As the first article in this series concluded, the main objective of the states of the Arabian Peninsula is strategic autonomy. This means different things for their relations with the two powers that have the greatest bearing on their future: the US and China.
The states of the Arabian Peninsula recognise that their security is inextricably linked to the US in the foreseeable future. But for them, the old basis of that relationship – oil and gas in return for security – has run its course. They can now exercise their own forms of power on a large scale, and they now have substantial interests not only in their wider neighbourhood of the Gulf, the Levant, the Indian Ocean, and North Africa, but also in Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. They want the US to factor their interests into its own decision making processes.
These states are also among the most sophisticated observers of the US. For decades, they have invested heavily in being close to the most influential circles of US power. They understand that US politics have undergone a sea change over the past three decades, turning US foreign policy from being the product of strategic calculations by a select group of state institutions and vastly rich economic and financial circles into the product of an internal socio-political scene that is increasing fraught with acute divisions and influenced by variables indicative of dynamism as well as of decay.
As a result, they aim to alter the US calculations about them, even as they fully appreciate that this is likely to be a long process with uncertain outcomes. Given the centrality of the US to their security, it is a process that these states are compelled to undergo.
In their relations with China the dynamics are slightly different. The states of the Arabian Peninsula want to entrench the idea in China’s calculations that the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and North Africa should not be seen as theatres of contest with the US. They want China to internalise in its foreign policy strategy the idea that they have key interests in these regions and that they will not accept being the loser in any grand game over them. Their message to China is that in these regions we are also key players.
But given the relative novelty of their relationship with China and the fact that China is a relative newcomer to the region, these states are smartly showcasing to China what they have to offer – in their traditional and new energy capabilities, their investment reach that has a serious bearing on the global economy, and their new soft power. This showcasing is paramount in negotiating transactional relationships with China that these states hope will last for decades.
In attempting to forge a new relationship with the US and shaping the nascent relationship with China, they do not entertain illusions about old friendships or about being able seriously and consistently to influence the policies of the superpowers. Wise thinkers in the Peninsula fully recognise that there are many historical and cultural factors with both the US and China that will prevent these states from becoming true allies of either side.
They recognise that their relationships with the US and China are interlinked. Yet, they also strive to separate them, so that each is anchored on clear interests, rather than one relationship becoming subject to the dynamics of the other.
These relationships are not a beauty contest either. These states have learnt from mistakes in their relationship with the US, and before it with Britain, over the past seven decades. They recognise that the new facets and scale of their power are serious foundations for transactional relationships based on respect and anchored on long term objectives. They also recognise that their power does not endow them with the ability to manoeuvre the dangerous waters of a nascent confrontation between the superpowers.
There is agency and quite often assertiveness in the Arabian Peninsula states’ new thinking and way of operations. Their usage of their new powers is not merely aimed at stirring responses from the US and China. Instead, they have begun to extend their influence in the wider neighbourhood over the past decade, in order to secure key needs for themselves – from the value chains behind basic food staples to stability in areas they deem of importance to their national security.
Such policies have been conspicuous in the fight they have been carrying out over the past decade against socio-political forces that they deem highly dangerous to the prevailing political economy of their societies. Their influence has also been conspicuous in their attempts at diluting the geopolitical struggles in the wider neighbourhood.
These are all smart moves. A relatively stable region is of major value to the richest and most politically and economically powerful player in it, especially after that rich and powerful player has already doused many of the demons it saw on the horizon a decade ago and has steered the region towards a situation compatible with its interests.
Gaining serious influence in the neighbourhood give the states of the Arabian Peninsula geographic reach – which translates to access to different markets and industries – through which they can deploy their colossal cash flows, as well as entrench their new soft power in the realms of culture and entertainment.
The latter influence also bestows geo-strategic value. Being seen as a force for stability and economic development in the region and as rich, modern, and increasingly open societies in a region exhausted by civil wars, sociopolitical confrontations, recurring identity crises, poverty, and violence endows the states of the Arabian Peninsula with power and gravitas. The US and China have taken full notice of this, as have other important powers including India, Israel, and others.
With their new power, positioning, and smart ways of operations, these states have a decent chance of reinforcing their strategic autonomy. Yet, inherent in the dynamics that come with strategic autonomy there lurk serious vulnerabilities, as the next article in this series will show.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.