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Russia in the Middle East: “Be with Us – and Remain Yourself”

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Discussions about a country’s soft power are generally triggered by foreign policy crises or an urgent need to renew the institutions responsible for projecting such power. The recent controversy in expert and journalistic circles about the effectiveness of Russian soft power in the Middle East is an example of both. As it turns out, the theoretical achievements of domestic and foreign researchers in this field do not always work in practice. Many of those with an interest in soft influence and public diplomacy understand how all these things should work theoretically in foreign affairs and even often provide competent recommendations to relevant agencies. But Russian soft power, if its critics are to be believed, is still more soft than powerful.

A “silver bullet” often proposed for resolving Russia’s problems in this area is an appeal to the American experience. Indeed, American practices are often seen as being rather successful in promoting US national interests and a positive image of America. Yet this is only partially true: not everything the Americans are doing (especially in the Middle East) is effective, and not everything is accessible to or appropriate for Russia. At the same time, if Russia wants to conduct a quality audit of its own approaches, it would benefit from reflecting critically on the US experience of projecting soft power in the Middle East.

Dialectics of Country and State: US Soft Power in the Middle East

The soft power tools used by the United States in the Middle East are not that different from their activity in other regions: Westernisation of elites, educational and cultural exchange programmes, support for civil society and some media, and promotion of the English language and American mass culture. Given the diverse regional specifics of the Middle East, the US has to vary how it approaches each subregion and specific country.

A concept the Americans have had to consider over their many years of working in the region is the “dialectics of country and state”: while rejecting American government policy, the locals readily accept American education, culture and commercial products. In practice, of course, there are many shades to this formula: the anti-Americanism of the ordinary people in many Middle Eastern societies is generally boosted by US-led military campaigns or exacerbation of Arab-Israeli tensions. In such situations, rejection of state policy is projected on to associated cultural images, and then those dissatisfied with American politics break windows at McDonald’s, burn the “stars and stripes” or defiantly boycott American pop products (though not for long).

In the same dialectics, the effects of America’s soft power are offset by US hard power. The United States government and state-affiliated funds invest billions in public diplomacy and educational exchanges, in development of civil society and the media, but Washington’s military actions often negate its own efforts to win public sympathy in the region.

The goal of US public diplomacy in the Middle East is to project an appealing image of the United States as an open, free and democratic society of equal opportunity. The US seeks to convince the target groups that they are not the enemy but rather contributors to strengthening regional peace and security. Given the region’s demographic and socio-cultural characteristics, the United States focuses on working with young people. It is important for America to create, if not a whole generation, then at least a thick stratum of US sympathisers among intellectuals in various fields and professions who might become public opinion leaders in the future. Plus, they do not necessarily have to be pro-American. It is enough for them to have empathy for the US, which could ensure less resistance by the “social material.” There is no direct correlation, of course, between “empathy” and “non-resistance” and this can be more complicated in practice. Yet this is the aim of the techniques used; how well they work will depend on the particular recipient.

All these features of American soft power policy were more relevant before Donald Trump came to the Oval Office, even though his predecessors had already highlighted a few flaws in the effectiveness of American soft power.

The question “Why do they hate us?” was seriously discussed by experts in the United States after the tragedy on 11 September 2001. The main reasons identified at that time were “intrusive missionary work” and “persistent imposition of ideals.” Less than two years later, the George Bush Jr. administration decided to invade Iraq. Seventeen years passed and it took a few more military adventures, unsuccessful for America and disastrous for the region, to finally make sure that such approaches trigger only rejection and resistance.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave the United States a chance to conquer the Middle East — especially its youth — by non-military methods. The image of Barack Obama as “the opposite of Bush” and his famous Cairo speech, among other things, gave hope for a change in US politics in the region. However, all these hopes were destroyed by the Arab Spring, the NATO military campaign in Libya, and the zigzags of US politics in Syria and Iraq. Some felt that Obama was unable to resist the American tradition of replacing “bad guys” by force. The trick of leading from behind in Libya did not help in this respect either: the United States, along with France and Great Britain, was considered equally involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Others, on the contrary, were disappointed by what they thought was Obama’s insufficient determination to support opposition groups and rebels.

