How sustainable is Middle Eastern détente? That is the $64,000 question. The answer is probably not.
It’s not for lack of trying. Gulf states and Egypt have ended their debilitating 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. The UAE has moved at lightning speed to establish formal ties with Israel and repair relations with Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia is moving in the same direction, albeit in a more plodding manner. Meanwhile, Turkey is also seeking to repair its long-strained relations with Egypt and Israel.
Recently, Saudi Arabia granted visas to three Iranian diplomats to represent the Islamic Republic at the Jeddah-based, 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was attacked in protest against the execution of Saudi Shia activist and cleric Nimr al. Nimr. The recent granting of visas is expected to be followed by visits by officials to the two countries’ shuttered embassies.
Despite this, Ali Shihabi, an analyst with close ties to the Saudi leadership, said: “I understand that no real progress has been made, so there’s no need to read too much into this. It was a goodwill Saudi gesture, particularly since the OIC is a multilateral organisation and they will (be) accredited to OIC, not Saudi.”
To be sure, Middle Eastern states need a dialling down of tensions to be able to focus on reform, diversification, and growth of their economies. To achieve that, they need to project an environment of regional stability conducive to domestic and foreign investment.
Lack of confidence
An equally, if not more critical driver, is uncertainty and fear about the United States’ future commitment to Middle East security, with no obvious replacement for the region’s long-standing guarantor. The uncertainty is compounded by a fundamentally unchanged regional insistence on the need for a foreign security underwriter. The Gulf states lack confidence in their own capabilities and fear that a strong military could threaten the survival of dynastic regimes, giving countries like Turkey and Iran a strategic advantage.
“Those regimes do not necessarily want very robust and very capable armies and militaries that become centres of power,” said Middle East scholar Yasmine Farouk.
If history is any indicator, Gulf uncertainty about US intentions may be exaggerated. A review of the last 50 years suggests that the Middle East has been there before, and nothing much has changed.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan brings to mind the American withdrawal from Vietnam, after which South-east Asia and the Middle East fretted about the possibility of the United States walking away from its commitments. Similarly, the toppling in 1979 of the Shah of Iran, an icon of regional US power, caused heartburn in autocratic Gulf regimes – much like the popular Arab revolts in 2011, which toppled US allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as Washington kept its distance.
To be sure, that was then, and this is now.
When America was defeated in Vietnam, and the Shah was overthrown, the Cold War had long settled in as a fact of life, unlike today’s US-China rivalry, which has yet to find its moorings and guardrails.
In some ways, what has changed is positive. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China sought to weaken and undermine US allies in the Middle East and supplant it as the dominant regional power. Today, they seek cooperation and share the goal of lowering tensions and introducing some degree of stability. The competition is economic, focussing on technology, arms sales, oil, and investment. There is little interest – if any – in Beijing and Moscow to go much beyond that.
Like the United States, neither China nor Russia wants to see a nuclear arms race in the region. ‘”The only player who can be effective and bring about progress in the Vienna debates is the only player we do not hear his position on the Iranian issue, and that is China… China’s influence on Iran’s policy is probably the biggest influence a foreign power has over Iran. At no point in history did China (have the opportunity to) make such a contribution to world stability as it has today in Vienna,” said Efraim Levy, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. He was referring to talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.
Détente in the Middle East would be fortified in an environment where the United States and China find common ground in their regional approaches. “There is considerable divergence between Chinese and US approaches to the Gulf, but the interests of the two powers are largely compatible. Both want a stable region that supports their strategic and economic concerns. Given their deep cooperation with the Gulf monarchies and China’s influence in Iran, there is an opening for Washington and Beijing to coordinate their policies in working toward a less turbulent Gulf region,” said China-Gulf scholar Jonathan Fulton, writing in Middle East Policy.
Academic and former Lebanese culture minister and United Nations negotiator Ghassan Salameh argues that “America cannot leave the Middle East only because it concentrates on China… Paradoxically…you need to be in the Middle East if you want to concentrate on China as a strategic rival, because if you look at where oil and gas is going, it’s going East.”
Inevitable arms race
Nevertheless, Beijing’s efforts to moderate Iran’s tougher negotiating stance since hardline President Ebrahim Raisi took office have not stopped it from enabling a ballistic arms race in the Middle East, in what Chinese scholars have described as a calibrated effort to maintain a regional balance of power. Iran has rejected US, Saudi, and Israeli demands to expand talks in Vienna to include ballistic missiles. US intelligence believes that recent satellite images show Saudi Arabia manufacturing ballistic missiles at a site constructed with the help of China.
Saudi officials said the Kingdom had built the manufacturing facility with the assistance of the Chinese military’s missile branch, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. China has insisted that “cooperation in the field of military trade” did not violate international law or involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” The United States has long refused to sell ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia.
Iran described the test-firing of 16 ballistic missiles of different classes during a military exercise in late December as a message to Israel. It was a response to Israeli threats to strike at Iranian nuclear facilities if the Vienna talks fail or produce a result that Israel deems sufficiently unsatisfactory to justify unilateral action. “Sixteen missiles aimed and annihilated the chosen target. In this exercise, part of the hundreds of Iranian missiles capable of destroying a country that dared to attack Iran were deployed,” said armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri.
Beyond ballistic missiles, a breakdown in the Vienna talks with Iran could also ignite a nuclear arms race. Already, Israel has begun to imagine a Middle East inhabited by a nuclear Iran. “Even if global powers manage to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, diplomacy may only delay the inevitable… Given how resilient the Islamic Republic has proven to be, it seems that the world may eventually have to tolerate an Iranian nuclear bomb, just as it has learned to live with the Indian and Pakistani arsenals,” said former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has left no doubt that the Kingdom would develop a nuclear weapons capability if Iran did the same. Media reports last year suggested that Saudi Arabia had constructed, with the help of China, a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium. Saudi Arabia denied the reports, but insisted that mining its uranium reserves was part of its economic diversification strategy. The Saudi energy ministry said it cooperated with China in unspecified aspects of uranium exploration.
Cooperation on nuclear energy was one of 14 agreements worth US$65 billion signed during Saudi King Salman’s 2017 visit to China. The nuclear-related deals involved a feasibility study to construct high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, cooperation in intellectual property, and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs to be built in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has signed similar agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and Argentina.
To advance its pre-pandemic goal of constructing 16 nuclear reactors by 2030, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah Atomic and Renewable Energy City, which is devoted to research and application of nuclear technology.
