The New Middle East Strategic Landscape

A little over two years after the last American serviceman left Kabul, it is not too early to say that the debacle has had a stabilizing effect on the Greater Middle East. It has greatly reduced the ability of the neoconservative/neoliberal war party in Washington to advocate maintaining—let alone expanding—America’s now-modest military engagement in the region. It has undermined the credibility of the United States, traditionally the biggest power broker in the Middle East, and thus it has created room for other, less brazenly self-serving powers to become fully-fledged regional players. It has made local stakeholders more self-reliant and self-confident. 

It turns out that there is a clear, empirically verifiable correlation between the absence of significant U.S. military actions and diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, and the increased ability of the region’s leaders (pleasantly surprising to millions of their subjects) to sort out their differences, either by talking to each other directly, or—as in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia—to entrust the role of intermediary to an external great power other than America, by which I mean China. 

Far from contributing to the region’s “peace and stability,” as argued ad nauseam by two generations of politicians, pundits, and lobbyists in Washington—America’s engagement is now recognized as a major obstacle to the attainment of that very “peace and stability” pursued by key decision-makers in places as diverse as Riyadh, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Ankara. They will never say so aloud in Jerusalem, of course, but the tensions (primarily ideological in nature) between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition and the transgenderist, ultra-woke U.S. administration have brought the two countries’ relations to their lowest level since at least 1967.

Four factors have contributed to a major change in the geostrategic map of the Middle East in the course of 2023. They are the rise of China as an important regional player; the détente between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors as well as greatly improved relations within the Arab world; the decision of four key countries in the region to join the BRICS economic group; and the closely related declining importance of the dollar in the oil-rich states’ trade transactions. 

First, consider China’s rising influence in the Middle East. Last April, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met for the first time in seven years. A month earlier, their top national security officials created a sensation when they announced that Tehran and Riyadh were reestablishing diplomatic relations after years of hostility. Their mutual hostility had raised tensions across their shared neighborhood, tensions which had been heartily fanned from Washington for many years.

The truly sensational aspect of the news was that China acted as the intermediary between them. As it turned out, however, in the Middle East the Middle Kingdom has several advantages over America. It is now widely accepted throughout the region as a great power with no ulterior agenda and no a priori partiality to any one nation-state in the region. By contrast, the U.S. is seen as a seasoned practitioner of the ancient strategy of divide et impera. America has a long track record of “passionate attachments” (to Israel), military interventions, bombings, and sanctions (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, et cetera), unilateral annulments of international agreements (the Iran nuclear deal), as well as coups and regime-change ploys (which are too many to list).

No less importantly, China is not trying to impose its values and ideological preferences on anyone in the region, let alone to condition political, economic, and security agreements on the acceptance of their doctrines. The U.S., on the other hand, has lost what little credibility it had enjoyed in the “Arab street” (as well as in the bazaars of Turkey and Iran) by relentlessly promoting weaponized homosexuality, transgenderism, and all the rest of the post-postmodern agenda of wokedom.

There are many sins in Islam that mandate death penalty: idolatry, atheism, apostasy, adultery, et cetera. Homosexuality is one of them, and millions of practicing Muslims consider it a sin amply more deserving of the death penalty than any other. In addition to the Quran, many hadiths mention liwat (homosexual intercourse). “When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes,” reads one. “Kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to.” It is fascinating that this important cause of America’s waning influence in the Muslim world has been ignored by commentators.

The game-changing agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was the result of all these factors. It constituted a clear triumph for Beijing. To millions of Middle Easterners, this agreement demonstrated that the hegemonistic “rules-based” pax Americana has ended—at least in their part of the world—and a new, better one has been born.

By seeking to displace America as the preeminent power in the Middle East, China is simultaneously fortifying its position as the principal ally of Russia and the party likely to dominate that relationship in the future. The Middle Kingdom is better poised than at any time in its 3,000-year history to influence and even control global events important to its security and necessary to the implementation of its grand strategy.

China is already the main trading partner of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the biggest buyer of oil from both nations. It is the biggest investor in the Middle East by far. But in 2023 Beijing has made a strong and so far stunningly successful bid to expand its influence and to become a key diplomatic and implicitly geostrategic player in the region, by explicitly rejecting “hegemonism” (read: the West’s “rules-based international order”). China’s Global Security Initiative was launched last winter with the openly stated objective of “peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation.” Its efforts have been crowned by the entry of four key Middle Eastern countries intro BRICS—but more on that later.

