East-West competition and security in the Middle East

Far from being seen as separate to the ‘Indo Pacific tilt’ in British foreign policy, the Middle East should be viewed as an opening to the East.

Far from being seen as separate to the ‘Indo Pacific tilt’ in British foreign policy, the Middle East should be viewed as an opening to the East. As the physical gateway to the Indo Pacific, and the site of three critical waterways for global trade, the Middle East is geopolitically vital to any strategic desire to focus on the Far East. Mentioned a mere seven times in Britain’s 2023 Defence Command Paper, the Middle East must not be viewed as a low-priority region in western strategy, but as inherently connected to wider international security.

The Chinese brokering of a normalisation agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia indicates that their involvement in the region is extending out of a fiscal sphere and into a political one. In this context, it is imperative for western states to utilise their pre-existing physical presence in the Middle East and invest in regional relationships. For post-Brexit Britain, its historical relationship with Saudi Arabia serves as a vital foothold. For whilst the traditional formulation of western troops and eastern money holds true, this is not set to be a permanent state of affairs, nor are the two unconnected. New enterprises like the construction of a major port at Duqm, Oman, with its economic and military importance, indicate this. Furthermore, the proliferation of Chinese investment in infrastructure, and other state-owned financial interests in the Middle East, means that viewing the region as separate to the East creates a false dichotomy. Under the NATO conclusion that Chinese interests challenge their own, East-West interactions in, and relations with, the Middle East must be viewed as of vital importance to global security considerations.

Geography and Geopolitics

The three chokepoints of the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb Strait hold not only naval military importance but are also central to the passage of global trade. Maritime security is a key area of regional western involvement and also has the potential to be new ground for Chinese military presence. To reach the Indo Pacific, the British carrier strike group must pass through this region. Recent Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea are increasing tensions surrounding maritime security in the Middle East. The ability of Iran to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz, through which the majority of Indian Ocean trade and 80% of world oil distribution passes, is crucial to conceptions of stability. Hydrocarbon resources push not only East-West competition in the region, but also its internal stability, to the forefront of Chinese and Western interest in the Middle East. The increasing threat of climate change induced water scarcity, temperature rises forcing migration and natural disasters mean Middle Eastern stability promises to become only more important to East-West relations.

As both a military hub and commercial centre, Duqm epitomises the interplay between economy and security between the Indo Pacific and the Euro Atlantic. It appears in both the Omani ‘Vision 2040’ and ‘Global Britain’ as vital to UK trade with the Middle East in addition to featuring in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Vision 2040 includes major Chinese investment in the port, alongside the establishment of a Joint Logistics Support Base as part of a £10bn project in conjunction with the Royal Navy. As Oman has a history of military cooperation with the UK, participating in joint Swift Sword exercises, next scheduled for 2028, the role of Duqm will become increasingly important.

Western Forward Presence and its Limitations

US involvement in the region can be summarised as long-term deployments of troops, joint counter-terrorism operations, and short-term training programmes. These form the backbone of a forward engagement, which has existed since the 1980s. Behind this lies a triple reinforcement of security cooperation, intelligence support, and the sale of weapons. This presence aims to build up local military capability to prevent terrorism, reduce Iranian hegemony over resources, and maintain the free flow of gas and oil. Unofficially, US presence is also pronounced in state advisory boards and defence consultancies based in the Middle East. These provide a basis from which US presence can be maintained or increased, yet is increasingly viewed as gradually diminishing, in favour of a geostrategic focus on the Indo Pacific.

The US’s framework of ‘allied and partner nations’ is also applied by the UK in the Middle East. However, the 2023 Defence Command Paper sets out a UK strategy of training and partnership designed to counter terrorist groups as part of a wider-world view, rather than one with a concerted emphasis on the Middle East. The focus of the paper is upon a ‘long-term commitment’ to the Middle East and British soft power, as a tool to engage in the Indo Pacific. It is worth noting that this is a soft power tool held much more by the UK than the US, founded upon historical relationships. Training partnerships, such as that set out in the UK-Saudi Defence Cooperation Plan and promised partnership in air-combat, training teams deployed to Jordan, act as a small-footprint means for the UK to keep a military presence in the region. Operation INHERENT RESOLVE and the NATO Mission Iraq are also framed as minimal-presence measures to support security, as a means of facilitating strategic goals in the Indo Pacific.

The challenge of this position is apparent through examination of Iranian actions. Iranian ties into most regional states, in addition to its control of naval chokepoints and designs to construct a bridge to the Eastern Mediterranean, mean that the Middle East is deeply interconnected both internally and with outside nations. Iranian use of kidnapping in Turkey, its detainment of British citizens, accelerated nuclear enrichment programme and shipments of ballistics to Russian troops in Ukraine mean that its aims should not be understood as confined to the region, but as part of an interconnected Euro Atlantic and Indo Pacific world. Britain should understand the current age as a competition for Eurasia. The 2021 Integrated Review, and its subsequent Refresh in 2023, have paid insufficient attention to this.

Iran also provides a useful lens for understanding growing Chinese involvement in the Middle East. The agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023, whilst unlikely to eliminate hostility between the two, is indicative of Chinese strategic links into Eurasia and the Middle East. In an East-West competitive framework, whilst the UK’s ‘Integrated Review’ recognised the threat posed by both Russia and China, it provided no systematic framework on Middle Eastern engagement. China is engaged in not only economic initiatives in the region, but is also interested in politics and security. The deal between Tehran and Riyadh promises to increase stability for the region, whilst assisting a shared Saudi and Iranian desire to grow closer to China as an economic partner. This would protect against American isolationism, in a Saudi view, and limit US dominance, in an Iranian vision.

This does not mean that Riyadh is seeking to replace Washington with Beijing. The US remains the key naval power in the Gulf, and collaboration continues with US-Saudi mediation in Sudan. Yet in some areas, Moscow, and certainly Beijing, are attractive partners. Economically, the BRI is vital to understanding the interplay between investment and security in the Middle East. The Initiative now involves the majority of Middle Eastern states. Whilst many do not share common policies with China, they are making concerted efforts to out-do one another to secure Chinese financial backing.

The axiom of Western military presence and resources, and Eastern investment remains applicable, but should not be understood as a binary. As both British and Chinese involvement in the port of Duqm, and the Beijing-facilitated deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran indicate, Chinese capability and interest is broader than purely economic. The BRI seeks to connect countries, in an acknowledgement of geopolitical interconnectedness, pushing greater Chinese presence in the region. Therefore, the position of British and American policy to divert their attention to the Indo Pacific neglects a more nuanced geographical understanding of the Middle East as inherently connected to the Pacific and constituting part of Eurasia. Rather than maintaining or reducing limited military footprints, Western security policy should seek more and closer relations with Middle Eastern states. Britain can further its shared defence programmes, soft power abilities and military exercises as part of a cohesive strategy of engagement within the region.

Phoebe Hall
Phoebe Hall
Phoebe Hall is studying at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, specialising in modern European and south-east Asian history. She is inaugural fellow at the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum's Young Leaders' Initiative.