In recent years, in the face of changing international order, we have witnessed the evolution of the foreign policy of countries in the MENA region. The countries in the region utilize events such as the war in Ukraine, which has verified existing alliances, to pursue their interests. This is reflected primarily in the gradual independence of Arab countries and Iran from the West, coupled with an increase in their significance for the Old Continent. The war in Ukraine weakened the alliance between the United States and the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, it intensified relations with China and Russia, as exemplified by Iran. Additionally, there is a trend of easing regional tensions, seen in the Abraham Accords and the normalization of relations with Syria. The countries in the region are trying to balance between major powers, advocating for a multipolar world order that aligns with their interests.
The Middle East lags behind – U.S. shift towards Asia and the end of the war on terror
The global war on terror, as well as the initiation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, demonstrated the U.S. influence in the region. The concept of preemptive war, part of the Bush administration’s fight against terrorist groups, continues to provoke controversy, particularly in moral and legal dimensions. In the latest U.S. National Security Strategy, China and Russia are articulated as threats, and the war on terror takes a backseat. However, its consequences continue to be felt in the Middle East. The past 20 years of U.S. policy in the region have weakened the United States’ position in Arab and Muslim countries. Prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, support for the Arab Spring, ongoing tensions with Iran, and the lack of an effective long-term strategy have cast a long shadow over U.S. policy and contributed to the growing assertiveness of Gulf countries against Americans. The countries in the region are reevaluating their foreign policy, realizing that diversifying alliances and foreign influences will bring the most benefits. Achieving this requires resolving existing conflicts.
First step towards normalization – Abraham Accords
One of the most significant events reshaping the regional order was the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain in 2020. The Abraham Accords, facilitated by the administration of then-U.S. President Donald Trump, aimed to significantly reduce tensions in the region and regulate Israeli-Arab relations. The parties committed to working together to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consider the principles of the United Nations Charter in their actions. The key factor enabling the agreement was the signatory countries’ relations with Iran and their perception of its role in the region. In this context, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal was crucial as part of the maximum pressure policy. Simultaneously, the U.S. president strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia, evidenced by a proposed $110 billion arms deal and a $350 billion trade and investment package over 10 years. The change of administration in 2021 in Washington led to a cooling of relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden, even as a presidential candidate, labeled the Saudi royal family as the ‘pariah’ of the Middle East. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul further strained relations. Biden’s administration released a CIA report confirming Saudi involvement in the journalist’s killing. Biden also announced a suspension of arms sales that could support Saudi military operations in Yemen and pledged U.S. diplomacy to end the conflict. After several months in office, in August 2022, Joe Biden met with Mohammad Bin Salman and the Gulf Cooperation Council. In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, disruptions in the oil market, and China’s growing diplomatic presence, the Biden administration postponed the promised tough stance against Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, in this dispute, seems to have acted assertively, refusing to accept an increase in oil production by Saudi Arabia and leaning towards cooperation with Russia within OPEC+. The meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah received critical assessments from commentators, but it should be viewed more broadly, beyond the primacy of oil interests.
Saudi Arabia and the United States remain important partners not only in security matters. Several bilateral agreements were signed during the visit, including cooperation in 5G and 6G technologies to connect American and Saudi tech companies. Both countries affirmed their commitment to maintaining the free flow of trade through strategic international waterways such as the Bab al-Mandab and the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s energy resources flow every day. At the same time, Biden emphasized that America would not leave a vacuum in the Middle East that could be filled by Russia or China. The military engagement of the United States remains the backbone of security in the Persian Gulf. U.S. forces control the Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al Mandab, whose undisturbed operation is crucial for global trade. The Middle East has become an integral part of U.S.-Chinese rivalry, which has recently accelerated. To compete with China, Washington should improve relations with the Persian Gulf. However, it seems that this will not be possible using existing tools, and previous American concepts in the Middle East, such as the two-pillar policy, the war on terror, and the democratization of the region, have not proven effective. The need for a change in U.S. policy instruments in the region was indicated, among others, by the American think tank RAND Corporation. The report, published in 2021, suggests abandoning war policies and the vision of solitary leadership in the region. It proposes a new strategy based on balanced partnerships, diplomacy, and strategic investments, with a simultaneous reduction of military tools. It also emphasizes the need to build prosperity in regional societies, the absence of which, according to RAND analysts, is one of the causes of many instabilities. China had already developed such tools in 2016, presenting China’s Arab Policy Paper outlining a long-term strategy for Chinese Middle East policy, which is to be based on energy cooperation, infrastructure construction, and new technologies.
China in the Middle East
In contrast to Joe Biden’s visit, the first Arab-Chinese summit took place in Riyadh in December 2022. The Chinese delegation met with representatives of the Arab League. The event concluded with a declaration emphasizing the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative for the economic development and prosperity of the Middle East. The parties also confirmed their commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by fully recognizing the Palestinian state and considering Taiwan as an integral part of China. During the meeting, the Saudi Foreign Minister confirmed that Saudi Arabia remains open to American and Western investments, but also highlighted Beijing’s greater role in Saudi economic transformation. While Chinese investments under the Belt and Road Initiative are already present, another potential field of cooperation between the two countries could be the Neom project, aiming to create the smart city “The Line.” It is one of the most important projects as part of the “Saudi Vision 2030,” which aims to free Saudi Arabia from oil dependence in favor of renewable energy sources and modernize the country. Both Riyadh and Beijing realize that the success of any investment depends on not only partnership but also regional security.
