Is the Middle East endorsing the ‘East’s’ comeback? And if so, what is the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) role in shaping, influencing, and impacting this “new world order”. Recent developments highlight the establishment of key strategic partnerships between actors, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC states) and other Middle Eastern nations; demonstrating the creation of a political bloc, one that directly challenges the West’s (and especially the US’) previous hegemony across the MENA region and internationally.
The latest news illustrates the following geopolitical developments: (1) the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement brokered by China (Soleimany, 2023) , (2) BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) nations, the world’s fastest-growing and emerging economies, abandoning the American dollars for trade (Young, 2023), (3) Saudi Arabia alongside Russia and other OPEC members (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) collectively limiting oil production (1.15 million barrels per day) until end of 2023 (El Dahan & Rasheed, 2023), and (4) Saudi Arabia joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (Watkins, 2023). Though recent developments, strong relationships between the MENA region and China-Russia have been brewing for the past two decades; however, the speed in which these relationships have manifested lately is worth analysis and indicates the altering international political climate, one in which the United States influence is declining. According to a survey conducted by Burson Cohn & Wolfe, the Arab youth regard and favor China, Russia, and Turkey as greater allies than historical regional powerhouses, the US, United Kingdom, and France; with 73% of respondents advocating for US disengagement from the region (ASDA’A BCW, 2022).
Though it is seemingly apparent why the MENA region would be keen to drift away from the West’ previous ‘hold’ over its affairs, this phenomenon is not exclusive to the Middle East. As stated by Li Yan, the Deputy Director of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the values-based diplomacy used by the Western nations, specifically those in the G7, is becoming out-dated. More and more countries are beginnings to grow tired of the West’s continued propagandizing of issues such as the ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism’ debate. Western influence is now given the caricature of an umpire that seeks to reprimand those with varying political ideologies and praise those who adopt their endorsed model. The West places a premium on the adoption of liberal democracy, but fails to acknowledge the principle of individual sovereignty that liberalism itself promotes; instead opting to smear and exclude (and often intervene) those unconvinced of their political model. The MENA region highlights this perspective veraciously.
Since its 7th century advent in the Middle East, Islam maintains a monopolizing effect over the customs, values, and norms, of the MENA region and Muslim societies across Asia and Africa. Theologically, it has significantly shaped the fabric of MENA’s identity and culture. However, Islam’s role in MENA is not restricted to its theological entailments, Islam as a force cultivates its influence as a mobilizing mechanism, one that asserts, upholds, and sustains its involvement socially and politically. Islam has repeatedly been equipped as an instrument of mass mobilization and political legitimacy. Though the political theology of Islamism is not applied universally or even similarly, across the region, its political utilization and popular support remain predominant.
Currently, the propagandizing effect that Islamism plays, functions reactionarily to the supposed sentiments of Western intervention in MENA (Baxter & Akbarzadeh, 72). Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Former Prime Minister, asserts that MENA’s political regimes should “derive their legitimacy from Islam” (Ozkan, 16). Davutoglu touches upon the inapplicability of the ‘Western Model’ to the Islamic world, as Western governments justify their legitimacy through democratic processes and parliamentary institutions, fundamentally lacking religious values that “keep them in check” (16). To examine Davutoglu paranoia about Western influence disparaging MENA’s socio-religious values, one can highlight how Islamist movements gained its political symbolism in the region. Between the 1950’s to 1970s, the underlying aim of Islamist movements pursued ‘Islamic modernity’, in this sense, Islamism was the focus on restrengthening Islamic tenets within civil life as a means of combatting Western intervention and influences (Baxter & Akbarzadeh, 75). Now one can tie this back to Davutoglu’s conclusions; the ‘West’ is accused of having a “crisis of values”, a phenomenon that he wishes to save the Islamic world from. Ideologically, the retort of “Islam is the solution” gained greater justification as the United States continued to intervene and assert its presence within MENA.
Islamist thinkers pushed narratives of the US’ (and other Western nation’s) presence in MENA, as a threat to the region’s socio-religious values because it explicitly became one. In the case of Turkey and Iran, domestic policies of secularization were imposed by incumbent pro-Western administrations (72). Subsequently, the US’ continued presence and engagements in MENA, including the ‘liberation’ of Kuwait and invasion of Iraq, produced an Islamist backlash that significantly damaged American’s foreign approval and regional agenda (Baxter & Akbarzadeh, 133).
