The US global order is in decline, as an increasingly multipolar and de-dolarized world emerges and this is particularly visible in the Middle East. American withdrawal from Afghanistan was the target of much criticism within the American establishment, and its plans for Iraq have appeared to be yet another neocolonial policy failure as the region now sees a stronger Iran. Saudi Arabia in turn is now planning to increase its use of the yuan currency in bilateral energy deals, and is also reportedly planning to join the Shanghai-based New Development Bank, which is jointly funded by the BRICS countries. American Kurdish strategy in turn is threatened by Turkish leverage in vetoing Sweden’s bid to join NATO.
The overburdened US has been increasingly shifting its strategic interest away from the Middle East and towards the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe (plus Central Asia) even while its naval supremacy is coming to an end.
In fact, the idea that the Middle East should no longer be a priority for Washington started with former president Barack Obama and has been evolving, firstly under Donald Trump, and has now gained clearer contours under Joe Biden’s presidency
Sedat Laçiner, a Turkish academic specialist on the Middle East, however, argues that “given the geostrategic and cultural significance it embodies, it would not be an overstatement to assert that sustained global leadership is unattainable for any power that fails to exert dominance over the Middle East region in the long term”. His reasoning is that the US simply cannot “leave” the area, a center of oil and petrodollars. This is yet another challenge faced by an overstretched superpower at crossroads.
Majid Rafizadeh, a political scientist who serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, argues that the Biden administration should actually “return” to the Middle East, albeit not military – focusing instead more on infrastructure and renewable investments aiming at economic development. In other words, he is advocating for a switch from hard to soft power in the region because, he writes, “in this era of globalization, economic developments appear to have become more important than military strength when it comes to promoting peace and playing a key role on the world stage.”
The problem, from an American perspective, is that the US might not simply be no longer so welcome in that area, as local players have been investing in new relationships.
China traditionally has engaged in the Middle East economically, but more recently it also has started to engage in regional conflict mediation, as eloquently exemplified by its role in brokering the Saudi-Iran normalization agreement, a historic development which has certainly enhanced peace and security there besides having the potential to change the geopolitical map in the region. Beijing has also shown willingness to work diplomatically towards renewing the Iranian nuclear deal and de-escalating the Palestine-Israel confrontation.
Chinese economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the area now go beyond its traditional oil imports and gas cooperation: the Asian giant has also signed a 25-year old strategic partnership agreement with Iran, which is currently being implemented. These developments in Western Asia are also tied to the now 10-year old Belt and Road Initiative.
With Saudi Arabia, Beijing has added finance, green energy and information technology to its cooperation. Wang Yiwei, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, claims that the Middle East needs to find “an ideal partner to develop artificial intelligence, the digital economy, new energy and space exploration.” He added that China can also play a major role in Saudi Arabia’s future transitioning from oil and gas to renewable energy.
The face of the Middle East has changed for the better. Surprisingly, the area has recently witnessed the ongoing Iranian-Egyptian talks towards normalizing relations, the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, and Syria’s return to the Arab League after 11 years. One can only wonder whether these new developments could have taken place as smoothly under a larger American presence, considering how Washington had been working so hard to isolate Iran and weaken regional cooperation.
Since the US withdrawal from Western Asia, China and Russia have in fact promoted stability in the region. Notwithstanding any criticism one may have of the current Russian military campaign in Ukraine (in an Eastern European crisis for which the West is largely to blame), the truth is that, in the Middle East, Moscow has been promoting peace and stability. It has certainly played an important role in Syria’s aforementioned homecoming to the Arab League as the Arab world seems to be recovering from the chaotic “Arab Spring” period. Moscow also has the potential to mediate a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement, as there have been high-level talks in Moscow.
Russian-Egyptian economic cooperation is also on the rise, but, more importantly, as Russian-Iranian ties expand, the North-South Transit Corridor emerges as a possible alternative to the Suez Canal, also connecting Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East by the shortest routes.
As Washington pursues its dual containment strategy and focuses more either on Eastern Europe or at the Pacific region, it is only natural for Middle Eastern nations to “turn East” and to turn north – in the diplomatic and economic spheres, great powers such as Russia and China certainly appear to be more attractive and reliable partners and allies than the Atlantic superpower. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University history professor and a retired army officer summarizes it: “What is China intent on doing in the Middle East? Do we think that they will create a large network of military bases? I’m guessing no. They have two bases in the whole world outside of China. They are active in terms of investment and economic development.”