By repeatedly targeting the Houthis in Yemen and pushing for an escalation in the Red Sea, the US is jumping into the Middle East with a military and strategic mindset. The objective is to create space for Washington – and its global allies – to push back against the recent gains, i.e., normalization between Iran and Saudi and Arab normalization with Syria more than a decade after the start of the so-called “Arab Spring”, that Russia and China have made. A wider war in the region will, in the US calculation at least, re-politicize regional fault lines that might allow Washington to reverse the larger normalization process. Considering the high stakes Washington has in developing a wider war in the region, it makes sense for both Russia and China, who largely have similar interests vis-à-vis normalization processes within the Middle East, to develop a joint approach.
In October, soon after Israel launched its brutal war after the October 7 attacks by Hamas and much before the US started doing its own strikes, Russia, anticipating a deeper US military involvement in the Middle East, confirmed that it was already coordinating its Middle East policy with China. This coordination, on the other hand, is also an outcome of the recent state of Russia-China bilateral ties, which, in the words of the Russian foreign minister, are in the best state in the “centuries-old history”.
This coordination also has its roots in the ways that the Arab world itself has come to see its ties with the US on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. For instance, some recent surveys have shown that an increasing number of people across most Arab states view Russia and China as crucial economic players above all. The core reasons for this favourable view are twofold. First, many Arab societies today view the US as no longer a reliable partner. Second, they view Russia and China not from a revisionist perspective, i.e., as states deepening their involvement in the region to replace the US. Rather, Russia and China continue to emphasize the Middle East as a region that can play an autonomous role, i.e., a role not tied to, or disproportionately overshadowed by, any superpower’s interests.
The fact that Russia and China both see the Middle East from this perspective, their calculation sees the Middle East as a vital region that can really push for shifting the center of the present world order away from the West to creating multiple power centres within a multipolar world order. Therefore, developing a joint policy and indirectly protecting the Middle East from slipping too much under the US radar makes sense for both Moscow and Beijing. Were the Middle East to relapse to being a US vassal region, it would make it extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Russia and China to realize their ambitions for a new world order.
Now, for both Russia and China, keeping the Middle East – which is already on the verge of a wider war – as a center of power, they must project their ties beyond the Gaza war. Of course, Israel’s war on Gaza is the most important issue today, and both Russia and China have adopted and emphasized a pro-Arab/pro-Palestine position. But Russia and China are also taking steps to not allow their ties with the region to be bogged down by this one issue.
China and Russia, as we know it, already have deep economic ties with the Middle East. Both, as we know, remain focused on maintaining and expanding these ties despite the ongoing conflicts. Putin’s recent visit to the Middle East was not simply provoked by the Gaza crisis, nor was this war the sole subject of his discussions with Arab leaders. In fact, a lot of discussion was around the core issue of a multipolar world order. Putin emphasized how the conflict in the Middle East is a US failure, a failure that makes it imperative for the Middle East to not only distance itself from Washington but also adopt a more autonomous role to, among other things, resolve the issue through its initiatives. But beyond this, Putin emphasised that “The UAE is Russia’s main trading partner in the Arab world.”
For China as well, this logic of relationship beyond and above the Palestine issue remains prominent. While Beijing has openly supported the Arab state’s current stance on the issue, its ongoing engagement with this region remains predominantly underpinned by the logic of trade and development, building a relationship that helps the Middle East transform into a powerhouse that can ultimately help China and Russia tackle the hegemony of the West. (That’s why both China and Russia recently adopted new members into BRICS, including those from the Middle East.)
At the same time, China has taken steps to use the scenario, like Russia, to step up itself as a global power that can help mediate regional conflicts. In November, China announced its five-point peace plan that placed heavy emphasis on the United Nations, calling for the implementation of all relevant UN resolutions on the conflict and an international conference organized by the world body that leads to a two-state solution, all overseen by the Security Council. While nothing concrete followed this plan, it served China’s purpose of projecting itself as a power different from the West on the one hand and very close to the Arab world on the other.
For Washington, which has been hoping for differences to emerge between Russia and China taking them back to the era of rivalry, this situation is frustrating, making it extremely difficult for it to not lose ground in the Middle East specifically and across the Global South more generally. But its continuing support for Israel’s war machine and its continuing push for NATO’s expansion is doing exactly the opposite of what the US is trying to prevent, i.e., its global decline and the related rise of Russia and China.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”