How Arab states are dealing with a multipolar world

Regional powers value their traditional US ally but are building other strategic partnerships

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The apparent disengagement of the US from the Middle East has put traditional alliances with Washington in the Arab world to the test, and seen its major powers increasingly perceive the world today as multipolar, analysts say.

Responses from Middle Eastern countries to Russia's invasion of US-backed Ukraine have shown a pragmatic approach to the European crisis.

Meanwhile, the failure to address Iran’s missile and drone programme as part of the spluttering nuclear talks, the preoccupation with China and now Russia, as well as a series of foreign policy miscalculations by US President Joe Biden, have encouraged policymakers in the region to rethink the reliability of their traditional American ally.

“Having long been frustrated by shifting US priorities, Arab states have embraced this pragmatic national interest-oriented approach to politics to avoid having to pick sides and balance their economic ties with China against the security relationships with the US,” Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa programme at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told The National.

“With the outcome of the war [in Ukraine] also uncertain, this policy also helps Arab states protect their longer-term ties with all countries.”

The US president is visiting the Middle East this week. His first stops are Israel and Palestine, where he will hold high-profile meetings.

Mr Biden will then attend a summit in Saudi Arabia that will bring together leaders from the GCC, as well as Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

In the coastal Saudi city of Jeddah, the American president is scheduled to meet King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Last month, Mr Biden said that the purpose of his first visit to the Middle East as president wasn’t to pressure Saudi Arabia into producing more oil to stabilise global energy markets, as fuel prices hit a record $5 per gallon in his country in June.

“No, I’m not going to ask them,” he told reporters in Madrid, on the sidelines of a Nato summit last month.

“All the Gulf states are meeting. I’ve indicated to them that I thought they should be increasing oil production generically, not to Saudi Arabia in particular. I hope we see them in their own interests concluding that makes sense to do.”

Amid reports of strained ties over US policies in the region and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi and American officials have been keen in recent months — through press statements by the Saudi embassy in Washington and briefings by the US State Department and the White House — to demonstrate how bilateral ties remain “historic and strong”.

But with the US also sending signals that it might be losing interest in the region, China has emerged as a strong commercial and security partner to fill the potential void.

In March, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir met China’s special envoy for Middle East affairs Zhai Jun in Riyadh, where they announced the establishment of a high-level joint committee to boost 32 years of diplomatic ties between the two G20 giants.

The kingdom is China’s second largest oil supplier, after Russia, while China is the leading trading partner and exporter to the Saudi market — with trade volume estimated in 2020 at more than $30 billion. In second place is India.

Chinese President Xi Jinping receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; and holds a meeting during which they reviewed the latest developments on the regional and international arenas. Courtesy Saudi Press Agency

Saudi Arabia incorporated the Chinese language in its curriculum last year. This is intended to enhance the employability of future generations, as Mandarin is spoken by about one-fifth of the world’s population.

Prince Mohammed visited China in 2019 and was received by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Saudi Arabia first of all is driven by its primary export commodity, oil, so China is its largest market and Russia is the second largest oil exporter and hence an essential partner in OPEC+,” Ali Al Shihabi, a Saudi political analyst and member of the advisory board of Neom — a planned mega city-state in the Saudi Arabian desert as part of the Vision 2030 project — told The National.

Arab pragmatism

The response of the Arab world’s heavyweights like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the Russian-Ukraine war has revealed a pragmatic and principled approach to the European crisis.

Last month, Dr Anwar Gargash, Diplomatic Adviser to the UAE President and former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said the UAE's principles “are not swayed by outbursts, emotions and the politics of axes” when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine.

“This applies to our stand on the war in Ukraine, which is based on international law, refusing to use force, respecting the sovereignty of states, and resolving disputes through the political and diplomatic track,” Dr Gargash said.

“We live in a region that has always suffered from violence and we are aware of its meanings, impacts and negative repercussions on all aspects of life.”

Almost a month after the start of the war in Ukraine, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Moscow and met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Sheikh Abdullah emphasised the need for a diplomatic solution to the war between the two agricultural powerhouses.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-Operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov following talks in Moscow. AP

The UAE, China and India abstained in a February 26 UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia's invasion — a bill vetoed by Moscow — but supported a March 2 General Assembly vote deploring the war and calling for the immediate halt to all hostilities.

As the US always stresses that its foreign policy is based on its national security and its own interests, first and foremost, it is quite natural that Arab countries should think likewise, analysts say.

It is understandable that Arab countries will examine the dynamics of nudging a bit away from the orbit of the world’s superpower and biggest economy, to explore strategic partnerships with world powers, they add.

“It should be noted that power is never infinite. Even in the heyday of its hegemony, the US could not always enforce the outcomes it wanted,” Nael M Shama, an Egyptian political scholar and guest contributor to the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank, told The National.

“Today, as ever, outcomes on any given issue are determined by a plethora of factors and actors. Obviously, the less crucial to the national interest of the US, the less willing any US administration will be to engage with it.”

Security alliance in the region

Egypt and Israel are other regional powers that walk a diplomatic tightrope — with the US and Europe on the one hand, Russia and China on the other — to enhance and protect their own interests.

Both countries are strategic allies of the US in the region and have been the largest recipients of American security aid since their landmark US-brokered peace agreement in 1979.

Last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi was principal guest at Russia’s St Petersburg International Economic Forum, participating online. A high-profile Egyptian delegation of ministers and business figures attended the forum.

Egypt, the world’s top wheat buyer, depends on imports from Russia and Ukraine for about 80 per cent of its needs.

On the same day, Egypt, Israel and the EU signed in Cairo a preliminary agreement to increase liquefied natural gas sales to Europe, which has been seeking ways to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen looks on as, from left, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson, Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek El Molla and Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar sign an agreement at the East Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo. Reuters

Since the start of the Ukraine war, Israel has been aware of the importance of maintaining warm ties with Moscow.

Russia backs the Syrian government and operates a naval base in the port of Tartus. Israel and Moscow co-ordinate to prevent Israeli and Russian forces from clashing in Syrian airspace when Israel launches air strikes in Syria against suspected weapons depots belonging to Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

But Russia and China cannot replace the US as a strategic security partner in the Middle East.

This comes amid reports and official statements in Israel that the US decided to sponsor an air defence alliance in the region to protect it from Iranian missiles launched by Tehran proxies, analysts say.

Ms Vakil from Chatham House says Russia, China and India have aligned their interests in the region, mainly due to their own commercial and trade gains.

“China and India [in particular] have commercial relations that supersede any strategic intent to counter the US [in the region],” she said.

“Additionally, China has long been a free rider of US security in the Middle East and has made no effort to supplant the US or wade into any of the myriad regional conflicts. Russia has proved important in OPEC+ arrangements and is a key actor in Syria but it too has limited ability, particularly now, to stabilise the region or address regional security challenges.”

Updated: July 13, 2022, 11:30 AM