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Strategic Paper
"Rivalries in the Middle East in New Security Dynamics"

Sayed Ghoneim, Major General (retired) of the Egyptian Armed Forces Chairman, Institute for Global Security & Defence Affairs

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until the start of so-called "The Arab spring" in 2011, the regional power dynamics of the Middle East were relatively stable, and the US was the sole and dominant external power. Today, a combination of the upheavals, revolutions, and civil wars in the region, U.S. war fatigue, and the return of major power competition have dramatically transformed the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The US and Russia try to formulate a regional resolution for the situation in the ME. On the other hand, although China is not currently playing a major role in the regional affairs of the ME, it seems, especially, after the US-Iran crisis, that it is becoming a strong player in the ME, building its economic and diplomatic relations throughout the region and is preparing to be more influential in the future.

The role of the European Union (EU) in the region has been relatively reduced and its focus has shifted to prevent the risk of conflict in some ME and North Africa countries with illegal immigration, terrorism and transnational crime. Some EU countries are seeking to impose a greater role in the near future, particularly the United Kingdom and France.

But six other players must be considered: the two regional powers (Iran and Turkey) and four other countries that also actively try to contribute to the formulation of a regional solution for the ME as well as other regions. Of these four countries there is Israel which is a small state that has some huge national powers and is permanently supported by the US; therefore, some consider it to be a regional power. Also, there are three rich Arabian countries that depend on their resources and financial capabilities; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) which is an actor and a medium power, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is seen as a small state actor and Qatar which is known as a microstate actor. Although they're not considered regional powers, they try to form a regional order as they have large interests in the ME, in Africa and in other regions. Their rivalries have expanded to several regions, such as the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Sahel and Sahara, Central Asia and the Balkans.

Egypt has specific roles in Libya and in the Palestinian cause and tries to expand its role in several parts in Africa.

These all foresee more instability in the region, the reason for this is the current lack of influence management that occurred as a result of the complicated rivalries among players with unbalanced powers.


  • Rivalries in the ME in New Security Dynamics;
  • Impact on East Asia;
  • Final Remarks and Future Perspective;

Rivalries in the ME;

Major power's rivalries

First: The US (America First);

Trump's 2017 strategy:

Four vital, national interests—organized as the strategy's four pillars—form the backbone of this commitment:

  • Protect the homeland, the American people, and the American way of life
  • Promote American prosperity
  • Preserve peace through strength
  • Advance American influence

This NSS and its four themes are guided by a return to principled realism.

My personal view of the US's strategic goals;

Profit and Domination by maintaining the US as the most powerful and influential country through the following:

  • Energy security.
    • Securing energy resources in the Middle East for the US and for its allies.
    • The advantage of selling oil only in US dollars.
    • Both of these enable the US to control the energy and industrial countries in general more than its main competitors, Russia, the OPEC member states and China-the non-OPEC state.
  • Full support to Israel.
  • Fighting terrorism.
  • Confronting its competitors.

Russia returns to the US as a competitor and as a worthy successor to the Soviet Union specially after Putin took over. The US continued its attempts to restrict the Russians inside their geographical boundaries, preventing its return as a major power. However, most of these attempts didn't meet expected success, and now the Russians are gaining new ground each day at the expense of US mistakes in the axis to strengthen Russia's presence in the ME in the most important Levant countries on the Mediterranean Sea (Syria).

China became a giant economic power. Because of the US concern with intellectual property rights, the US declared a Trade War on China. China slowly and steadily approaches the world with a strong strategy with a precise and phased time plan to become powerful, prosperous and economically influential. This paves the way for a parallel political influence protected by strong armed forces. China with a military base in Djibouti, seeks to become a counterpart major power depriving the US of being the only or even the most powerful country in the world.

There is no doubt that the US watches closely the near future relations between Russia and China. It is obvious that both big Eastern powers are looking ahead, particularly at the business opportunities available to them. Yet despite the rapprochement between Russia and China in the international arena, the US may foresee that the cooperation that characterized these two powers during the war in Syria is likely to give way to economic rivalry that will remind them both of the areas of contention between them.

The Europe Union (EU) is the main ally of the US but also its main competitor from an economic point of view. The US supports the UK Brexit to build a huge Anglo-force, in the meantime it weakens the strength of the EU. The EU lacks a common foreign policy and its economy is mainly based on foreign trade. Security is mainly based on the US contribution to NATO. EU defense policy is not autonomous.

