Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 33 Issue 10
Author: Silvia Boltuc
In an ever-evolving geopolitical landscape, the perception of a waning United States influence in the Middle East has gained momentum. This shift has sparked debates about the extent of the US disengagement and the emerging roles of other global players, particularly China.
In recent years, international media agencies and experts suggested that the United States has lost interest in the Middle East, slowly disengaging from the area. Such perception originated by the major withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, and subsequently from Iraq, where the US-led combat mission was replaced by an advisory role.
The perception that the United States has been in decline has acquired significant traction, particularly following the refusal of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, to comply with Washington’s request to stabilise soaring oil prices after the escalation in Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia historically has been one of the main US allies in the Gulf. Under the Biden administration, things changed because of the Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and US President’s declaration of his willingness to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state. The sudden fracture between Washington and Riyadh led to a worldwide debate about the US declining influence in the Middle East.
Analysts globally have reported on the significant Chinese involvement in several Middle Eastern countries. At the beginning, it was mainly in the economic sphere with investments in local infrastructures, but the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, mediated by Beijing, raised concerns in Western governments about a rising Chinese political role in the region.
This set of circumstances might suggest that the United States is no longer interested in the Middle East or is losing ground. Nevertheless, during SpecialEurasia’s recent interview with Julianne Smith, US ambassador to NATO, she stressed multiple times that the US is still committed to this region.
US Foreign Policy in a Multipolar Changing World:
Does the Middle East Still Matter?
Further analysing the last decades of US foreign policy, it is possible to notice a shift in Washington’s priorities. We experienced a major US forces deployment after the 9/11 events and the beginning of the so-called “War on Terror”.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the US was under attack and terrorist organisations had penetrated several Middle Eastern scenarios. Therefore, according to Washington’s strategy and statements, the White House felt necessary to military intervene in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003.
Now the situation has changed. In their strategic concept, both NATO and the United States refer to Russia and China as the main threat to the status quo. Consequently, the focus has shifted towards more critical areas such as the Asia-Pacific and Ukraine.
Still, we cannot consider Washington disengaged from the Middle East. There was a strategy shift. Now, in the Middle East, they use intelligence activities on the ground and undercover operations as demonstrated by the CIA drone strike that killed al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in August 2022. There are still US personnel who support the local regular armies, train them and help them counter terrorism, as in the case of Iraq or the missions in Syria.
To cite a more recent event, the US beefs up Gulf deployment to contrast what Washington refers to as the ‘Iranian threat’ in the Persian Gulf, particularly in the Strait of Hormuz. By increasing its military presence in the area, Washington has demonstrated its readiness to deploy an army in case of escalation, and furthermore, to safeguard its interests in the region. Of course, political presence and engagement with local governments continue to be part of the US administration policy.
We should also consider the possibility of withdrawing from some specific Middle Eastern scenarios as a tactic to counter both Russian and Chinese interests. Indeed, the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased the threat posed by terrorist groups in the region, especially after the Taliban took power in Kabul.
Therefore, Washington left Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, as the Central Asian republics and Pakistan, and regional powers, such as the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, to face the rise of jihadist propaganda and terrorist.
Particularly for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the regional spread and affirmation of terrorist groups and jihadist propaganda would have tragic effects. Indeed, local terrorism attacks already targeted Chinese infrastructures and limited the needed regional connectivity. By contrast, in the Gulf, the situation is different. Considering Israel’s pressures on Washington and the strategic value of the Strait of Hormuz, this is not a field that can be abandoned.
Another vital aspect to underline is the costs in terms of human lives. Compared to a few decades ago, there is a less acceptance in the Western world of the deaths of soldiers on missions, a debate that largely emerged also on the background of the Ukrainian conflict. A new trend is emerging that will see fewer military combat personnel and more intelligence operations, the use of soft power and asymmetric warfare strategies. In addition, the latest generation of weapons will reduce the need for human capital.
Nowadays, it is unlikely that China might easily and completely replace the United States in the Middle East. The confrontation between Washington/Tel Aviv and Tehran is more likely to bring back the US military in the Middle East if compared with China.
First of all, the so-called ‘American dream’ is still attracting the youngest Middle Eastern generations more than the Chinese culture. As for now, there is no ‘Chinese dream’ capable of attracting the Arab young generations in the People’s Republic of China.
Although in the past years several analysts argued that the Chinese penetration in Europe reached a point of no return, currently the situation is completely different and Brussels is far from strictly cooperate with Beijing. Indeed, the United States convinced the European Union to withdraw from the most important agreements with China, particularly regarding its Bel and Road Initiative.
Therefore, also with the Middle East, although the People’s Republic of China is heavily involved in the region thanks to its investments and financial support, the situation might change quickly whether the United States would adopt a more interventionist strategy.
We should also consider the reputation of the Chinese in the Arab world. The agreements were signed between the Arab governments and the Chinese one. But when it comes to the Arab population, people blame China because of how Beijing threats the country’s Muslim minority.
A clear example of this was the scandal that arose from the last visit of some representatives of the Arab League to the Xinjiang region. In an attempt to win China over, these representatives reported how China guarantees human rights in the region, when the entire international community monitoring the area consistently claims otherwise.
Furthermore, China is perceived negatively as an investor who utilises investments to secure control of foreign nations (debt-trap) and fails to provide the local populace with new employment prospects.
The real question to ask is whether China will deploy the army in the event of a Middle East crisis as the United States has done in the past. If they do, it will be against its policy of non-interference. Consequently, China cannot really guarantee for regional agreements.
Last, we should not underestimate Chinese domestic problems, most notably with its economy. Recently the country had weaker-than-expected economic figures and serious trouble with its real estate sector. With its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing invested globally a huge amount of money, but the BRI is still not visible and is still not paying back as expected. The risk of a collapse from the inside cannot be excludable.
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