A glance at a world map reveals one great reason why the Middle East (ME) claims the attention of great power centres of the world. A roughly rectangular area stretching from the Adriatic Sea, East to the black sea ,and south to the Indus River. The ME is a joining point of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa and one of the most vital crossroads on the planet. It is the cradle of world civilization and the birth place of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Further, it is rich in oil, gas, and other commodities. According to British Petroleum 2019 (BP) Statistical review of World Energy, the Middle East holds 836 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, which constitutes 48% of world total. In comparison to other regions of the world, it holds 3X the proven oil reserves of the U.S, Canada and Mexico combined, and 58X the proven oil reserves of Europe. Likewise, the Middle East has the world’s largest proven reserves of Natural Gas (NG); standing at 38.3% of the world’s total, while the Common wealth of Independent States (CIS) holds the second largest reserves at 31.9%.
Historically, the strategic foundation for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East was shaped by several policy objectives reflecting both regional dynamics and U.S. interests. These strategic interests centred primarily around protecting the reliable free flow of commodities and commercial activity through well known checkpoints in the Arabian Peninsula, especially the strait of Hormoz and Suez canal; supporting the security, stability, and prosperity of U.S. partners in the region, including the State of Israel; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering Jihadist movements, and terrorism. Since 2011, geopolitical tensions, trade disputes, and changes in the international security landscape have tested the US-ME relationship, and have caused the strategic pillars of the U.S. Involvement in the region to undergo a state of transition, hastened by three major factors:
First; In a speech by former Secretary of Defence James Mattes at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, January 19, 2018, he asserted” Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security”. Further, according to President Obama’s June 2015 National Military Strategy and also President Trump’s January 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS), they both acknowledged that the shift in U.S. strategic direction is driven by a return to great power competition with China and Russia, underlined by a rising trend in strategic cooperation between two countries on many issues across many regions of the world, In fact; this strategic cooperation can be seen taking shape in the economic and military spheres. For example, according to various press reports, in September of 2019, Chinese and Russian troops took part in joint military manoeuvres; dubbed, “Tsentr-2019” to strengthen their military readiness. Further, direct trade between the two countries is increasing. According to data from statista, trade between Russia and China reached a record level, exceeding $100 billion compared to previous years. Likewise, China’s natural gas imports from Russia more than doubled in 2019 subsequent to operating the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline with a total initial capacity of 5 Billion Cubic meters (BCM) of gas, and a targeted capacity of 38 BCM by 2025, which constitutes 13% of China’s 2018 demand. Equally important; China’s expanding major economic development project, the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. The BRI initiative is an ambitious plan to build an open and balanced regional economic architecture connecting dozens of countries in Asia, Eurasia, and Europe by constructing six international economic corridors and an extensive rail network linking China to Europe through a “new Eurasian Land Bridge”. In the same way, the project aims to construct economic corridors linking China, Mongolia, and Russia; also, China to west, central, and South Asia.
The evolving dynamics of economic corridors connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe, and Africa is consistent with the ideas of the Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin’s, and the ideas advanced in his book published in 1997 titled “Foundations of Geopolitics”, in which he calls for the realization of a Unified Economic Landscape called Greater Eurasia. Greater Eurasia refers to countries that are on the territory of the Eurasian continent across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It consists of two regions of energy consumption (Europe & Asia Pacific) and three regions of energy production (Russia and Arctic & Caspian & Middle East) in between. It includes 91 countries, which represents two-thirds of the world population, exports of goods and services and GDP.
These evolving and developing geographic and economic integration projects based on strategic cooperation between Russia and China create a geographic mass of countries across, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East that are increasingly interdependent, and their interests are more closely intertwined than ever before. Consequently; shifting geopolitics in Greater Eurasia driving the strategic convergence in economic power between Russia and China is posing challenges to U.S. leadership in the region and the world. These interactions between Russia and China in the military and economic spheres demonstrate a growing trend in strategic cooperation between the two countries and may be driven by an ideological denominator, where both countries view the U.S. as the “Glavny Protivnik”.
Second; according to the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States became the world’s largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons and the largest producer of oil with a total production capacity of 12.7 million barrels of oil per day as of March 2020, surpassing the daily production capacity of both Russia and Saudi-Arabia. In the same manner; according to BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy report, the U.S. is still the world leader when it comes to natural gas production, averaging approximately 920 billion cubic meters of gas in 2019, followed by Russia, Iran, and Qatar. As a result, the United States is undergoing an oil and natural gas production renaissance that will likely continue to change the global energy landscape, and lead to wide-ranging regional and global geopolitical implications. The Age of Abundance for the U.S is driving the change in relations with regional allies, which, in part, will be redefined based on relations that are built around competition in the global gas market, and the supply of cleaner energy sources, especially, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).
Third; according to the CIA’s Global Threats Report 2019. The ME region is highly vulnerable to changes in the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and that combined with Poor Governance – leads to increased food and water insecurity. As a result, it is very likely that there will be an increased risk of social unrest, migration and tension between regional State, and non-State actors.
