In the past few months, there have been notable changes in the political orientation of multiple countries in the Middle East. Traditionally, many Arab nations maintained a foreign policy that was closely linked to that of the United States (US), although recent events suggest a divergence in actions. The recent agreement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran received considerable attention due to concerns that were expressed earlier by most members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Western community regarding Iran’s threat to regional stability and international security. In addition, China, which has always been viewed as the main rival to the US, has played the main role in facilitating the agreement between Iran and KSA, where the latter is considered the US’s most strategic ally in the Middle East.
China’s growing strategic involvement with KSA may potentially impact US influence in the region. Possibly explaining why, the White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan visited KSA earlier this month to meet Saudi officials; this visit follows on the heels of the CIA director’s trip to KSA last month. It is worth noting that China has grown into a significant trading partner for KSA, with a bilateral trade volume of nearly 90 billion USD. This has potentially created economic opportunities for China, despite the longstanding security cooperation and relationship between the US and KSA. Furthermore, China holds a significant position as KSA’s primary purchaser of oil. Moreover, before the Saudi-Iranian deal was finalized, China introduced its “Global Security Initiative” concept, which aims to address conflicts between nations. Thus, it appears that China has a desire to expand its strategic engagement and establish a unique model of global governance that differs from traditional Western models, as evidenced by its efforts to increase economic ties in the region. The proposed model prioritizes economic growth and stability while also considering China’s unique interests, which may differ from those of Western powers. Hence, it poses a challenge to the values of the Western world while also appealing to nations in the Middle East that may have disagreements with the US.
After China’s brokered agreement between KSA and Iran, it is expected that Chinese corporations from a variety of industries would want to increase their presence in the Saudi Arabian and Middle Eastern markets in order to increase China’s economic and political influence, thus posing a threat to the market share of Western companies operating in the Middle East. The defense and security sectors are likely to be affected as well. The United States, with Saudi Arabia as its primary customer, has been the GCC’s primary provider of advanced armaments for decades. But how this will go forward, given China’s growing influence in the GCC, is uncertain. However, it is likely that the rising Chinese influence in the region may dampen American enthusiasm for exporting cutting-edge weapon systems to the GCC. Furthermore, as China’s influence grows, it may have an effect on the GCC’s defense procurements, which are often politicized and therefore lead to strong competition in the GCC from China’s defense organizations.
While acknowledging the significance of perpetually enhancing the armed forces of the GCC for the purpose of safeguarding economic interests and maintaining stability, one could contend that the military expenditure of the GCC is in a precarious position. Given the recent Saudi-Iran agreement and assuming Iran demonstrates a sincere commitment to peaceful relations with both KSA and the GCC, it is conceivable that military expenditures within the GCC may experience a decrease in the foreseeable future. Throughout the years, the GCC’s strategic and substantial armament acquisitions from the US have been focused on mitigating the Iranian threat. Given the current state of affairs, it is highly probable that KSA and the GCC will gradually shift their funds from US defense procurements to other emerging economic priorities as the peace agreement continues to be implemented. This can be specifically true for KSA, where a peace deal with Iran under China’s influence will not only provide assurance for its national security but also mitigate the risks and threats from the southern border, which is plagued by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Henceforth, the decision to prioritize KSA’s crucial economic advancements and strategic investments in line with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s 2030 vision is intrinsically tied to the imperative of mitigating the potential for conflict with Iran. In this respect, regional defense economics in the coming years will tell whether the rise or decline of KSA and GCC defense expenditures had a clear impact on the nations’ GDP versus redirecting defense funds to other economic development activities.
