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Is Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine Reversing American Retrenchment From Middle East? – OpEd

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In mid-2021, media reports claimed that the Biden administration was withdrawing military assets from the Middle East — which included removing missile defense systems from countries like Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia and reducing the number of fighter jets deployed in the region. In September 2021, even while the attacks by Houthi rebels continued, it was reported that the USA has removed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia — the latter were deployed to bolster the kingdom’s defenses after the attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 blamed on Iran.

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Surprising it might have seemed, the retrenchment from the Middle East was in accordance with Washington’s changed geostrategic and geo-economic priorities. For years, the energy riches of the Middle East and the security of Israel drove Washington’s deep involvement in the region, further added to by the war against terrorism. The imperatives started to slacken during the last decade, leading to the Middle East’s diminished significance to the West. First, the Shale Revolution in the USA drastically reduced the superpower’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy resources; although, maintaining a smooth flow of oil from the Persian Gulf so as to avert a global oil price shock endured as Washington’s concern. In the meantime, the European Union (EU) increased its energy imports from Russia, accounting for almost a quarter of the bloc’s overall energy consumption in 2020. Second, a combination of peace accords with Arab nations and large-scale military modernization and expansion mitigated the security threats for Israel. Third, exhausted by years of war on terrorism and responding to the geostrategic challenge posed by China, Washington sought to reorient its priorities toward Asia-Pacific — the primary theatre for the superpower rivalry.

Fast forward to 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred a global energy crisis with consumers facing skyrocketing prices worldwide and the EU countries aiming to fill up their storage capacity before the winter looms, in the wake of apprehensions of a gas shutdown from Russia. Although EU nations have announced to end their energy imports from Russia by 2030, an instant gas shutdown by Putin would exponentially exacerbate the energy crisis in Europe with severe economic and social implications besides throwing into disarray the global energy market. Not surprisingly, the Middle East is back in the limelight — at least in the foreseeable future — owing to its vast energy resources, which provide the most feasible and readily available alternative to energy imports from Russia — apart from doubling down by the EU on efforts to transition to renewable sources of energy.

Considering the circumstances, there was no surprise that energy likely dominated the agenda for President Biden’s first visit to the Middle East in his current role. Before the trip, in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, Biden underscored the vitality of Middle Eastern energy resources for mitigating the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on global energy supplies and during the trip, urged GCC +3 leaders — who gathered in Saudi Arabia for a regional summit of Gulf countries also attended by Biden — to pump more oil into the global oil market to keep the energy prices low. Despite that no firm public commitment was made by Arab countries to increase their oil production, President Biden adopted an optimistic tone,  and the Senior State Department Energy Security Advisor also sounded confident that the oil-rich Gulf nations would take “a few more steps” in the weeks ahead to increase oil production — a claim he premised on President Biden’s conversations with the Gulf leaders.

Notwithstanding the intangible outcomes, the visit did break the ice between President Biden and de factor Saudi ruler Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman — with whom POTUS hitherto avoided interaction and on his campaign trail, vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state for suspicions that the Crown Prince might have ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

In his address to the GCC + 3 Summit meeting, Biden tried to assuage regional concerns about the USA’s retrenchment from the region and assured that Washington would remain an active and engaged partner in the Middle East. Alluding to the emerging global challenges, Biden asserted that American interests are “closely interwoven” with the Middle East. Besides, doubling down on the American leadership, the President pledged not to “walk away” from the region, leaving the void to be filled by the rivals — China, Russia, and Iran.

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The latter concern by the POTUS is not unfounded. China — employing its economic statecraft — has made deep ingress in the Middle East by entering into various types of partnerships with regional countries within the long hierarchy of Chinese partnerships. China is the biggest importer of Middle Eastern oil, and the economic interdependence between the Middle East and China has grown massively over the years. Meanwhile, Russia, after getting militarily involved in the ongoing civil war in Syria, has also been steadily increasing its footprint in the Middle East — overtures reciprocated enthusiastically even by the Gulf States that have traditionally been aligned with the USA. 

President Biden’s recommitment to the Middle East, for now, has set in motion the reversal of the USA’s retrenchment from the region, which is not likely to overturn until the EU countries find reliable alternatives to fulfill their energy needs. Nonetheless, the damage inflicted to the USA’s influence in the region and reputation as a reliable partner while the retrenchment was being attempted is unlikely to be remedied. Provided the growing influence of China and Russia, the USA is no longer the dominant player in the region while the Gulf States are also diversifying their geostrategic and geo-economic options, which point toward the Middle East turning into yet another contested zone for the intensifying strategic competition between the USA-led Western bloc and the China-Russia entente

Hamdan Khan is currently working as Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad. He is an alumnus of the National Defence University Islamabad and has previously worked for the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and the Pakistan Council on China (PCC). Hamdan studies Global Affairs with a focus on Great-Power Politics, Programs and Policies of Nuclear Weapons States, and Emerging Military Technologies.

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