China would like the world to believe that the Middle East and North Africa region does not rank high on its totem pole despite its energy dependence, significant investment and strategic relationships with the region. In many ways, China is not being deceptive. With relations with the United States rapidly deteriorating, China’s primary focus is on what it views as its main battleground: the Asia–Pacific. China is nonetheless realising that remaining aloof in the Middle East may not be sustainable.
In assessing the importance of the Middle East and North Africa region to China, the glass seems both half full and half empty with regard to what it will take for China to secure its interests. In the final analysis, however, the glass is likely to prove to be half full. If so, that will have significant consequences for Chinese policy towards and engagement in the region.
Indeed, measured by Chinese policy outputs such as white papers or level of investment as a percentage of total Chinese overseas investment, the Middle East and North Africa region does not emerge as a priority on Beijing’s agenda even if virtually all of it is packaged as building blocks of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It was only in 2016 that China published its first and only Middle East-related white paper, devoted to the Arab states rather than the region as a whole. Apart from rehashing China’s long-standing foreign policy principles, the paper highlighted opportunities for win-win cooperation in areas ranging from energy, trade and infrastructure, but also technology, nuclear development, and space.
Investment figures tell a similar story. Of the US$2 trillion in Chinese overseas investment between 2005 and 2019, a mere US$198 billion or under 5 per cent went to the Middle East and North Africa.
The region is unlikely to climb Beijing’s totem pole any time soon, given the dramatic decrease in Chinese foreign investment in the last four years to about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016 and expectations that Middle Eastern and North African economies will significantly contract as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and sharp downturn in energy markets.
Half Full Rather Than Half Empty
What turns the glass half full is the fact that the Middle East fulfils almost half of China’s energy needs. Moreover, some of China’s investments, particularly in ports and adjacent industrial parks in the Gulf, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, are strategically important. What was once primarily a Belt and Road “string of pearls” linking Indian Ocean ports has evolved into a network that stretches from Djibouti in east Africa through Oman’s port of Duqm and the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Ali port into a near dominant position in the eastern Mediterranean and onwards into the Indo–Pacific.
China already exerts influence in the eastern Mediterranean region through its involvement in ports in Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. It has expressed interest in the Lebanese port of Tripoli and may well seek access to the Russian-controlled ports of Tartus and Latakia if and when it gets involved in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. This was one reason that the Trump administration warned the Israelis that China’s engagement in Haifa, where they have built their own pier, could jeopardise continued use of the port by the US Sixth Fleet.
Asserting the importance of the Middle East, Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), wrote back in 2017: “The politics and security of the Middle East [are] inextricably related to China. This is the first time in history that China has possessed political, economic and security interests in the Middle East simultaneously.” CICIR is widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.
More recently, however, Niu has taken what seems like an antipodal position, maintaining that the Middle East does not feature prominently in China’s strategic calculations. In a webinar in May 2020, he said: “For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. [This] will change China’s investment model in the Middle East.” Niu emphasised that China considers the Asia–Pacific rather than the Middle East as its primary battleground for differences with the United States.
This shift was part of a game of shadow boxing to subtly warn the Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to dial down tension with Iran to a point where it can be managed and does not spin out of control.
To ensure that its message is not lost on the region, China could well ensure that its future investments contribute to job creation, a key priority for Middle Eastern states struggling to come to grips with the economic crisis as a result of the pandemic and the sharp fall in oil demand and prices. Middle East political economy scholar Karen Young noted that Chinese investment has so far focused on a small number of locations and had not significantly generated jobs.
Subtle Chinese messaging was also at the core of China’s public response to Iranian leaks that it was close to signing a 25-year partnership with the Islamic republic that would lead to a whopping US$400 billion investment to develop the country’s oil, gas and transportation sectors.
China limited itself to a non-committal on-the-record reaction and low-key semi-official commentary. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, a “wolf warrior” or exponent of China’s newly adopted more assertive and aggressive approach towards diplomacy, was exceptionally diplomatic in his comment. “China and Iran enjoy traditional friendship, and the two sides have been in communication on the development of bilateral relations. We stand ready to work with Iran to steadily advance practical cooperation”, Zhao said.
Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a secondary Communist party newspaper, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda was less guarded. Fan argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. In saying so, Fan was echoing China’s warning that the United States was putting much at risk by retching up tensions between the world’s two largest economies and could push China to the point where it no longer regards the potential cost of countering US policy as too high.
