Great power competition in Middle East-US dominance at stake?

The author discusses the shift in the regional balance of power as other countries have risen to compete for dominance in the Middle East. Conflicts in the Middle East ultimately challenged the United States’ effectiveness as the external provider of security in the area.

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Over the last few years, a sense of the global withdrawal of the United States has contributed to the weakening of the international order created at the end of World War II also and definitively consolidated at the end of the Cold War.

Furthermore, the growing power of China and the renewed assertiveness of Russia seem to be a prelude to a new phase of decline of Western impact on the rest of the world, if not the opening of great competition for the redistribution of power and international status.

Read more: Post pandemic world: China & Russia, the rising powers

In the context of this global reassessment, the configuration of regional orders has come into question, illustrated by the extreme case of the current collapse of the Middle Eastern order.

Such a phenomenon has been ongoing for several years and has recently accelerated. This was particularly evident in the period after the uprisings that erupted in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011 when the United States signaled its choice to rebalance resources and commitments abroad and away from the region.

This choice shifted the regional balance of power and ultimately challenged the United States’ effectiveness as the external provider of security in the area, leading to a power vacuum that other players have endeavored to fill.

Read more: Can Biden repair American power?

Rise of new regional players

On the one hand, the United States’ choice has allowed for the ascent of other regional powers: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, Iran, Turkey, and Israel have each gained an increasingly prominent position on the Middle Eastern stage and become determinant in the fate of multiple MENA crises.

As a result, competition over the MENA region has gradually but steadily extended to a much broader array of players than it used to be in the past.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance, is having an impact on the many theaters where the two are fighting their proxy wars, especially in Yemen.

Similarly, Turkey’s ability to establish partnerships with different players in the region has expanded Ankara’s network of allies in the Arab and non-Arab world, increasing its reach and influence and allowing Ankara to further pursue its ambitions.

Read more: US, other powers fear Turkey’s regional rise

Russia’s resurgence

On the other hand, more importantly, the American choice to scale down engagement in the region has paved the way for Russia’s resurgence.

From the end of World War II through the years of the Cold War, indeed, competition for influence in this important area was dominated by confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR).

Read more: Russia rising from the ashes: new cold war for the US?

While assessing the actual impact of this competition on the MENA countries might be challenging, one can surely argue that the US-USSR confrontation in the Middle East shaped the region’s security architecture for the years to come.

Overall, the “Pax Americana” model applied to the MENA region as well: the regional order that emerged after the end of World War II sanctioned the supremacy of the United States as the sole external provider and guarantor of security in the area.

China’s growing influence

Over the last few years, the idea of the Chinese influence in the MENA region has captured increasing attention by policymakers and scholars throughout the region and beyond, to the point that today Beijing is seen as a major player with its soft power projection in the area and set to take the place of the United States as the dominant power.

Read more: China takes over the world leadership role abandoned by US

China’s size and economic power have created the conditions for growing influence in the Middle East as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

For Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Chinese investment comes at a time when these states are seeking to reduce their hydrocarbon dependency and to diversify their economies.

Port facilities have been important targets of investment. For example, China has partnered with Oman on a major facility in Duqm, a town on the Arabian Sea. China’s other ventures are in countries that are less wealthy and, as a result, struggle to find investors with the political will to back costly developmental endeavors.

Read more: China woos Europe through massive investments

China has even shown an interest in investing in Syria. China and Syria have engaged in discussions regarding Chinese investments in the Syrian energy sector, among other fields.

Recently, The Sino-Iranian $400 Billion deal is expected to increase the trade and military cooperation between the two sides. The agreement was signed by Chinese and Iranian Foreign Ministers in Tehran as both countries remain under the severe sanctions imposed by the United States.

No details of the agreement have yet to be formally published, but the landmark deal is expected to be significant for Iran with huge Chinese investments.

Read more: Iran-China to sign 25-year cooperation pact: Tehran

The continued strategic interests of US?

In this framework, it seems that Washington might remain the main actor capable of influencing policy and affecting the course of events in the region.

The United States’ hesitation in acting on the declaration to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, still two epicenters of regional chaos, has shown that US strategic interests in the region have not disappeared, not least the threat of terrorism.

Read more: Delayed US withdrawal necessary for peace in Afghanistan

On the contrary, the geopolitical weight, military capabilities, and economic power that Washington still enjoys in the region put the United States at a net advantage compared to any other players on this chessboard.

It is up to the Biden administration, though, to decide to what extent to engage, keeping in mind that China, as well as the regional powers, will not hesitate to fill the void left in the wake of a withdrawal by the United States.

The author an M.Phil Scholar in International Relations from National Defence University Islamabad. His Twitter handle is: @TanviirKhan. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

 

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