caucasus. On Thursday he hosted the Iranian president, and his foreign minister, Ali Babajan, is a regular visitor at the U.S. State Department in his capacity as mediator between Washington and Tehran.

But the change in the Middle East goes deeper than a personnel turnover in the ranks of those running the strategic regional game. A new Middle Eastern regional order is in the making.

It is an order that will have to fit into the context of the new cold war developing between Russia and United States, an order in which France in particular and Europe in general regard Iran as a secondary threat, second to Russia's brutal tour de force in the Caucasus. Such demeanor poses a threat for war on Europe's own borders.

But regardless of the advent of war, Europe is now at a point where it must make a decision concerning its dependence on Russian oil. The alternative is Iran, and so Tehran can expect to be handled with kid gloves. A few more sanctions, some more tedious negotiations, but nothing more than that.

That is, of course, in the hope and under the assumption that a new Iranian president will beat the former Tehran mayor in the race to head the Islamic Republic. Or, alternatively, that a new U.S. president will change the dialogue the U.S. is currently conducting vis-a-vis Iran.

It is into this plexus that Israel is interwoven. It may continue to threaten Iran and cajole European countries to downsize their trade with Tehran, it can clarify to Turkey the full repercussions of continuing to invest billions of dollars in a country that threatens Israel's existence - but it cannot act alone.

This is no longer a conflict between Israel and the Arabs, in which Israel sets the pace, the venues and the terms. This is the major league. Assad, interestingly enough, has already grasped the new rules of the game and taken full advantage of the free ride the French president offered him.

Erdogan has mastered the reigns of several vehicles, thereby transforming Turkey into a central regional axis. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in his chilling style, has transformed Iran into a nuclear power without ever producing so much as a single nuclear device.

Israel's young leaders could have easily attended the Abdullah-Mubarak summit in Alexandria. Deprived of vision and initiative, these two heads of state can do little but look around them with bewilderment as they see how everything and everyone is changing without ever asking them what they think about it.