Middle Eastern geopolitics IV ­­— outside powers

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

Tarek Osman continues his series on Middle Eastern geopolitics by looking at US, Russian, and Chinese policies in the region



our major powers from outside the region have interests in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The most powerful is the US. Since the early days of its entry into Middle Eastern geopolitics during World War II, US policy in the region has been driven by two conflicting factors.

The first is romanticism. From the observations of US president Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century to the writings of his grandson Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s most interesting operations manager in the region in the period after World War II, the US looked at the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and North Africa with a combination of admiration for the region’s history, appreciation of its civilisational heritage, and respect that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American elite at that time had for the traces of chivalry it saw in Arab culture.

However, imperial prerogatives later clashed with romanticism. The US came to the Middle East in the late 1940s at a time of unrivalled military and economic might and when it saw itself as the culmination of human achievement. The same US elite – drawn from New England’s strict, hardworking, and often pious culture – that had earlier romanticised the Arabs now demanded that they acquiesce in America’s view of itself as destined to rule the world.

Some Arabs played up to the romanticism and situated themselves within the new Pax Americana, in return exacting benefits for themselves and their countries. Others, however, saw the US entry into the Middle East as a new form of imperialism that they were not willing to succumb to, especially after having fought the old European colonialism.

History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. The US today is vastly different from what it was in the mid-20th century. After seven decades of extensive engagement in the Middle East, US romanticism about the region has been replaced by realism and often cynicism.

However, its strategic imperatives have not changed much over the past seven decades.  Oil and gas remain of crucial importance to the world economy. The Suez Canal and the Hormuz Strait remain central to world trade. The US commitment to the security of Israel remains a pillar of its Middle East policy.

As the US begins its strategic confrontation with China, it expects many of its decades-long partners in the region to side with it. In the US view, those partners will want a future that they are familiar with in a world order that the US has sustained over the past seven decades, as opposed to an uncertain future influenced by an expanding China.

As was the case seven decades ago, some Arabs today are playing along with this idea, while others are bent on challenging the Pax Americana. Some are slowly orienting themselves to the new Chinese-led order that they expect to emerge soon.  

However, China seems hesitant about entering the fraught landscape of Middle Eastern geopolitics. On the one hand, its primary geopolitical priorities are in its immediate neighbourhood of the East and South China seas. It is there that China’s resolve as a rising superpower will likely be tested against US might. China might well calculate that the Middle East is far from being a priority in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, most of China’s energy comes from the Gulf. China sees Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran as countries with which it has been developing intricate interests. China clearly seeks a political role in the region, as demonstrated by its heavy involvement last year in helping to broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

China sees the world in terms of circles of receding importance as they get further and further away from Beijing. The Middle East is not in China’s first circle of importance, but it is at the edge of the second whose perimeter extends from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. This is an important circle for China, not only because it is rich in the energy that China depends on for economic growth, but also because India, a country China observes closely, has for decades been expanding in it.

Then there are the glories of history, an important part of the narrative surrounding the rise of China. In this narrative, China’s navy during the Ming Dynasty had connected the Middle Kingdom with the entirety of Asia and with Africa’s eastern coast. China’s growing presence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean resonates with this history for the Chinese psyche. It was not a coincidence that China’s first military base abroad was in Djibouti at the intersection between Asia and Africa.  

Nevertheless, China understands that entering the Middle East entails serious costs. It has observed how the US has incurred extensive costs in Middle Eastern entanglements for limited, and often ephemeral, gains.

Russia’s approach in the Middle East has elements of those of the US and China. Like the US, Russia has a long history in the region. However, unlike the US, it has tried over the past 15 years to concentrate its presence in the region in those countries where it has seen opportunities for short-term economic and long-term strategic gains.  

Like China, however, Russia has mixed calculations, especially when it comes to the states of the Arabian Peninsula. On the one hand, Russia has managed to effectively entrench itself in the OPEC oil cartel, in the process becoming an economic partner of Saudi Arabia. It has also built a strong presence in the glamorous Gulf cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Added to that, it has proven that it can be a decisive player in conflicts at the heart of the Arab world. This has given it valuable currency in Middle Eastern geopolitics.  

But Russia has its hands full. The war on Ukraine has resulted in acute costs, and whereas China is arguably on the verge of becoming a peer competitor to the US, Russia understands that it is far from warranting such a designation. In these circumstances, Russia will need to think carefully before further extending its reach in the Middle East.

The last major outside power to consider is the European Union. Unlike the US, China, and Russia, the EU cannot realistically project military power in the Middle East. For some observers, this is a European vulnerability, especially since Europe is far more exposed than any of the other major powers to the consequences of Middle Eastern geopolitics. The EU’s limited means exposes the gulf between its grand rhetoric and its actual capabilities.

However, Europe still commands important forms of power. The EU is the biggest export market for most Middle Eastern countries, a highly affluent investor in the region, and one of the most important development partners across the Levant and North Africa. Many in the Middle East look to Europe as the epitome of refined human living in modern society. This positioning in the imagination can be a tremendous source of soft power if wielded wisely.

The problem is that when it comes to the Middle East Europe does not have clear aims. For decades after the tensions of colonialism had faded, Europe was drawn to its southern neighbourhood by the weight of centuries of shared history, the necessities of export-oriented trading nations, and by the understanding, prevalent among the fathers of the EU, that the foundations of Europe as a socio-political project lie not only in the history of the landmass extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, but also in the history of the Mediterranean Basin.

Things are different today. Major sections of Europe’s population see the beautiful continent as a garden that should be protected against the enemies of mediaeval times and the colonies of the recent past, which they see as the barbarians at the gates today. Amidst the old wisdom of the founding fathers of the European project and the current fears of these rich societies, there are ominous winds of a world that is changing at a disorienting pace. Europe looks at its southern shores on the Mediterranean with apprehension.

As this series of articles has tried to demonstrate, Middle Eastern geopolitics is now a function of interactions between non-state actors, Arab and non-Arab states in the region, and powers from outside it. These differ not only in their objectives and the challenges they confront, but also and perhaps more importantly in the conclusions that they have drawn from their experiences in the recent past.

Amidst vastly different perspectives, desired ends, and conceptions of what truth and goodness are, Middle Eastern geopolitics might remain devoid of peace, order, and, for many, of meaning for a prolonged period.


The writer is 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 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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