One way or another, the US position in the region has been shaken, as the trust in Washington and the perception of its “reliability” have been undermined. Disappointment intensified during the Democratic President’s second term, when the traditional US allies in the region, Israel and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, also became dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, including his attitude toward Iran.

Trump has managed to reverse this trend somewhat: his campaign against Iran made the Israelis and the Saudis more optimistic. This American president is very popular in Israel, and the Gulf has also found a business-like approach to negotiating with him. Today the US prefers to “strangle” objectionable Middle Eastern regimes with sanctions instead of overthrowing their rulers by striking with the dagger of the military. This process is more time-consuming but less painful in terms of public perception, which means it combines more harmoniously with soft influence. To a certain extent, Donald Trump’s attitude to the projection of soft power resembles the philosophy of the Green Berets during the Vietnam War: those in the military who disagreed with President Lyndon Johnson’s directive to “win the hearts and minds” of the enemy came up with their own half-joking slogan: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

At the same time, the picture of “Trump’s America” created every day by liberal mainstream publications in the United States, the behaviour and decisions of the president himself, his anti-Muslim bans, and his image as an enemy of Muslims and a friend of Israel have done a lot to undermine those elements of a favourable perception that had persisted among the region’s population for decades.

Together with the political vacillations, the United States has demonstrated in the region in recent years, this cocktail has amplified the very same anti-American sentiments. Even so — and this is the fruit of decades of painstaking soft influence work by America — they have not completely turned their backs on the United States. For many in the region, the US is still the most coveted partner. They simply expect more from America itself, even if they do not always clearly articulate what “more” means and America is not sure whether it wants to provide this “more.”

Today, the United States is redefining where the Middle East lies among its foreign policy priorities and rethinking its global role in general. Many soft-power programmes that have worked for decades are now being phased out. Traditional US soft power instruments are being “weaponised.” American authorities increasingly do not bother to camouflage certain initiatives with considerations of “building an open society.” One specific example from 2018 is when Congress required the US-funded Voice of America to make its coverage of Iranian politics more aggressive and critical. In this sense, we are witnessing the emergence of a new era in US public diplomacy, including in the Middle East. As is usual in public diplomacy, the results of what the Americans are doing (or not doing) now will only become apparent in several years’ time.

The “Post-Syria” Middle East: A Chance for Russia?

The erosion of the regional elites’ confidence in the Obama administration and in the USA’s ability to protect them has caused many governments in the region to change their perception of America as omnipotent, even though it remains the most influential external player. Russia’s “return” to the Middle East has boosted but did not trigger this trend.

Russia has not supplanted the United States in the region, though this might be the perception following the success of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Moscow’s current presence in the region often affords a more rapid and convincing response, building the image of a “smoother operator.” Even so, the heady illusions in the wake of the triumph could throw Russia back to square one. Many regional governments are trying to use the opposition between Russia and the United States to pull ahead in their own games, often playing the Russia card at the table with Washington.

Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict provides a vivid backdrop against which the American soft power agenda in the region is being assessed today. By engaging in a critical discussion of the growing role of Russia in the Middle East compared with the “withering” of American influence, Western political circles are reflecting on the crisis of their own American model and the image of the US in recent years and sending an implicit appeal to American elites to do what is needed to update this model.

In turn, Russia is gradually moving toward a “post-Syria” foreign policy phase in the Middle East and to a “post-military” phase in Syria itself. Questions like “Moscow has won the war in Syria but can it win the world?” have become commonplace on all western and many Russian discussion platforms. Indeed, it is one thing to monetise the image of a “strong player” yet quite another to convert it into the image of a “caring power.”

In the former area, some strategy contours are visible: increasing the number of weapons supply contracts, establishing military and technical cooperation with a number of states in the Middle East and North Africa, posing as a mediator in key conflict areas, etc. As for the latter, there are individual campaigns, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to states in a difficult COVID-19 situation, but a more systemic approach is needed to organise soft power efforts.

In the meantime, it most important to demonstrate equal ability in waging war and building peace. In the broader sense, this is a test of avoiding the very trap of the “dialectics of state and country,” where the image of a “cruel Russia bombing hospitals” cultivated by geopolitical competitors nullifies any efforts made to project soft power.

