On July 20, 2023, Security in Context hosted the event, "Evolving Geopolitics in the Middle East: The Gulf Countries, Iran, Turkey, and China."
CLICK HERE for a video highlighting the insight of speakers attending the event.
Below is a description of the event, as well as an article, "MENA: Geopolitical Re-Alignment?" by Mouin Rabbani, expanding on his points made during the event.
The last year or two have witnessed shifting geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East region, among them, the Saudi Iranian rapprochement, resumption of ties between several Gulf countries and the Syrian government, and an increasingly significant political role for China. This webinar will explain the drivers behind these shifts and shed light on the potential political, economic, and social consequences for societies across the region.
Mouin Rabbani - Middle East Expert
Michael Klare - College Professor Emeritus, and Director of PAWSS
Carla Freeman - Senior Expert for the China Program at USIP
Sara Haghdoosti - Executive Director and Senior Strategist at Win Without War
Moderator: Omar Dahi - Vice president and Security in Context Founding Director
MENA: Geopolitical Re-Alignment?
By Mouin Rabbani
Mouin Rabbani is a Co-Editor of Jadaliyya and Non-Resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies.
We are witnessing important developments in the geopolitical disposition of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), even if the magnitude of these changes is often overstated.
MENA today is experiencing the convergence of several distinct yet related dynamics. These include: a diversification of strategic relationships; the reduction of regional polarization; and efforts to restore the Arab regional order after more than a decade of upheaval.
Saudi Arabia has emerged as a key driver of these developments. While this may seem surprising and even counter-intuitive, these changes did not materialize overnight, and reflect a series of broader local, regional, and global transformations.
Recent decades have seen substantial developments in the region’s relationships with global powers, especially the United States (US), Russian Federation, and People’s Republic of China. Today, the PRC is MENA’s main trading partner, and the main export market for most energy producers as well. At present, Moscow is Riyadh’s main partner in setting oil policy through the OPEC+ framework. Unlike Washington, Russia and China maintain bilateral relations with all MENA states. Russia in particular has forged ties with many other significant regional players.
Yet the most interesting changes have been in relations between MENA governments and the United States. Washington may be pivoting to Asia, but it remains very present in MENA, where its client states possess neither the intention nor capacity to sever their strategic relations with Washington.
Doubts about US power began to emerge in the aftermath of the 2003 occupation of Iraq. The most powerful military in human history proved incapable of stabilizing a country thoroughly enfeebled by a decade of comprehensive sanctions, or of preventing its transformation into an Iranian zone of influence. The more recent and utterly chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with scenes reminiscent of the final throes of the US defeat in Vietnam, increased concerns about the US commitment to sustaining its regional allies and clients.
Of even greater concern to Washington’s MENA allies was the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. From their perspective, it was concluded without consideration of their interests, and they felt betrayed at what they perceived as the US riding roughshod over their national security concerns in order to satisfy its own.
Against this background was the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. His unilateral renunciation of the Iran agreement was celebrated as a moment of salvation. Yet, when things did not proceed according to plan, in the form of escalating Yemeni Houthi missile attacks on Saudi (and later Emirati) territory, the orange knight in shining armor failed to mount his steed. The Carter Doctrine appeared consigned to the dustbin of history, and regional rulers came to the painful realization that their countries would serve as poorly defended cannon fodder in any US confrontation with Iran.
Matters have hardly improved since Joe Biden entered the White House. What was previously assumed in concerned regional capitals to be a product of policies championed by George W. Bush or Barack Obama was revealed as a more fundamental problem: the reliability and dependability of the United States in the twenty-first century, and the wisdom of relying exclusively upon Washington for security and stability.
The response to the above developments and resulting dilemma has been diversification. Washington is still looked upon as the ultimate guarantor of regime survival in times of existential crisis. But this has not precluded a strengthening of relations, based on mutual interests, with Russia and China. Thus, Riyadh has set oil policy in close coordination with Russia in willful disregard of US and European energy concerns arising from the war in Ukraine. Similarly, Dubai has positioned itself as the main trading base for Russian oil after Geneva fell victim to Switzerland’s adoption of EU sanctions. Indeed, MENA responses to the war in Ukraine, which have refused to join the Western boycotts and condemnations of Russia, provide an excellent illustration of strategic diversification.
The March 2023 normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran brokered by the PRC is the best illustration of regional attempts to reduce polarization. The same can be said for the normalization of relations with Damascus by most Arab governments and the League of Arab States, regional de-escalation in Yemen, the resolution of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, Saudi-Emirati reconciliation with Turkey, and ongoing initiatives to normalize relations between Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Regional rivalries and tensions certainly persist but are much reduced.
Acting with greater autonomy made possible by diversification, regional governments are putting their own interests first, prioritizing them over those of their strategic patrons. Unlike during the US-Soviet Cold War, MENA rulers today are not particularly invested in the rivalry between US plutocracy, Russian oligarchy, and Chinese state capitalism, and happy to cooperate with each of them on matters political, economic, and military. It should also be noted that, in many of these cases, Washington was not in a position to play a constructive role on account of its severance of relations and/or imposition of sanctions on various MENA actors.
Indeed, as these various initiatives have been unfolding, Western media speculation has tended to focus on the prospects for US-mediated normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the one hand, and as demonstrated by the UAE, relations with Iran and with Israel are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, Riyadh currently has no interest to conclude an agreement similar to that consummated by Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia already maintains extensive relations with Israel, and aside from a US pat on the back would derive no additional benefit from their formalization. It will not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh that the UAE never received the F-35 military aircraft, or other weapons systems that were dangled before Abu Dhabi by Trump and Jared Kushner to consummate the grandiosely entitled Abraham Accords.
Rather, Saudi Arabia and its regional partners appear to have devoted their energies to the reconstruction of what is known as the formal Arab order or Arab state system. Its revival, for all its faults and limitations, is viewed by them as a better insurance policy against the upheaval of the past decade, and for confronting new domestic and external threats and challenges that may arise.