Although the regional power dynamics of the Middle East were relatively stable for over two decades since the end of the Cold War, and USA remained the uncontested and dominant external power; today, a combination of the upheavals, revolutions, and civil wars in the region, USA’s war fatigue, the shale energy revolution, and the return of a great power competition have vividly transformed the POWER PLAY and the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East, writes NASHIR UDDIN
As always, the Middle East seems to be caught in a geopolitical struggle once again – especially following escalation of violence sparked by the newly-installed Israeli far-right government’s aggressive move to extend settlement further into Palestinian territory in the regional hotspot, and the ever-growing great power competition for territorial influence by both the super and regional powers. Although it is well-known that the Middle East has been besieged by international conflicts for most of its modern history, the region has served for centuries as the crossroads of empires, given its geostrategic location between Europe and Asia.
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The discovery of oil and gas there in the twentieth century fuelled modern-day rivalries between foreign powers looking to exploit the resources. While the First World War had established British and French dominance in the region, the subsequent Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union fuelled arms races and conflicts across the entirety of Middle East. After Britain and France’s withdrawals and the Soviet Union’s collapse, USA became the dominant foreign superpower active there.
But the devastating occupation of Iraq, the growing uncertainty over Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and the over-the-top rise in American oil and gas production have reduced USA’s commitment to the region– thereby creating a vacuum getting filled apparently by dominant forces like Russia and China. Similarly, the regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to be increasingly engaged in backing rival governments and armed groups in their heightened competition for regional dominance – thereby inflaming the geopolitically significant region’s already-fragile political state of affairs.
GEOPOLITICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF MIDDLE EAST
With its sheer geopolitical importance, the Middle East has al- most always been besieged by international politics, conflicts and engagements. European powers, since the early nineteenth century, had been competing to colonise the Middle East’s territories in an attempt to control its natural resources and geostrategic location. Almost two centuries later, the region finds itself embattled in another round of intense crises in which both super and regional powers are competing for territorial influence.
The once stable region became an arena for violence in the aftermath of the popular uprisings of the 2010s, and what started as peaceful demands for democracy and freedom metamorphosed soon into civil and regional wars in many areas. The rise of violent changes and the counter-violent quests to maintain the status quo has been closely tied to the region’s resources. Although the regional power dynamics of the Middle East were relatively stable for over two decades since the end of the Cold War, and USA remained the uncontested and dominant external power; today, a combination of the upheavals, revolutions, and civil wars in the region, USA’s war fatigue, the shale energy revolution, and the return of a great power competition have vividly transformed the POWER PLAY and the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East.
THE COLD WAR IN MIDDLE-EAST
For anybody aware of world affairs, it doesn’t take long to see conflicts in the Middle East. A prolonged war rages on in Syria. War-torn Yemen is in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. In Lebanon, government is consistently roiled by political infighting. And these conflicts all have something in common. Behind the scenes, two powerful countries —Iran and Saudi Arabia (with support from the UAE)— are supporting opposite sides, providing weapons, funneling money, manipulating politics, politicians, and even participating directly in the fighting.
Their rivalry revolves around an intense competition to be the dominant power in the region. Ambitious Iran aims to extend financial influence and military presence all the way to the Medi- terranean by supporting proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is determined to limit Iran’s expansion into what it sees as its region of influence, particularly in bordering Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran and Saudi have never directly gone to war, but their power competition affects conflicts throughout the region.
IS SAUDI FEARFUL OF LOSING LEADERSHIP TO TURKEY?
Saudi Arabia’s yet another fear is losing the leadership of the Sunni world to Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fueled those fears by supporting pro-democracy groups like the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab spring. Apart from this, the Arab world and Turkey stand on two poles on various regional issues like the blockade of Qatar. Rival Israel is similar to the Arabs in this context. Intimacy grows between the two. Ankara, on the other hand, has been paying a price for this, according to some analysts.
The notorious Saudi intelligence agents brutally killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The relationships between Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) and the Turkey leadership reached the bottom due to this murder. But in the end, Erdoğan retreated to the undeclared economic sanctions of the Saudi alliance.
He emphasised on improving relations with the Saudi-UAE alliance. At the same time, he walked the path of resolving the old dispute with Israel – going back to the ‘zero enemy policy’ of yesteryears. MBS on June 22 last was given a red carpet reception when he visited Turkey. Earlier, Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia at the end of April last. Apart from this, Turkey took the initiative to normalise ties with the Emirates.
WHY SAUDI WANTS TO BUILD ITS OWN MISSILES INSTEAD OF BUYING FROM INTERNATIONAL SUPPLIERS?
