There is a new reality in the Persian Gulf, which we ignore at our peril: the ascendancy of China and Russia, happily taking advantage of America’s withdrawal from the Middle East.
The long awaited American pivot to China may well begin in the Gulf, as the Chinese Belt and Road initiative is a significant challenge to America for global economic influence and dominance, and is a threat to the longstanding US international order.
Just this week, it was reported that “Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as a partner in China’s massive Belt and Road initiative as Prince Mohammed signs a raft of deals.”
According to William C. Pacatte III writing in Defence 360, President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) “poses a significant long-term strategic threat to US interests… there is enough evidence to suggest that BRI is… more analogous to a neo-colonialist and imperialistic China, under the guise of an economic plan.”
Some claim that this is finally the time to extricate the US from the Persian Gulf, as it is now oil independent and the region is not vital to US national security interests anymore.
After speaking with US officials in the Gulf, I believe that when cooler heads prevail, those sitting 7,000 miles away in Washington will understand that America must stay engaged in the Gulf for our security interests by ensuring the continued stability of its Gulf allies, while securing the world’s energy supply. Instability in the energy supply chain could cause a profound economic reaction in the US economy.
The address for stability in the Middle East in not in Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad anymore: it is in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, with their out sized political as well as economic influence.
Chinese and Russian political and economic efforts in the region threaten to pull our Gulf friends, in spite of their sharing our most important interests against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, into the arms of our Chinese and Russian adversaries.
Last fall, I spoke to the point person for the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who led a bipartisan effort to pass the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, a direct response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which offers Asian and African countries loans and guarantees to slow down Chinese economic gains. Those senators should be credited with understanding the importance of counteracting Chinese entrenchment into vital zones of US influence.
Like their ways or not, the Saudi regime is the keystone of stability for the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and even Qatar. If we were to abandon US commitments which support that stability, there would be an upheaval destabilising the whole Middle East. To resist Iran’s ambitions, the US needs the cooperation of the Gulf States.
For the time being, China is interested in economic advantages, but you don’t need to look into the future to understand that their new naval base in Djibouti, near the vital Bab-el-Mandeb strait on the road to the Suez Canal, is the forerunner of their global ambitions, causing much concern for US military planners.
Russia for its part has been pursuing a strategy to create daylight between Saudi Arabia and the other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) members, undermining America’s interest in a strong GCC. Unfortunately the US initiative for a Gulf NATO has been a failure, with a watered down version of shared military exercises taking its place.
Visiting the region, one finds that the tension between the Gulf states and Iran is at an all time high, while Trump’s decision to leave Syria, despite later backtracking, confirmed to the Gulf nations that America is a fickle friend.
The conservative Gulf is a riddle in transition, especially after the 2019 break between Qatar and its fellow Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Oman and Kuwait, the other members of the GCC, would prefer reconciliation for their own interests, which the US administration would like to see.
Qatar is the one outlier, using its hosting of America’s Al Udeid Air Base as a hostage against being pushed by the US to distance itself from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the Qatar air station is an important but not an indispensable base. The UAE can build an equally vital base on its own dime that would force Qatar to choose sides, or be devoured by its Iranian and Salafist friends.
The Chinese are moving into the region, and this can be witnessed by the UAE literally rolling out the red carpet for the visit of Chinese President Xi. Xi’s absolute control of China makes dealing with him much easier for the authoritarian GCC nations, than having to deal with the messy US political scene. The same can be said of Russian relations with the Gulf.
China is already Iran’s number one trading partner, and has signed tens of billion of dollars in deals from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Oman. Russia has become the address for dealing with much of the Middle East and has relationships with every player.
None of this is in America’s interest, unless you are a Rand Paul isolationist.
The US must realise that the Gulf states are in a time of change, feeling more vulnerable due to the dangers of another Arab Winter, with the Muslim Brotherhood destabilising their regimes. Yet the US is still their preferred choice as a friend.
For the good news, the Gulf states are talking to the Israelis. These nations are traders, and they see Israel as a good partner, even now visiting Israel to scout out possibilities.
But in order for true change to occur, they must begin the hard process of changing the mindset of their citizens to begin a process of acceptance of the Jewish state. Small steps, like playing the Israeli national anthem at a Judo tournament in the Gulf, are a start.
Going forward, it is important for Congress to figure out how to influence Gulf state human rights abuses without destroying our vital relationship.
As a side benefit, this could also hold the key to improving Israel’s relationship with the Arab world, an important American interest, and forcing the next generation of Palestinians to choose economic advancement over their desire to destroy the Jewish state.