“Be with Us — and Remain Yourself”: the Principles of Russian Soft Power

An inventory of soft power goals in foreign policy and of the tools for achieving them should begin with at least two things. First, we should set a relatively low bar for expectations, especially in the short term. Second, we need to recognise the objective limitations.

Russia obviously lacks the ability to organise exchange programmes comparable to those offered by the United States. Yet, Russia is able — and has the relevant experience — to open up its education market, especially in specific strategic specialties, to promising young people from the Middle East. This could involve various forms of assistance for their studies in Russia, followed by career support at home. Tomorrow’s elites in the region are not always formed from among graduates of Western universities.

It is hardly worth counting seriously on the cultural “Russification” of considerable parts of third country populations. Russian culture is, by nature, more “elitist” than American mass culture. Products of the latter are a priori targeted on diverse segments of the population and are almost universally digestible. In addition, Americans use other tools, such as their influence in the international economy and ability to market brands properly and appealingly either by offering accessibility and simplicity or, if appropriate, pushing others aside. Perhaps it would make sense to adopt some of these tricks?

A change is needed in the very approach to organising Russian centres of science and culture abroad. The notorious “Soviet touch” cannot compete with what the Americans, Europeans, or even Turks offer to the region’s population. Assuming the traditional specifics are a projection of nostalgia for the Soviet past on the part of some of Russian officials and diplomats, we cannot expect third country populations to share this nostalgia. Soft power is not a way to maintain historical inertia but an opportunity to direct passionate young people, tomorrow’s public opinion leaders in their own countries, to follow the right imperatives.

Discussions of soft power resources generally avoid the obvious: the basis of soft power is, first of all, how well things are going in your own house. It is difficult to call to combat lawlessness and injustice in international relations until there are clear victories over similar social ills on the domestic front. It is not easy to get nations and societies to embrace your culture, language and education, while you are condoning their decline at home, be it deliberately or through negligence. You cannot expect a third party to adopt your “thought codes” if your predominant attitude is to “chase the moment”, when what matters is that the budget is spent and an event ticked off the list. One reason “balalaika diplomacy” has been replicated so much in foreign policy is because it is stereotypical and therefore understandable, so seen as a quick, lazy and supposedly effective (though not always cheap) way of doing things.

It is important to understand that most elites and the ordinary populace in the Middle East base their impressions of Russia and assessments of its foreign policy on reporting in the Western media and materials from British and American think tanks. Since the collapse of the USSR, foreign policy information support has become one of the most flawed areas. Only in recent years have institutions started appearing in Russia that are at least somehow capable of making up for Moscow’s political and reputational losses over the past decades, telling about Russian politics directly, presenting the Russian narrative without distortions introduced by foreign propaganda, and attracting an increasing number of people in the Middle East who are interested in Russia.

In this work, among other things, it is crucial to make the right choice of communication strategy in each specific case: sometimes, Russia needs to create and consolidate its positive image (Syria, Egypt), at other times it has to improve it (Syria, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf), and at yet others, it has still to “repackage” Soviet or imperial “codes” (Iraq, Iran, Algeria).

The humanitarian area is another complex and emotionally taxing way to the hearts of the target audience. It is hardly worth the effort if the country’s public diplomacy is focused primarily on quick and short-term public relations. Yet, in a situation where some powers are depriving important international organisations of financing while others are using the economic difficulties faced by states to buy up their assets in order to penetrate deeper into their economic and political structure, work in this direction can cultivate the image of a “caring power.” This is an opportunity to literally saturate the human dimension of the relations between the donor country and the population of the recipient country. There is already an understanding of how to build humanitarian policy in this direction correctly. It is important to preserve and direct this impulse in the right direction in practice.

Finally, a frequent criticism leveled at the Russian projection of soft power is the lack of any pronounced ideology in Russia’s foreign policy. Those who disagree believe that Russia does have a quasi-ideology for these purposes: for some, it is “conservatism,” for others “pure pragmatism,” both of which can work in the Middle East. Others, in contrast, are convinced that ideology confounds unnecessarily the freedom of foreign policy manoeuvre. They talk rather about the need for “one big idea” that can “anchor” the entire foreign policy strategy. Russia supposedly lacks such an idea, while each of the US, the European Union, China, Turkey and Iran do have one. And if the United States’ soft power policy seems to say: “do as we do — and become us,” then the EU’s logic is “do as we do — and be with us.” Russia’s several years of activity in the Middle East might allow us to formulate such an idea today: “be with us — and remain yourself.” This idea reflects the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Middle East states, on the one hand, and an orientation on cooperation, on the other; that is, without encroachment on the traditions, values, culture and political systems of these countries.