Riyadh now wants to build its own missiles instead of buying those directly from the western arms market for three reasons. Firstly, the strained relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Former US President Donald Trump warned King Salman in 2018 that his rule “wouldn’t last two weeks” without US support.
The US announced in September 2021 that it would not hand over its advanced missile defense system to Saudi Arabia, despite at- tacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In addition, Joe Biden scolded Riyadh very harshly last October because the OPEC plus oil producing countries decided not to in- crease oil production. In addition, Washington did not agree to give ballistic missiles and technology to Saudi Arabia considering that Israel’s military supremacy would be undermined. Second, despite a well-equipped military, Saudi Arabia’s air defense system is weak, as evidenced by Houthi attacks on key installations in the country.
Third, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran is very strong in missile capabilities. Saudi Arabia now wants to buy weapons not only from Western countries but also from alternative sources. The country also wants to reduce its dependence on foreign power. That is why China is so important to them now. In 1988, China first supplied its DF-3A missile to Saudi Arabia. The country kept this information of taking missiles from China a secret until 2014. Saudi Arabia bought DF-21 missiles from China in 2007 – Riyadh first disclosed this information after it was reported in the media.
WHO IS SETTING THE COURSE OF ARAB POLITICS: MBS OR MBZ?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) leader MBS and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (popularly known as MBZ) are considered to be the most powerful political leaders in the Middle East. Machiavelli’s archetypal ruler MBZ understands the nexus of power.
According to Time magazine, he has been called the most powerful leader in the Arab world for some time. Perhaps he is going to be. MBZ has taken the small Arab country to the policy-making stage of global politics after officially taking over as the UAE President in May last year following the death of his half-brother Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Na- hyan. MBZ, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, emerged as the leader in a changing Middle East as traditional powers retreated and the USA apparently withdrew. He managed to establish relations with Israel, and joined the fight against Iran- backed Houthi fighters in Yemen. He brought political hotspots like Kabul and Tunis under his political influence. His political network extends from Brussels and London to Washington.
MBZ is considered one of the most knowledgeable and prudent of Arab world leaders for his ability to make pragmatic decisions. During the Arab Spring, he issued a stern warning to the then US President Barack Obama from his seat of power in Abu Dhabi, although the fire of this rebellion did not reach his power.
According to Obama’s autobiography, the Arab leader refused to support the movement, which would en- danger the Gulf monarchy. Obama also referred to MBZ as the “most knowledgeable” Gulf leader. In recent months, the UAE has had a strained relationship with the current Joe Biden administration. One of the reasons for this is Washington’s withdrawal from the sale of state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets promised under President Donald Trump. The Emirate normalised relations with Israel in return for the promise. A foreign ministry official called MBZ a strategist who draws historical context during talks. The official said, “He doesn’t just talk about the present, he also talks about years and decades.” He talks about the dynamics of that time. MBZ’s great quality is that he never relies on one side. In addition to maintaining relations with the US and European countries, UAE is also maintaining equal relations with their rivals China and Russia. Despite Western pressure, he did not move from a neutral position in the Ukraine-Russia war.
The Emirates did not respond to Washington’s call for additional oil production to address the oil crisis. In the UAE, Sheikh Mohammad is seen as an architect of modernization. In the eyes of many diplomats, he is a charismatic leader. He brought the once little-known Abu Dhabi to the world. The oil-rich province is now a pioneer of development with eye-popping developments in the energy, infrastructure and technology sectors. As Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces before assuming office as President, MBZ made the Emirati military one of the most modern and effective in the Arab world. From warplanes to drones— his forces are leading the Arab world in using the most advanced weaponry. He emphasized military service to instill nationalism rather than individualism among the wealthy population. MBZ has shown its military might to Libya from Yemen. He also aided Libyan rebels with warplanes and drones.
He is also accused of providing arms to the Kurds fighting against Turkey. Emirates Special Forces are active in Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia. He used the ‘petrodollar’ as a bigger weapon than military aid to increase his influence. MBZ is a major financier of Egypt, Pakistan and Sudan. He does not hesitate pouring money from the sale of oil and gas to the governments and heads of state that he dislikes. Turkey, which is suffering from economic crisis, also turned hostile and turned to MBZ for financial support and investment. Investing in political influence is one of his strategies. Al-Jazeera quoted a source close to MBZ as saying, “He doesn’t throw stones in the dark…he wants to know what’s not working, not just what’s working.” So far, the active role of MBZ is visible from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. He ushered in a new era in the Middle East politics by formally establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020 through the Abraham Accords. Bahrain and Morocco followed his lead. Sudan and Oman are moving in the same direction. There are also rumours about Saudi Arabia. MBZ cannot tolerate Muslim Brotherhood and Iran at all. He was most vocal against the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring. However, the Emirati ruler claims he once had a soft spot for their ideology. MBZ identified the Muslim Brotherhood as the most serious threat to stability in the Middle East.
