Superpowers' Engagement with the Middle East and Their Intentions
(Edited lecture transcript)

Koichiro Tanaka

1. Overview

During the height of the Cold War, the United Kingdom withdrew from east of Suez (1971), and the United States established its independent sphere of influence in the region. Twenty years later, the United States became the sole superpower following the Gulf War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the United States' "Asian Shift" policy left a "power vacuum" in the region, which China and Russia are attempting to fill. As a result, Middle Eastern countries are now focused on relations with these superpowers to establish their own security in the era of multipolarity. In some cases, regional countries tend to overestimate the power of certain superpowers, while in others, these superpowers are indeed making significant progress. This transitional phase is mainly due to the decline in US credibility.

2. The United States

The United States has been creating a one-strong system since the end of the Cold War. At that time, it may have been quite difficult for anyone to predict the current state of affairs. For ten years or so, countries in the Middle East countries have noted gradual changes in US engagement in the region and the existence of a vacuum supposedly left by the United States. Not only the regional countries but also other superpowers like China and Russia are vigilant of the opportunities to fill the vacuum. The regional states want to have some insurance to secure their interests given changes in the US policy toward the Middle East; as a result, they have approached Russia, China, and India as counterparts or latent partners to secure their security interests.

Amid these circumstances, expectations for the involvement of China and Russia are sometimes loudly expressed. However, it is doubtful whether they have the capability or willingness to meet such expectations. It is unlikely that the current confusion will last long; the US presence may become less imperative in the future or, to the contrary, may regain strength at some point. In any case, the current situation is transitional or changing.

The US policy concern about the Middle East is two-fold: securing oil distribution and protecting the security of pro-US states, especially Israel. Pahlavi Iran was once a major component in post-WWII US Middle East policy. However, Iran underwent the 1979 revolution, departed from the US camp, and ultimately emerged as an anti-US bulwark in the Middle East. The political configuration in the region completely changed.

Since then, US concern about the Middle East had long centered on securing oil distribution and protecting the security of pro-US states. The shale gas/oil revolution changed this dramatically. The shale revolution began with gas and then moved on to oil. Shale gas production prospered in the 2000s, while shale oil production surged from 2010. US dependence on, among other foreign countries, the Middle East for energy supply sharply decreased. This meant that the energy-security dilemma that the United States had faced since about 1970 began to diminish and ultimately disappeared as the United States became an energy-exporting country in 2019. However, it is not that the United States has become utterly indifferent to securing the distribution of oil but that it has shifted its concern from energy distribution to the safe navigation of ships. It is in this context that the United States, together with Britain, is now conducting military intervention against the Houthis in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Before the shale revolution, the United States had already faced another problem— prevailing distrust against it in the Middle East and the US response to this being unsatisfactory to people in the Middle East. The major turning point was the Iraq war, and its negative aftermath remains present to date. In 2003, the United States embarked on a war against strong opposition at home out of fear of a complicated postwar process. As it turned out, the narrative of weapons of mass destruction was a complete fabrication. To make up for this blunder, the United States tried to impose Western values on the Middle East, emphasizing the necessity of democracy.

The year 2011 saw the Arab Spring. The Obama administration abandoned its supposed ally, President Mubarak, which seemed outrageous to the Arab world. Meanwhile, the Obama administration did not respond to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons that had crossed the US-drawn red line. Other similar examples also undermined US credibility in the Middle East.

The JCPOA, a nuclear agreement with Iran, concluded in July 2015, was another dishonorable example for the United States. During the year-and-a-half-long agreement negotiations, Saudi Arabia's insistence on protecting its interests was not taken into consideration by the United States. Moreover, the Trump administration withdrew unilaterally from the agreement in 2018, causing tension in the region. In the same year, the Paris Agreement was concluded. There were concerns in the Middle East, a significant global oil producer, that the agreement would result in oil becoming a stranded asset. Still, the Trump administration abruptly withdrew from it, but the Biden administration returned to the agreement, causing confusion among the countries concerned.

In March 2013, Saudi Arabia and the UAE started to intervene in the Yemen civil war. However, weapons provided by the United States were subject to strict conditions for use. A natural question from this was: if Saudi Arabia or the UAE were attacked by the Houthis, could they count on US protection? America, complained Arab people, demands a lot but does not take care of their security.

When the Ukraine war broke out, Arab states were pressured to align themselves with sanctions against Russia. As part of pressure on OPEC and OPEC Plus, their alleged oil price manipulation and cartel-like practices were debated in the US Congress. When an oil shortage occurred due to the Russian oil import ban, the United States demanded that OPEC countries increase oil production. This only intensified the distrust of the United States, which had been growing for 20 years.

The current US response to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza constitutes another reason for distrust of the country. A graver problem, however, is that the United States does not seem to be aware of such distrust felt against it. That the United States responds differently to the Ukraine war than to the Israel-Hamas war or deals differently with Russia and Israel invites the criticism that the United States is adopting a double standard. America repeatedly vetoed UN Security Council resolutions; America approves Israel's non-compliance with the International Court of Justice's interim measures order issued on January 26; America stresses that all nations should respect human rights and rules-based order while defending a country that neglects them―Israel.

With the upcoming presidential election in sight, President Biden is refraining from taking a hard-line stance against Israel because he does not want to allow a Republican presidential candidate, Trump, to cultivate pro-Israel voters. On the other hand, it is difficult for him to take immediate action to defend such values he has been stressing as American democracy and human rights. The AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby group is increasing its activities at home. The 10/7 Hamas terrorist attacks, the subsequent Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, and political activities on both sides―and on top of these, the forthcoming US presidential election are making the outlook unforeseeable. The Biden administration's NSS (the 2022 US National Security Strategy) called for enhanced deterrence in the Middle East; at present, it falls short of that goal. The United States has so far failed to halt the conflict; attacks on the deployed US forces and attacks on commercial and naval vessels navigating the Bab al-Mandeb strait in the Red Sea―all these are signs that US deterrence is not working.

