Winter 2022

The Middle East: Overriding Self Interest

Tom Rhodes

Turkey is not the only country in between” seeking to make a virtue of its freedom of manœuvre between blocs. The United States has lost much of its influence in Turkey but that is a familiar picture across the Middle East where, to some extent or another, Washington has become estranged from all the key actors.

The US is at odds with Iran, and now has strained relations with Saudi Arabia. Israel, traditionally the closest of allies, finds that differing calculations of national interest in respect of its dealings with Russia and China – and America’s domestic political polarisation – mean that ties are more complicated. Egypt is less deferential to the United States than it has been for decades. 

Meanwhile the United Arab Emirates under the leadership of Mohammed bin Zayed has emerged as the premier practitioner of naked self-interest. His dealings with the US administration are entirely transactional. Over time, he has made it clear to the Americans, for example, that while he might like to buy US fighters from the US, he would also be perfectly happy to shop for such technologies in China.

Most countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, have been trying to dilute what they now believe has been an excessive reliance on the United States, and have reached out to China, India, and Russia. They have no wish to lose their established connections to America but no longer feel any necessity to take sides. 

Washington’s efforts to build a united front against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine were rebuffed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have both sought to maintain links with Moscow. The UAE abstained on a UN Security Council vote condemning Russia’s invasion, while Saudi Arabia has rebuffed US entreaties to increase oil production to keep domestic oil prices down in lieu of banned Russian oil imports. Most recently, MBZ and Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the Saudi Crown Prince led mediation that secured the release of US basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia. 

The success of the mediation efforts highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties,” the leaders said in a joint statement. Saudi Arabia had scored an earlier diplomatic victory in September by securing freedom for foreign fighters captured in Ukraine, at a time of tension between Riyadh and Washington.

Their mediation reflects efforts to show their ties with Russia are of benefit to Washington but also that they are players in their own right. It is the same position that they, and others in the region, have adopted over China.

None has wanted to be forced to choose between China and the US, but they have reacted poorly to continuing American insistence that they curb relations with Beijing – not least as Washington offers no compensation or incentives to do so.

For its part, China offers an easier trade off. In the past, the Chinese had not prioritised relations with countries in the Middle East. This was equally the case for the Gulf Arab states and Iran that each saw China as a low priority. Over recent decades, however, this has altered dramatically. 

One-third of China’s energy imports are from the GCC, with the largest portion from Saudi Arabia. Chinese companies buy one-sixth of GCC oil exports, one-fifth of Iran’s, and half of Iraq’s. China has become the region’s largest trading partner and foreign investor. 

Xi Xinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia before Christmas, and the expected strategic agreement reached between the two countries, is the culmination of those decades of cooperation, once based on oil sales, which has grown into bilateral trade that amounts to almost $90bn a year.

The US must look on in horror as the states of the region appear to want more, not less Chinese engagement. As China takes a lead in global technological innovation, it has become a significant collaborator and customer for Israel’s high-tech companies and a partner in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to develop a domestic armaments industry. Seventeen Arab states have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China does not ask countries in the region to change their political systems and values, punish them for failing to do so, or demand exclusive relationships with them. It does not make their stance on the behaviour of third countries – like Russia in Ukraine – a touchstone for good relations.

China’s Gulf partners find Beijing’s state capitalism and deep pockets appealing. And they see China and its BRI as a potential contributor to Vision 2030 and other economic development plans.

No country in the region views growing tensions between the United States and China as in its interest. Instead, they see an obstacle to progress. For the time being, in different ways, each country is likely to make choices between the two powers based on self-interest. 

The fear in Washington, however, must be that Beijing might expand its objectives to include the reduction of American influence on the region’s governments – and then the choice for those in the Middle East will become even starker than it is today.

Tom Rhodes is Chief Operating Officer of Montrose Associates and a former Washington Correspondent for The Times