In general, soft power is often less costly than “hard” power and depends largely on the quality of local agents. Unlike military contracts, it does not bring quick profit, but investment in soft power is denominated in a different currency: people, their loyalty and gratitude (even if not expressed), their acceptance of your narrative, your vision of the future (if any) and the “thought code” of how to make this future real. If all these are available, the projection of soft power can be a valuable long-term investment.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Senior Fellow and Associate Professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), RIAC expert

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Middle East

Beyond the friendship diplomacy between Morocco and Mauritania

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Over the past decade or so, many politicians and diplomats have held that the most significant bilateral relationship has been between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. That remains true today, and it will be likely the case for long- term partnership to come, even as the sort of that relationship changes over time. Due to, diplomatic rapprochement between them and bilateral cooperation on several levels, Mauritania, tends formally to withdraw its full recognition of the Polisario Front “SADR” before the term of the current president, Mohamed Ould Al-Ghazwani, ends.

Yet, the truth is that Mauritania has unalterably shifted from the previous engagement with Morocco to the recent conflict with it on nearly all the key fronts: geopolitics, trade, borders security, finance, and even the view on domestic governance. To that extent, Mauritania was the most affected by the Polisario Front militia’s violation to close the Guerguerat border crossing and prevent food supplies from reaching their domestic markets. This crisis frustrated Mauritanian people and politicians who demanded to take firm stances towards the separatists.

In the context of the fascinating development in relations between Rabat and Nouakchott, the Mauritanian government stated that President Ould Ghazwani is heading to take a remarkable decision based on derecognized the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Polisario Front as its sole representative and follow up the recent UN peace process through the case of Western Sahara conflict under UN Security Council resolutions.

Similarly, the United States announced that “Moroccan (Western) Sahara is an integral part of The Kingdom–a traditional Ally, and it supports the Moroccan government’s constitutional procedures to maintain Moroccan Southern provinces strong and united.” It was rapidly followed by all major countries of African, and the Arab Middle East also extended their supports to the government in Rabat. What a determined move against the Polisario Front separatism in a sovereign state!

During the Western Sahara dispute, the Moroccan Sahrawi was humiliated to the end by Polisario Front: it not only lost their identity but also resulted in the several ethnics’ claim for “independence” in the border regions within. currently, Morocco is the only regional power in North Africa that has been challenged in terms of national unity and territorial integrity. The issues cover regional terrorism, political separatism, and fundamental radicalism from various radical ethnic groups. Although the population of the “Polisario groups” is irrelevant because of Morocco’s total population, the territorial space of the ethnic minorities across the country is broadly huge and prosperous in natural resources. besides, the regions are strategically important.

In foreign affairs doctrine, the certainty of countries interacting closely, neighboring states and Algeria, in particular, have always employed the issue of the Western Sahara dispute in the Southern Region of Morocco as the power to criticize and even undermine against Morocco in the name of discredit Sahrawi rights, ethnic discrimination, social injustice, and natural resources exploitation. therefore, local radical Sahrawi groups have occasionally resisted Morocco’s authority over them in a vicious or nonviolent way. Their resistance in jeopardy national security on strategic borders of the Kingdom, at many times, becoming an international issue.

A Mauritanian media stated, that “all the presidential governments that followed the former President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidala, a loyal and supporter to the Polisario Front, were not at all satisfied with the recognition of the SADR creation due to its fear that it would cause reactions from Algeria. however, Mauritania today is not the state of 1978, it has become a well-built country at the regional level, and the position of its military defense has been enhanced at the phase of the continent’s armies after it was categorized as a conventional military power.”

This is what Mauritania has expected the outcome. Although neighboring Mauritania has weeded out the pressures of the Algerian regime, which stood in the way of rapprochement with the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Mauritanian acknowledged that Nouakchott today is “ready to take the historic decision that seeks its geopolitical interests and maintain strategic stability and security of the entire region, away from the external interactions.” Hence, The Mauritanian decision, according to the national media, will adjust its neutral position through the Moroccan (Western) Sahara issue; Because previously was not clear in its political arrangement according to the international or even regional community.