Concern about Saudi intentions has been fuelled by Riyadh’s hesitancy in agreeing to US safeguards that would require it to sign the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), even though it has not ruled it out, among other things.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that it is unacceptable that nuclear-armed countries are preventing his nation from developing nuclear weapons.
The odds are stacked against avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. To do so would require agreement on a regional nuclear-free zone. For that to happen, Israel would have to acknowledge its possession of nuclear weapons, something it has refused to do.
While some Israelis have suggested that the reality of a nuclear Iran could persuade Israel to change course, there is no indication that the government is seriously considering doing so. A nuclear-free zone would also demand a restructuring of security arrangements in the Middle East to include a security pact that would include all parties, as well as an arms control regime. So far, that looks more like wishful thinking than anything parties would be willing to contemplate genuinely.
More likely, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Tukey will continue developing their domestic defence industries briskly. Moreover, any revival of the Iran nuclear accord would likely lift the ban on Iran’s acquisition of conventional weapons, which in turn would accelerate the arms race as the Islamic Republic rushes to modernise and upgrade its military capabilities, which harsh sanctions have long hampered.
Analysts and policymakers have so far focused on Gulf states’ efforts to diversify their sources for arms acquisition, but largely overlooked their endeavour to expand the number of countries with bases in the region. So far, that has been limited to French, British, and Turkish bases, and a Chinese facility in Djibouti.
In a potential setback, Sudan’s military chief, General Mohamed Othman al-Hussein, has said his country was reviewing an agreement to host a Russian naval base on its Red Sea coast. Meanwhile, various Gulf states are quietly looking at Asian countries like India, South Korea, and Japan to establish a more active presence in the region.
Some analysts suggest that a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran could alter the dynamic of a Middle East in which Israel has diplomatic relations with the Gulf and other Arab states. These analysts argue that Israel may see the détente as a threat to its emerging role as an anti-Iranian bulwark that would allow it to expand military and intelligence operations in countries from which it was either barred or limited in the deployment of its capabilities.
“While (former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu used the notion of ‘containing Iran’ as a primary justification for the Abraham Accords, the simultaneous warming of ties between Iran and Gulf states will ultimately dilute Israel’s role, undermining its argument that Iran is a rogue state and regional destabiliser,” said scholars Mahjoub Zweiri and Lakshmi Venugopal Menon.
Walking a tightrope
The UAE has sought to counter the potential threat of Iran disrupting the Emirates’ rapprochement with Israel by pledging that it would not allow the Jewish state to build security-related installations on its territory.
The Emirati pledge, in a suggestion that some elements of Middle East détente may be more sustainable than others, did not stop UAE air force commander General Ibrahim Nasser al-Alawi from visiting Israel, or the Emirati navy from participating in a joint naval exercise with Israeli, Bahraini, and US vessels.
Similarly, speaking at a conference in November 2021, Major General Amikam Norkin, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, suggested, in reference to the UAE and Bahrain, the possibility of cooperation in anti-drone and ballistic missile defence. Israel could “become a key player and asset for the countries that are under threat of Iranian drones, along with developing needed strategic depth in the continuing campaign against Iran,” Major-General Norkin said. He appeared to be proposing the deployment of Israeli detection systems in the Gulf that would also work against ballistic missiles.
Also, the UAE pledge did not disrupt UAE-Israeli cooperation to counter alleged Iranian hacking. ClearSky, a cybersecurity company, reported that a cyber group operated by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, had hacked the Emirates’ Etisalat telecommunications company, as well as companies in Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United States, and Britain.
Nevertheless, Emirati nationalists and surrogates for the government painted the UAE’s suspension of talks to acquire the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter jet, because of conditions the Biden Administration wants to impose on the sale as evidence of their country’s newly-gained clout and an assertion of sovereignty.
Buried under the bravado was the fact that close relations with Israel apparently did not exempt the UAE from a US-Israeli understanding to maintain the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge. The administration’s conditions reflected Israeli suggestions designed to prevent the sale from putting the Jewish state’s edge at risk.
At the same time, closer ties with Israel potentially complicate not only the UAE’s burgeoning improved relations with Iran but also its long-standing partnership with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom fears that the relationship could give the UAE an edge and a degree of greater independence from Saudi Arabia and enhance its ability to play one off against the other.
Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully sought the cancellation of a UAE-brokered energy and water deal between Israel and Jordan, the largest cooperation agreement between the two countries since they signed a peace treaty in 1994, last November. Riyadh wanted to replace the deal with one that would include it while excluding Israel.
Defiance and dissent
A burgeoning arms race and concerns that a failure by the United States, Europe, China, Russia, and Iran to agree in Vienna could significantly heighten regional tensions and provoke a military conflagration are just two of the powder kegs that could make Middle Eastern détente falter.
In a review of 2021, Middle East scholar Ross Harrison noted that wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have created “security dilemmas and conflict traps that made the hurdles to getting to cooperation insuperable, even for actors who might be predisposed to cooperate… Transitioning from where Syria is today to a more stable, inclusive, and de-militarised country free of outside actors seems years, if not decades, away.” Mr. Harrison noted that two decades after ripping itself apart, Lebanon risked slipping back into civil war.
The years from 2011 to 2021 and the civil strife they witnessed were shaped by revolution and counterrevolution. Leaders of eight of the Arab League’s 22 member states – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan – were toppled by popular uprisings. Possible political change was reversed or stymied in most if not all of the initially successful revolts by counter-revolutions.
The counter-revolutions were often supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013 backed by the two Gulf states. While the bloody civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen were the most extreme consequence, there is no suggestion that détente in the coming decade would give the counter-revolution pause.
Add to that Palestine’s grey swan. Israel may believe that it has successfully pushed the resolution of the Palestinian problem to the margins with the help of the UAE and Bahrain. But the question is not whether but when Palestinian aspirations will come to haunt Israel and push themselves higher up the Arab and Muslim agenda.
The question is how Israel will deal with the facts that occupation is unsustainable, demographics are certain to threaten the Jewish character of the state, and civil unrest stretching beyond the West Bank into pre-1967 borders remain a constant possibility. How Israel responds to these issues is likely to influence Arab and Muslim public opinion. So far, public opinion has been one reason for Saudi Arabia and others not to follow the UAE in recognising Israel, even if the public expression of critical sentiments is severely curtailed, if not harshly repressed.