Shifts in KSA and the GCC’s political orientations have also been clear in the oil production cut that was announced in OPEC+ last October. The move was clearly against US strategic interests as well as supporting Russia in terms of indirectly overcoming sanctions by the West due to the war on Ukraine. This support for Russia was not only limited to oil production cuts by KSA; reports also show that Egypt, a close US ally, had plans to support Russia militarily. Furthermore, it was reported that Egypt has ignored US requests to block its airspace for Russian military flights. The flights in question were said to be carrying Russian weapons from Syria back to Russia, probably to aid Russia in its war against Ukraine. What is more interesting to see is that the US has recently accused South Africa of delivering arms and ammunition to a sanctioned Russian cargo vessel. Yet the Egyptian administration received a call days after the US accusation from South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, where it has been officially stated that both sides discussed “a number of international developments, especially the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, taking into account its negative repercussions on the economic, food, and energy conditions in developing countries in the world, especially in Africa.” Although the stance of both countries towards the Russian war on Ukraine may not be firmly deduced from the statement, it is apparent that Russia is perceived with importance, which seems to run contrary to US interests.
Regarding Egypt, it has been reported that, in addition to the recently concluded agreement between KSA and Iran, efforts are underway to normalize diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran. Diplomatic and intelligence officials from two regional powerhouses recently convened in Baghdad, Iraq, to discuss the normalization of relations between the two sides. Additionally, the two sides deliberated on the feasibility of a meeting between the Egyptian Head of State, Abdul Fatah El Sisi, and the Iranian leader, Ibrahim Raisi. The recent move by Egypt towards Iran can be seen as a significant shift in regional alliances, potentially influenced by the actions of KSA. This development highlights the possibility of US allies in the region moving away from both US and Israeli interests, particularly with regards to the normalization of relations with the GCC. It is noteworthy that KSA, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain frequently collaborate to execute strategic manoeuvres. The recent readmission of Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League after a suspension of almost 12 years is also a clear indication of shifting geopolitics in the region.
The Assad regime has received significant support from Russia and Iran throughout the past decade, despite the strong opposition from many Arab countries, with the exception of Egypt. Yet, the UAE has recently extended a cordial reception to President al-Assad on multiple occasions and has extended a formal invitation to attend the COP28 climate summit. Furthermore, the recent meeting between al-Assad and the Saudi foreign minister marks a significant development in the political landscape, as it is believed to be the first high-level visit by a Saudi official to Syria since the onset of the Syrian war. Additionally, KSA has made the decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with the Syrian Arab Republic, and His Majesty King Salman has extended a formal invitation to President Bashar al-Assad to participate in the upcoming Arab League summit taking place in Jeddah on May 19th. Although the US officially maintains its stance of non-normalization with the Syrian regime and discourages its regional allies from doing so, the recent collective shift in the regional stance of Arab nations towards President Bashar al-Assad of Syria serves as a clear indication of the coordinated political shifts taking place in the Middle East. The strategic advantage attained by the Arab nations through their efforts towards normalizing relations with Syria and Iran will enable them to exert a subtle influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group that is perceived as a threat by Israel.
The shifting political dynamics in the Middle East region are undoubtedly having a significant impact on the global geopolitical landscape. The current political climate in the Middle East is garnering strong attention, as China, Russia, and Iran are becoming increasingly involved in the region. This new development has the potential to undermine the longstanding US influence in the area, which has been in place for nearly 50 years. The current political climate has created a significant opportunity for various nations in the region. This includes the growing multilateral diplomatic power and strategic influence of KSA, the UAE, and Egypt throughout the region. Nevertheless, it is imperative to exercise prudence for various political considerations. First and foremost, notwithstanding the normalization of diplomatic relations with Iran, the ambiguity surrounding the latter’s nuclear program aspirations persists. For decades, the GCC has perceived Iran as a destabilizing force, with its nuclear aspirations posing a significant threat to regional security. The potential development of a nuclear weapon by Iran, despite any peace agreements, only serves to heighten the risk of conflict in the region. Furthermore, the burgeoning dominance of China in the region is bound to generate diplomatic strains between the United States and pivotal nations in the Middle East. Regarding this matter, it is imperative that the Middle East not be utilized as a platform for political, security, and economic hostilities between the United States and China. Lastly, in light of the ongoing political developments in the Middle East, it is imperative that prominent nations in the region, such as KSA, UAE, and Egypt, prioritize the synchronization and harmonization of their foreign policies. Given the increasing diplomatic prowess and regional sway of these respective nations, it is probable that their individual national interests may diverge, resulting in potential discord and disagreement. Recent events in Sudan are case in point.
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