2023 Yearender: A reevaluation

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

The Israeli war on Gaza has prompted Russia, China, and the US to reassess their involvement in the region, reports Haitham Nouri

A reevaluation
A reevaluation

 

R

ussia withdrew from the Middle East over three decades ago, when the US-led international coalition attacked Iraq in the second 1990 Gulf War. Until recently, China had not asserted itself in this globally pivotal region, but it is currently trying to establish presence there.

Since 1990, Moscow had abstained from world conflicts — NATO’s 1999 strike on Serbia, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the 2003 war on Iraq, and the 2011 conflict in Libya — when, in September 2015, it intervened in Syria. Employing ground forces, warplanes, and naval fleets, Moscow’s decision gave rise to speculation about potential nuclear capabilities at their Khmeimim bases, although concrete evidence to support such claims remains elusive.

This intervention signalled Moscow’s desire to reassert its influence in the region. Agreements and interpersonal connections between Russian leaders and their counterparts in the Middle East underscored the narrative that “the Russians are coming.” However, the return was not accompanied by a revival of Marxist ideology; rather, it was marked by the deployment of weaponry, a surplus of agricultural production, and a legacy of enduring “infrastructural marvels” dating back to the 1950s, such as Egypt’s High Dam and its iron and steel works.

 

RUSSIA IN THE REGION: Since coming to power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been acting like a “secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party” in practice. He has cultivated alliances and fostered relationships with diligence, avoiding battles that might result in losses.

At present, the procurement of Russian weaponry by leaders in the Middle East, including Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan, has seen an upswing. Russian agricultural staples, such as wheat, corn, and cooking oil, have become nearly irreplaceable, and Russian-made pharmaceuticals have emerged prominently in the formulation of anti-coronavirus serums.

Russia has inked agreements to construct nuclear power plants in Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Algeria, and Iran, and negotiations are underway with Saudi Arabia. Extending its influence into the gas and oil sector, Moscow also collaborated with nine countries to coordinate with the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to create the OPEC+ alliance. The bloc orchestrates oil market policies, holding sway over more than 50 per cent of global production.

In the field of natural gas, Russia has harmonised efforts with allies Iran and Algeria, as well as Qatar, a nation maintaining favourable relations with Moscow. Expanding its involvement, Russia has sought observer status within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, established by Egypt and its regional neighbours in the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

ARAB SUPPORT: Despite Moscow’s heightened sensitivity to Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic State, Russia’s stance on the Palestinian cause stood as a notable exception.

Following Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, Moscow accused its longstanding adversary, the US, of bearing partial responsibility for the escalation of the crisis. This led Hamas to release a detainee of Russian-Israeli origin in “gratitude for Russia’s position on the Palestinian cause,” Hamas said during the week of the truce disrupted by Israeli forces.

This stance, recognised at a grassroots level in the Arab world even before its formal declaration, has engendered Middle Eastern empathy for Russia’s “special operation in Ukraine” over the past two years. The majority of Arab nations abstained from voting for the resolution condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. Syria even voted in favour of Russia. Collectively, these measures have drawn Russia closer to the region’s leaders and peoples.

 

BEIJING’S FOOTPRINT: China, for its part, began to integrate into the political and economic dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa in the past two decades. It is now an indispensable partner to several nations in the region. Its involvement primarily revolves around commodity trade, where it serves as a primary supplier of electronic and electrical goods and automobiles, and a significant importer of energy.

The Chinese footprint in the region is lacking in the field of infrastructure development. Unlike numerous African countries, where China has played a pivotal role in the construction of dams, ports, airports, railway lines, and utility networks, the Arab world has seen a very limited amount of such ventures. This is because a majority of Arab nations boast a reasonable infrastructure base, contrasting sharply with the deficiencies prevalent in the capitals of sub-Saharan Africa.

Nevertheless, China built the Merowe Dam in northern Sudan — a key contributor to the country’s power generation. Additionally, Chinese companies have expanded some Algerian ports.

China’s arms industry is still in its nascent stages. The Middle East, characterised by sizable, well-equipped military forces, has not been a significant market for Chinese arms. Nevertheless, China’s industries are facing threats in countries like Egypt and Algeria, where industrial fields are being modernised and expanded. Consequently, Beijing finds itself compelled to introduce innovative offerings that can solidify its relations with Arab nations.