Nevertheless, the quest for detente has not prevented countries that do not have diplomatic relations from being more overt in their contacts with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held talks in Neom, his US$500 billion pet project for a futuristic city, with Mr Netanyahu when he was still prime minister despite the Kingdom’s refusal to recognise Israel.
Qatar, which already helps Israel fund public salaries and relief operations in the blockaded Gaza Strip, concluded a diamond trade agreement with the Jewish state. The deal enables Qatar to join a select group of countries authorised to trade in diamonds. In return, it will allow Israeli diamond merchants to travel to the Gulf state even though the two countries have no formal relations.
The deal took on added significance because of UAE acquiescence. The Emirates have cooperated with Israel on diamonds for several years, and long opposed Qatari attempts to join the exclusive gemstone club.
Meanwhile, differences in attitude towards popular revolts, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely held responsible for war crimes that cost half a million lives, lie just under the surface despite the lifting in January 2021 of a 3.5-year-long economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. Doha has quietly asked members of the Brotherhood who live there to relocate, but has not further tweaked its support for Islamists.
A potential watershed could occur when the ageing Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, passes on. Mr. Al-Qaradawi, 95, has been a major influence in shaping Qatari policies since the country’s independence in 1971, including the advocacy of greater rights for others that are not necessarily recognised at home. An autocracy, Qatar has supported the aspirations of protesters across the Middle East and North Africa and opposed the return of President Al-Assad to the Arab fold in the hope that it would encourage Russia to help roll back Iranian influence in the country. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 at a time that Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all funded groups opposed to the Syrian regime.
There is no indication that those hopes have any base in reality. Iranian ground forces in Syria, together with Hezbollah fighters and Foreign Legion-type units populated by Pakistani and Afghan Shiites, have ensured that the Russian intervention has so far been possible without inserting large numbers of regular troops. It has made the Russian intervention relatively risk-free and low cost.
For now, détente in the Middle East appears to have shifted rather than removed the battlefield on which regional rivalries play out. The UAE, widely seen as a leader in reducing tensions, has adopted a selective approach towards rapprochement.
The UAE’s diplomatic initiatives focused on Iran, Turkey, and Syria targets countries with which the risk of escalation outstrips the cost of reconciliation. Yet, plans by Emirati companies to invest in energy projects in Iran and Syria threaten to violate US sanctions. Detente has not persuaded the UAE to stop supporting insurgents in Yemen, surrogates in Libya, or supplying arms to Ethiopia in its war against Tigray.
The long and short of it is that the rush to dial down tensions in the Middle East and North Africa rests on shaky ground. Except for Iran, which sees the frenzy of diplomatic and economic outreach as reaffirming its position as a major regional power, Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are driven by uncertainty and fear. Their moves are efforts to buy time to put their house in order and be prepared for a potential next round of differences not an attempt to craft a baseline standard for a shared vision of the region’s future.
The moves are also aimed at keeping the United States engaged, and an attempt at navigating the risky waters of big-power competition that is necessarily ad hoc and short-term and risks turbocharging a regional arms race with no underlying realistic long-term strategy. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see detente as a hedge to limit the fallout of a potential failure of the Vienna talks and a possible military confrontation between Iran and/or Israel and the United States.
Gulf hedging reflects a failure to recognise that perceptions of the US commitment rested on a misreading of the 1980 Carter Doctrine that successive US administrations opportunistically allowed to fester. The doctrine committed the US to defending the region against attack by an external power, read the Soviet Union. That threat fell by the wayside with the demise of the Soviet Union. In the minds of several Gulf states, post-revolutionary Iran replaced the Soviet Union as an existential threat. The perception was reinforced by mounting hostility between the US and the Islamic Republic; US, Israeli, and Gulf opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme; and Israel’s changing threat perception, which viewed Iran rather than the Palestinians and the Arabs as its foremost existential challenge.
The current situation is also a result of the US’ failure to couple its security presence with policies to address the issues faced by the region’s population – education, income distribution, public health, climate change, and basic rights. The frenzy to reduce tension offers the United States a second chance to broaden its security and stability outreach to address issues that concern broad swaths of Middle Eastern populations and have forced themselves onto the agenda in recent years.
Is the US getting it right?
Summing up the US policy dilemma in the Middle East in the words of the English punk band, The Clash – “if I stay there will be trouble, if I go there will be double” – Middle East scholar Jon Alterman suggested that the United States’ failure to ensure that the Gulf States had realistic expectations and did not misread the Carter Doctrine encouraged them to act more aggressively and take bigger risks in the false belief that Washington would have their backs.
The misperceptions persuaded the Gulf states to misread the Carter Doctrine as a guarantee that the United States would ensure the survival of their regimes and protect them against Iran unconditionally. Multiple US actions, or lack thereof, put paid to this interpretation, rattled the Gulf states, and persuaded them to become reckless at times.
The US’ refusal in 2011 to prevent the toppling of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; secret negotiations that led to the 2015 international Iranian nuclear agreement; President Barack Obama’s notion of a Middle East that Saudi Arabia and Iran would share as hegemons; and the failure of the US to respond in 2019 to Iranian attacks on shipping in the UAE and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were among the markers that were laid down. President Donald Trump’s description of the 2019 strike against Abqaiq’s oil facilities as “an attack on Saudi Arabia and (not) an attack on us” constituted a wake-up call.
Many analysts suggest that the Biden administration’s refusal to spell out an unambiguous Middle East policy has had a positive effect. It produced the rush to dial down regional tensions. “From an administration standpoint, this is a sign that US strategy is actually working,” Mr. Alterman said.
That may be true in the short term. However, the United States will have to spell out an unambiguous, clearly articulated policy that outlines what commitments it envisions sooner rather than later. A clear policy could help Middle Eastern rivals manage their differences and focus on economic cooperation and trade. While the debate over US policy continues to rage in Washington, common ground is starting to emerge between proponents of the current US military posture and advocates of a withdrawal from the region.
In the words of Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the Arab Gulf States in Washington (AGSIW) think tank, this common ground involves a “rethink (of) the distribution of (US) assets to make them more effective and, where appropriate, smaller, leaner and more flexible, while at the same time recognising that long-term deployments of US forces in the Gulf region remain essential to the interests of the United States, and those of its regional and global partners, and for regional security and stability.”