The main political difference on Iran is between the US and the EU. Three EU countries(E3) are signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Two EU countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council. It seems that France and Germany have always sought to liberate themselves from the US shaddow.

Europe considers that the US is adopting a policy of "selfishness" and "recklessness", and the US sanctions on Iran harm European interests, and they believe that the US-Iranian escalation may deepen the security crisis in the Middle East.

As such, the EU and the US do not yet have a common ground on the situation with Iran.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has considerably lost in Tutkey's regional and international relations, including US-Turkish relations despite the many gains achieved by both sides. I believe that both countries, Turkey and the United States, are responsible for the deterioration of the relations between them.

The most important factor that has fueled tensions in US/Turkish relations is the situation in Syria. The US has armed some Kurdish groups classified as terrorists to fight ISIS in Syria, which is a terrorist organization. These tensions have grown with Israel's increasing support for the establishment of a Kurdish state. The Turkish military operations against the Kurds started and in the meantime, have penetrated 30 km into Syria. With the US president Trump's decision to redeploy US forces out of Syria by the end of 2018, tensions have escalated between Turkey and the USA. Such complications haven't stopped here. Yet, the growth of these tensions has continued with Turkey's announcement on buying the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles which counter the 5th generation of US aircraft.

It seems lately that the US and the EU are in a state of escalating dissatisfaction with Erdogan who is perceived to be adopting an aggressive policy. Among other issues, there is also Erdogan's hard stance against Europe in regard to the refugees issue; either historically based or more current. The most important is his limitless maneuvers regarding his new Ottoman aspirations. I think that the US-Turkish relations are going to worsen and will become more tense.

In early December 2019, the US Congress issued decisions condemning the Armenian Genocide for the first time in more than half a century. This is considered to be exercising political pressure on Ankara. Later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee proposed a legislative formula that could prevent Turkey from purchasing F-35 jet fighters; while allowing Cyprus, with which Turkey maintains a long-standing territorial dispute, to start buying American weapon systems.

Such a stance reflects a growing consensus in Congress that the US, which has been linked to Turkey through NATO, would be wise to start building new political and military plans. General Charles Wald, former Deputy Commander of United States European Command has stated that the United States should redeploy its forces from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to another location with trustworthy allies; especially given Turkey's growing alienation from the US and its strategic shift towards US opponents, Russia and Iran.

All the above undoubtedly plays into Russia's interest and its long-term plans. It is a new point against the US, given current circumstances.

US and Iran relations have changed since the regime of Iranian Mullahs seized power. Since that day in 1979, successive US Administrations, Congress and the Pentagon have not stopped for decades totry undermine Iran and aim to break its network of influence across the ME. However, the European Union is also afraid of the current Iranian Islamic regime possessing nuclear weapons. The US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which is known as the nuclear agreement with Iran, embarrassed the European position which supports the nuclear agreement. It weakened the Russian position of supporting Iranian policy in the Syria and drags Tehran to a new negotiating table with the Trump administration.

For decades, the US-Israeli relations are developing, the US has ensured security for the Jewish homeland in Palestine as its top priority in the Middle East. The US has sought to do this through military aid to consolidate and secure Israeli military and diplomatic sovereignty in the region, which aims to mediate the acceptance of its Arab and Sunni Muslim neighbors. And while Israel has become a regional military power with nuclear monopoly and overwhelming military supremacy in the region, US diplomacy is inconstant contraction and decline.

The unlimited US support for Israel and the US military interventions in the region made the Middle East a center of terrorism against the US. While Israel threatens Iran by declaring war on it to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, and although other countries hate Iran, we find that the same countries do not support any preemptive attack on Iran. U.S. support for Israel and military interventions in the region have made it the epicenter of anti-American terrorism with a global reach. Israel is threatening war on Iran to preclude it from developing nuclear weapons. Although other countries in the region dislike — even fear — Iran, none supports preemptive attack on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, our cooperation with the region's governments on counterterrorism is on the rise. So is the number of terrorists. There is a lot more hatred of America out there than there was before 9/11. I maintain that the foregoing is the product of certain wrong American strategies.

President Trump continues supporting Israel by several means such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, supporting Israel's annexing of the Golan Heights and expanding the citizenships in the Palestinian territories.

