The Ukraine crisis and the middle east

The Ukraine crisis and the middle east

By Md. Muddassir Quamar

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has generated a frenzy of debates and discussions on various issues in international politics and global affairs. There are articulations that this might lead to a third world war if the domino effect creates alliances and blocs ready to engage in a military confrontation. At this point, it appears far-fetched as the US and NATO have signaled willingness to enter the war. Besides, there are questions about the international order. There are suggestions that Russia and China, along with other like-minded or fence-sitter countries, are set to challenge the post-Cold War US-dominated global order.

This assessment is premised on China’s economic rise, Russia’s resurgence in international politics, and a “perpetual decline” of the US and European powers.The US attempt to reduce its security commitments in the broader Middle East, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, has added to the latter understanding.But this posits the question of whether the US is a declining power or is it a case of it shifting the focus to the Indo-Pacific to contain China.

The premise that the US is on a “perpetual decline” in the Middle East is flawed. Even the idea that the US is no longer interested, willing, or able to dominate the regional order in the Middle East is questionable. The Middle East has indeed seen a resurgence of regional and external powers in the past decade who have been willing to defy and challenge the US-led order. But this may not necessarily be because the US is either a declining power or it is no longer able to maintain its regional dominance.

Unarguably, the US remains the only actor with a strong, sustainable, and a pan-Middle East military presence. Whether in the Persian Gulf where the US has bases or outposts in all the six GCC countries or in the Fertile Crescent where it has a presence in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Syria. Additionally, Israel, the strongest military in the region, is one of the closest strategic allies of the US in the world. Among the external powers which have any notable military presence in the region are European countries who are also allies of the US, although their foreign policy objectives might not be aligned with the US. But when it comes to regional conflicts or regional security architecture, they have historically supported and depended on the US. The same is true for Europe and the crisis in Ukraine is a manifestation of this transatlantic interdependence.

Nonetheless, other external and regional actors have notable military prowess or presence in the Middle East. Russia has become a major player in Syria and Libya through military involvements in the respective conflicts. It has also become proactive in other regional conflicts. Moscow is also a major actor in the international energy market and has developed partnerships with Gulf producers and exporters. China’s growing engagement in the Middle East has been formalized through the BRI and comprehensive strategic partnerships with major regional powers. Over the years, it has emerged as the foremost economic partner of the region. Beijing has also been expanding its maritime presence across the Persian Gulf and Western Indian Ocean. Iran and Turkey are two regional powers that have been proactively expanding their political and military footprints in the neighborhood with varying degrees of success.

Given their troubled relations with the US, Russia, China, Turkey and Iranhave in the past decade capitalized on the shifts in US foreign policy to entrench themselves in the Middle Eastern affairs. But this neither indicates a willingness nor capability to alter the US-led regional order, even in a hypothetical scenario of all of them coming together setting aside their differences and foreign policy divergences.

This brings us to the question of the reaction of the regional allies and foes of the US, especially the GCC countries, Israel, Iran, and Turkey, to the crisis in Ukraine and what it tells about the contours of regional and international order. The six GCC countries have not taken a unified position, rather they have responded based on their foreign policy interests and the current state of relations with the US. This is also a reflection of the inherent divergences among the GCC States so far as their foreign policy direction is concerned.

Among the GCC countries, Qatar and Kuwait have come out strongly against the Russian invasion and have expressed support for Ukraine. For Qatar, this is a way to strengthen its partnership with the US and project itself as the only regional actor which is capable of crisis management. The UAE has taken a position that reflects a continuation of its strategic hedging when it comes to relations with global powers. It, therefore, abstained in the UNSC voting against the Russian invasion to not antagonize Russia but then sided with the majority in UNGA to condemn the invasion. This was a calculated risk to be able to maintain relations with Russia while also underlining to the US its willingness to not automatically align with it. The same can be said about Saudi Arabia which has in recent years developed close partnerships with Russia and China without compromising relations with the US. Nonetheless, Riyadh’s position in Ukraine could also be interpreted as a result of the ongoing troubles in relations with Washington. Bahrain and Oman have maintained a degree of ambiguity in their response but are likely to remain close to Saudi and Emirati positions given their strong relations with them.

Iran, which opposed US regional “hegemony” too, has taken a position that does not entirely endorse the Russian action, although it recognizes the Russian security dilemmas to the presence of NATO in its neighborhood. Israel and Turkey are currently engaged in mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine but this is more a reflection of their bilateral relations with the two than an indication of shifts in the regional or international order.

The responses of the Middle Eastern countries underline that regional countries are increasingly becoming independent in their foreign policy objectives and choices. This reflects the changing nature of international politics, their bilateral relations with the US, and the shifting focus of the US away from the region. However, to deduce this as weakening of US alliances in the Middle East or writing it off as the dominant regional power should be done at its peril.

(The author is a Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis, New Delhi. The views are of the author and do not reflect the views of either MP-IDSA or the Government of India. He tweets: @MuddassirQuamar. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).


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