The return of geopolitics in Middle East

Real culprit is the US which has a history of how it views and understands geopolitics

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan November 19, 2023
The author is postdoctoral scholar at the International Affairs Department of Kazan Federal University (KFU) Russia

It is in the nature of the dominant powers to make use of geopolitics, but somehow the Middle Eastern world of 21st century had forgotten this. The Arab nations and Israel cannot be blamed for this forgetfulness, as the real culprit is the US which has a history of how it views and understands geopolitics.

After the end of World War II, American scholars were defining geopolitics as intellectually fraudulent, as an ideological suspect and a concept that was tainted with Nazism and associated with state policies of genocide, racism, dominance and expansionism. If the US magazines preserved in the internet archive are accessed then it is easy to find anti-geopolitics articles published in US magazines like Readers Digest, Life and Newsweek. Geopolitics in that era was being referred in the US as an evil and thus everything was being done to create a public and political perspective against the concept of geopolitics. It is not difficult to perceive why the US was doing this. They had seen Germans seeking primacy in world politics through the application of this concept. The US never wanted another Germany or Japan, another imperial power to dominate the world so immediately after the defeat of Germans in World War I Americans pushed forward liberalism as a great antidote to geopolitics and hoped that it will encroach the global political space being dominated by many conflicting ideologies. Americans through President Woodrow Wilson were already taking about cooperation and not conflict, trade and not war, liberalism and not illiberalism, rights of the individuals, liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. That was a ‘moral world’ that the Americans dreamed of, achievable only if geopolitics was replaced by geoeconomics.

The Middle East is an ideal geographic space to determine how the American dream of replacing geoeconomics with geopolitics failed. Historically, US’s Middle Eastern policy at its core always had the objectives of not serving the interests of Middle Eastern countries but its own interests and the interests of its partners and allies. The 1979 Camp David Accord was a peaceful accord between Israel and Egypt but consequently Egypt was forced to change its alignment towards USSR and became a US client state and recipient of huge economic and military aid. Jordan had supported Saddam Hussain in the 1990-91 Gulf War and not until Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994 that it could come back to the US good books; and today the US is the largest provider of bilateral assistance to the country providing it more than $1.65 billion in assistance in year 2021. The Arab countries that are signatories of Abraham Accords were also promised American rewards. Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara was recognised; Sudan a state that was declared by the US that supported terrorism, this designation was uplifted and the UAE was promised huge military aid including the possibility of buying F-35 fighter jets. Saudi Arabia which was on the threshold of signing a peace treaty with Israel was being promised advanced arms sale such as THAADS (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Missile Systems), an article 5 like NATO security guarantee and an India like civil nuclear deal which would enable Saudi Arabia to carry out uranium enrichment.

What Americans kept offering the Arab countries were rewards for ending ideological conflicts but without putting out the fire of the core ideological and geopolitical fire that burnt in the Middle East in the shape of the unresolved dispute of Palestine. It was the biggest and the gravest geopolitical mistake that the US committed. And now although it remains a country with unlimited power, it has lost its credibility of turning this power into influence. The very idea of supporting the Arab countries’ ambitious economic projects without resolving the Palestinian problem was like putting the cart before the horse. Now geopolitics in the Middle East has returned to take its rightful place — right at the centre of Middle Eastern power politics where economic security and stability will only be possible if there will be political security and stability. All Arab countries that have benefited or were planning to benefit from American aid and rewards now see lots of risks in monogamous relationship both with the US and Israel.

After what the US and Israel have done to the Palestinian people why would Arab and Gulf countries block China from establishing a military base in the Gulf? Why would they limit the use of its Huawei technology? And why would they price their oil in dollars rather than in renminbi? China was already filling the geopolitical vacuum in the Middle East after the withdrawal of the US military from there. And in April 2023, Beijing had brokered a Saudi-Iran agreement for restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries after a seven-year rift. By coming back to the Middle East and deploying its aircraft carriers, the US thinks that it is now refilling the void that it left earlier but that is a wrong assumption as the void left in the Middle East after its withdrawal was not a military void but a diplomatic void left by its failed Middle Eastern policy. China, unlike the US, maintains no bases in the Middle East but it has come up as a power that Middle Eastern countries now trust and which has the ability to resolve disputes. The role it played in the Saudi-Iran rapprochement is a great example of this.

“Americans will support universal human rights and stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity.” This is a passage from President Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy. Yet what the US did on ground is quite opposite. The people of Gaza sought ‘freedom and dignity’ for decades and if the US had practised what it believed, there would have been no Oct 7 attack by Hamas on the Israelis and no consequent Israeli attack and invasion of Gaza. Today, the US doesn’t stand for defending universal human rights and the only people that it stands in solidarity with beyond its shores are its allies and its partners. The return of geopolitics to the Middle East is most likely to give birth to a new trend — the Arab countries may no longer seek American alignment as a counterweight to China’s and Russia’s encroachment in the region. The countries are most likely to take the economic and military opportunities from wherever they come; and in postwar Gaza, many opportunities may come from rest of the powers in the world, leading amongst them would be China and Russia.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2023.

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