The US- Egyptian relations increased and stabilized after the Egyptian/Israeli Peace Treaty in the late 70's under American sponsorship. Thus, Egypt moved from its partnership with the Soviet Union to a larger and more important one with the US. The most indispensable pillars of US-Egyptian relations were a lasting peace with Israel, Egypt's support of US strategy in the Middle East and the freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal. In addition, there was the US aid to Egypt. That last pillar had become, on many occasions, a source of tensions. The US approach of promoting democratic reform and human rights had led to a dead end. However, US aid had continued with the same amount of $1.3 billion annually.

The speech by President Barack Obama in Cairo in June 2009 had greatly helped in expanding the US-Egyptian dialogue. In the beginning, the US had intended to work in partnership with Egypt and its regional allies to confront the challenges faced by the peoples and governments of the region.

After the Arab Spring in January 2011, the affiliation of Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt after Mubarak, with the Muslim Brotherhood was highly visible at home and abroad. This of affiliation had strengthened the position of the Egyptian army in confronting him and his group. That eternal bond between the People of Egypt and their Armed Forces had undoubtedly overridden Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood Group in Egypt.

For the US- Egyptian relations to return to a better situation, Trump and Sisi agreed on many issues in the region such as countering terrorism, cross-border crimes, civil wars, and others. Nonetheless, Egypt has increased its military ties with Russia; the last of which is the sophisticated Sukhoi aircraft deal.

Second: Russia (Restoring the State, Restoring the Prestige);

Five pillars of Putin's December 2015 strategy:

  • Russia's large wealth in oil & gas and high technology.
  • The huge military and nuclear powers.
  • Very active flexible diplomacy.
  • The creation of a powerful propaganda machine which targeted all of Russia's adversaries. The RT was also a tool in a large psychological operation that paved the way for the planned intervention in countries of interest.
  • Anti-radical Islamism, which is considered a common factor of all playing powers all over the world.

"Russia's possible strategic Goal";

Maximizing the political, economic and military powers of the Russia in pursuit of resuming its role as a global power on equal footing with the US and capable of deterring NATO and consequently limiting the US' influence in areas of interest.

Chaos confronts strategies

Putin started his first presidential term with a firm plan to expand his influence in the Middle East (based in Syria) through the Mediterranean Sea via Iran, Turkey and Israel. In the meantime, Israel was building an Eastern strategic depth in Syria that guarantees the protection of Israeli national security, that led Israel to deepen relations with Russia in several fields. On the other hand, at a time when Egypt was securing a strategic depth in Libya that protects its national security, Putin planned to take advantage of a strong strategic bridge that Turkey is building in Libya to secure Turkey's strategic depth as well in the southern Mediterranean. However, GCC countries are considered the Russian main target in terms of military and security partnerships.

Putin's strategy has been built to compete with (disrupt and gain) the US for seizing influence in the region. The areas of chaos might be the best battleground for Putin more than those who think in an organized way like the US. Observers believe that Putin is the mastermind behind WikiLeaks documents in the US and Europe.

In line with the above, Putin may have used some unexpected tools through his intelligence services. It is suspected that he was involved in making ISIS instead of Al-Qaeda in Iraq hit hard the stability on which the US and some other major powers relied to carry out their long term strategies that included many segments of western interests with the Gulf states.

Exploiting the opponents' mistakes;

Putin seized on the opportunity provided by the sluggish movement of the US in countering terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Putin decided to intervene militarily in Syria to put a decisive end to the situation there. He made a deal with the Syrian president to establish two military bases Hmeimim and Tartus with the aim of defeating terrorism and preserving the Syrian regime. This movement annoyed the western countries and the Gulf States, but found support by Turkey and Iran.

By the end of 2015, Putin was sure that matters were developing as he desired. He might have found compensation in striking secret alliances with anti-western nations such as Iran and China. But the most important new ally is Turkey, which is the one of the strongest allies to the west.

The US supported the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) that is mostly Kurdish to fight ISIS in Syria; this has been viewed by Turkey as a US double standard as the US supports an organization proscribed as terrorist. Turkey also considered it a de facto clear support to the Kurds that may lead to the independence of Kurdistan as an independent state which was mainly supported by Israel and KSA. This leads to fear in Turkey and also in Syria, Iran and Iraq of losing territory as they have large Kurdish populations. This attempt to promote Kurdistan independence encouraged Erdogan to proceed with secret diplomatic agreements with Russia, Iran and Syria, including the opportunity to deploy Turkish forces inside Syria and thus undermining US military presence, plans and goals in Syria.

