The Middle East and the international system

Ali Eldin Hilal
Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

The Middle East has long played a pivotal role in the international system, something that has been on display during the present crisis in the region.


There is a profound correlation between the unfolding developments in the Arab region and the Middle East and the transformations that are taking place in the international system.

It is no exaggeration to say that our region has played a pivotal role in altering the dynamics of global power on multiple occasions. The Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956 expedited the rise of the US to global preeminence and marked the decline of the influence of Britain and France, for example.

The confrontation between Washington and Moscow during the 1967 War led to the adoption of a conciliatory policy between the two nations. The aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union signalled the birth of a new global order, as proclaimed by US president George H W Bush in the early 1990s.

It is crucial to reflect on these precedents as we observe the actions of the major powers in the aftermath of the Hamas operation against Israel on 7 October. The Israeli response over the last few months, as well as how the major powers have navigated their interests and positions, reveals a strategic landscape in flux.

The US seized the opportunity to assert its military and political role in the region, from deploying warships and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean to giving full support to Israel. This has extended to numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and targeted attacks on bases used by militias hostile to the US in Iraq. The US has also declared the formation of an international coalition to ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab Strait.

Washington’s message is clear: it remains the predominant force in the region and one capable of using its military capabilities in various locations, obstructing any UN Security Council resolutions it disagrees with, and actively engaging in diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts. All this is part of a US attempt to compensate for the erosion of its international stature after it abandoned its allies and withdrew from Afghanistan after two decades in 2022, ultimately handing power to the Taliban.

The image of the US was further tarnished by its inability to secure a strategic victory against Russia by supporting its ally Ukraine in the counteroffensive of 2023. Meanwhile, the war in Gaza has provided Russia with an opportunity to expand its military operations in Ukraine, as global attention has shifted away from the Eastern European theatre.

The war has also presented a chance for Moscow to criticise Washington and hold it accountable for the unfolding events. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on 31 October that the West bears responsibility for the crisis in the Middle East and accused Washington of seeking to sow chaos in the region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 18 January that the US should abandon its double standards and work with partners to break its unilateral dominance of any Middle East settlement. Russia affirmed its full support for Palestinian rights and the Arab stance, while highlighting positive and evolving relationships with the Arab nations.

Putin’s brief visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE on 6 December and his participation via Zoom on 23 January in laying the foundations for the fourth reactor at the Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt were manifestations of Russia’s efforts to counterbalance Washington and improve its image in the countries of the Global South.

The most thought-provoking stance comes from China, which has adopted a cautious approach despite the threats posed to its interests by the repercussions of the Gaza war. The Houthi strikes have also disrupted navigation in the Red Sea and led to increased transportation costs and delays in supply chains for China.

China, despite being the top trade partner for most Arab countries, has chosen not to engage or become entangled in either conflict. This is noteworthy, considering its successful mediation between Riyadh and Tehran in March 2023 and the appointment of a Chinese special envoy to monitor the situation in the Middle East.

At a deeper level, the events in the Middle East pose a challenge to China’s ability to protect its international trade routes and address potential threats to its Belt and Road Initiative. But China’s commitment to non-interference in the affairs of other states is distinct from its reluctance to respond to dangers that threaten its vital interests. Its caution was evident in its abstention from using its veto against a UN Security Council resolution condemning Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

The Chinese-Egyptian statement on 14 January supported the Arab positions on the Palestinian issue, but refrained from mentioning Israel, even when addressing the end of the occupation, thus showcasing a nuanced Chinese stance.

The policies of the major powers align with their broader strategic objectives: the US seeks to maintain its prominent position in the international system; Russia aims to end unipolar dominance and move towards a multipolar world; and China prioritises economic growth and expanding trade relations while avoiding political conflicts. China also supports its alliance with Russia to alter the international system.

The question that arises is how the repercussions of the events in the Middle East will alter the balance among these three nations and subsequently reshape the international system.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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