Placing a bet
Mitigating in favour of détente in the Middle East is the fact that it was not just uncertainty about the US commitment that prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to adopt a more conciliatory approach. The fact of the matter is that assertiveness, with few exceptions, such as the 2013 coup in Egypt, backfired. The UAE was forced to recognise that its ability to project military power beyond its borders was limited.
A cost-benefit analysis produced a clear verdict. Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the UAE, are trapped in a disastrous war in Yemen that has dragged on for almost seven years. Syria’s Mr. Al-Assad has the upper hand in a decade-long brutal civil war. Iran is encountering headwinds in Iraq, but remains a force there. The same is true for its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
Moreover, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have demonstrated Iran’s ability to achieve its objectives militarily rather than diplomatically with the help of non-state actors, despite international isolation and harsh US sanctions.
There is also a question mark over the sustainability of efforts to reduce tensions, since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the weaker parties in negotiations with Iran. Perceptions of US unreliability and suspicions that Washington may turn its back on the Middle East further weaken their position. This is compounded by the fact that Saudi and Emirati officials fundamentally do not believe that real accommodation with Iran is possible, “There’s a keen sense in the Gulf that the Iran problem never goes away. It’s not about the Islamic Republic; it’s about Iran,” Mr. Alterman said.
Furthermore, dialogue has yet to produce more than a temporary lull at best, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “This pattern of dialogue has been underway for two years, or we’ve been leading up to it for two years. And yet it has not created anything meaningful in terms of outcome,” said Iran scholar Sanim Vakil. “The underlying and fundamental tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arab states, and that between Iran and its external actors in the region, remain unresolved.”
The Saudi and UAE strategy amounts to a bet that detente, against the backdrop of sustained social unrest in Iran driven by economic hardship, will spark a policy change in Tehran. They are also hoping that Iran will accept that regime survival cannot be ensured via stepped-up security and repression x exclusively.
“What we’re hoping for is regime moderation…where we’re dealing with Iran as another state that we can deal with, and through which they can benefit from. So, if they need leverage, they can get leverage, but it doesn’t have to be through the military aspects… That’s the type of change that has not been explored a lot,” said Mohammed Baharoon, Director-General of b’huth, a public policy research centre..
Efforts by Middle Eastern rivals to dial down tensions and manage rather than resolve conflicts are fragile at best. Moreover, they raise the question of what the end goal is. For now, that appears to be primarily an endeavour to buy time, put their own houses in order, diversify their economies, and ensure that they remain competitive in the 21st century.
The sustainability of détente in the Middle East will ultimately depend on support from the United States and other major powers, including China, Russia, Europe, India, Japan, and South Korea. It will also be contingent on economic cooperation and trade, raising the cost of a return to conflict to the point that it outstrips the benefits of confrontation.
Author’s note: A version of this article was published by the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore
The New Middle East: The Winners and Losers
The Middle East and the Gulf regions are experiencing a political and diplomatic movement that they have not witnessed in the last three or four decades.
Behind this movement are the influential states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. A few years ago, it was impossible to imagine any political or diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Turkey and Egypt, and between a number of Arab states and Syria.
For decades, the US has been working on a “New Middle East” that embraces Israel, and then the circumstances tend towards a “new one that includes Iran!
What led to this movement, which will have repercussions on alliances and threads of differences?
There are several regional and other remote factors that are no less influential.
Domestically, it is clear that the region, with its leaders and people, is tired of wars and turmoil and is now envious of the world’s progress while it is mired in its endless complexes and crises.
Internationally, it is possible to talk about the US role and then the political and social changes in Europe coinciding with the rise of international powers on the periphery such as India, China and others, and finally the war in Ukraine.
The beginning was with the arrival of President Donald Trump and his resort to painful language in its frankness, which does not hide that the man does not respect the region and its leaders, but rather considers it a mere bazaar in which he markets whatever he wants without objection from anyone, and a mere ATM that withdraws from it whenever he wants and as much as he wants. Not to mention his frankness that he will not fight wars on behalf of a region he deems lazy and backward and refuses to rely on itself. Trump embodied this conviction when he refused to strike Iran in response to the dangerous Houthi attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in mid-September 2019.
This crude frankness and lack of respect led the Middle East and the Gulf region, especially states that considered the United States an eternal ally such as Saudi Arabia, to ask: What will the Democrats do to us if Trump, our Republican ally, disrespects us like this?
Then came their reply. The Democrats did not wait long after Joe Biden came to the White House to take an approach similar to Trump’s, but for other reasons and from a different mentality. In addition to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and other states in the region about the issues of rights and freedoms hinted at by the Biden administration, there is the great confusion shown by this administration in dealing with the problems of the region, in contrast to Trump’s frankness, and its excessive interest in the conflict with China and later the war in Ukraine at the expense of the US’s allies traditionalists in this region.
The Trump and Biden administrations should be given credit for waking up the leaders of the Middle East and the Gulf, because their approaches were a wake-up call that it would be dangerous to ignore. The service provided by the two administrations to the staff of the region is that they are equal in their disdain for everyone: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, with a keenness to further strangle Iran and Syria for well-known reasons.
In the midst of that labor, Russia’s war broke out against Ukraine to shuffle the cards across the world, but specifically in the Middle East and the Gulf regions due to its traditional strategic tensions and its richness in oil and natural resources, and the need for both conflict camps to gain its support for it.
As far as the Ukraine war and above all Europe, it constituted a wake-up call in the positive direction of the Gulf leaders. The Ukraine war was an outlet for these leaders on more than one level. It first gave them the opportunity to maneuver and express their displeasure with the US insults. And I gave them an alternative that is no less powerful than the traditional West, which they can deal with in better conditions and without insults, which is the camp of Russia, China and dozens of states that swim in their orbit around the world.
It would be a mistake to be overly optimistic about this multi-faceted movement. Realism requires acknowledging that the more exceptional it is, the more reasons for its failure it contains in the absence of sufficient sophistication and the required sacrifices from all parties. One of the weaknesses of this movement is that it is the result of pressure, driven by need, not by conviction. Iran is stifled by sanctions and the unstable internal situation. Saudi Arabia can no longer tolerate a single missile from the Houthis. The economy and financial situation in Türkiye is in dire straits. Egypt is not moved by anything other than “rice”. The regime in Syria wants to get out of its isolation, which will be the culmination of what it considers a victory over its opponents. The UAE wants to prove to US that it is not everything in this universe.