When I wonder what if Trump wins, I shudder at the danger of that possibility: If Trump is reinstated in January 2025, what will happen to the US policy toward the Middle East? If the Trump administration takes office again, the so-called big names would not become his Cabinet members as was the case in the first Trump administration. Trump believed that people like Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson were sent into his Cabinet by the Republican Party as chaperones; eventually, they resigned and quit his administration. Many say that the Republican Party has turned into a Trump party; in a sense, today's cult-like Republican Party is likely to adopt policies not based on rational or reasoned judgment. There are profound concerns about how Republicans will handle the Middle East problem. They will likely adopt a very pro-Israeli policy. On the other hand, what the US relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will resemble is unforeseeable.

My present concern is that the whole sequence of events from the Abraham Accords through the 10/7 terrorist attacks has been influenced by the 2017 NSS formulated by the Trump administration. What is problematic is its distorted perception of attributing the root cause of the Middle East peace problem or the Palestine question to the presence of Iran and non-state actors without questioning Israel's occupation of Palestine at all or intentionally minimizing the role of Israel in those problems. The NSS under the Biden administration followed its predecessor NSS without modifying this perception. The 2017 NSS worked, in a sense, as the driving force to realize the Abraham Accords. Yet, it had the ambivalent effect of raising Palestinian discontent or making the Palestine question more volatile. Let me consider a report released by the Republican Study Committee. Interestingly, its contents look like a written form of what Trump is saying. It seems that Trump's tweets, rather than what Trump officially stated, were compiled into the report. It shares some points with the 2017 NSS. When this report came out, I feared that if Trump were to be reelected US president in 2024, the contents of the report could constitute the new administration's policy toward the Middle East, Russia, and China. If Trump is reinstated, the US government's Middle East policy will look like that.

3. China

Although the relationship between China and the Middle East now appears to be close, there were countries from the Middle East that hesitated to establish diplomatic relations with China because they feared about threat of communism. For example, Saudi Arabia and Israel established diplomatic relations with China in 1990 and 1992, respectively. It should be noted, however, that even before establishing diplomatic relations with them, China had a history of selling weapons to or buying from the Middle East like a "merchant of death." Currently, China and the Middle East share economic and energy security interests, actively investing in each other. In addition, China is the primary recipient of crude oil exports from Middle Eastern oil-producing countries.

Chinese models of development used to be very popular in the Middle East. As early as 2010, Saudi Arabia and the GCC held a strategic dialogue, and since 2016, their strategic partnership has been yearly updated. There was criticism of China among Muslim countries, especially those belonging to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), for the Uyghur persecution in China. In 2019, when Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman visited Beijing, he stated that the Uighur issue was China's internal affair, with which the Saudis would not meddle following the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. China's rapid economic development in the 2000s led to its increasing energy demand, which eventually became the country's Achilles' heel. In those days, not only China but many countries also increased their imports of crude oil from the Middle East. Since the shipping routes used to transport the crude oil were infrastructure provided by the United States, many countries took advantage of this "free ride."

With these factors as background, China promoted the One Belt, One Road Initiative (BRI). While it benefited the Middle East in some way or another, it revealed its limitations. China's relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the closest; its relationship with the UAE is worth particular attention. Although there is much mention of the Iran-China relationship, the UAE is China's largest partner in the region. China is not as popular in Pakistan and Iran. Countries with domestic industrial capabilities tend to dislike strengthening economic ties with China because of the risk that it would bring havoc to the domestic market for their products. Since China faces tension with the United States and Europe, it is trying hard to appeal to the Global South.

In addition to the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and BRICS, China is emphasizing its anti-imperialist stance, which serves it well to build relations with the Middle East. China plays up the current conflict in Gaza as a battle between the last imperialist rule (the United States and Israel) and a resistance movement in order to gain sympathy from the Third World or the Global South, inclined to identify the United States with imperialism.

China views Saudi Arabia as a crucial linchpin in its Middle East diplomacy. It organized three summits in Riyadh in 2022―a summit with the GCC and the Arab League, respectively, and a bilateral summit with Saudi Arabia. Xi Jinping attended the three summits. As if to cap off these efforts, Xi Jinping arranged to restore the Saudi-Iran relationship in March 2023. Behind these developments is the similarity of the Chinese economic development model and the model through regional stabilization that Muhammad bin Salman is seeking.

As the Palestine question is attracting global attention, China continues to make positive statements about it. This move by China had started much before the 10/7 incident―under former Foreign Minister Qin or from a still earlier time in 2017. Nonetheless, China was slow in taking specific actions, although it invited President Abbas to Beijing more than once. Last year, China assumed the Presidency of the UN Security Council but did not take any concrete action, using its position to only criticize the United States or to attract to its side Global South countries.

Today, attacks by the Houthis on vessels navigating the Red Sea are a serious problem. In this context, what contribution will China make, which independently deploys its fleet in Djibouti to engage in anti-piracy activities? When Xi Jinping met with President Biden, they referred to jointly exercising pressure on Iran. However, China has not yet gone so far as to coordinate with the United States to work on Iran.

Finally, examine the results of the latest poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between November 22 and 2 December 2, 2023, to learn Palestinians' evaluation of the role of non-regional international actors in the wake of the 10/7 incident. The highest level of satisfaction went to Russia and China. Meanwhile, Palestinians' satisfaction with the US role is almost zero, suggesting their discontent with the US response.

(Edited by the SSDP Secretariat from the transcript of the same titled lecture.)

current topics