Some Arab states do not have any geopolitical priorities, because over the past decade they have lost their cohesion, been effectively divided, or their central authorities have been acutely diluted to the benefit of non-state actors, as the first article in this series presented.

Of the Arab states that retain their cohesion and the power of their central authorities, three groups are the most important in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The first group comprises Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan. This group is trying to retain the primary features of the geopolitical order that has prevailed in the Middle East and North Africa in the past three decades, since the end of the Cold War. This is because these countries have had, to varying extents, significant influence over that order.

In their operations on the Middle Eastern geographical theatre, these countries try to maintain some pan-Arab cooperation on important international affairs dossiers. In their calculus, any form of collective Arab functioning – even if limited - gives momentum to the geopolitical order of the past decades.

Political collectivism helps these countries. Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia face serious internal socioeconomic challenges, which consume resources and attention. Each of them also confronts a set of national security challenges, from the operations of non-state actors on their borders, to threats to crucial resources such as water, to drug trafficking problems. And so, in their attempts to sustain forms of strategic cooperation between the Arab states that continue to retain geographic cohesion and effective central authority, this group of Arab states try to leverage on collective Arab capabilities to compensate for the dilution of resources they often experience as a result of their tackling the national security dangers and economic challenges that they confront.

A second group of Arab states comprises Algeria and Morocco, which despite the acute differences in their conceptions of national security, share a key geopolitical feature. Whereas the strategic positioning of the first group of Arab states remains primarily anchored on Middle Eastern geopolitics, Algeria and Morocco increasingly have strategic orientations that transcend the region.

Algeria aims to become a primary energy provider to Europe, a role that will likely focus its attention in the foreseeable future on the north, Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Morocco, on the other hand, has headed south. In the past decade, Morocco has successfully entrenched its political, economic, and cultural presence in Sub-Saharan, Francophone Western Africa.

The third group of Arab states comprises those in the Arabian Peninsula. All of them have managed not only to emerge from the decade since the Arab uprisings sociopolitically cohesive and with strong central authorities; the most internationally ambitious of them – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - have also widened their influence in different parts of the Arab world in ways unprecedented in modern Arab history.

This was largely because a long period of relatively high energy prices has endowed the Arabian Peninsula states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with immense financial resources that have enabled them to operate in the region and beyond with almost no limitations. Add to that that these financial resources came at a time when both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been under highly ambitious and assertive leaders.

Operating without the shackles of limited resources has endowed these states with confidence and attracted to them regional players – especially power centres in finance and media - that want to associate themselves with seemingly unlimited wealth, and with boats that the tides have taken to glorious highs.

But the primary strategic differentiator of this group of states in the Arabian Peninsula is that they aim to evolve the geopolitical order of the region from the one that had prevailed in the decades before the Arab uprisings that began in 2010/2011.

Political economy plays a paramount role here. The Arabian Peninsula states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, deem their political economy models successful and compatible with today’s world. Political economy is always a shaper of geopolitics. In presenting themselves as models of success, and in being by far the richest player in a region plagued by acute socioeconomic problems, the Arabian Peninsula states position themselves as a frame of reference for others in the region. For those that adopt that frame of reference, the supposed promise is transformation from lethargy and chronic laggardness towards dynamism and relevance in a world changing at a disorienting pace.

The ambitions of the Arabian Peninsula states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, go beyond the Arab world and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to forge new interlinked interests with rising powers, such as India and South Africa, primarily anchored on trade, finance, and technology, and subsequently on shared security. These interests are not based on what is often referred to as “the grievances of the global south”. On the contrary, these interests reflect the shared ambitions of powers that see themselves as poised for further rises and wider influence.

In attempting to evolve the geopolitical order of the Middle East, and in linking themselves to other rising powers in the world, the ambitious Arabian Peninsula countries – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are changing their positioning with regard to the global powers: the US, China, and the EU. They are transforming the old relationships that were based on energy for security, towards new partnerships in which the Arabian Peninsula countries have serious say in the geopolitics of regions they consider of importance to their security and ambitions, particularly the eastern Mediterranean, east Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as the key trading routes linking Asia with Europe.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also aim to be voices listened to in key international policy dossiers, particularly the future of renewable energy and the global financial system.

However, these highly ambitious Arabian Peninsula states, like the countries of the first and second Arab groups, face two major geopolitical challenges. As the next article in this series will show, the first challenge is that regional non-Arab powers - Iran, Turkey, and Israel - see the current geopolitical moment in the eastern Mediterranean as extremely important for them, and each has geopolitical objectives that are not necessarily compatible with the interests of the Arab groups. The second challenge is that the key international powers - the US, China, and the European Union - see the region extending from the Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean, to North Africa, in ways vastly different from how they regarded and operated it in the past half century.