According to documents leaked by WikiLeaks, in a 2007 meeting with the US officials, he said, “I’m an Arab, a Muslim.” I was one of them (Muslim Brotherhood) in the seventies and eighties. I think these people have an agenda. MBZ was most active from the outside in the 2013 military coup that ousted Egypt’s popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. He is a close supporter of Saudi Crown Prince MBS, who apparently seized power in a royal coup. According to MBZ, MBS is a man Washington can count on. And MBS is capable of leading Sau- di Arabia to progress. Taking advantage of their warm relations with former US President Donald Trump, the two Gulf countries recruited lobbyists to ex- ert maximum pressure on Iran by Washington. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood has isolated neighboring Qatar. However, in the end, Qatar failed to capitulate. The Emirate is embroiled in the costliest war led by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to loosen control of Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
However, MBZ, who is seasoned in calculating interests, has left MBS largely alone on the battlefield. Because, he realised, the Emirate’s economy could not bear the stress of this war in the long run. MBZ has been involved in political conflicts from Yemen to Libya and Somalia to Sudan. However, he failed to put Khalifa Haftar in power due to Turkey’s last-minute intervention in Libya. The emirate is accused of providing arms and money to the al-Shabaab militant group fighting the Turkish-backed government in Somalia. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup in 2019 after he reneged on his pledge to abandon Islamist allies.
MBZ is also believed to be behind the recent rise to power of Tunisia’s democratically elected president, Qais Said. He announced his presence after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban has signed an agreement with the Emirates to take care of the Kabul airport, excluding Turkey and Qatar. MBZ has long argued that the Arab world is not ready for democracy, diplomats say, because the Islamists will win any election in the Middle East. In a meeting with US officials in 2007, this influential leader of the Arab world said, “You will see the same result in any Muslim country. The Middle East is not California.”
Now the question is: who’s holding the key in disputed Middle East? The Saudi monarchy as the ‘Khadem’ of the Two Holy Mosques has been leading the Sunni Muslims. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey, which is suffering from the end of the Ottoman Caliphate, is in a way trying to seize the leadership role. Saudi Arabia and UAE are united in this journey to prevent Turkey.
However, Erdoğan, who is under internal pressure, has apparently given in to the undeclared economic blockade of this alliance. The fight for the leadership of Sunni Muslims is now seems to be running between the two allies, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. MBZ is ahead in this fight as well. Along with old enemy Erdoğan, he has also taken the initiative to normalize relations with Iran. Emirati companies have announced the start of large investments in Turkey.
A few days ago, the Emirates sent its ambassador to Tehran again after six years. MBZ even involved himself in the power struggle within the Saudi royal family.
He lobbied hard in Washing- ton on behalf of the little-known 29-year-old Prince MBS to bring Riyadh to the center of power.
MBS is the beloved son of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. In the words of Ben Rhodes, adviser to the then US President Barack Obama, ‘MBZ’s message was, if you trust me and like me, then you will like this person (MBS). Because there is no difference between me and him. Emirates pour millions of dollars behind lobbying firms and think tanks to maintain influence in Washington. It is one of the countries that spend the most money in this sector. In 2017 alone, the Arab country spent 20 million dollars on these.
Apart from this, whenever there is any kind of natural disaster, MBZ appears with huge amount of donation. The goal is one—to retain in- fluence within the US ruling class. Machiavelli’s ideal of character well understood the links of this ruling power.
MBZ as Prince expanded his influence in the royal family of the Emirates 15 years ago. At the same time, MBZ also created links to power in the Middle East and the rest of the world. In the New York Times in January 2020, American journalist and author of the book “Rage of Order” Robert F. Worth wrote an article entitled “Mohammed Bin Zayed’s Dark Vision of the Future of the Middle East”.
In this, he said, ‘This mysterious leader of the Emirates may soon emerge as the most powerful person in the region. What does he really want?’ What MBZ wants is easy to imagine in his actions. MBZ has gone a long way in determining the future politics of the Arab world. It will be more visible in the coming days.
IS BEIJING BYPASSING IRAN TO SIDE WITH SAUDI?
