For many Americans, the Middle East is simply the “Arab World.” We tend to think of the Middle East as a hot desert landscape with nothing particular to recommend it other than its oil reserves. But it has become increasingly strategic real estate. As things evolve geopolitically, a more expansive view of what constitutes the Middle East seems to be emerging and the question is — is the U.S. behind the curve in resetting its strategic security interests in that part of the world?
Geographically, the Middle East region has essentially been redefined as the nations of MENA (Middle East & North Africa): Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Factoring in language, religion, interdependence, rivalries and nuclear ambitions, it’s much more than just a hub presence between Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia, the Atlantic Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. In fact, geopolitically, this part of the world has theoretically expanded to include Turkey, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan.
President Biden spent four days in this part of the world risking considerable political blow-back for meeting with the likes of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS), who ostensibly ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the autocratic president of Egypt General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Furthermore, he avoided any direct engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian situation to the dismay of many. So why the great leap into the Middle East by this administration?
The oversimplified answer is because China and Russia are starting to nest and invest in the region in substantial ways. In the past 15 years, China has invested an estimated $106 billion in MENA’s energy sector and infrastructure projects. Saudi Arabia is China’s biggest supplier of crude oil and according to the Asia Times, 47% of China’s oil comes from these MENA countries.
China’s growing clout in the region is evidenced not only by growing economic ties, but strengthening military ties. China has increased its sale of military weapons to Saudi Arabia by 400% since 2016 including drones and ballistic missile development. China is also strengthening its military ties with the United Arab Emirates and Iran. These strengthened ties have come as the U.S. relationship with some of these countries has waned due to human rights concerns, and China has used these relationship disruptions as opportunistic wedges to inveigle its way into the region.
But it’s not just China. Vladimir Putin made his second trip outside of Russia since invading Ukraine to visit Iran for meetings with Ayatollah Khomeini and Turkish President Rycip Erdogen. Putin has been a strong supporter of Syria’s brutal dictator Bashir al Assad and because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he and the Turkish president both have a common interest in thwarting the Kurdish rebels in northern Syria.
The region is an incredible mix of Shiite, Alawite and Sunni Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Tensions exist between many of these groups and nations and who supports whom and who dislikes whom makes for instabilities and makeshift and contrived alliances. Russia and China are expert at taking advantage of these instabilities and vulnerabilities.
One of the best metaphors I’ve heard recently to describe the diversity of this part of the world is the “Star Wars” bar scene, the crowded cantina that Luke Skywalker enters with dissimilar patrons where the potential for violence and distrust is palpable.
Think of some of the players besides Putin, Khomeini, Erdogen, Sisi and Xi Jinping. There’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State (ISIS), the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Shia in Iran, the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, the Turks, the Kurds, who are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation state, and the Persians in Iran. Iran, by the way, in addition to Persians, has at least 10 other ethnic groups that are politically active. If you walked into this “bar scene,” you’d not be surprised if the bartender said belligerently (as he did to Luke Skywalker with his droid), “Hey, we don’t serve those kind in here.”
The bottom line is that today’s Middle East is a landscape of shifting tectonics, ambitious rich nations and poor nations with resources to offer to whomever is willing to deal, and in many if not most cases replete with autocrats who couldn’t care less about human rights and the consequences of corruption. It’s also a bar scene with the potential to give birth to terrorists or neo-nuclear bad actors like Iran.
Who would have thought 10 years ago that Israel would be making nice with Saudi Arabia? But in the realpolitik of today’s Middle East, the enemy of my enemy (Iran) is my friend. And now we have the Abraham Accords, a series of treaties normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — four Arab nations joining Egypt and Jordan in making peace with Israel.
If Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan now value opportunistic economic and military advantages over allegiances to the United States then should our national security interests supersede our governance and humanitarian ideals in the region? If so, how will America’s foreign policy establishment respond?
China has embarked on a massive plan called the “Belt and Road” initiative. According to the Council on Foreign Relations “(It) is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives will stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.” The Middle East is key to this plan. And Russia is keen to leapfrog over Europe to develop economic and military ties in the Middle East.
President Biden’s trip to the Middle East this month was likely a recognition of just how threatening these Russian and Chinese inroads are in a region with such strategic importance to our economic and national security interests. Climate change is likely to make the Middle East hotter than ever. Politically, it’s likely to heat up just as fast.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.