In terms of the Russian counter strategy,Turkey, Israel, Syria and Egypt are given precedence, since they are key to the Mediterranean Sea that links the Middle East and North Africa from the south and Europe from the North. These countries represent either a security valve for south European countries or a source of threat to the EU and to the US influence in the region.

Turkey overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and has two straits: Bosporus and Dardanelles which are considered the most important passageways for Russia to cross to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. Therefore, Turkey should be the best and most important location to transport Russian gas to Europe through pipelines which cross Turkey's territories. These all obviously led to consider the reasons behind Putin's patience with Erdogan after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian aircraft over Syrian territories in 2015, the later assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara at the hands of a Turkish security officer, and several other incidents.

Third: China "Superiority before rivalry"

"The Victorious Warriors win first then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first then seek to win".

"Sun Tzu" in his book "The Art of War".

China's possible strategic goals

  • Augmenting its economic power to be geopolitically powerful able to control surrounding waters.
  • Repelling, therefore, any threats to the state and to its ruling regime; besides preserving the domestic system and its strength in the face of all challenges.
  • Expanding China's diplomatic and economic relations with main actors in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

China doesn't want the US to be the unipolar dominant power and doesn't want to replace it in this regard, but it seeks to be a global economic power. To achieve this goal, China doesn't intervene in any conflicts that it considers worthless compared to its major goal. The Chinese have demonstrated their ability to adhere to this path, as well as their focus in the current stage on quiet economic control, without provoking unnecessary concern, working to crush their economic opponents and expand the spread and acquisition of important economic positions, either by huge loans (leading countries into debt), or direct purchases to secure sources of natural resources and ports along sea transport lines.

Along with this concept, China is developing its initiative (Belt & Road), an attempt to expand its economic presence using its diplomatic power and its smart soft powers in the Indo-Pacific, ME, Africa and Europe, investing in several important seaports and airports, building new strong relations with the most important countries in all regions from Asia to Europe via the ME and Africa.

China doesn't prefer to use its military power in any current or near future plans, as its strategy is based on (acceptance) by the peoples and their leadership using economic power, not based on (provocation) using military power.

Isolating the US allies

China is currently working hard on building the proper environment and circumstances to increase and enhance its economic and diplomatic relations with the EU in an attempt to isolate the EU interests with the US. It exploits the USA strategic mistakes towards the EU, possibly doing the same with Japan and the Republic of Korea. The factors that China may use to achieve this goal are the EU's fears of American hegemony and its withdrawal from the JCPOA that severely affected EU interests.

China is deepening its relations with the Gulf countries, Egypt and other key nations to the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; and enjoys differing relations in the economic, commercial and cultural spheres, in the meantime it observes closely the Palestinian cause and the Iranian-Israeli-Arab Sunni rivalry.

In general, concerning the situation in the Gulf, China doesn't feel comfortable with the US-Iran crisis. However, it will maintain its relations with Iran supporting it by voting in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and cooperating in the transfer of military technology, perhaps in the missile field, so as not to disturb its firm plan and self-commitment to the present phase.(Paul I do not understand -the present phase-) The Gulf remains an energy source and an important corridor for the large BRI initiative of China, but the true power of China is being increasingly noticed in the future in Africa, Europe and Latin America. China is working quietly, slowly, but steadily, for more control and to build up force.

How the Middle Eastern Peoples Perceive USA and China?

People in the Middle East believe that the Asian presence in the region, especially China and Japan, is much better and acceptable than the Western counterpart (hegemony and influence) particularly the USA and the UK. This is because they see them giving their military and political power priority in dealing with issues, exercising pressure with economic and military sanctions to achieve their political and economic goals. In contrast, China offers its economic potentials to promote political relations with friendly countries without hinting at the use of military force or political and economic pressures.

Therefore, China enjoys a large economic, political and military acceptance among the nations of the Middle East.

The peoples of the Middle East see China attract partnerships and alliances; especially with its persistence on developing the communities of partner nations without intervention in their internal affairs or disrespecting borders and privacies of other nations.

Russia is also perceived cooperatively better by the people of the Middle East.

Viewing the result of the major powers' rivalries in the ME

Comparing the US with Russia and China; the US is the most powerful country (considering the elements of its national powers), the most influential country in the region and least acceptable (at the public level) among the Arab countries, despite the large number of immigrants from this region to the US.

Russia is the least powerful, but its influence in the region rivaling to the US's is the second most acceptable by the peoples of the Arab region.

China is the second most powerful country in general and is the least influential, but is the most acceptable and popular country in the Arab region.