Given the Moroccan domestic opinion, there is still optimistic hope about long-term collaboration on the transformation between Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, even considering some temporary difficulties between the two in the Western Sahara conflict. For example, prior Mauritania has recognized the Polisario since the 1980s, but this recognition did not turn into an embassy or permanent diplomatic sign of the separatist entity in Mauritania, the Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with Mauritania and the recent regional politics would not harm that, because it’s a political circumstance.

Despite the strain exerted by the Polisario Front and Algeria on Mauritania, and intending to set impediments that avoid strategic development of its relations with Rabat, the Mauritanian-Moroccan interactions have seen an increased economic development for nearly two years, which end up with a phone call asked King Mohammed VI to embark on an official visit to Mauritania as President Ould Ghazwani requested.

For decades, the kingdom of Morocco has deemed a united, stable, and prosperous Maghreb region beneficial to itself and Northern Africa since it is Kingdom’s consistent and open stance and strategic judgment. Accordingly, Morocco would continue supporting North Africa’s unity and development. On the one hand, Morocco and Mauritania are not only being impacted by the pandemic, but also facing perils and challenges such as unilateralism, and protectionism. On the other hand, Rabat opines that the two neighboring states and major forces of the world necessarily established their resolve to strengthen communication and cooperation with each other. To that end, both states would make efforts to set up long-term strategic consensus including mutual trust, reciprocal understandings, and respect to the United Nations and the current international system based on multilateralism.

In sum, both Morocco and Mauritania are sovereign states with a strong desire to be well-built and sophisticated powers. Previous successes and experiences in solving territorial disputes and other issues have given them confidence, which motivated both countries to join hands in the struggles for national independence, equality, and prosperity. In sense of the world politics, two states promise to advance the great cause of reorganization and renovation and learn from each other’s experience in state power and party administration.

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Getting Away With Murder: The New U.S. Intelligence Report on the Khashoggi Affair

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It was October 2, 2018 when a man walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate to collect some documents he needed for his impending marriage.  He had been there earlier on September 28, and had been told to allow a few days for them to prepare the needed proof of divorce from an earlier marriage.

So there he was.  His Turkish fiancée had accompanied him and he asked her to wait outside as it would only take a minute or two.  She waited and waited and… waited.  Jamal Khashoggi never came out.

What went on inside is a matter of dispute but US intelligence prepared a report which should have been released but was illegally blocked by the Trump administration.  Mr. Trump is no doubt grateful for the help he has had over two decades from various Saudi royals in addition to the business thrown his way at his various properties.  “I love the Saudis,” says Donald Trump and he had kept the report under wraps.  It has now been released by the new Biden administration.      

All the same, grisly details of the killing including dismemberment soon emerged because in this tragic episode, with an element of farce, it was soon evident that the Turks had bugged the consulate.  There is speculation as to how the perpetrators dispersed of the corpse but they themselves have been identified.  Turkish officials also claim to know that they acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government.  They arrived on a private jet and left just as abruptly.

The egregious killing led to the UN appointing a Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard.  She concluded it to be an “extra-judicial killing for which the state of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”  She added, there was “credible evidence”  implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.  

Now the US report.  Intelligence agencies conclude Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  They add that the latter has had unitary control over Saudi security and intelligence organizations and thus it was “highly unlikely” an operation of this nature would have been possible without Prince Mohammed’s authorization.

Mr. Biden’s reaction is plain.  Although the Crown Prince is the de facto ruler with his father the King’s acquiescence, Mr. Biden has not talked to him.  He called the king and emphasized the importance placed on human rights and the rule of law in the US.

President Biden is also re-evaluating US arms sales to the Kingdom with a view to limiting them to defensive weapons — a difficult task as many can be used for both, a fighter-bomber for example.

There are also calls for sanctions against the Crown Prince directly but Biden has ruled that out.  Saudi Arabia is after all the strongest ally of the US in the region, and no president wants to jeopardize that relationship.  Moreover, the US has done the same sort of thing often enough; the last prominent assassination being that of the senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani,  by the Trump administration.  