As previously stated, contemporary Islamism is reactionary, it seeks to challenge the prevalence of "foreign interreference in Arab/Muslim affairs” (76); as the US’ foreign policy in MENA became increasingly interventionist, Islamism sought to address two challenges. First, Islamist organizations championed themselves as adversaries to the West, specifically the US, this opposition was derived out of the explicit interference of Western powers within MENA states. Second, Islamism aimed to confront and deter secularizing trends within the Middle East (76). The US’ prolonged presence in MENA, while actively exerting influence over states such as Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, exacerbated notions of “Anti-Americanism” that Islamist movements used to garner support. The MENA states were not oblivious to the US foreign policy strategy, as polling data from 2007 demonstrates that over half of the Jordanian population viewed the US’ presence as sustained by “the desire to control Middle Eastern oil, world-domination, a vendetta against Muslim states” (170).
The US played a driving role in its declining influence over the MENA region, their engagements in MENA revealed themes of “intervention, the use of influence, alliance-building, questions regarding the parity value ascribed to human suffering, geo-political strategy” (185). Though fundamentally, it was Islamism that embellished the regions discontent with American regional policy, producing a ripple effect of widespread anti-American narratives that would ultimately establish the ‘West’s’ role in MENA, as an ideological, social, and religious threat to Islamic values, an incompatibility that reinforces the region’s gradual shift to Eastern powers.
The Gulf States, being Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are an economic hub of foreign investment, rich in natural resources, with a long-time friendly and engaging relationship with Western, particularly American, powers.
The US has capitalized on the historical instability of the Gulf, according to Baxter & Akbarzadeh, the power vacuum left after Saddam Hussein’s tenure, allowed the US to coin and assert themselves as the “Gulf’s protector” (131). Though this policy of security has been continually criticized as a guise to leverage and legitimize US presence in the oil-rich Gulf, playing the role of the ‘friendly watchdog’ (131). Subsequently, the US utilized smaller Gulf states as “logistical hubs for the execution of American foreign policy”, which was coupled simultaneously with the rise of anti-American rhetoric and sentiments in the GCC, inciting the transnational Islamist jihadi movement (Szalai, 167); another instance of the Islamist backlash reinforced by American intervention.
China views the Middle East as a region that resembles ancient networks and trade routes that had been significant in China’s medieval years. As Giorgio Spagnol, an author at the European Institute of International Relations, “…while in the East, a new network of relationships takes shape along the ancient trade routes”. Spagnol asks an interesting question: “Is the West really declining or what we’re seeing is a rebalancing, as the East reassumes the kind of economic significant its population size demands?”. Let us attempt to find out.
Chinese influence and presence in MENA are not novel, Sino-Arab relationships date back to the historic Silk Road and its trade routes. As Temiz asserts, China’s engagements in MENA are generally positive, with a survey finding that China was favoured over the US by the Arab youth (18–24 year-olds), as the US’ continuous military interventions have resulted in a declining image regionally (67). China’s main interest in MENA are economic, Beijing understand the role of the Middle East geopolitically; the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) presented by China places the Middle East, specifically the Persian Gulf, as a key element in its grand infrastructure project (Fulton, 55).
The Gulf states and China have developed strong financial and economic agreements, based around the BRI and other trade deals, the cooperation of these actors demonstrates the GCC motivations to branch out their strategic partnerships, carefully distancing themselves from the US, who’s economic incentives in the Gulf have also reduced. In 2004, then Chinese President Hu Jintao, provided four principles that motivate Beijing to enhance China-Arab relations, being: “enhance political relations, to enhance bilateral trade, to expand cultural exchanges, and to strengthen cooperation in the international arena in the interest of peace and development.” (53).
Whereas the US had been a historically long-time importer of Gulf oil, since it began to domestically produce oil, its reliance and importation of Gulf oil decreased; at a time, which saw China’s imports sustainably increase (62). Though the GCC has started to diversify its economy and GDP structure, the significance of its reliance on oil exports plays a focus in their foreign partnerships. China has positioned itself as a great power in MENA, cultivating considerable regional support. Beijing’s foreign policy principles of non-interference in other’s internal affairs, its standard of non-alignment, and notably, its emphasis on exercising collaborative discourse in addressing regional tensions, has prompted the notion of viewing China as an “alternative pole to the US” (55).