This is on the political level. On the practical level, there are many obstacles that will stand in the way of this movement, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is a good coincidence (and bad at the same time) that normalization (or lack thereof) between Riyadh and Tehran will be reflected far beyond the two states, and the same applies to Ankara and Cairo.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are separated by political, religious and strategic differences that are not easy to overcome. The theaters of confrontation between the two states are vast, including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and inevitably there are other areas and issues that constitute points of contention.
Turkey and Egypt are stuck on many issues, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya and the energy fields in the Mediterranean. In addition to Egyptian foreign policy that is not completely independent and directed by the winds of the Gulf, Turkish foreign files, including normalization with Egypt, remain dependent on the results of the presidential elections scheduled in Turkey in late May.
It will also be necessary for the Arab and Gulf leaders who decided to engage in this movement, taking into account that the United States will not easily accept maneuvers behind its back in a region that it has considered guaranteed for more than seventy years. There is also the position of Israel, which will not accept the rehabilitation of the Iranian regime in the region, and will not easily swallow that the region has favored Iran.
The consolation is that this movement is not isolated from what is happening in the world, but is part of it. What is happening in the world outweighs the US and Israel and is happening against their will. It is an opportunity that will not be repeated easily if the region knows how to benefit from it for the benefit of all.
How Beijing take advantage of US’s attempts to get rid of Netanyahu and expel him from power?
What caught my eye most after the success of Netanyahu’s hard-line government in Israel in January 2023 was the same American fear of its hard-line policies against the Palestinians and the region, especially after the Israeli occupation authorities announced an increase and expansion in the number of settlements and settlement units in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem. Indeed, real American signs began to get rid of the Netanyahu government in Israel. In addition to the American fears circulating on the horizon in anticipation of any rapprochement between China and Israel. This was explicitly announced by the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Multilateral Affairs and Global China Issues, “Jung H. Pak”, at the China-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership Conference, known as: “SIGNAL”.
And it was held immediately after Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli elections, with the announcement of “Jung H. Pak”, that:
“Israel must take more steps to protect its “advanced biotechnologies from the Chinese investment”
The same American fears about the position of the Netanyahu government and its policies regarding China as a strong competitor to Washington in Tel Aviv and the region, occurred at the end of 2019, before the end of the previous term of “Benjamin Netanyahu” in power, when the Israeli government led by “Netanyahu” and under strong and intense pressure from Washington decided to establishing (a consultative mechanism on aspects of national security for foreign investments) and the meaning here is basically China. Therefore, the previous Netanyahu government’s approval of this US policy towards China came as an Israeli attempt mainly to manage obstacles and slowdowns in order to maneuver between US demands and Chinese economic opportunities in Tel Aviv.
And this matter has become applicable to the Israeli government that preceded the current Netanyahu government regarding the exercise of maximum American pressure in the face of the Hebrew state to ease its relations with Beijing. In July 2022, US President “Joe Biden” and former Israeli Prime Minister “Yair Lapid” published a joint declaration on (establishing a strategic dialogue on advanced technologies in Israel) to warn mainly against transferring that advanced Israeli technology with the help of the United States of America to China, and holding this strategic dialogue is mainly between Washington and Tel Aviv, headed by the US and Israeli national security advisors (Jake Sullivan and Eyal Holata). On October 12, 2022, the outgoing Israeli government headed by “Yair Lapid” decided to strengthen the advisory mechanism on foreign investments, especially with China, primarily to satisfy Washington. This is the same as confirmed by the US Ambassador to Israel, “Tom Needs”, when he said, “The US administration has also reached understandings with Israel regarding trade with China, and that it will tighten control over the sale of domestic technology to China, for fear of it falling into the wrong hands”, in an explicit reference to china.
However, after the victory of the Netanyahu government in the January 2023 elections, we were surprised by a severe deterioration in relations between Washington and Tel Aviv, to the extent that planning began in the White House in Washington and the “CIA” to get rid of the Netanyahu government and its hard-line policies in Palestine and the region, in anticipation of embarrassing Washington by all parties in the region and reduce confidence in them. Which made me pause for a long time on this serious issue of the American planning to get rid of Netanyahu’s extremist government, and how can Beijing take advantage of this to strengthen its presence and influence in Israel and the region? Especially after those statements from an American military official, that the United States of America is trying to get rid of Israeli Prime Minister “Benjamin Netanyahu” because of its lack of commitment with Washington.
In my opinion, and according to my reading of the scene, it is expected that China will take advantage of this loophole in the tense US-Israeli relations during the current Netanyahu government, to enter as an active and influential party in the peace process in the Middle East. This is what Netanyahu expects even during his previous term, when he expected Beijing to play an important role in (European-American mediation diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians). It also brings me to a previous meeting chaired by “Netanyahu” and attended by Chinese and Israeli diplomats, in which “Netanyahu” told the Chinese directly, saying literally: “I believe we can work together to meet the challenges of achieving peace in the Middle East”. This aroused the anger and fears of the Americans about China’s entry as an active party and a reliable partner for all parties in the region in the peace process and its management between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Hence, China, through its intellectual and research centers and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, began a serious follow-up to the crisis situation between Washington, Tel Aviv, and the hardline Netanyahu government, after the success of “Benjamin Netanyahu” in 2023 to think about the Chinese entry effectively in the line of the flaring crisis between Washington and Tel Aviv to play the role of mediation regionally and internationally in order to lead China’s efforts and the mediation process in the region and between the Palestinians and the Israelis, especially those related to building settlements and settlement units for the extremist Netanyahu government in the West Bank and the occupied Palestinian territories.
In this regard – and on a personal academic level – I am reminded of what I wrote about an analysis published several years ago, specifically on June 2, 2014, entitled:
“The impact of Chinese labor in Israel on Arab national security”
This aroused the Israelis’ ire and anger at me, with my extensive analysis and my talk about Chinese labor in Israel, especially in the construction sector, which is estimated at more than 23,000 Chinese workers in Israel, which the Israeli occupation authorities are trying to benefit from in the process of building Israeli settlements and settlement units, especially that illegal Chinese labor, which entered Israel through illegal ways, so the Israeli occupation authorities are trying to take advantage of it in illegal actions affecting the construction of Israeli settlements, and this has become the most issue that causes and continues to strain relations between China and Israel. This is what I wrote about specifically, personally and academically, in June 2014, by emphasizing that this issue of Chinese labor in Tel Aviv, specifically those working in the construction sector, has become the most threatening file for Chinese-Israeli relations, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs objecting several times to its Israeli counterpart by seeking their help in Illegal actions related to the construction of Israeli settlements and the Chinese demand to expel them and not seek help from them, and my candid statement in my analysis referred to and published in 2014, that this issue of Chinese labor in Israel, specifically in the construction sector, did not occur to any Egyptian or Arab researcher unless he lived He went to China himself, listened to all opinions, and analyzed them.
