By Dr Subhash Kapila
The Middle East Region in 2021 presents a complicated kaleidoscope of churning of established geopolitical patterns and military alignments as the United States and Russia jostle for influence with China joining in substantively.
Major regional States like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran and Israel also reflect the same churn.
Notably, in 2021, the Middle East power-play of the United States, Russia and China is no longer energy security-centric, but has emerged as a critical arena for the United States, Russia and China to create strategic pressure points against each other related to lessening strategic pressures applied elsewhere.
Overall, the United States even in 2021 enjoys geopolitical and military predominance in the Middle East. In fact, the United States’ predominance over Russia and China is notably asymmetrical with no indicators to suggest that its power in the Middle East is on the decline. The United States continues to enjoy considerable military intervention power and capabilities in the Middle East as exhibited from time to time. This emerges from considerable US naval deployments in The Gulf, access to military bases of Gulf Monarchies and Iraq.
Also, virtually the entire Middle East Region is aligned with the United States with the exception of the Northern Tier and Iran.
Russia has a limited sphere of influence comprising Syria, and Iran. Russia has demonstrated military intervention capabilities in Syria and its naval presence is limited to the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia, however, has geopolitical links with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with both of them using Russia as hedging strategies. Russia carries out joint naval exercises with Iran and has recently signed an ‘Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Agreement’ with Iran.
China in the past decade on the pretext of joining in the global naval effort to control Somali pirates at sea is now maintaining a naval presence in the Horn of Africa and in the approaches to The Gulf. China has also been able to establish its first overseas military base at Djibouti with multiple strategic aims of sustaining its naval presence in the Middle East Region, Indian Ocean and also as a stepping stone for extending its influence towards the Mediterranean Sea comprising the Southern Flank of NATO.
China has no notable sphere of influence in the Middle East with the exception of Iran with which it is said to have agreed for a StrategicPartnership — at least the Draft has been agreed upon.
The regional power contenders comprising Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran present shifting patterns of geopolitical relationships and seem to be playing off strategic cards of one Major Powers against each other. Turkey in the last couple of years under President Erdogan with megalomaniac illusions of Ottoman Empire grandeur stands out distinctively as the one Middle East regional power which has not only worked against the United States in recent years but flirting alternatively with Russia and China.
Turkey is emerging as a strategic concern with its unwarranted military interventions in Syria and Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has not only gone into a geopolitical downslide underPresident Erdogan, but also now risks expulsion from the Euro-Atlantic NATO military alliance of which it had been a long-standing ally from the Cold War era.Turkey has antagonised both the United States and Russia and it is speculated that it could enhance strategic relations with China which would need Turkey for China’s Mediterranean Sea naval ambitions.
Saudi Arabia has for long been a steadfast ally of the United States with some aberrant short periods thrown in. US-Saudi Arabia relations were robust and strong under President Trump but some connotational changes may take place under President Biden over Crown Prince Salman’s role. However, contextually, the US’ Biden Administration would have to continue to strategically bolster Saudi Arabia with Iran and Turkey adversarially disposed against the United States.
Iran which was once the main pillar of United States security architecture till the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is ripe for the United States to be reclaimed as such once more again. The new US President Biden though indicating shifting signs in its Iran-policy formulations has yet to come to grips with firm contours of a total reset of its relations with ran to its strategic benefits. Iran therefore continues to be in the United States’ adversarial strategic cross-hairs leaving scope for Russia and China to exploit.
The major geopolitical churning in the Middle East that has recently taken place setting in motion new equations arises from Gulf States like UAE normalizing relations with Israel, with speculation that Saudi Arabia too may soon follow suit. This changes the geopolitical landscape in the Middle Eat for Russia and China as it would deprive them of playing on Arab countries’ emotive fears and distrust of Israel.
The United States is a geopolitical gainer here. The second notable geopolitical development concerns India, which in recent years has been able under the leadership of PM Narendra Modito forge substantive strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and theUAE. Increasing military cooperation is visible. This overturns the geopolitical advantages that Pakistan and China were exploiting in the Gulf. These new relationships place India as an important strategic player in the Middle East with convergent aims with the United States and Israel.
With the above contextual geopolitical backdrop of the Middle East in 2021, in terms of China using the Middle East as a counter-strategic pressure point against the United States in relation to militarily containing Taiwan can be said to have been lost by China. China in past decades had displayed this propensity to ward off the United Sates strategic pressures in the Western Pacific.
Likewise, Russia, other than in Syria, does not seem to have many cards to apply strategic pressure points in the Middle East against the United States.
However, what needs to be pointed out is that in terms of the nuclear weaponisation of the Middle East, there are disturbing signs that Pakistan aided by China is actively involved in assisting Turkey to evolve a nuclear weapons arsenal. That accounts for Turkey under President Erdogan giving oversized importance to relations with Pakistan. This could be a serious destabilizing factor for the Middle East unless the United States sets in motion a positive reset of relations with Iran which too is said to be only a screw driver turn away from the production of nuclear weapons.
If Turkey and Iran emerge as nuclear weapons states in the Middle East then Saudi Arabia cannot be left far behind. In past decades it was being aired that Pakistan was involved with Saudi Arabia either to provide nuclear weapons technology or give access to Pakistan nuclear weapons in case of an Iranian invasion. With changed geopolitical equations Saudi Arabia may not be left with any option but to seek a ‘Nuclear Umbrella’ of the United States.
The United States despite its overall predominance may be impelled to shift its focussed strategic concentration to the Asia Pacific to limit the burgeoning threat of China menacing the horizon in the region. But much as much as China might like to do so, the United States under any political dispensation will not be able to downsize its military embedment in the Middle East.
China’s containment in the Western Pacific by the United States could become that much easier if the United States unhesitatingly resets relations with Iran and disciplines Turkey’s military adventurism in the Middle East and East Mediterranean.
Geopolitical space exists as a result of initiatives by the United States, with NATO and India as the next door Regional Power contiguous to the Middle East in 2021 set to enjoy strategic convergences on this count.
Strategically, the above could greatly jeopardise China’s ambitions and plans for overland routes of energy supplies from the Middle East. Therefore, the United States can be expected to remain and retain its geopolitical and military predominance over the Middle East.