Searching for a Superpower: Middle East’s New Dilemma

COVID-19 has all manner of strategists and political commentators asking one question frantically: has the global superpower status experienced Sede Vacante? With America stuck between the conclave of isolationism and an impending yet mystifying electoral phase, world awaits the head ready to wear crown of the global shepherd. Between China and Turkey, vying to reshape their international posture, we find the Middle East. Regional stakeholders often fear intrusion from the outside world at times when they are restructuring and recalibrating how power manifests itself in political strife. Saudi Arabia and Iran lock antlers in a competitive engagement aimed at determining the future of Middle Eastern politics. With Iran engaging with American interests deep inside Middle East as an opportunity to flex its military muscle, Saudi Arabia retorts by playing both with oil politics and conflicting situations to test its war-fighting efficacy. The remaining Middle Eastern countries are either sectarian bandwagons or transient collateral between this tug-of-war. The major breakthrough manifests itself when Middle Eastern nations, south of the Persian Gulf, engage with Indian interests as a means to connect to America. Iran, attempting to relieve itself from the economic shock of sanctions starts bridging its gap with China.

Saudi Arabia’s retaliatory strategy against Yemen has only dented regional security further, and Iran’s continued resistance to transparently choose an alignment has Hormuz lurching towards a future conflict.

The dominant challenge is a mélange of insecurities, apprehensions and ground realities. Middle East stands at a crossroads where its regional stability is put to question by volatile conflicting situations and a lack of sustenance from overseas alliances. Saudi Arabia’s retaliatory strategy against Yemen has only dented regional security further, and Iran’s continued resistance to transparently choose an alignment has Hormuz lurching towards a future conflict. The possibility of Iran allowing Chinese interests to operate on its soil with an extensive $400 billion strategic partnership would open a whole new dimension to this existing dilemma. If the United States (US) apprehends Chinese investments in Iran as a naval blockade to its resources stemming from Middle Eastern allies, how long would it take China to financially and strategically remove the US as the global leader? Henry Kissinger’s newfound apprehension expressed in “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order” is that once the epidemic subsides and the world resumes its usual political trajectory, America would not be in a position to offer any protection to its allies. Mr. Kissinger’s concerns take root from three fundamental notions: firstly, American attitude prior to the pandemic has mostly left America isolated; secondly, American interests under Trump administration have been disfigured with its allies and; thirdly, China’s slow yet steady management of inter-regional connectivity has left American economic interests damped following its tariff war with China.

Relying on oil and maritime trade without having to reconcile regional security leaves Middle Eastern states at the mercy of foreign protectors; choosing which is a hard part nowadays.

For the Middle East, geopolitical realities have something entirely different in store. Saudi Arabia’s campaign at Yemen has shown its military weaknesses. Saudi Arabia, despite having collected considerable military hardware, lacks the war-fighting spirit ever since it relied on ‘imported security’ during the the Gulf War. Iran’s aggression is handicapped due to its economic uncertainties and the remaining Middle Eastern states are either too weak to offer resistance or too wary of China’s maritime ambitions. Relying on oil and maritime trade without having to reconcile regional security leaves Middle Eastern states at the mercy of foreign protectors; choosing which is a hard part nowadays. If the Middle East connects to China and aligns its interests with Chinese economic development, it runs the risk of losing favour with the US which can, in the longer run, prove strategically terminal. If Middle East continues to remain aligned with American interests only to find out that America decides, yet again, to pursue isolationism, it could end up losing its economic potency. China’s ‘Reluctant Superpower’ posture and Xi Jinping’s graduated growth policy does not mean that China would have no conflict of interest. It only affirms that if America continues its current trajectory of abandoning alliances in favour of national sustenance, the allies left behind would have very little to use as bargaining chips if superpower status is substituted. For Middle East, having to deal with Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, Turkey’s growing influence and China’s proposed leadership means having to decide for its regional security itself; something Middle Eastern states have almost never done. Middle East’s security structure has seldom seen Middle Eastern states leading from the frontlines. They have mostly been either supplementary allies or resource points for other contenders. Throughout the post-World War II politics, Middle East has remained shuttled between Communist and Capitalist camps, traveling between South Asia and North Africa, resting on assurances and threats by global leaders and bandwagoning behind stronger parties to conflicts.

If Middle East continues to remain aligned with American interests only to find out that America decides, yet again, to pursue isolationism, it could end up losing its economic potency.

With a vacuum existing in global leadership and a hesitation to depart from American interests towards Chinese ambitions, Middle East is a region stuck in a political limbo. If Mr. Kissinger’s apprehensions are correct and America does abdicate global stewardship in favour of China, Middle East is not politically and strategically ready for a transition. If such an eventuality does not occur, having to reconcile with America to blockade China would mean taking immeasurable risks for future recourses. Syria and Yemen have not acquiesced to any resolution and the Syrian experiment of American reluctance, Russian misfeasance and Chinese silence has yielded more harm than good, Middle East’s search for a superpower enters unchartered territory. Turkey’s reintroduction is not a point of serious concern as geopolitical ground realities have immensely shifted. For Turkey to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire seems a myth at present, but to choose between the US and China is the real test. Middle East and the Gulf have remained home to some of the world’s most aggressive empires but that ship has sailed long ago. Now, in more recent times, we are faced with a congregation of rich yet insecure states searching for a strong shepherd. With America not sure of itself and China taking its time, Middle East might experience a meltdown, like it did when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Would it be able to sustain such a shock without the assistance of a strong benefactor is the question worth asking?

Muhammad Sharreh Qazi

Muhammad Sharreh Qazi

The author is a PhD Scholar for International Relations at University of the Punjab and lecturer at School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore.

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