I mentioned in my previous analysis, published on June 2, 2014, regarding (Chinese labor in Israel, especially in the construction sector), which is a permanent source, and perhaps also unheard and uncirculated in our Arab region and Palestine, despite its extreme danger in studying the file of relations between China and Israel. In general, it is difficult for any researcher in the joint Israeli-Chinese political affairs to access these data and statistics, especially those related to the availability and access to necessary data, information and details about Chinese labor in Israel, or Israeli labor in China. Israel constitute a few separate groups, including small groups of Chinese students studying in Israeli universities, businessmen, merchants, workers and Chinese investors in the construction sector in Israel, and they are the majority in the business community and workers in Tel Aviv.
It remains a noteworthy note for me in this context, which is China’s keenness to increase the number of its citizens working in ”Israel”, which number approximately 20 thousand workers, and who transfer 330 million dollars annually to Beijing.
My analysis, referred to and publicly published on June 2, 2014, came as a result of the recent increase in joint Chinese-Israeli studies to establish a system for the employment of migrant labor between China and Israel. Under this project, the focus is on Chinese immigrants who were recruited to work in Israel under legal contracts. It was found that many of these immigrants face a state of illegality within the framework of their presence in the State of Israel. The operating system seeks to integrate these Chinese immigrants as well as mediators in the field of work and employers, from both the Chinese and Israeli sides, and to achieve a joint Chinese-Israeli benefit – especially in the informal Chinese-Israeli business sector, represented in preserving illegal Chinese labor, especially in the building and construction sector, amounting to 23 thousand workers – through the availability of many special Israeli facilities for them in the residency and work system in Tel Aviv.
In my research, published on June 2, 2014, I warned of the seriousness of the Israeli government’s policies in using those illegal Chinese workers in the construction sector in building Israeli settlements – which itself is a source of tension between China and Israel – especially with the Israeli government adopting several policies to encourage Chinese and foreign labor in general and expatriates to work in Israel, including expelling Palestinian workers from their jobs and fighting them for their livelihood, and replacing them with cheap Chinese labor. And by analyzing the impact of Chinese labor coming to Israel on our Arab national security, we will notice that more than half a million immigrants from the developing world, especially China, have flocked to Israel, since the first Palestinian uprising in the early nineties of the last century, to replace the Palestinian workers who were the main source of labor in Israel, which I have analyzed and referred to academically and in research, has increased the concern of some, considering that the expulsion and disposal of Palestinian labor comes within the framework of a long and systematic Israeli plan to build new settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories, which infers from it that the replacement of This Palestinian employment with Chinese and others comes within the framework of gaining international sympathy from the countries of these nationalities to turn a blind eye to such Zionist moves, and it is an analysis that deserves study and analysis, even if it is far-reaching.
This is what prompts me to declare, for the first time internationally, that I am trying to obtain official Israeli data from the Ministry of Immigration and Foreign Workers in Israel, pertaining to and affecting my academic work, to know the number of Chinese workers in Tel Aviv in an accurate academic and statistical way, but my request was completely rejected by Israel because that affects Israeli national security. This Israeli refusal to accurately disclose the number of Chinese workers – legal and illegal – in the Hebrew state, came when I wrote my internationally published book in English and classified as one of the most important books in the world, on:
“The impact of Jewish minorities and Israeli think tanks in China on Arab national security”
It is the book that caused a strong international uproar, to the extent that Harvard University, ranked first in the United States and internationally, bought copies of it, in addition to purchasing copies of it from major American and international universities, which placed them in their libraries for public viewing, as well as mentioning, referring, and introducing me to the official American university websites globally to introduce me to American students and researchers, and I published with him (a biography introducing me) on the official websites of these universities, so it was the largest American university that bought and presented my book, on: “The Influence of Jewish Minorities and Israeli Think Tanks in China on Arab National Security”. These are: Universities (Harvard, Washington, Stanford, Ohio, Columbia, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Yale), and other American and international universities.
The danger of my book, American, Israeli, and international, comes from my reference for the first time internationally about (the impact of recruiting Chinese Judaizers into the Israel Defense Forces on Arab national security in the future, and the impact of Chinese labor in Israel on Arab national security as a whole), and even on the strained relations between China and Israel at the same time. This is in the wake of the official Chinese demands from their Israeli counterparts to expel those illegal Chinese immigrant workers, mainly from building Israeli settlements, in violation of United Nations resolutions and international legitimacy, and the Israeli governments’ negligence of those Chinese claims, regarding the failure to use Chinese workers, especially illegal ones, in building Israeli settlements and demanding their expulsion. immediately with the Israeli non-compliance with that decision. And as I indicated, the Israeli side rejected any attempts by me to circumvent in order to obtain those accurate percentages and statistics about the numbers of formal, unofficial or illegal immigrant Chinese workers, especially those working in building Israeli settlements and settlement units illegally, with the Chinese government constantly objecting to those Israeli steps in using them to embarrass the Beijing government mainly in Palestine and the countries of the region, which is what Israel aims primarily for in the future, such as their use of Judaized Chinese to fight the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied Palestinian territories in the Israeli Defense Forces. This is what I strongly warned in my book referred to because of its seriousness.
On the American side, the continuation of the extremist Netanyahu government in building settlements and settlement units has become what arouses Washington’s anger and fears the most, like the Chinese as well, and threatens the continued survival of Israeli Prime Minister “Benjamin Netanyahu” at the helm of power in Israel, with what has been observed of desperate American attempts to get rid of immediately and remove him from power. There are several fundamental reasons that prompted Washington to take this decision to get rid of “Netanyahu” now, even though it was his biggest supporter, to describe the new government led by “Netanyahu” as “the most right-wing” in the history of Israel. Also, the new Netanyahu government is the most religious and strict in the history of Israel, due to its composition and composition of several ultra-Orthodox parties, an extremist religious faction, and the far-right Likud party, in addition to the assistance of several other figures in forming the Netanyahu government, which is considered controversial, due to its hardline stances towards the Palestinians, the Palestinian cause, and the Arab region completely that Israeli government, with its new components, will undermine the potential of the Palestinians to obtain their legitimate rights through the expansion of the settlement and Judaization policy, and its complete lack of respect for international law, through its frank and direct announcement of its approved plan and policy to expand the settlement units in the West Bank and on the occupied Palestinian territories. With the presence of a severe American warning to establish new settlements in the northern West Bank, with the increasing American criticism in the face of the extremist Netanyahu government, regarding the law of separation or disengagement, which was signed in 2005, and related to the construction of Israeli settlements.