Diplomacy with “Chinese Characteristics”
Nonetheless, China’s evasiveness on the Iran agreement constituted a recognition that the success of its Belt and Road initiative and its ability to avoid being sucked uncontrollably into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts depends on a security environment that reduces tension to manageable proportions and ensures that disputes do not spin out of control.
“Beijing has indeed become more concerned about the stability of Middle Eastern regimes. Its growing regional interests combined with its BRI ambitions underscore that Middle East stability, particularly in the Persian Gulf, is now a matter of strategic concern for China,” said Mordechai Chaziza, an expert on China–Middle East relations.
Reflecting what appears to be a shift in China’s approach to regional security, Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike described the Middle East in a recently published article as a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era”. Sun and Wu suggested that Chinese characteristics would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences”, a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution. The scholars said Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance and the containment of differences.
A Blunt Rebuke
But China’s conflict management diplomacy may not go down well with the Gulf Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, judging by what for Saudi media was a blunt and rare recent critique of the People’s Republic. In a game of shadow-boxing in which intellectuals and journalists front for officials who prefer the luxury of plausible deniability, Saudi Arabia responded bluntly in a column authored by Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media.
Alamuddin warned that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia. She suggested in a column published by Arab News, the kingdom’s primary English-language newspaper, that Hizballah’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran. “Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange”, Alamuddin charged. She quoted a Middle East expert from a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”
Abandoning Saudi official and media support for some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behaviour, including the brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissident, Alamuddin did not mince words.
Alamuddin went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hizballah seeks to impose.”
A Hair in the Soup
Further complicating Chinese efforts to nudge the Middle East towards some degree of stabilisation are China’s technology and military sales with no constraints on their use or regard for the potential geopolitical fallout. The sales include drone and ballistic missile technology as well as the building blocks for a civilian nuclear programme for Saudi Arabia, which would significantly enhance the kingdom’s ability to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to do so at some point in future.
These sales have fuelled fears, for different reasons, in Jerusalem and Tehran of a new regional arms race in the region. Israel’s concerns are heightened by the Trump administration’s efforts to limit Israeli dealings with China that involve sensitive technologies while remaining silent about Chinese military assistance to Saudi Arabia.
Washington’s indifference may be set to change, assuming that the recent rejection by the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi of an offer by the UAE to donate hundreds of Covid-19 test kits for screening of its staff was a shot across the Gulf’s bow. A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy.
The American snub was designed to put a dent in China’s “Silk Road” health diplomacy centred on its experience with the pandemic and predominance in the manufacturing of personal protective and medical equipment as well as pharmaceutics.
A Major Battlefield
Digital and satellite technology in which Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s 5G cellular technology rollout is but one component seems set to be a major battlefield. US officials have warned that the inclusion of Huawei in Gulf networks could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said the United States had advised its Middle Eastern partners in the region to take “a careful look at investment, major contracts and infrastructure projects.” He warned that certain engagements with China could “come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability and longstanding relationship with the United States.”
Schenker cautioned further that agreements with Huawei meant that “basically all the information and your data is going to Huawei, property of the Chinese Communist Party”. The same, he said, was true for Chinese health technology. “When you take a Covid kit from a Chinese genomics company, your DNA is property of the Chinese Communist Party, and all the implications that go with that.”
The rollout of China’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation System (BDS), which competes with the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo, sets the stage for battle, with countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey having signed up for what is known as China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative. So far, Pakistan is the only country known to have been granted access to BeiDou’s military applications, which provide more precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft.
Promoting “the development of the digital service sector, such as cross-border ecommerce, smart cities, telemedicine, and internet finance (and) … technological progress including computing, big data, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing,” the initiative will enable China to enhance its regional influence and leverage in economics as well as security. China’s state-owned international broadcaster, China Global Television Network (CGTN), implicitly anticipated US resistance to its Middle Eastern partners being roped into a Chinese digital world when it declared that “a navigation system is like a gold key of your home that should be kept only in your own hands, not others.”
The successful launch in July of a mission to Mars, the Arab world’s first interplanetary initiative, suggested that the UAE was seeking to balance its engagement with the United States and China in an effort not to get caught in the growing divergence between the two powers. The mission, dubbed Hope Probe, was coordinated with US rather than Chinese institutions, including the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG). It launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.
You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide
A continuously deteriorating relationship between the United States and China is a worst-case scenario for Middle Eastern states. It would progressively reduce their ability to walk a fine line between the two major powers. That would be particularly true if US efforts to force its partners to limit their ties to the People’s Republic compel China into defiance by adopting a more geopolitically assertive posture in the region.