From this perspective, you may assess the situation differently to determine which country of the three can impose its will in the short term and which country can remain or become the most powerful, influential and most acceptable by the peoples of the Arab region and can impose its will in the long term.

Regional rivalries

Regional rivalries in the ME are more complex and intersected, which is due to several reasons, such as the big divergence of regional interests and objectives, the unbalanced national powers among the key countries in the region and giving the financial dimension a significant role in the formulation of regional resolution disregarding the regional stability.

Israel has worked to unite the US allies with it to confront Iran, which is considered (according to what was reported) one of the most important recommendations of the 2013 Herzliya Conference, as Israel touched upon the sectarian classification of countries in the region. Accordingly, Israel has developed its interim strategy in the region based on this classification. It also supported the idea of Kurdistan independence to be independent from four important countries (Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as Turkey); bearing in mind that the first three countries are the most serious threat to Israel.

Israel is working to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions in the region, hoping that Israel will remain the only nuclear power in the ME and Africa. Israel also seeks to play an active role in regional conflict management rather than conflict resolution with the Palestinians. It shares Saudi Arabia's strategic goals of undermining Iran, which Israel has made into a common enemy, but Arab public opinion places limits on the depth of Saudi-Israeli cooperation.

Turkey, a regional power, the second largest military force in NATO and traditionally a close ally of the West and Israel; currently it is increasingly involved in regional affairs as it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and in the Balkans. This has led to many problems and crises for Turkey, especially after increasing its movement to explore for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean without international, European and regional agreement.

After the 2016 failed military coup in Turkey, Erdogan may have had to keep his military Generals busy with military involvements in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean (according to my expectations at that time).

However, Erdogan seeks to complete his chain of military bases in Qatar and Somali to extend to Libya, Sudan and Chad to guarantee enveloping the Middle East and North Africa.

Iran practices provocative and aggressive policies in several places in the region, it aimed to produce nuclear weapons. Iran enjoys a geostrategic location that controls the Strait of Hormuz having close sea boundaries with all Gulf countries. Militarily, Iran depends on its internal strategic depth compared with UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, countries which lack this advantage. These three countries, therefore, always need to secure their coasts and sea boundaries with Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to impose their will on each other by maximizing their influence and control in areas of conflict, or at least seeking to strike a balance between them. Iran sees Israel as the main enemy that must be balanced with the same weapon (nuclear weapon), it also prepares for balance with Pakistan.

Iran has used Hezbollah as a military tool to support its existence and influence in the region and to confront the expected Israeli-Saudi coalition against it. Iran also expanded its economic and trade relations with strong stakeholders such as China, India, and the EU, bearing in mind that any war will severely affect the prosperity of the UAE and will hinder the development of all GCC countries, as well as increasing the instability of the region.

Israel and KSA are aware that Syria and Lebanon to the north and Yemen to the south on both sides of the ME represent two strategic bridges for Iranian influence; the Northern bridge is to the Mediterranean, and the Southern bridge is to the Red Sea. Based on that, Saudi Arabia, Iran's important regional enemy, has continued trying to undermine this expanding Iranian influence in the region. Of course, this enmity between the two countries is in Israel's interest and opens the gates wide for Israel to pursue its constant demand for support for the US against Iran. Hence, Israel has gradually begun displaying its relations with KSA that has been hidden behind the scenes for years.

KSA, UAE and Qatar have big interests in the ME, the North of Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Israel and KSA seek to overthrow the Iranian mullahs; the sectarian and ethnic civil wars from Syria and Yemen and new revolutions from Iraq and Lebanon could be extended to their influential opponent, which is Iran.

The rivalry between (KSA-UAE) and Qatar helped to increase the intensity of the regional and international division. There is also inconsistency in the Saudi-Emirati strategy towards the Yemeni position. There is no doubt that Qatar, which has the largest gas field in the world shared with Iran, has achieved significant political and security gains in the region through its accumulated relations with the US, Europe, Israel and Turkey, and almost achieved great economic gains through massive investments planned in Egypt during the rule of Muslim Brotherhood, but its current regional competitors KSA and UAE have replaced it.

Qatar exercised its influence in several regions affecting the Gulf states and Egypt in the Middle East and North Africa, where Qatar considered Egypt the strategic depth for KSA and UAE, which for decades led Qatar to work to overthrow the ruling Egyptian regime supporting them and replacing it with a loyal government of leading elements Organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, turning Egypt into a thorn threatening the back of KSA and the UAE.