Hence the summoning of Israel’s ambassador to Washington, “Mike Herzog” in the US State Department, following the background of the cancellation of a number of articles of the Secession Law in the Israeli Knesset, in which members of Parliament, the “Israeli Knesset”, canceled a number of provisions of the Separation Law, which prohibited Jews from living In the northern regions of the West Bank, however, hard-line members of the Knesset formed a strong bloc to cancel several articles of the Separation Law to expand their right to settlement, claiming that the lands of the West Bank in Palestine are part of their historical homeland, as well as the Israeli claim that expanding settlement construction will help in Fighting what they called terrorism and developing the land of Israel according to their claim, which Washington, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, all countries in the region and the international community completely reject. This is what the US State Department itself officially described as a “provocative step” that violates promises. With the American warning to Netanyahu’s hardline government, that the plan to cancel a number of articles of the (Separation Act) to expand settlements in the northern West Bank constitutes an obstacle to American-Israeli peace in Palestine and the Middle East region, and impedes American plans to expand the circle of peace and agreements with the countries of the region and Israel. Hence the US administration’s warning to the Netanyahu government that the Knesset’s decision to annul some articles of the 2005 disengagement or separation law, related to the northern West Bank, is counterproductive to calm efforts, and hinders the possibility of pursuing confidence-building measures and creating any political horizon for dialogue.
And the most dangerous thing remains for me, according to my reading and analysis of the scene, is the possibility of displacing the Palestinians from their lands by the extremist government of Netanyahu, which has already been monitored, through the Israeli occupation authorities taking several steps to expel the Palestinians in (Silwan neighborhood) in the West Bank in preparation for the establishment and establishment of new settlements, and thus with the expansion of the process of forced displacement of the Palestinians from their lands, we will be facing ethnic cleansing operations, and confrontations will occur that must be dealt with inevitably. And with the placement of Islamic and religious sanctities under the Hashemite tutelage and King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the stern warning by King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein of Jordan came to warn against crossing the “Israeli red lines” in the city of Jerusalem, with direct confirmation by King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein With his personal readiness for conflict in the face of the Netanyahu government and its extremist policies, if the status of the holy places in Palestine changes. There is also widespread Jordanian concern about those who are trying to pressure Israel and Netanyahu’s extremist government to introduce changes in his guardianship over Islamic and Christian holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem, and this is what King Abdullah bin Al Hussein warned of that he has “red lines” that Israel must pay attention to, and not to go beyond it at all, which Washington fears of wider regional unrest with the Netanyahu government and its hard-line policies towards the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab region, especially Egypt and Jordan.
Netanyahu’s hard-line government has also caused an escalation of American, international, and regional concerns about the possible development of Israeli-Palestinian violence, and questions about the future of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors and Western allies themselves, especially since this year has already been the bloodiest for the Palestinians and Israelis, which brings to mind the specter of a new Palestinian uprising, and this is what Washington and the “Joe Biden” administration fear most in the region.
Hence the US administration’s endeavor to get rid of the Netanyahu government, despite its confidence in the Israeli Knesset, due to a state of fears and warnings, whether Western or Arab, against forming a government that relies on the extreme right led by “Benjamin Netanyahu”, with the increasing American accusations against the new government of Israel, describing it as the most strict and extremist in the history of Tel Aviv, with the Israeli Prime Minister “Benjamin Netanyahu” relying in its formation on a group of the most extremists within the occupied entity, amid expectations of an intensification of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and fears of the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising. New because of his government’s policies against the Palestinians, especially after the Netanyahu government announced its new agenda regarding settlement expansion in the West Bank, and its disrespect for the decisions of Washington, the international community and the neighboring Arab region in particular, which arouses the anger and fears of the Americans and all neighboring parties, for fear of Situations ignite. This is after the decision to expand settlements and settlement units of the Netanyahu government violated all resolutions of international legitimacy, most notably Resolution No. (2334) issued by the UN Security Council, which confirmed that settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and contrary to United Nations resolutions and international legitimacy. Hence, the expansion of Israeli settlements during the Netanyahu era ignites the Palestinian front and the entire region, and makes resistance and unity a first priority for the Palestinian people in the face of the priorities of the new Israeli government led by “Netanyahu” by escalating the resistance, expanding its area, and applying pressure with all available means to uproot and expel the Jewish settlers.
The United States of America expressed its concern about the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new settlement policies, coinciding with Washington’s opposition to any measure that contradicts the principle of the two-state solution. Therefore, American calls increased for Netanyahu to meet with Biden to discuss peace opportunities with the Palestinians, especially after approval The Knesset over the Netanyahu government in January 2023. Here, the administration of US President Joe Biden finds it difficult to deal with the Netanyahu government, especially since most of it is from the extreme right, especially Itamar Ben Gvir, the Israeli Minister of National Security. Hence, the United States of America sought to find a way to deal with members of the extreme right in the Netanyahu government, in order to avoid problems with its close ally, Israel. Especially with the Netanyahu government’s hard-line orientations regarding the settlement expansion plan in the West Bank at the top of its list of priorities, as well as building more settlement units, and this was explicitly announced by Netanyahu’s Likud Party, with its emphasis on “development and expansion of settlements throughout the land of Israel, specifically in The cities of Galilee, the Negev, the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria,” which are biblical names for the West Bank.
On the other hand, hard-line members of the Israeli Knesset responded to US criticism of the Netanyahu government regarding the expansion of settlement construction, by warning the US administration not to interfere in Israel’s security policy in the West Bank. Rather, the Israeli justification came to Washington through a number of Knesset members and the extremist Israeli government, that the allegations about building settlements in Area “C” will increase tensions between Israelis and Palestinians is a fundamental error from the Israeli point of view, warning of the increasing pressure of the US government on the issue of canceling the separation law in North of the West Bank, because Washington’s pressure on Israel in this context constitutes damage to Israel’s security, according to the current Israeli perception. This constituted fundamental and strong reasons for Washington to try to completely get rid of the provocations of the Netanyahu government and its strict policies towards the Palestinians and the region, and its non-compliance with any previous decisions reached regarding the settlements and the Jordanian Hashemite guardianship over religious sanctities in East Jerusalem, and others.