Ironically, the US desire to recalibrate its engagement with the Middle East and a realisation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Iran that their interests are best served by a reduction of tension rooted in an arrangement based on a non-aggression agreement could serve as a catalyst for a new Gulf security architecture. This could involve embedding the US defence umbrella, geared to protect Gulf states against Iran, into a multilateral structure that would include rather than exclude Iran and involve Russia, China and India.
A more multilateral security arrangement potentially could reduce pressure on the Gulf states to pick sides between the United States and China and would include China in ways that it can manage its greater engagement without being drawn into the region’s conflicts in ways that frustrated the United States for decades.
None of the parties are at a point where they are willing to publicly entertain the possibility of such a collective security architecture. Even if they were, negotiating a new arrangement is likely to be a tedious and tortuous process. Nonetheless, such a multilateral security architecture would ultimately serve all parties’ interests and may be the only way of reducing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and managing their differences, which would in turn help China secure its energy and economic interests in the region. This reality enhances the likelihood that the glass is half full in terms of China ultimately participating in such a multilateral security arrangement, rather than half empty, with China refraining from participation.
Author’s note: This article first appeared in Middle East Insights of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, “China’s Arab Policy Paper”, 13 January 2016, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1331683.shtml#:~:text=Since%20the%20establishment%20of%20diplomatic,fields%20has%20been%20constantly%20deepened.&text=The%20Chinese%20government%20has%20issued,development%20of%20China%2DArab%20relations.
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 Agatha Kratz speaking on “China and the Mediterranean Region in and Beyond the Pandemic, German Marshal Fund”, 3 July 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/events/china-and-mediterranean-region-and-beyond-pandemic.
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 Dorsey, “Syria lures but will China bite?”
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 Niu Xinchun speaking on “How are China’s Relations with the Middle East Evolving During the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Chatham House, 19 May 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2721841274725780.
 Karen Young, “The false logic of a China–US choice in the Middle East”, Al-Monitor, 30 June 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/06/false-logic-china-us-choice-mideast-economic-political-power.html.
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on 6 July 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1795337.shtml.
 “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China. Can China–Iran relations get closer?”, Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, (观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划，中伊关系能否进一步走近？)https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.
 Mordechai Chaziza, “Religious and Cultural Obstacles to China’s BRI in the Middle East”, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 12 June 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/china-middle-east-obstacles/.
 Sun Degang and Wu Sike, “China’s Participation in Middle East Security Affairs in the New Er: -Ideas and Practice Exploration” (中东研究】孙德刚 吴思科：新时代中国参与中东安全事务-理念主张与实践探索), Shanghai International Studies University, July 2020.
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 Baria Alamuddin, “Chinese and Iranian vultures circling over Beirut”.
 Phil Mattingly, Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb, “US intel shows Saudi Arabia escalated its missile program with help from China”, CNN, 5 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/05/politics/us-intelligence-saudi-arabia-ballistic-missile-china/index.html.
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 Interview with author, 8 June 2020.
 Interview with author, 10 July 2020.
 Middle East Institute, “Shifting Dynamics and US Priorities in the Middle East: A Conversation with David Schenker”, 4 June 2020, https://www.mei.edu/events/shifting-dynamics-and-us-priorities-middle-east-conversation-david-schenker.
 Ben Westcott, “China’s GPS rival Beidou is now fully operational after final satellite launched”, CNN Business, 24 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/24/tech/china-beidou-satellite-gps-intl-hnk/index.html.
 Belt and Road News, “China’s Global Digital Silk Road is arriving in the Middle East”, 16 September 2019, https://www.beltandroad.news/2019/09/16/chinas-global-digital-silk-road-is-arriving-in-the-middle-east/.
 Maria Abi-Habib, “China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Plan in Pakistan takes a military turn”, The New York Times, 19 December 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/world/asia/pakistan-china-belt-road-military.html.
 Huang Yong, “Construction of digital Silk Road lights up BRI cooperation”, People’s Daily, 24 April 2019, http://en.people.cn/n3/2019/0424/c90000-9571418.html.
 Kristin Huang, “China’s answer to GPS complete as final BeiDou satellite launches”, South China Morning Post, 23 June 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3090186/chinas-global-aspirations-lift-beidou-satellite-launches-orbit?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=share_widget&utm_campaign=3090186.
 Jesse Yeung, “The UAE has successfully launched the Arab world’s first Mars mission”, CNN, 21 July 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/19/middleeast/uae-mars-hope-launch-intl-hnk-scn-scli/index.html.
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
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