Four major powers from outside the region have interests in Middle Eastern geopolitics.
The most powerful is the US. Since the early days of its entry into Middle Eastern geopolitics – during the Second World War – American policy in the region has been driven by two conflicting factors. The first was romanticism. From the observations of US President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century to the writings of his grandson Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s most interesting operations manager in the region in the period after the Second World War, the US had looked at the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and North Africa with a combination of admiration for the region’s history, appreciation of its civilisational heritage, and respect that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American elite at the time had for the traces of knighthood they had seen in Arabian culture.
However, imperial prerogatives clashed with romanticism. America came to the Middle East, in the late 1940s, when it had unrivalled military and economic might, and when it saw itself as the culmination of human achievement. The same American elite – from New England’s strict, hardworking, and often pious culture – who had romanticised the Arabs, also demanded of them acquiescence to America’s view of itself as destined to rule the world.
Some Arabs played to the romanticism and situated themselves within the new Pax Americana, and in return exacted benefits for themselves and their countries. Others, however, saw America’s entry into the Middle East as a new form of imperialism that they were not willing to succumb to, especially having fought the old European colonialism.
History does not repeat itself, but it indeed rhymes. Today’s America is vastly different from that of the mid 20th century. And, after seven decades of extensive engagement in the Middle East, American romanticism about the region has been replaced by realism and often cynicism. Still, the strategic imperatives have not changed much in the past seven decades. Oil and gas remain of crucial importance to the world economy. The Suez Canal and the Hormuz strait remain central to world trade. And America’s commitment to the security of Israel remains a pillar of its Middle East policy. And as America begins its strategic confrontation with China, America expects many of its decades-long partners in the region to side with it. In America’s view, those partners would want a future they know, in the world order that America has sustained in the past seven decades, as opposed to an uncertain future influenced by an expanding China. But as was the case seven decades ago, some Arabs today play along, others are bent on challenging the Pax Americana, and some are slowly orienting themselves to a Sino order they expect to emerge soon.
But China seems hesitant about entering the fraught landscape of Middle Eastern geopolitics. On one hand, China’s primary geopolitical priorities are in its direct neighbourhood: the East and South China seas. There China’s resolve as a rising superpower will likely be tested against American might. China might well calculate that the Middle East is far from being a priority in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, a majority of China’s energy comes from the Gulf. China sees Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran as countries with whom it has been developing intricate interests. And China clearly seeks a political role in the region as demonstrated by its heavy involvement last year to help broker a rapprochement between Saudi and Iran.
China sees the world in terms of circles of receding importance as they get farther from itself. The Middle East is not in China’s first circle of importance, but it is at the edge of the second circle whose perimeter extends from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. This is an important circle for China, not only because it is rich in energy China depends on for its economic growth, but also because India, a country China observes closely, has for decades been expanding in this circle.
Then there are the glories of history, an important part in the narrative surrounding the rise of China. In this narrative, China’s navy during its Ming dynasty had connected the Middle Kingdom with the entirety of Asia and with Africa’ eastern coast. China’s growing presence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean resonates with calls of history on Chinese psyche. It was not a coincidence that China’s first military base abroad was in Djibouti at an intersection between Asia and Africa.
Yet, China understands that entering the Middle East entails serious costs. And it has observed how the US had incurred extensive costs in Middle Eastern entanglements for limited, and often ephemeral, gains.
Russia’s approach in the Middle East has elements of those of the US and China. Like the US, Russia has a long history in the Middle East. But unlike the US, Russia has tried in the past 15-years to concentrate its presence in the Middle East in a select of countries where it has seen opportunities for short term economic, and long term, strategic gains.
Like China, however, Russia has a mixed calculus, especially when it comes to the states of the Arabian Peninsula. On one hand, Russia has managed to effectively entrench itself in the oil-cartel OPEC, in the process becoming an economic partner of Saudi Arabia. Russia has also built a strong presence in the glamorous centres of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Add to that, Russia has proven that it can be a decisive power in conflicts at the heart of the Arab world. This has given it valuable currency in Middle Eastern geopolitics.
But Russia has her hands full. The war on Ukraine has resulted in acute costs. And whereas China is arguably on the verge of becoming a peer competitor to the US, Russia understands that it is far from such designation. Amidst these circumstances, Russia would think carefully before further extending its reach in the Middle East.
The last major outside power to consider is the European Union. Unlike America, China, and Russia, Europe cannot realistically project military power in the Middle East. For some observers, this is a European vulnerability, especially that Europe is by far more exposed, than any of the other major powers, to the consequences of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Limited means exposes the gulf between grand rhetoric and actual capabilities to materialise it.
Still Europe commands important forms of power. Europe is the biggest export market for most Middle Eastern countries, a highly affluent investor in the region, and one of the most important developmental partners across the Levant and North Africa. Importantly, many in the Middle East look at Europe as the epitome of refined human living in modern society. This positioning in the imagination is a tremendous soft power, if wielded wisely.
The problem is that, when it comes to the Middle East, Europe does not have clear desired ends. For decades after the tensions of colonialism had faded, Europe was drawn to its southern neighbourhood by the weight of centuries of shared history, the necessities of export-oriented trading nations, and by the understanding, prevalent among the fathers of the European Union, that the foundations of Europe as a socio-political project lie not only in the history of the landmass extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, but also in the history of the Mediterranean basin.
Things are different now. Major segments in Europe see the beautiful continent as a garden that ought to be walled against the enemies of the medieval times, the colonies of the recent past, and whom they see as the barbarians at the gates today. Amidst the old wisdom of the founding fathers of the European project and the current fears of rich societies perceiving ominous winds in a world changing at a disorienting pace, Europe looks at the Mediterranean southern shores with apprehension.
As this series has tried to demonstrate, Middle Eastern geopolitics is now a function of interactions between non-state actors, Arab and non-Arab states in the region, and powers from outside the region. They differ not only in their objectives and the challenges they confront, but perhaps more importantly in the conclusions they have drawn from their experiences in the recent past. Amidst vastly different perspectives, desired ends, and conceptions of what truth and goodness are, Middle Eastern geopolitics might remain for a prolonged period devoid of peace, order, and for many of meaning.