Middle Eastern geopolitics: Outside powers

Middle East Sea WiFS NASA
(File photo: Jordan News)
Middle East Sea WiFS NASA

Tarek Osman

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

Four major powers from outside the region have interests in Middle Eastern geopolitics. The most powerful is the US. Since its early entry into Middle Eastern geopolitics during World War II, US policy in the region has been driven by two conflicting factors.اضافة اعلان

The first factor 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 after World War II, the US looked at the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and North Africa with a combination of admiration for the region’s history, appreciation of its civilizational heritage, and respect that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant US elite at the time had for the traces of knighthood they had seen in Arabian culture.

However, imperial prerogatives clashed with romanticism. The US entered the Middle East in the late 1940s, when it had unrivaled military and economic might and saw itself as the culmination of human achievement. The same US elite from New England’s strict, hardworking, and often pious culture who had romanticized the Arabs also demanded acquiescence to the US’s view of itself as destined to rule the world.

Some Arabs played to the romanticism and situated themselves within the new Pax Americana, exacting benefits for themselves and their countries in return. Others, however, saw the US’s entry into the Middle East as a new form of imperialism 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 US is vastly different from that of the mid-20th century. After seven decades of extensive engagement in the Middle East, US romanticism about the region has been replaced by realism and often cynicism.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 US commitment to the security of Israel remains a pillar of its Middle East policy.

“The same US elite from New England’s strict, hardworking, and often pious culture who had romanticized the Arabs also demanded acquiescence to the US’s view of itself as destined to rule the world.”

As the US begins its strategic confrontation with China, it expects many of its decades-long partners in the region to side with it. In the US’s view, those partners would want a future they know in the world order that the US has sustained in the past seven decades, as opposed to an uncertain future influenced by an expanding China. However, as was the case seven decades ago, some Arabs today play along, while 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 neighborhood: the East and South China seas. There, China's resolve as a rising superpower will likely be tested against US 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 (UAE), and Iran as countries with which it has been developing intricate interests. And China clearly seeks a political role in the region, as demonstrated by its heavy involvement in 2023 to help broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“History does not repeat itself, but it indeed rhymes.”

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 of the narrative surrounding the rise of China. In this narrative, China’s navy during the Ming dynasty had connected the Middle Kingdom with the entirety of Asia and the eastern coast of Africa. China’s growing presence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean resonates with echoes of history within the Chinese psyche. It was no coincidence that China’s first military base abroad was established in Djibouti, at the 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 shares elements with those of the US and China. Like the US, Russia has a long history in the region. However, unlike the US, Russia has tried to concentrate its presence in select countries over the past 15 years, where it has seen opportunities for short-term economic and long-term strategic gains.

Similar to China, Russia has a mixed calculus, especially when it comes to the states of the Arabian Peninsula. On one hand, Russia has effectively entrenched itself in the oil cartel OPEC, becoming an economic partner of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Russia has built a strong presence in the glamorous centers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Moreover, Russia has proven that it can be a decisive power in conflicts at the heart of the Arab world, giving it valuable currency in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

“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.”

However, Russia has its hands full. The war in Ukraine has resulted in acute costs. While China is arguably on the verge of becoming a peer competitor to the US, Russia understands that it is far from such a 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 (EU). Unlike the US, China, and Russia, Europe cannot realistically project military power in the Middle East. For some observers, this is a European vulnerability, especially considering that Europe is far more exposed than any of the other major powers to the consequences of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Limited means expose the gulf between grand rhetoric and actual capabilities to materialize it.

Still, Europe commands important forms of power. It 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 view Europe as the epitome of refined human living in modern society. This positioning in the imagination represents tremendous soft power if wielded wisely.

"Russia’s approach in the Middle East shares elements with those of the US and China."

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 faded, Europe was drawn to its southern neighborhood 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 EU. They believed 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.

However, things are different now. Major segments in Europe view the beautiful continent as a garden that should be walled against the enemies of medieval times, the remnants of recent colonies, and those they perceive as barbarians at the gates today. Amidst the old wisdom of the founding fathers of the European project and the current fears of affluent 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 among non-state actors, both 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 recent experiences. Amid vastly different perspectives, desired ends, and conceptions of truth and goodness, Middle Eastern geopolitics might remain devoid of peace, order, and meaning for a prolonged period.

This article first appeared in Al-Ahram

Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Jordan News' point of view.

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