Looking at the military cooperation between the two countries, it may seem that China may be leaning towards Saudi instead of Iran. But many people are perhaps forgetting about the balancing policy that China is pursuing in the Middle East. China’s energy security policy is also important in providing missile technology to Saudi. A closer look at China’s policy on the Middle East shows that Beijing favours the status quo between Iran and Saudi. The latter is looking for alternative markets for imports and exports to reduce its dependence on the West. It is being used in China. That’s why, Beijing continues to support incidents like human rights violations as Saudi’s internal affairs.
Hence, the idea that China is choosing Saudi over Iran is not correct – both are important to Beijing. Saudi is now developing relations with its Asian allies. At its core is the issue of finding a market for fuel. China is the world’s largest manufacturing hub. They need huge fuel. Beijing buys the most from Riyadh.
China is also Saudi’s largest trading partner. As of 2021, trade between the two countries was $87 billion. USA, on the other hand, sold $245 million worth of weapons and technology to Saudi in the year. Iran is China’s main strategic partner in the Middle East.
Even giving missile technology to Saudi Arabia will not change that position. Beijing needs Iran to succeed in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Because Iran is the junction of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. China’s offering of missile support to Saudi may be viewed as a dishonest move by many Iranians. But Tehran hopes that China will maintain non-adversarial relations in the Persian Gulf region. Besides, Iran’s policymakers are well aware of their geopolitical importance. China has pledged to invest $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years. Tehran is staunchly anti-Western and deeply distrustful of Washington. For this reason, Tehran is a very reliable ally of Beijing in the competition between the US and China power centres.
HOW IS ISRAEL MAINTAINING ITS DOMINANCE?
Israel, thanks to its strongest possible military and strategic ties with USA, is widely believed to be armed as the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, although the country has purposely maintained ambiguity about its nuclear capabilities in an attempt to avoid a regional nuclear arms race. Israel’s official policy is that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region, but it will not be the second either. Although Israel maintains conventional military superiority over its neighbours, it fears that another country obtaining a weapon of mass destruction could pose an existential threat.
This concern has led Israel to destroy nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria and to threaten to do the same in Iran as part of its ambition to stand taller as the most dominant force in the Middle East. It is, thus, really hard to defend the view that the future of the Middle East will be better than the present amid the dramatic rise of a more aggressive far-right government in Israel, troubling imagery of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, teetering governments in Lebanon and Iraq, and ongoing civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
In fact, pessimism about the region’s future, thanks predominantly to an occupant Israel’s consolidation of greater power, has become accepted as a truism among many. For such impression to improve anytime soon, having a fair, firm and justified global stance with regard to Palestine’s cause remains important, which Israel’s great ally USA looks to be increasingly disinterested in.
US, RUSSIA, CHINA’S DOMINANCE: WHO’S WHO IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
It is critical, without an iota of doubt, to be straightforward in proclaiming the assertion of who’s who in the disputed, yet geopolitically significant, Middle East. For greater understanding, one needs to dig deeper. As is known already, the impact of the Ukraine-Russia war is spreading around the world. From this conflict thousands of miles away, diplomatic activity in the Middle East has increased. US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories last year. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran shortly. He held a meeting with the leaders of Iran and Turkey in Tehran. In addition to the bilateral meeting with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, he held a tripartite meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the ‘Astana format’.
These three countries are continuing trilateral talks to resolve differences on Syria. However, many topics related to the Ukraine war took place in their discussions. Turkey showed interest in agreement with Moscow to lift the blockade on grain exports from the Black Sea. Russia, on the other hand, also wanted to develop close relations with Turkey.
Russian ambassador to Tehran recently declared that the two countries are now ‘in a single fortress’. Iran is planning to send hundreds of drones to Russia to use in the Ukraine war, the US has alleged. Besides, Russian state company Gazprom has signed a development agreement with Iran’s state oil company.
Although Moscow and Tehran have similar interests, they maintain some distance. But now no one feels that they have to lose much by being close. Russia is not worried that it will face new sanctions if it has close relations with Iran. Iran, on the other hand, is preparing to weather the long-term effects of US sanctions. US President, on a visit to the Middle East, said that they will not leave any space in the region that China, Russia or India can take.
The US will maintain its influence in the region. Despite this announcement, Iran and Russia have realized that the interest of the US superpower in the Middle East is waning. Putin has positioned Russia as a major power there. In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, Biden’s completely opposite tone has also come to everyone’s attention.
