International relations evolve across the Middle East as regional powers adjust to the US retreat and growing influence from China. While the region may become the site of yet another great power competition, it also has a chance to pursue diplomatic overtures and new security agreements.
LONDON – What about the reshuffling of relations and shifting alliances in the Middle East? Diplomacy has gained momentum among bitter enemies; cracks appeared in close friends. Regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt are recalibrating their foreign policies and reestablishing their relations with distant neighbors. The United States and Russia renewed their regional rivalry, and China entered as a new competitor.
These geopolitical changes could make the Middle East the scene of fierce and truly global competition. But they could also defuse regional rivalries, bringing together countries that historically hate each other. Much will depend on the main factors behind the new realignments: the regional downturn in the United States, the rise of China and the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on already weak regional economies.
US President Joe Biden has made it clear that the Middle East is not a foreign policy priority for his administration. While former President Donald Trump built an anti-Iran coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Israel, Biden has sought to distance himself from Saudi Arabia, including ending US support for the war in Yemen. Her administration has resumed diplomacy to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew the United States from in 2018, and she has kept Turkey and Egypt (two of Trump’s favorites) at bay.
With the United States’ complete withdrawal from Afghanistan this month, Biden has made it clear that the United States is pulling out of cold wars in the region as it turns to Asia and China. Across the Middle East, there is a widespread belief that America is no longer a true partner.
Additionally, as America retreats, China is increasingly making its presence known in the region. In March, he struck a major deal with Iran, promising $ 400 billion in investments over the next 25 years in return for regular deliveries of oil and gas. While touring Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman in the same month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi affirmed his country’s commitment to security and the stability of the region. In an obvious dig against the United States, he said China will oppose foreign interventions and act as an honest broker in resolving persistent conflicts in the region.
Wang also raised the prospect of a Chinese free trade agreement that would bring tens of billions of dollars in investment opportunities, tying China’s Belt and Road Initiative to local development projects. This type of economic sweetener resonates widely in the Middle East, where youth unemployment rates, poverty levels and other economic indicators were dismal long before the pandemic. Over the past 18 months, COVID-19 has exacerbated already severe social crises in many countries.
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Under these conditions, it is not surprising that regional dialogue and diplomacy are resuming. Most local leaders understand that the security of the regime depends more on meeting the needs of the people than on incitement to sectarianism and hatred of “the other”. So, last April, Saudi Arabia and Iran held secret talks to discuss how to end the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is waging a war against Houthi rebels backed by Iran since March 2015.
Saudi Arabia has also reconciled with Qatar (which maintains friendly relations with Iran), after severing all ties with its neighbor in June 2017. In a powerful gesture of rapprochement last April, King Salman d Saudi Arabia has formally invited the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad. al-Thani, to visit his country.
Another sign of a broader political reshuffle, the Saudis have also normalized their relations with Iraq (an Iranian ally), ending three decades of mutual estrangement and hostility. And after years of conflict with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (another close Iranian partner), Saudi officials recently held secret talks with their Syrian counterparts in Damascus, which led to reports that an agreement on diplomatic normalization may be forthcoming.
Iran could also be on the verge of improving relations with its neighbors, especially the United Arab Emirates. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is reportedly planning to visit the United Arab Emirates soon, after returning from a charming diplomatic tour of Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman in April.
But the most important is the possibility of an Iranian-Saudi rapprochement. Although moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is on the verge of leaving, his replacement hardline, Ebrahim Raisi, says he sees “no obstacle” to establishing diplomatic relations with the Kingdom. . Restoring ties would reduce civil unrest and proxy wars in Syria and Yemen – two of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world today – and could also bring stability to politically and religiously divided countries like Iraq and the United Kingdom. Lebanon.
Finally, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched a diplomatic offensive to restore his country’s tense relations in the region, especially with Egypt. and Saudi Arabia. After coming close to suffering heavy blows against Libya last year, Turkey now wants to improve its economic relations with Egypt and other regional and world powers.
These recent regional realignments can be explained by changing assessments of the balance of power and converging interests. The US retreat has forced regional powers to ensure their own safety by fixing fences. Regional leaders increasingly recognize that there is nothing to be gained by pouring gasoline on a raging fire, as Trump did. Thanks to international diplomacy led by America, Europe, China, Russia and Japan, the Middle East can continue on its current path of de-escalation.
Could the international community negotiate an agreement for a new inclusive security architecture and a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East, or at least support and encourage regional dialogue and the management of conflicts therein? It is no longer wishful thinking to imagine it. Endless conflict can mark the Middle East’s past; but this is not the fate of the region.