Just like Russia, China convened a Sino-Arab summit, meant to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

INDEPENDENT EQUALS: Historically, Beijing has maintained a relatively low-profile in the geopolitical affairs of regions outside Asia, focusing on its domestic challenges while the US wielded influence through a network of allies there.

However, with President Xi Jinping taking office in 2012, a paradigm shift occurred. He launched the Belt and Road Initiative for which China has earmarked trillions of dollars. Concurrently, China adopted a more assertive stance concerning Taiwan, emphasising its determination to prevent any potential move towards independence.

The Belt and Road Initiative, an expansive infrastructure project encompassing ports, railways, and land routes, seeks to establish a comprehensive network connecting China to Europe, traversing numerous countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Despite its grand ambitions, the initiative has encountered considerable challenges. A notable impediment lies in the reluctance of certain nations to borrow from Chinese banks and financial institutions, driven by concerns about falling into the “Chinese debt trap,” as per Western parlance.

The Western media attributed the fall of the Rajapaksa family’s rule in Sri Lanka in mid-2022 and the severe budget deficit leading to rapid inflation to the “Chinese debt trap.” Sri Lanka had borrowed billions of dollars from China to construct a giant port as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, straining the national budget.

Criticism of the “Chinese debt trap” has reverberated through various international organisations and European countries, particularly focusing on its impact in Africa.

Former Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, in a meeting with the Chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki in Addis Ababa, rejected the Western notion of the “Chinese debt trap.” Qin said that China’s engagement with Africa is “not a trap but a mutually beneficial collaboration”. He acknowledged the active efforts of African countries in promoting economic and social development while highlighting the significant obstacles posed by the lack of funds to Africa’s prosperity and revitalisation.

According to the China Africa Initiative affiliated to Johns Hopkins University, as of 2020, the largest debtor countries to China include Angola ($25 billion), Ethiopia ($13.5 billion), Zambia ($7.4 billion), the Republic of Congo ($7.3 billion), and Sudan ($6.4 billion). Over the first two decades of this century, Beijing allocated more than $140 billion to various African countries.

Since the 1960s Chinese statements have indicated that China is cooperating with newly independent African countries on the basis of an “exchange of benefits” between independent equals that “don’t interfere in the internal affairs of other countries”.

On this basis, the groundbreaking Chinese project commenced in the mid-1970s, linking copper mines in landlocked Zambia to the port of Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania. Till present, this project is regarded as one of China’s largest in the continent.

 

INDISPENSABLE CHINA: Despite China’s diplomatic strides facilitating the “Saudi-Iranian reconciliation,” China has yet to attain the level of influence wielded by the US in the Middle East. Unlike Russia, China cannot meet the region’s demands for food or weaponry. Nonetheless, as a substantial consumer of oil, China assumes the role of an indispensable “political and economic customer.”

China’s allure lies not only in its strategic economic importance but also in the affordability of its products, which proves particularly attractive to the lower echelons of the middle class in the region. Despite the Western narrative surrounding Uighur Muslims, China’s historical alignment with the Palestinian cause contributes to its elevated popularity in the Arab world.

The Middle East resonates with support for Beijing’s position on Taiwan, reflecting an understanding of China’s approach in carefully weighing the risks and benefits of using force to reclaim Taiwan. In this context, parallels are drawn with the Arab world’s sentiments towards Palestine.

 

US INVOLVEMENT: The war on Gaza led Washington to increase its involvement in the Middle East. Israel’s need for “protection” became evident, even with extensive American support, including nuclear assistance, especially after one Israeli minister called for Israel to drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza.

This culminated in high-profile visits from top US officials, including the secretary of state, who visited the region four times since the war broke out, as well as top defence and intelligence officials.

Such heightened US presence has upstaged Moscow and Beijing, as Egypt and Qatar took the lead in brokering a truce. This involved the exchange of Israeli detainees held by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The US supported the Egyptian-Qatari efforts, but it was mainly a regional effort, reminiscent of Egyptian mediation that stopped the Israeli aggression against Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014.

The evolving dynamics in the Middle East are likely to prompt Russia and China to reassess their positions in the region. The critical challenges faced by each, with Russia in Europe and China in East Asia, will inevitably factor into such strategic considerations.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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