The China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Russia-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Syria gave a glimpse into how the shifting dynamics of global geopolitics are changing regional alignments. China and Russia need the Middle East on their side to be able to effectively challenge – and even reverse – the US-dominated system. The past few months have seen some success in this behalf, evident from the fact that many countries in the Middle East are no longer following the US dictates and that some are even challenging the US (Saudi), seeking concessions from it (Turkey), with countries like Iran already being in a perpetual tussle with Washington for many years. At the same time, whatever is happening in the Middle East is not simply an outcome of Chinese and Russian influence. A lot of it is, in fact, tied to the specific policies of specific countries and their own strategic (re)calculations responding to global politics. Although a lot of this is happening against the context of the shift towards multipolarity, the following developments do not necessarily have superpowers mediating between the relevant countries to chart new courses. Instead, they show how the region is remaking itself as a powerhouse in this multipolar world.
Consider, for instance, the recent embrace between Turkey’s Erdoğan and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman (M.B.S.). From Ankara being an ardent opponent of MBS in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to Ankara transferring the trial of the murder from Turkey to Saudi Arabia shows an overall parallel shift in the bilateral relations of both countries – a shift that is necessitated by both countries’ national interests. With wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria coming to an end and with the ‘Arab Spring’ fever now over, both Ankara and Riyadh have reasons to end the period of animosity – which defined the decade between 2010 and 2020 – and reshape their ties to match the new regional and global realities.
In the past decade, Turkey pursued an aggressive foreign policy that sought to establish Ankara as the leader of the Muslim world. But Turkey today is far from achieving this goal. Its economy is weak with a more than 60 percent inflation rate and its currency has lost its value many times over. At the same time, Turkey is under a lot of geopolitical pressure from countries in the East Mediterranean, and Ankara is also under pressure from the US and its NATO allies to facilitate Sweden’s NATO membership. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is diversifying its ties in the wake of its dwindling ties with the US. Its drive to increase its military capacity and develop an autonomous military approach is at the heart of its recent defence (drone) deals with Turkey. Mutual convenience is, therefore, bringing the two erstwhile political and ideological rivals closer.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey “expressed their determination” to enhance cooperation and coordination in defence and military industries, and to activate their agreements “in a way that serves and achieves the common interests of the two countries and contributes to achieving security and peace in the region and the world”, according to the joint statement issued on July 19.
At the same time, Turkey has also revamped its ties with the UAE. During Erdoğan’s recent visit, both states inked trade deals worth US$50 billion. Following Erdoğan’s Gul trips, Ankara announced that it expects US$10 billion in foreign investment from Gulf states, with further investments of up to US$30 billion expected over a longer period in Turkey’s energy, infrastructure and defence sectors.
With Saudi itself focused on completely rebranding itself from being the main advocate of Wahhabism throughout the world to becoming a modern centre of the Muslim world, with Islam itself taking a back seat, it is keen to drastically reduce its direct involvement in conflicts. This is most clearly evident in Yemen, where war and fighting have considerably receded (although Yemen is still far from peaceful). In this context, the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran did leave a crucial impact on the state of the war. At the same time, Saudi Arabia itself is making diplomatic advances towards the Houthi rebels. Although Riyadh is yet to find any meaningful success, there is no denying that Riyadh’s approach towards Yemen is changing and that it is keen to exit this conflict with dignity. There are two reasons for Riyadh to exit. First, US support is no longer available. Two, the war in Yemen is taking a heavy toll on its finances, and it is also a massive distraction for Riyadh’s super-intensive drive of mega infrastructural development to turn itself into a ‘new Dubai.’ War, development and modernisation are, as it stands, hard to coexist. Riyad understands that.
None of this is to suggest that the Middle East is emerging, or unifying, as a bloc on the lines of the European Union and/or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Middle East is far from it, yet the developments we have seen or will see – including increasing defence cooperation between countries like Saudi and Turkey – indicate a precise shift towards such a possibility in the future.
For such a bloc to emerge, regional faultlines must disappear. While these faultlines e.g., the ideological divide separating Turkey, Saudi, Iran, and Qatar, have not disappeared, these states have learned to bypass them to develop ties in mutually beneficial ways. This is precisely what European states did after the Second World War. For the Middle Eastern states, there is certainly an opportunity to do the same in the wake of the US exit from the region, the possibility of diversified alliances with superpowers, and the will to transform their own political economies away from dependence on oil.
Most importantly, the more the Middle East focuses on neutralising its internal faultlines and emerging as a region, the more it will reinforce the politics of a multipolar world. As it stands, its chances of emerging and surviving as a powerhouse are tied to this multipolar world. Within a US-dominated unipolar world, the Middle East will remain a junior player unable to influence regional and global politics to its advantage.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.