Saudi Arabia. From pariah to leader.
Saudi Arabia, with the involvement of Chinese diplomacy, has attempted to ease longstanding conflicts with Iran. The construction of a new security architecture aligns with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and serves as a guarantee for its success. In order to pursue projects like “Neon” and diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be entangled in a proxy war with Iran, which has resulted in attacks by the Houthis on Saudi oil installations. Relations between the two countries deteriorated in 2016 when Riyadh severed ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital following the execution of a Shiite cleric. The normalization process had already begun earlier, evident in the five rounds of negotiations in Baghdad between Tehran and Riyadh, concluding in 2021. However, the agreement was reached on March 10th in Beijing, where delegations from Saudi Arabia and Iran declared the resumption of relations and a return to cooperation on security matters. A month later, in April, Saudi-Iranian delegations met in both Tehran and Riyadh, confirming their intention to improve mutual relations. The details of the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran remain undisclosed, but the visit of the Syrian Foreign Minister to Riyadh, accompanied by an Iranian delegation, appears significant, leading to Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League from which it was excluded after the brutally suppressed protests during the Arab Spring in 2011.
The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement demonstrates that under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia aims to lead the transformation of the region. Actions by the Saudi Crown Prince simultaneously contribute to legitimizing his position as a leader in the Arab-Muslim world. Bin Salman’s role, since being appointed Defense Minister by King Salman and later the official heir to the throne, has been controversial. As Defense Minister, he engaged Riyadh in the bloody civil war in Yemen, exposing the weakness of the Saudi army. Subsequently, Salman conducted arrests of the wealthiest individuals in the country as part of the anti-corruption campaign. As confirmed by a CIA report published during the Biden administration, the Crown Prince played a role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and government critic, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Additionally, Riyadh’s crucial role in global energy production has led to the downplaying of moral assessments of Salman. This is evident in the diplomatic intensification, such as Germany’s Olaf Scholz’s visit to Riyadh and meetings between Bin Salman and French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Several events have raised doubts about the trust in American security guarantees in the region. The tepid U.S. response to Iranian attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the attack on Saudi oil fields from Yemeni territory by the Houthi movement led the United Arab Emirates to withdraw from the international maritime coalition, Combined Maritime Forces, whose ships patrol waters including the Persian Gulf.
The Middle East becomes independent but not free from conflicts.
In recent months, numerous events have confirmed that the policies of Arab countries are drifting towards independence. Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, seems to be a pioneer in this change, perceived differently not only by Muslim-Arab countries but also by Europe. A manifestation of this attitude is the recent 32nd summit of the Arab League in Jeddah, inaugurating the return of the hitherto antagonized Syria to the organization and rejecting any foreign interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries. Significantly, Israel’s aggressive policy towards Palestinians was also condemned. It was confirmed that a sovereign Palestine would have borders from 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, essentially recalling the Arab Peace Initiative, the points of which have remained unchanged since its presentation in 2002 during the Arab League summit in Beirut. The United States views changes in the policies of Arab countries through the prism of competition with Beijing. However, it seems that their reaction is belated. China began its involvement in the region in the 1960s, supporting independence movements in countries like Yemen and sending ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. With the dynamic development of the Chinese economy, economic relations intensified in the 1990s. Therefore, Saudi motivations are not limited to antagonizing powers or securing American military presence. Riyadh is interested in balancing influences and cooperating in various fields with the United States, China, and Iran. This is evident in both U.S.-Saudi talks on the nuclear program and cooperation with Beijing on the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
The American military presence remains crucial for Middle Eastern partners. Arab-Muslim countries, seemingly lagging behind in global processes in recent years, are attempting accelerated modernization. At the same time, the unclear policies of the United States, as well as Donald Trump’s individual visions regarding a peace plan for the region, do not correspond to the aspirations of Arab leaders. Paradoxically, the normalization process observed in the Middle East may contribute to maintaining the status quo and potential future conflicts. While Saudi-Chinese relations can be described as win-win, Iranian-Chinese relations appear different. Both countries benefit from the resumption of diplomatic relations, but Tehran seems to be a somewhat isolated partner in this trio. This is confirmed by China’s investment balance in the region, with Iran surpassing not only Saudi Arabia but also Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. China demonstrated its mistrust towards Tehran in 2018 when the China National Petroleum Corporation suspended investments in the Iranian South Pars natural gas project. A 25-year agreement with China three years later has not yielded significant results so far. In this arrangement, Tehran may feel treated instrumentally.
The Abraham Accords also raise questions. The United States has long sought to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh expects, among other things, access to American civilian nuclear technology in return. Additionally, in light of recent events, not only the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran but more importantly, Israel’s war with Hamas, distances Israeli-Arab normalization. Hamas’ attack has not only shaken security in the Middle East but may also trigger another migration crisis at the southern borders of Europe. European Union countries strongly condemn Hamas’s terrorist attacks but seem not entirely in agreement regarding the criticism of the announced ground operation in Gaza, which could end in a humanitarian catastrophe. The Yemeni conflict is another potential hotspot that requires multilateral talks for a lasting ceasefire. At the same time, the swift readmission of Syria to the Arab League without meeting previously set demands suggests that Gulf countries do not entirely believe in the success of their diplomacy. The open question remains whether the region’s countries possess strong enough instruments and political will for the chosen direction to foster real and long-term normalization in the Middle East.
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