It stands to reason that the U.S. views the strategic benefits derived from maintaining the historical strategic pillars, and policy objectives in the ME vis-à-vis the strategic risks associated with such policy as costly and no longer viable because of the greater strategic threats posed by both Russia’s aggression towards its neighbours in Europe in consequence of Russia’s own economic, political, and social agenda, which opposes the international liberal order promoted, and protected by the U.S. since the second world war., and China’s expanding financial and economic influence, and strategic cooperation with Russia in multiple domains to amass political and strategic advantage through improved economic and energy connectivity projects in Europe, Eurasia, Middle East, and Asia pacific. Therefore; U.S vital strategic interests lay elsewhere and the U.S. views Russia and China as a greater strategic risk than Iran and Al-Qaeda, and that requires the U.S. to “do less” in the Middle East. In consequence, from U.S perspective the Middle East region is no longer a priority for the United States.
The strategic implications of the ongoing U.S. long goodbye to the M.E. region over the past decade have shifted the regional geopolitical environment and caused the formation of a power vacuum where state and non-state actors competing in a multi-level and proxy executed competition to gain diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage. As a result, three regional spheres of influence emerged vying for control and power in the region, including the conservative wing, comprising Saudi Arabia (GCC, less Qatar), Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The anti-American wing includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Lastly the Islamist wing includes Turkey, and Qatar. Add to this complex geopolitical landscape, Russian and Chinese inroads through military, economic, and weapons sales to regional actors to increase their regional influence. In fact; in recent years, Moscow has strengthened its military foothold in Syria and secured access to military bases on the Mediterranean Sea, in order to expand its regional political, military, and economic influence. Moscow’s regional engagement has solidified since 2015 Russian intervention in Syria. Moreover, Russia’s expanding military exercises and weapons sales with Egypt selling 2$ billion worth of aircrafts to Cairo. Further, Moscow support and expanded ties with Khalifa Haftar in Libya, talks to sell S-400 Missile Defence System to Qatar, cooperation with Saudi Arabia to stabilize global oil markets, and strengthening relations with Israel and Iran are clear indications of Moscow’s increasing influence in the Middle East region.
In the same way, China’s strategic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is on the rise. For instance, the region is China’s No.1 source of imported petroleum products. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 50% of Chinese Oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, and Iran, with Saudi Arabia providing 16% of Oil imports. Further; Qatar, is the one of largest LNG suppliers to China. Moreover, In July 2018, China and the UAE announced an upgrade to their 2012 strategic partnership to a “comprehensive Strategic Partnership”- China’s highest level of diplomatic relations, outlining cooperation in wide range of fields such as politics, economics, trade, technology, energy, renewable energy, and security. Likewise, In Egypt, in September 2018 President Sisi visited Beijing and signed 18$ billion worth of deals with China including projects covering rail, real estate, and energy. Again, Chinese construction firms are heavily engaged in constructing Egypt’s new administrative capital outside of Cairo and developing the Red Sea port and industrial zone. Likewise, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt are important to China’s expanding BRI initiative. The majority of Chinese trade with Europe passes through the Suez Canal, and China is expanding the cooperative zone around the canal by expanding the port and shipping facilities. Finally, Jordan joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, and Israel high speed rail project with China that will connect Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to Eilat on the Red Sea. Clearly, the multitude of Chinese driven infrastructure projects in the region are an indication that countries in the Middle East are welcoming China’s economic investments, and if history is a gauge of future developments, then it is reasonable to conclude that China is likely to increase its political engagement and expand its military presence in the region to protect and secure its economic interest.
In 2017, during a visit by president Trump to Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh declaration was announced. The declaration is a U.S. proposal for a multilateral regional arrangement between Gulf Cooperation Council nations (GCC), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Jordan and Egypt, dubbed the Middle East Strategic alliance (MESA). The proposal centres on the idea of a regional system with shared security, economic, and political architecture. According to data from the World Bank Development Indicators (WBDI) (2018), the MESA boasts a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion and represents a market of 175 million consumers. The proposal joins an increasing number of regional alliances that exist across the globe, such as the three seas initiative (3SI), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among others. Since its announcement, an ongoing dispute among the competing, regional spheres of influence, due to differences in their respective interests, capabilities, and threat perceptions has caused little progress in the future trajectory of this multilateral arrangement.
Finally, the reality is that the U.S. should not fully extricate itself from the region due to the U.S. great power competition with China and Russia, which the Trump Administration has placed at the centre of its national security strategy. Instead, the U.S. should invest in its regional network of allies and partners to work together to maximize their strengths and address common challenges that are vital to U.S. national security and geopolitical stability. The U.S. should push for and hasten the strategic convergence of the MESA member States by promoting deeper coordination and interaction among participants through multilateral cooperation in the economic, political, security, and energy spheres by calling to build the tools and the governing institutions to govern MESA operations and decision making such as a Middle East Strategic Alliance Council with prime ministers as members, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Economic Commission to manage the organizations day to day decision making activity, the Middle East Strategic Alliance Court system, tasked with managing disputes among member States, and a Middle East Strategic Alliance development bank and stabilization fund to support and drive integration efforts through regional lending and investment programs to boost, along an East-West axis, cross-border economic development, energy, water, transportation, and digital infrastructure connectivity projects.
As noted above, the U.S. should reposition itself at the helm of key Middle East dynamics, while simultaneously working with regional partners to balance Russian and Chinese inroads and expanding patterns of influence in the region. Else, a lack of a clear, unified strategy for the Middle East, will perpetuate the current Hobbesian state of a bellum omnium contra omnes, which renders the whole Middle East system in a quantum state of neither at peace, nor at war, but, entangled in a super position of both states simultaneously; waiting for an observer; to implement the wrong policy option, resulting in the collapse of the state function; into a wilderness of tempestuous combustion; likely, paving the way, to the last age of Pax Americana.