On the other hand, the American concern has become about the relationship between China and Israel during the era of the “Benjamin Netanyahu” government, in light of the role that Tel Aviv played in transferring some advanced Western military technologies to Beijing. The most numerous plane in China is the (J-10), whose design is believed to have been based initially on the Israeli plane project “Lavi”, which Tel Aviv secretly presented to Beijing during the eighties, noting that the Israeli plane, in turn, is influenced by the design of the American “F-16”. And that was after Washington had provided some of its information and technologies to the Israeli project, meaning that American technology had infiltrated Beijing through Tel Aviv.
Hence, we arrive at a conclusive and final analysis that states the extent to which the Chinese are able to benefit from the strained relations between Washington and Tel Aviv to achieve their interests, either by pressuring the hard-line Netanyahu government to expel illegal Chinese workers from the Israeli settlement lands, or by obtaining advanced Israeli advantages and technologies provided to them mainly from Washington. It is the same thing that threatens US national security in terms of fear of growing relations between China and Israel, especially during the Netanyahu era, which ultimately leads to the success of the Chinese in exploiting those tense relations between the United States of America and Israel The current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is at the helm of power in the Jewish state. This is what makes Tel Aviv very angry with Washington in favor of rapprochement with the Chinese, who – in my opinion – have read the scene well and planned for it to achieve their interests at the expense of the Americans, and to enter as a reliable mediator and sponsor of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict on the one hand, and to plan for a China obtains advanced American technologies from the Netanyahu government, whose relationship is already tense with Washington, in light of the United States’ efforts to expel “Netanyahu” from the Israeli authority, and also to create increasing Chinese pressure on the Netanyahu government to renew its request to expel illegal Chinese workers, mainly from working in the construction sector. And construction in Israeli settlements and settlement units. In my belief and my final analysis, China is the primary beneficiary in all circumstances and circumstances from the strained relations between Washington and Tel Aviv.
China Gains Political Clout in the Middle East at the expense of the US’s Indispensability
There is yet another détente in the Middle East, but it is neither between Israel and Arabs nor has the United States of America (USA) played an intermediary. For a change, Saudi Arabia and its archrival across the Persian Gulf, Iran, have agreed to resume bilateral ties severed since the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and in a rather surprising first, the peacemaker happens to be China. Auspiciously for Beijing, it was uniquely placed to broker a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran given its cordial relations with both countries — a feature that the “indispensable” USA lacked owing to its longstanding animosity with Iran.
Since the exponential rise in the significance of the Middle East owing to the discovery of oil, the USA has been an “indispensable” power player in the region. However, discernably fatigued by the decades-long military engagements in the region and adapting to a transformed global geostrategic environment, Washington underwent retrenchment from the Middle East in a bid to reorient its priorities to Asia-Pacific to counter China’s growing clout and recently towards Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of that, thanks to their lofty economic and technological ambitions, the gulf countries have been making overtures to China to further expand their already multifaceted relationship — a trend expedited by the frosty relations between the Biden Administration and some of the Arab monarchs.
During the past few decades, China made steady inroads into the Middle East under the garb of geo-economics. Beijing is the largest trading and investment partner of the Middle Eastern nations and buys more oil from the region than any other country. Furthermore, almost all the Middle Eastern countries have signed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and as the Arab Monarchs aim to diversify their economies away from dependence on oil revenues, they are heavily counting on China for crucial investments and technological upgradations.
The growing economic influence did yield China significant political clout in the Middle East but until recently, Beijing has been cautiously reticent to publicly venture into the political arena. Nevertheless, it has gradually been propounding itself as a standard-bearer of United Nations (UN) principles and a proponent of win-win cooperation with reiterated stress on “dialogue and diplomacy” to settle disputes. The mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the first employment of “dialogue and diplomacy” entirely sponsored by China. Reportedly, Saudis — skeptical of Iran — only accepted the deal after China signed as a guarantor, and economically debilitated Iran participated in the dialogue without preconditions after being granted immediate financial concessions besides the previous pledge of grandiose economic partnership. Needless to mention that Beijing is leveraging its economic clout to influence political happenings and more importantly, is no longer doing it behind closed doors; rather is advertising it as a momentous achievement of its diplomacy.
In the larger Chinese scheme of geo-economics outlined via BRI, the Middle East is among the most important geographical spheres, wherein it eyes grand investments in infrastructure, energy and technology. The acrimonious Saudi-Iran rivalry undermined China’s economic ambitions in the region and by brokering the détente, China aims to achieve not only its economic goals but has also announced itself as an influential political player in the region — an alternative to the “indispensable” USA.
Even though American officials welcomed the Saudi-Iran détente and have reportedly scoffed at the suggestion that the US influence in the Middle East is declining, in a zero-sum interplay between great powers, one side’s gain is always the loss of the other side. With the USA already engaged in bitter competition with China in economic, technological, and military spheres, diplomacy is just another frontline where Washington faces a supercharged Beijing vying to carve out its share of international diplomacy — previously dominated by the USA. Saudi Arabia and Iran resuming ties at Chinese mediation — while the “indispensable” USA spectated from the sidelines — bears evidence to the scale of Beijing’s political influence over Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular and all over the Middle East in general.
In addition, the diplomatic coup provides a clue about China’s political ambitions, which are not confined just to the Middle East. China — with frequent references to the UN charter and stress on diplomacy — has been trying to pitch itself as a peacemaker in various troubled zones. Just weeks before the Saudi-Iran mediation, China rolled out a 12-point position paper to bring an end to the hostilities in Ukraine. Although the plan did not receive a warm reception in the West, the message from Beijing couldn’t be less ambiguous: China is no longer reticent to shoulder political responsibilities and seeks to play a global political role by applying “Chinese wisdom”.
The bid to play as a mediator in conflicts stems from the view in Beijing that in contrast to the USA — involved directly or indirectly in conflicts, such as in the Middle East and Ukraine — China has stayed neutral and is, therefore, best suited to play the role of an intermediary. It is yet to be seen how successful Beijing’s push to field itself as a global peacemaker proves in the long haul; nevertheless, the USA’s indispensability, lately circumscribed to the diplomatic arena, has essentially been dispensed with.
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