The second factor transforming the Middle East is Saudi Arabia’s decision to normalize relations with Iran in spite of Washington’s open misgivings. This was an act of disobedience which would have been practically unimaginable only a decade ago. It was not the only example in 2023, however, of the Arab world’s determination to make foreign policy decisions in accordance with a realist perspective, while disregarding the U.S. position. 

The climate of political détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia is helping to open up spaces for expansion of investment projects all over the Middle East. Last June a startup was announced in Baghdad of a vast Saudi real estate project, initially worth US$1 billion, in an area not far from the strongholds of the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. Riyadh will finance the construction of shopping malls, luxury villas and apartments for the rising Iraqi middle class. This stands in stark contrast to the absence of any significant funding from the U.S.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fourth from left, is welcomed
back to the ranks of the Arab League at their summit in Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia on May 19(Saudi Press Agency)

More importantly, in recent months Damascus has fully returned to the Arab fold. The civil war in Syria was in fact a jihadist rebellion instigated, financed and armed by the U.S. and its allies (especially Britain). It was initially supported by several Sunni Muslim countries, notably Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the impressive resilience of the government in Damascus and its armed forces, as well as Russia’s air support, the conflict has ended with a resounding victory for the government forces. As a result, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been formally accepted into the fold as a member of the Arab League at the group’s summit in Saudi Arabia last May.

This was a pivotal event. At the instigation of Saudi Arabia, even the few remaining U.S. allies in the Arab world (Qatar, Kuwait, and Morocco), finally agreed that the crisis in Syria is an Arab problem that requires Arab strategies for overcoming its destabilizing impact on the region. By ignoring the absurd and evidently destabilizing position of the Biden administration that “Bashar must go,” they have displayed an impressive degree of unity on what used to be a divisive issue. 

The U.S. policy in Syria has failed on every front: Bashar will stay in power; the jihadists (also known as the “pro-Western moderate rebels”) are utterly defeated; some 2 million Syrian Christians will remain in their ancestral homes; and the Arab world has displayed an impressive ability to act in its own interest. The failure of the jihadist rebellion in Syria is an important contributing factor to the overall stabilization of the Middle East.

It is testimony to America’s diminished standing in the Middle East that the Arab world is paying little heed to the U.S. formal position on Syria. That position is irrational. America’s involvement in a faraway land where no vital U.S. interest is at stake, especially in a majority-Muslim country with a complex ethno-religious chessboard, was always a bad idea. With its regional stature diminishing anyway, the U.S. should accept the reality created by the Syrians and their Arab cousins.

The third factor, and the single most important event in the Middle East so far this year, is the decision by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates to join the BRICS group of major developing countries. This economic organization, which is widely seen as an alternative to the Western world order, will also welcome Ethiopia and Argentina to its ranks on Jan. 1. BRICS currently comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. It already accounts for more than 40 percent of the global population and a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product.

The Shanghai-based New Development Bank (also known as the “BRICS bank”) had already admitted the UAE and Egypt as shareholders, while Saudi Arabia and Algeria—both major oil and gas producers—are slated to join their ranks soon. Together with the new members, BRICS will comprise 45 percent of the world’s population, about half of the world’s wheat and rice crops, and a whopping 80 percent of the world’s oil production.

America has “lost” the Middle East, and that is a very good thing for America, for the Middle East, and for the rest of the world…. It is in the American interest to accept this reality as a long-overdue blessing in disguise.

Membership in BRICS of four major oil suppliers—Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, and the UAE—and the world’s top importers, China and India, coupled with the commitment of the group as a whole to using national currencies in trade among members, has the capacity to undermine the U.S. dollar’s already weakened position as the global reserve currency. Since China is the largest trading partner for all of the major oil suppliers, new settlements are likely to be made in yuan at the expense of the petrodollar.

In the long run, all BRICS members—now crucially including the Saudis and the Emiratis—share to a greater or lesser extent the objective of de-dollarization. Some countries (India, Egypt) seek it simply as a means of creating a more equitable, less U.S.-dominated world. Others (notably China and Russia) see it as an important long-term strategy to degrade America’s financial ability to wage wars and pursue global hegemony. They’ve recognized that America’s power to intervene militarily across the globe is effectively paid for by foreigners, who are often the targets of those very policies.

In conclusion, America has “lost” the Middle East, and that is a very good thing for America, for the Middle East, and for the rest of the world. It has never “had” that region in any meaningful sense anyway, and the cost of projecting power over it has always exceeded the resulting benefits. It is in the American interest to accept this reality as a long-overdue blessing in disguise. The new Middle Eastern strategic landscape offers the United States an opportunity to let go of a faraway burden of choice which has never been essential to America’s security and well-being.     ◆

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