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US intelligence report leaves Saudi Arabia with no good geopolitical choices

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The Biden administration’s publication of a US intelligence report that holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi creates a fundamental challenge to the kingdom’s geopolitical ambitions.

The challenge lies in whether and how Saudi Arabia will seek to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and US human rights pressure.

Saudi and United Arab Emirates options are limited by that fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defence as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the US as unreliable and at odds with their policies.

As Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with the United States.

Core to Saudi as well as UAE considerations is likely to be the shaping of the ultimate balance of power between the kingdom and Iran in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia’s border with China.

US officials privately suggest that regional jockeying in an environment in which world power is being rebalanced to create a new world order was the key driver of Saudi and UAE as well as Israeli opposition from day one to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that the United States together with Europe, China, and Russia negotiated. That remains the driver of criticism of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the agreement.

“If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Mr. Parsi was summing up Saudi and Emirati attitudes based on interviews with officials involved in the negotiations at a time that Mr. Biden was vice-president.

As a result, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel appear to remain determined to either foil a return of the United States to the accord, from which Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, withdrew, or ensure that it imposes conditions on Iran that would severely undermine its claim to regional hegemony.

In the ultimate analysis, the Gulf states and Israel share US objectives that include not only restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities but also limiting its ballistic missiles program and ending support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemen’s Houthis. The Middle Eastern states differ with the Biden administration on how to achieve those objectives and the sequencing of their pursuit.

Even so, the Gulf states are likely to realize as Saudi Arabia contemplates its next steps what Israel already knows: China and Russia’s commitment to the defence of Saudi Arabia or Israel are unlikely to match that of the United States given that they view an Iran unfettered by sanctions and international isolation as strategic in ways that only Turkey rather than other Middle Eastern states can match.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE will also have to recognize that they can attempt to influence US policies with the help of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby and influential US lobbying and public relations companies in ways that they are not able to do in autocratic China or authoritarian Russia.

No doubt, China and Russia will seek to exploit opportunities created by the United States’ recalibration of its relations with Saudi Arabia with arms sales as well as increased trade and investment.

But that will not alter the two countries’ long-term view of Iran as a country, albeit problematic, with attributes that the Gulf states cannot match even if it is momentarily in economic and political disrepair.

Those attributes include Iran’s geography as a gateway at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe; ethnic, cultural, and religious ties with Central Asia and the Middle East as a result of history and empire; a deep-seated identity rooted in empire; some of the world’s foremost oil and gas reserves; a large, highly educated population of 83 million that constitutes a huge domestic market; a fundamentally diversified economy; and a battle-hardened military.

Iran also shares Chinese and Russian ambitions to contain US influence even if its aspirations at times clash with those of China and Russia.

“China’s BRI will on paper finance additional transit options for the transfer of goods from ports in southern to northern Iran and beyond to Turkey, Russia, or Europe. China has a number of transit options available to it, but Iranian territory is difficult to avoid for any south-north or east-west links,” said Iran scholar Alex Vatanka referring to Beijing’s infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.

Compared to an unfettered Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily offer geography related to some of the most strategic waterways through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows as well their positioning opposite the Horn of Africa and their energy reserves.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s position as a religious leader in the Muslim world built on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, potentially could be challenged as the kingdom competes for leadership with other Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states.

On the principle of better the enemy that you know than the devil that you don’t, Saudi leaders may find that they are, in the best of scenarios, in response to changing US policies able to rattle cages by reaching out to China and Russia in ways that they have not until now, but that at the end of the day they are deprived of good choices.

That conclusion may be reinforced by the realization that the United States has signalled by not sanctioning Prince Mohammed that it does not wish to cut its umbilical cord with the kingdom. That message was also contained in the Biden administration’s earlier decision to halt the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia could you for offensive operations in Yemen but not arms that it needs to defend its territory from external attack.

At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia’s best option to counter an Iran that poses a threat to the kingdom’s ambitions irrespective of whatever regime is in power would be to work with its allies to develop the kind of economic and social policies as well as governance that would enable it to capitalize on its assets to effectively compete. Containment of Iran is a short-term tactic that eventually will run its course.

Warned former British diplomat and Royal Dutch Shell executive Ian McCredie: “When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups, and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again.”

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