Egypt, which has a specific role in Libya and in the Palestinian Cause and that is trying to expand its role in several parts in Africa, still facing several obstacles that don't allow it to exert a bigger regional role due to the following:

  • Internal political and security issues such as terrorism, fragile political system (absence of strong political parties and true political will).
  • Current economic situation that affects its capabilities.
  • It is not desired by other regional powers/actors that Egypt be an influential state in the Middle East; the historical conflict between the KSA and Egypt in Yemen, also KSA and Israel goals in Syria don't meet Egyptian political interests.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concerns and rivalries

  • Conflict in their goals and interests towards some issues in the region and sources of threats are not unified/ matching.
  • Boycotting Qatar.
  • War in Yemen resulted in differences of views among the coalition.
  • GCC dispute resolution relies on internal mediations but not specific mechanisms.
  • Centralization of governance and the tendencies of Qatar and Oman independence.
  • Border issues still remain, mainly with KSA and between Qatar and Bahrain.
  • Priority is focused on achieving economic integration, commonly before political and security aspects.
  • The Omani opposition to the GCC military union as it may seek to launch a regional war against Iran.

Hotbeds of regional rivalries

  • Syria: Iran, Turkey and Israel.
  • Yemen: Iran against KSA, UAE. Qatar may take a supporting role to Iran.
  • Libya: Egypt, UAE and KSA against Turkey and Qatar.
  • Gaza: UAE and KSA against Qatar, Turkey and Iran. Egypt, Jordan Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are the main responsibles of Gazza issue.

Changing of security dynamics

  • Despite being a NATO member and traditionally a close ally of the West, Ankara has managed to follow its own security agenda on the most divisive regional issues, such as the Syrian war, relations with Iran, and the Qatar crisis. In Syria, Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition, has worked for a no-fly zone, preventing US supported Kurdish groups YPG/YPJ from obtaining a contiguous territory. Then Turkey launched its operations in Northern Syria to remove terrorist groups – including the YPG forces supported by the US. Although both the US and Russia have close ties with the Syrian Kurds, the two powers appear to have quietly accommodated Ankara's main security concerns, including accepting Turkish military presence in both the northern border regions and Idlib. On the other hand, Turkey has similarly gained from its dual relationship with the US and Russia; Ankara has a playing role in Russia's competing diplomatic track (the Astana and Sochi talks) and cooperates with Russia on de-escalations deals and lately on the demilitarized buffer zones in Idlib.
  • In the East Mediterranean, Erdogan and the Libyan President Al-Sarraj, announced in November 2019 their agreements on security/military cooperation and the defining maritime spheres, aimed at protecting the rights of the two countries stemming from international law, in a move considered a gain for Ankara's policies in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
  • Egypt, KSA and UAE have witnessed a widening room of maneuver; KSA launched a military campaign in Yemen fighting the Houthis (Iran proxy). In 2014, some sources announced that Egypt and UAE twice launched secret airstrikes in Libya against terrorist elements around Tripoli without informing or seeking approval of the US.
  • On 24 March 2019, Egyptian-Jordanian-Iraqi summit held in Cairo announcing wider economic and security relations. This recalled the old alliance "Arab Cooperation Council - ACC" that was founded in February 1998. It seemed as a competitor to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that was founded eight years earlier.
  • US weapon systems to Egypt were put on hold, but later released after Sisi held meetings with Putin. Meanwhile, non-US allies such as Iran and Syria can circumvent US sanction regimes and trade restrictions through China and Russia, and at times through the EU, who are developing a clever bank mechanism to facilitate continued trade with Iran, despite the Trump Administration's withdrawal from the JCPOA.
  • On the other hand, as in the case of the US, Russia's allies in Syria do not always do what Russia would like them to do. Moscow has for instance striven to enroll the so-called auxiliary forces supported by Hezbollah and Iran into the regular Syrian army, but unsuccessfully. Similarly, Moscow initially persuaded Iran and Hezbollah forces to move further away from Syria's south-west border with Israel, but only for a while. As the Syrian war draws to a close, Russian tensions with Iran and the many affiliated militias are likely to surface.
  • UAE started to proceed with its own security and economic strategies policies, such as increasing its cooperation with China on several aspects.
  • UAE and Russia signed a deal in 2017 to co-develop a fifth-generation fighter jet amid Abu Dhabi's frustrations over Washington's slow process to determine whether to sell the UAE the F-35 fighter jet. Since then, the US has agreed to enter preliminary talks with the UAE on the F-35, a step toward acquiring the platform.
  • Also, Russia's signed a technical agreements and memoranda of understanding with Qatar and KSA regarding the S-400 weapons system, which has greatly irritated Washington, especially with Turkey's purchase of this system, undermining mutual operational plans between the US and NATO.
  • The conflict between the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council and the Saudi-backed Hadi government in Yemen demonstrated the UAE's increased independence by decision in Yemen.
  • KSA increased its oil production; that led to falling oil prices and damage to American energy companies. Accordingly, during April 2020, Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican, proposed a law to withdraw American forces from Saudi Arabia, to pressure the kingdom to reduce its oil production.
  • Egypt, KSA and the UAE share concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood, but they disagree over the nature of the Assad government and the Syrian rebellion. The Iraqi government entertained close relations with both the US and Iran, both of which have fought the Islamic State group in Iraq. Arab relations with Israel remain strained, not least because of the plight of the Palestinians. However, Israel and several Arab states increasingly work together against Iran.


