Intertwined interests spur the rise of the ‘frenemy’
In business and the tech sector in particular, the description of rival market players has shifted from competitors to “frenemies,” with the line between friend and enemy becoming blurred. In interviews, the leaders of the largest companies, such as Facebook, Apple, Google owner Alphabet and Microsoft, have described this new business environment as fluid and rapidly changing. They have thus adapted from competition to “coopetition,” which indicates competition while collaborating on selected projects.
One may clearly see a resemblance with what is happening on the global geopolitical scene. Indeed, between rapid globalization and change, countries across geographies need to adapt to seize opportunities while protecting their national interests, starting with security and defense. This has often meant collaborating or cooperating with a traditional or historic enemy on specific files.
In the Middle East, where energy is at the heart of everything, pipeline projects have been an example of this need for versatility among political decision-makers, who now sometimes need to find hybrid formulas that did not exist in the past. This is also true on a global scale, where nations confront each other on certain issues but collaborate or at least stay neutral on others. A combined formula of geopolitical interests, economics and security has dictated the new rules.
It is, for example, interesting to notice the European nations’ position toward China. While encouraging and supporting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a game-changer for European and Asian trade growth on the one hand, they all opposed China’s actions on some files at last week’s meeting of the G7 on the other. So it is not a coincidence that, at the same time, the EU also declared that it is looking to collaborate with India on building new infrastructure trade routes as an alternative to the BRI. China obviously condemned the statement of the G7 foreign ministers, but collaboration and cooperation will still continue with both the Europeans and the US while they face off on cybersecurity and other issues. Ultimately, economic benefits take priority and Europe, with Germany at its head, benefits immensely from trade with China. The same but to a lesser extent can be said about Russia.
If we focus on the Middle East, we find that we have mastered this concept even more than anywhere else. The relations between Turkey and Iran best represent this. On the Syrian file, they are on opposite sides, but on other points such as trade and energy they find ways to collaborate. It is also the case between Arab countries and Ethiopia, where they stand with Egypt on the Renaissance Dam file yet also look to develop economic relations that can help ease tensions. The signing last week of a $1 billion agreement between DP World and Ethiopia to develop a trade and logistics corridor could also have a general positive impact on the resolution of the tensions around the Renaissance Dam.
The Syrian and Libyan files are perhaps the clearest examples of Arab countries, as well as international and regional powers, standing on opposite sides in some areas while collaborating on others. The same applies to a certain extent to the relations between Arab countries, Turkey and Israel. Whether they have signed a peace agreement or not, or are members of a common international organization such as NATO, the line between enemy and friend has been blurred. While opposing Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, they stand on the same side against Iran and its proxies in the region.
In fact, when it comes to Arab countries, the only regional power that is still referred to as an enemy is Iran. Tehran has kept attacking their interests, going so far as trying to shift the historic nature or “color” of certain countries. This is the case in Iraq, Lebanon and obviously Yemen, with Iran looking to build new regimes that resemble its own. It has been focused on the expansion and export of its regime ideology. Another shipment of weapons being seized by the US Navy en route to the Houthis in Yemen this week was a clear indication of this focus and will for destruction. The same could be said of Iran’s support for the militias in Iraq that threaten the current state, which in theory is a friendly one. In fact, Iran’s stated plan is to make all Arab countries subordinates and to control their actions. There is, to the knowledge of the Iranian regime, little chance of this happening and so a shift from “enemy status” to “frenemy” as a first step is not entirely impossible.
It is now clear that changes in the global environment, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic and a weakening of the post-Second World War institutions, have pushed nations to try and find new avenues of cooperation and to re-explore their options. One could say it is also a sign of the changing world, with the Western and transatlantic powers facing inward existential questions. They are now less capable or no longer feel morally obliged to delimit the boundaries of good and bad, as well as friend and enemy, like they have largely done since the end of the Second World War.
A combined formula of geopolitical interests, economics and security has dictated the new rules.
Khaled Abou Zahr
It is interesting that businesses went through the same thanks to the advent of technology. However, businesses need to evaluate prior to collaborating with a frenemy if the area of collaboration represents a core activity. For nations, it is important in these times to consider their values and revitalize their moral compass prior to collaborating with a frenemy on a specific file.
The old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is one I have always disagreed with. Instead I repeat, “The enemy of my enemy is my enemy, but also potentially a temporary friend.” And so, from tech to geopolitics, we are witnessing the birth of a new order and new rules, where interests are intertwined and no one can yet impose their full dominance. This is the main reason we are all becoming frenemies — but we need to have no illusions that the outcome will, sooner or later, be determined by hard power, just like always.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.