One can evidently highlight the appeal of China to its Gulf counterparts: the Chinese establish their economic partnerships without involving itself in a state’s political affairs, which is compatible with the Gulf’s paranoia about external interference (85). The starkest of parallels when compared to the US approach in the Gulf and Middle East, at large, China was able to successfully wield its vast soft power channelled through the “ability to instill positive change without force or undue political pressure.” (57).
The Middle East’s battles with colonial imposition and then subsequent US and Western interference manifested into the Islamist backlash incited by the Arab street (the youth masses) and the emergence of China as a force of strategic alignment. However, in accordance with geopolitical strategies, the GCC nations have a more regional interest in developing relations with China, as well. With the decline of US influence in the region, the Gulf nations see an opportunity to equalise the loss of services with Chinse imports; however, they are also trying to “hedge against the rising China-Iran relationship” (86). Some of the smaller Gulf states want to use China to counterbalance the dominant role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the region (86). Simply put, the US’ demising legitimacy in MENA, was followed by China’s exertion of bilateralism in their strategic policy; a tenet viewed as lacking from the American approach. But with Beijing’s increasing appeal comes Russia and Moscow’s role and partnership with the Chinese, and their distinctive interest in the region, coming together to solidify the formation of a strong and vast Eastern bloc.
Russia and China have a unique relationship, with a sort of mirroring effect that makes the apparent formation of their bloc, ever more threatening to Western hegemony. As stated by Spagnol, “the two main Eastern players are in many ways complementary: Russia has natural resources, basic science, and weapons; Chinas has capital, commercial technologies and heavy manufacturing”. What’s better however, is that both nations seem to be disinterested in what the internal politics of another sovereign nation is, focusing more on the development of ties that will benefit all multilateral parties. The West’s continued interference in the internal
Russia has shared a unique historic and contemporary relation with the Arab world, geographic neighbours with collective interest geopolitically. Firstly, Putin’s post-Soviet Russia has excelled at developing robust economic and military relations with its Arab counterparts, deriving from the MENA’s combative and unstable nature, along with domestic leaders’ heavy reliance on militarism to enforce their legitimacy across their populous; a demand Russia supplies significantly. Nota bene, Russia unlike the US is not compelled by a strict adherence to values and principles, thus making it an “easier and more flexible interlocutor than the US or European powers” (Kozhanov, 133). The Kremlin and Putin have carefully avoided embedding Russian partiality in regional conflicts and uniquely benefits from a range of strong relations with strategic players, the likes of Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, actors who have not always seen eye to eye (Bechev et al, 2). Russia exercises an anodyne approach to its involvement in MENA regional issues, hoping to extract good faith from all parties involved a given case. Moscow does this to protect a predominant component of its involvement in MENA, the supply of arms. Russia views its arms exports as an “important foreign policy investment” (45). Russia returned to the MENA arms market for the first time since the Soviet collapse in 2006, by signing an arms package agreement with Algeria, valuing $7.5 billion dollars (45). Since then, Algeria has become an avid buyer of Russian arms.
The MENA region accounted for 36% of Russia’s arms exports in 2015 and is now the largest importer of Russian armaments, “taking almost 50% of the total exports”. From 2003-2011, Iraq had most of its arms supplied by the US, a period which saw an abundance of American troops in Iraq; however, in 2012, Iraq signed an arms agreement with Putin’s Russia valuing $4.2 billion dollars, becoming the second largest importer of Russian combat gear after India, in 2014 (47).
The supply of arms gives Russia the ability to establish diplomatic relations with their customer nations, as it would for most; but in MENA, the unique case of arms exports sheds light into the prevalence of authoritarian administrations and regimes who require the exercise of militarism, in aim of securing authority within its borders. The regional instabilities of the Middle East prompt the necessity of nations to develop strong military presences and provisions but they also act as a means of ensuring that incumbent leaders maintain their authority, through exercise of force. In 2016, the attempted coup d’etat on Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration prompted Anakara to sign an arms contract with Russia worth over $2.5 billion dollars, at a time when US-Turkey relations were weakening (50). At a time when the US and the EU sought and placed arms embargos on Syria (131), Russia “vetoed all attempts of Security Council to impose an arms embargo”, protecting its economic interests in the region (4). The theme of militarism across MENA reinforces the reality that arms supplies are a necessity to those authoritarian regimes require for their authority’s continuity.
In the aftermath of the US' decline influence in the region, Sino-Russian influence has increased. Consequently, MENA's strategic alliances with the Eastern bloc are not only influenced by these factors, but also contribute to the culmination of a ripple effect that challenges the West’s' former hegemony.
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