The Impact of the Spread of the New Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the Competition of Powers in the Middle East

On December 01, 2019 the Coronavirus appeared in the Chinese province of Wuhan and eventually spread globally until the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic on March 10, 2020; which means that the Middle East is included. The Middle East is a highly sensitive region which is expected to face heavy impacts due to the pandemic.

The continuation of the pandemic for more than six months will not resolve the competition between the superpowers who will not appear with their usual strength. I expect these forces to withdraw relatively from several hotspots of the ongoing crises in the Middle East because of the ongoing economic deterioration and may even prefer isolation and a focus inward rather than outward. The administrations will have a limited desire to provide assistance to the countries stricken by the virus. Right-wing extremist movements and terrorist organizations may take advantage of such a situation and move forward in favor of their objectives. Failed governments may also seize the opportunity to cover their failure under the guise of panic.

The US

Under these circumstances, it is doubtless that the greatest threat to the international economy arises from the slowdown in the growth of the United States. The ability of the United States to control the spread of the disease is still not clear. President Trump should change his behavior which depends on his personality rather than relying on the role of institutions in the American decision-making process. Therefore, the corona crisis appears to represent a severe blow to Trump at the peak of a stormy election year that is accompanied with the decline in the economy and the US and global stock market indicators, which were previously the strong points that Trump associated with the success of his presidency. Thus, the corona virus could harm Trump's status in the upcoming elections if he fails to, at least, recover what the United States has lost during his term in office. At any rate, the US permanent support for its allies in the Middle East will be affected


China has announced the success of its efforts in facing the crisis and the Chinese regime has had (impressive) results in a short time; while the democracies in the West are still struggling with the spreading of the pandemic in their countries without attaining control. Although the Chinese economy has been severely affected, succeeding in curbing the spread of the virus has given an example of "authoritarian capitalism". The people of the Middle East have considered the Chinese approach a successful model compared to Western liberalism.

However, some observers regard what China has announced about confronting the virus is merely for public consumption and to be used in official statements of the Chinese government. China's delay in declaring the spread of the virus has led to its spread in the world causing a major disaster.

China wants to tell the world, "We have succeeded in containing the crisis and China today is safer than the United States or Europe. Chinese citizens and students living in the Western Hemisphere are returning to their safe country for fear of infection." There is no doubt that the return of these Chinese from the West may lead to a new outbreak of the virus in one or more Chinese provinces. This time the Chinese government is not to blame; but the blame will be on the western countries from where the Chinese citizens have come. Currently, China is in the phase of returning to normality. The work force is returning from rural areas to major cities for work and that may cause a second wave of the virus outbreak.


The true state of the extent of the pandemic in Russia is not sufficiently clear. But it is assumed that Moscow maintains its traditional strategy in adapting to the crisis during its rivalry against the US and Europe. Such a strategy includes information warfare and the exploitation of opportunities and mistakes of opponents to divert attention from sensitive issues. Putin has already seized the opportunity by extending his presidency until 2036 and increasing the Russian oil production. The objective of this move is to harm the oil shale industry in the US and to prove his ability to harm the global economy. I also expect Russia to play a more effective role in the European / European and European / American split taking advantage of the difficult circumstances in the Old Continent. Russia will play a similar role to increase the intensity of competition between the US and China and exacerbate the situation between the two countries. On the one hand, both of the Russian roles will distort the efforts of Europe and the US and weaken their positions against Russia. On the other hand, they will increase China's need for Russia in exchange for Chinese economic support to Russia. Russia already started sending to Italy Russian support forces to help in its efforts to confront COVID-19. The EU was blamed for its negative reaction.


