The Middle East, known for its vast resources, strategic importance, and geopolitical complexities, has historically been a focal point of international politics. However, recent developments have seen a shift in attention away from the region. Firstly, the United States, after two decades of military presence in Afghanistan under the pretext of the "war on terror" and "democratic peacebuilding," made the decision to withdraw its forces from the country, effectively ending its long-standing deployment. Similarly, Iran, once a significant adversary to the United States due to its nuclear program and conservative governance, has witnessed a decline in confrontation in recent years. The attempt to revive the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) nuclear deal has faltered, leaving the conflict in a state of grey zone.
Adding to the changing dynamics, even the closest ally of the United States in the Middle East has begun displaying signs of disobedience. During President Biden's visit to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council Conference, aimed at reinforcing the U.S.'s commitment to the region, he urged cooperation to maintain oil supplies amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has already exerted immense pressure on global oil prices. However, the Saudi-led coalition chose to go against this request, opting to significantly cut oil supplies, thereby potentially further driving up oil prices.
While the Western focus on the Middle East may have shifted in recent times, the region's strategic importance remains undiminished. Historically, the Middle East has often been influenced by powerful states, and the void left by the West's redirected attention is likely to be filled by China. Despite concerted efforts by the United States to maintain its influence and alliances in the region, key players in the Middle East, traditionally seen as U.S. allies, are increasingly gravitating towards closer relationships with emerging powers. These states are not only pursuing deeper engagement with China but also reevaluating their relationships with former adversaries like Iran. A notable example of this is the recent thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations, brokered by China. Furthermore, China has been actively cultivating ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran through extensive trade and economic cooperation. Given the prevalence of authoritarian regimes in the region, it is unsurprising that these states lean towards forging closer ties with China, a one-party state, as opposed to the United States, which often advocates for political reform and citizen participation through democratic means.
In a noteworthy development, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt have expressed their interest in joining the BRICS Development Bank, with discussions already underway regarding Saudi Arabia's potential inclusion. If successful, this move would provide a significant boost to the China-led alliance, as it would welcome a new and financially influential member. This development poses a challenge to the current monopolistic economic system dominated by the West and could potentially create an alternative to the capitalist model. It could potentially provide these Middle Eastern nations with increased access to capital, investment opportunities, and a platform to exert influence on global economic policies.
China employs its customary tactic of extending economic assistance while subtly exerting political influence in recipient countries. This growing Chinese presence in the Middle East raises concerns that it may lead not only to increased Chinese dominance but also to the protection and advancement of Russian interests. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been fostering closer ties with Moscow, while Iran has been allegedly supplying arms to Russia in violation of sanctions.
The situation has created a reciprocal loop, whereby increased pressure from the United States on regional countries to distance themselves from the Russia-China alliance only drives them closer to these adversaries. Under such circumstances, the West is gradually realizing that leaving the Middle East vulnerable to the influence of opponents would result in the complete elimination of its own dominance in the region. While Western attention may have waned, the strategic importance of the Middle East remains intact. China's growing presence and influence, coupled with shifting alliances and the pursuit of economic opportunities, are reconfiguring the dynamics of the region. The West now faces the challenge of maintaining its relevance and influence in a changing Middle East landscape.
However, experts argue that the United States should not plan on withdrawing from the Middle East entirely. Instead, they emphasize the need for the US to devise new strategies that ensure its presence in the region. Marwan Bishara, a senior Al Jazeera correspondent, suggests that while the US may no longer depend on the Middle East for its oil supply due to increased self-sufficiency, it should maintain its strategic presence to navigate potential shifts in geopolitical dynamics.
William F. Wechsler, a senior advisor for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, on the other hand, strongly opposes the idea of abandoning the Middle East and instead proposes significant policy changes to ensure continued engagement for the "right reasons." He suggests that the US should gradually reduce its military presence in the region, thereby positioning itself more as a partner rather than an intervening power. This approach serves multiple purposes, allowing the US to maintain influence while also addressing concerns about perceptions of interference.
Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University, Dr. F. Gregory Gause argues that President Biden's recent visit to Saudi Arabia signifies the US accepting the region as it is, without attempting to fundamentally change its nature or disregard its human rights and democracy concerns. This aligns with China's tactic of engaging without imposing substantial political reforms. Rather than striving to create a new region according to its own conditions, the US should focus on consolidating its influence within the existing regional framework. This could involve providing economic and infrastructural development assistance while respecting the fundamental nature of regimes, albeit with certain criteria that reinforce US dominance without direct conflict.
In summary, the United States must not simply convey the message that it is abandoning the Middle East, thereby allowing China and its allies to exert control over the region. Rather, the US needs to adapt its policies and implement a new strategy to maintain its dominance. In today's rapidly evolving global political scenario, it cannot afford to relinquish its influence in this crucial region. While the US may not have direct vested interests at stake, the dynamic nature of world politics makes it challenging to predict which players may become crucial or whose assistance might be required in unforeseen circumstances. Therefore, the US must remain engaged and vigilant in order to safeguard its interests and navigate future geopolitical challenges.
Jubaida Auhana Faruque is an Executive Policy Assistant at the Centre for Governance Studies.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.