The Middle East has been in the eye of international politics since the end of World War II. The hostility and confrontation of two erstwhile superpowers – the United States of America and the former Soviet Union – cast a dark cloud over the whole region leading to decades of regional divisions and conflicts.
Recently, China has started trying to protect its interests in the Middle East and people in the Middle Easter are witnessing the impact of China on the regional chessboard, albeit it is quite limited.
Eye of the geopolitical storm
The old world order collapsed in 1991 and a new one emerged. This left the US, Russia and China as the drivers of change for many countries in the Middle East, which has seen a rise in many conflicts. Stability in the Middle East is a global issue because its implications extend beyond the borders of the region for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, the region is one of the richest in natural resources. The Middle East is a major energy supplier and is the lifeline of the global economy. Secondly, the region is hub of global security threats on account of its many wars and conflicts, whose solution can pacify the region and stabilize its countries.
Thirdly, impasse in the Middle East peace process involving Israelis and Palestinians irks many countries in the region and the conflict saps the financial and economic potential. Fourthly, Iran's nuclear program, which developed in 2002, is deemed a threat to regional security. Such challenges collectively pose a threat, not only to energy supplies but also to global endeavours against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Once its dependence on Middle East energy declines, US interest in the region may diminishShehab Al-Makahleh
Since the 1970s, there has been a growing movement in the Middle East seeking change in the world order. It started with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran-Iraq War, rise of terrorist groups and the war on terror.
Such issues fomented regional conflicts which have had tectonic ramifications on Asian, African and European countries due to the proximity of these continents to the Mideast. Middle East issues are given global coverage as the region influences both domestic and international issues of international players, which include amongst others the US and Europe.
The big powers
In 1914, the British first landed in Basra, southern Iraq, to protect oil supplies from Persia. At that time, the US had little interest in the Middle East, its oil or the regional geopolitics of the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa. At that time, it was giving more attention to its own backyard, Latin America and East Asia. In fact, US President Woodrow Wilson even declined to partake of the bounty of World War I, when the UK offered it the spoils of the Ottoman Empire.
This situation changed after World War II when the Soviet Red Army, the US troops and the British forces were positioned in Iran to move their militaries against the USSR and guard Iranian oil. Josef Stalin pulled out his Red Army only after Harry Truman opposed Soviet presence in Iran.
Truman had asked Turkey to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and cemented bilateral ties with Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. By then, Truman had turned the Middle East into a Cold War front with the Soviet Union. Since then, political games commenced between the superpowers in the Middle East.
China has numerous motives behind replacing the US in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The most important of these is its heavy dependence on the energy resources of the Middle East. Chinese government is fully aware that its strength and longevity hinges upon its economic stability, which is expected to top the list of world economies by 2020.
To maintain the momentum of economic growth, China requires Middle East energy resources. Although China imports oil and gas even from Russia, the Middle East remains the major energy source and lifeline for the Chinese economy.
The second reason why China seeks to strengthen its relations with the Middle East is the region’s strategic location between China and Europe. The Chinese look at Middle East as a market for its manufactured goods. The region’s geographic location could play a key role in its military strategy. Although China may have its reasons to displace the US in the Middle East and to replace it, the question remains: Is China capable of replacing the US in the region?
Replacing US influence
The Middle East sticks out as a sore thumb for US foreign policy. Nonetheless, the region has been of key strategic importance for the US over decades due to its political, security, energy and military considerations.
The last ten years have witnessed a decline in US influence in the Middle East as a result of its own domestic issues and due to the rise of other powers on the global scene, such as China and Russia.
Washington has been a peace broker for countries of the Middle East. After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, radical factions exploited the political vacuum to gain strength and started conducting operations against Iraqi government and its people, crossing borders between Iraq and Syria.
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Such a threat to the region is well understood by the Americans and their allies. However, the region has devoured too much American blood and financial resources.
Would it be easy for any other country to replace the US in the Middle East? The US has had to safeguard geostrategic interests in the Middle East since WWII, driven by its international ambitions and energy dependence. Once its dependence on Middle East energy declines, US interest in the region may diminish.
Russians have no energy ambitions in the Middle East, but seek strategic control over key seaports from where they can defend their country and reverse their pre-1991 decline. China has the biggest aspirations as its continuity and survival lies in the hands of population in the Middle East.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.