During the US presidential election campaign, Joe Biden accused Saudi of human rights violations, including the murder of Khashoggi. He also promised to take steps to isolate Saudi from international community. Journalist Khashoggi was a staunch critic of MBS. The Saudi Crown Prince was accused of ordering his murder.
But after meeting with MBS, Biden’s moral standing was questioned. Biden was looking to lower fuel prices and improve his dismal approval ratings. His plea for more oil production during Saudi visit did not seem to be getting much response. He did not get much benefit from the positive image he wanted to build on that trip. Meanwhile, the lack of progress in the Doha talks on the nuclear deal with Iran, leaving the deal on the brink of collapse, has been more talked about than the success of the Middle East tour. Former US President Donald Trump doubled down on sanctions by pulling out of the deal with Iran. Since then, Iran has made dramatic progress in its nuclear program.
Efforts to revive the deal are in the final stages of collapse, one observer of nuclear diplomacy warned. Iran is seeking a commitment that no subsequent US administration can violate the deal. In addition to strengthening relations with Iran, Russian President Putin is also interested in Saudi Arabia, the ally of the United States in the region. Meanwhile, Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke on the phone.
They talked about the oil market. They spoke less than a week after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. A Kremlin statement later said Putin and Mohammed bin Salman discussed the situation in the international oil market in detail.
They emphasized on strengthening cooperation in OPEC Plus. Putin also discussed his visit to Tehran with the Saudi Crown Prince. Biden’s trip to the Middle East is seen as an effort to strengthen ties between Israel and Arab states. But there are risks. This will bring Mos- cow and Tehran closer. Instead of dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran, the risk of conflict in the region may increase. This could further destabilize global energy markets.
More complexly, the region could risk an arms race and long-term instability. To sign off, the power dynamics between the major global and regional powers have indirectly contributed to the civil and regional wars currently plaguing the Middle East. As the return of great power competition after decades of a unipolar world order has become a fact of global politics today, the Middle East, too, is undergoing a pro- found transformation from a region shaped by outside powers to one taking shape according to its own defining factors like internal political logic, and quest for regional hegemony. These transformations, indeed, are likely to leave an indelible imprint on it going forward.
As an international affairs expert having extensive studies on the Middle East issues, Dr. Abul Kalam Azad is currently serving the country’s first and most prominent private university North South University as an Adjunct Professor. He did also serve the country’s leading think-tank BIISS (Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies) as its Research Director other than academic stints with the International Relations department at both Dhaka University and Jahangirnagar University. PRESS XPRESS Joint Editor Nashir Uddin had a vibrant interview session with this doyen of international studies in Dhaka, during which he talked at length about the emerging issues in the Middle East.
Why Middle East is so important? What’s its geo-significance?
The Middle East has always been a geopolitically significant region between peace and conflict. It remains a centre for world attraction following the region’s rich reserve of mineral resources with the United States (US) always having a hegemony over the competing global power players like China, Russia and India – all of whom are also growingly getting involved in the region. Thus, the Middle East stays so important and relevant in context of world affairs with its geo-significance stretching to Africa’s north including Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
Who, do you think, have the greater hold of the Middle East dominance nowadays?
Realistically speaking, no country or power player has absolute dominance in dictating the tempo there. USA’s role is no more unchallenged in the Middle East. China has apparent economic interests like BRI for its growing engagements in the geo-strategic region, while Russia still remains the force to reckon with.
Do you think, the peace process in Middle East will be further volatile with the rise of far-right government in Israel?
Yes, the peace process in Middle East is feared to be further volatile with the rise of this more aggressive incumbent far-right government in Israel, which has declared intention to expand settlement further into Palestinian territory. The question there is about land, which is vital. While Arab countries are not even capable of making any unilateral decision for Palestine’s cause, USA doesn’t seem to be interested at all in Palestine issue – with its all-important attention these days fixed on Iran.
How do you evaluate the US, China and Russia’s recent intense engagements in the Middle East?
It’s true that China has stepped up its efforts and engagements in recent months with the country seemingly on a mission following President Xi’s recent Middle East visit. Russia, too, still holds its significant interest in the strategically important region. Although losing its global grip, USA remains the most effective power player in the troubled territory of Middle East as has been proven before and after President Biden’s last visit there.
Is the Middle East important for Bangladesh’s interests? How do you see the current state, and foresee the Bangladesh-ME relations in the coming days?
For Bangladesh, Middle East is of emotional importance due to the obvious religious sentiment; it is of significant interest currently as the country’s largest labour market too. Without an iota of doubt, it can be said that Bangladesh will in future continue to hold huge interest in the geopolitical issues of Middle East – as a concerned country, not as a power player.