Europe, with its mostly elderly population and with the spread of Corona Virus, faces an increase in the existing divisions among the countries of the continent such as the conflict between the extreme right and the socialist left, as well as the refugee crisis. This may lead to the collapse of fragile organizational structures in some European countries and even to the weakening of the foundations of the European Union and its powerful institutions. Moreover, closing the borders between the EU countries and not accepting visitors from other countries is imperative at the present time and in the short term. Such measures may lead to the isolation of those countries and will have a severe impact on the EU economic capabilities and on its political and security influence in the short term.

Impacts on the Middle East and East Asia
  • Increased social division in several Middle Eastern countries leads to more conflicts, civil wars, the spread of terrorism and transnational crimes. These all create unstable security, political and economic environments.
  • Lack of influence management, increasing rivalries between the powerful states and the US policy toward Iran lead to more instability in the ME; these seriously affect the main source of energy to East Asia.
  • The relationship between the pace of economic and industrial growth in East Asia and the increasing demand for oil, will be severely affected by any shortage of energy in the ME. This will affect oil & gas importing countries in East Asia especially countries that rely more on Iran, making them rely more on GCC countries.
  • Russia is providing support to Iran and it seems clear that Russia is investing in Iran's historical hostility to the countries of the region in threatening any current or future external military presence.
  • Deploying military ships to the Gulf will provoke Iran; it will consider this military approach to constitute a hostile action. This also may lead to security dynamic changes by countries like Japan and Korea toward the US and China and Europe in this concern.
  • Qatar split leads to divided Gulf relations with East Asian countries.
  • Fleeing terrorist elements from the ME to Central Asian and Southeast Asian countries, specifically Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, may expand their spread to East Asia.

Final Remarks and Future Perspective;

In the ME

  • If Iran possesses nuclear weapons, other countries in the region will seek to have them as well, especially the KSA.
  • Possibility of military actions against Iran, especially from small bordering countries became more difficult.
  • Increased sanctions on Iran will strengthen its regime and lead for more tactical aggressive actions in the region.
  • Two of Saudi main goals in Yemen; to forbid the Iranian will and to guarantee the loyalty of the Yemeni parties in a cohesive country. Therefore, KSA may have to adopt one of two scenarios; first, to convince Turkey to have a supporting role in Yemen (which is very difficult); second, to accept a divided Yemen with promise of the Yemeni parties keeping their to the kingdom.
  • UAE will find a floor of communicating with the Iranian government away from the IRGC in a way for calmer relations.
  • Qatar will continue exploiting the GCC division to develop its Armed Forces, to compete against its former GCC allies on economic markets and to enhance its relations with Iran and Turkey.


  • It seems that President Trump is preferring US domestic interest rather than traditional big alliances; more regional alliances with key countries in the areas of interest are expected.
  • Russia and China will gain more allies on account of the mistakes of the US strategy; the powerful Russian propaganda machine and Chinese soft power are playing a big role in this issue.
  • Indian presence is expected in the Middle East at least through "FOIP", bearing in mind that the biggest labor force in the region is Indian.

Future China-US relations in the Middle East (rivaling, replacing or negotiating)?

It seems that Sino-American cooperation in the MENA is not possible. However, negotiations and strategic dialogue between both countries regarding their interests are considered a strategic necessity for both. Despite many fundamental differences and intense competition between them, each of them must study important issues as follows:

The US may reduce its policy of unilateral decision-making and China accordingly may accept the idea of dealing closely with an imperialist country with a dominant ideology. Their interconnected economies may pave the way for shared growth more than costly rivalry, bearing in mind that mutual invitations proposed by each other to join "BRI" and "FOIP".

China is concerned with the success of the "BRI", especially in the MENA, but it's clear that this region is not "Keukenhof" but a "mixed minefield". Therefore, China is thinking of developing its diplomacy from the stage of "non-interference in state affairs" to a more positive step which is to "defuse tension between disputing parties in the region" in a proactive manner to prevent any potential conflicts. It is expected that positive Chinese diplomatic moves toward the MENA to settle the running conflicts in the region. But, can China complete the region's balance triangle as a third component beside the US and Russia? My answer NO, it seems impossible in the short term.

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