last monday, After a weekend in which international diplomacy enabled the first aid convoy to enter Gaza and Hamas released its first hostages, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the self-proclaimed leader of the Arab world – had a message for the international community. He’s organized a summit and now he has an announcement: Saudi Arabia will host the world’s first Video Games World Cup. Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram account provided evidence of how bin Salman explained in a group chat how Saudi Arabia is helping the world move forward.
In a slightly more important scene, the war between Israel and Hamas, the biggest crisis the Middle East has seen in years, Saudi Arabia is conspicuous by its absence. The state is not alone in this. China hosted two-thirds of the world’s countries to attend an international summit at approximately the same time, but the words “Israel” and “Palestinians” were rarely uttered in conference halls, let alone Beijing seizing the opportunity to intervene in the conflict. Occasionally Russia makes a lukewarm appeal, but mostly it waits, just like other countries that say they support more of the world’s power centers – South Africa, India, Brazil.
It is a strange contrast to the urgency of the news coming out of Israel and Gaza every day, and to the global involvement in the conflict. It also contrasts with the activity of the United States, as the president sets his agenda for his second visit in a year to a country at war. That the United States is at the forefront of diplomacy is not because it sees more opportunities for success than other countries. However, they have a lot to lose from the potential transformations caused by the recent war in the Middle East. It is also their Middle East that is at stake.
Applies to the Middle East For decades it has been a test of great power, because of the instability in the region, the emotions it arouses, and the importance of the oil in the ground. The current US government has passed this test well, according to a recent self-assessment written by Jake Sullivan, a security advisor to President Joe Biden. On the morning Hamas fighters left Gaza, this self-assessment took the form of a magazine article foreign affairs, On its way to American readers. In his article, Sullivan stated, among other things, that “the Middle East is calmer than it has been in decades.” He said this was due to “principled American diplomacy” and “a disciplined approach that reduces the risk of new conflicts in the Middle East.” Sullivan praised his efforts to “calm the crises in Gaza” and announced a “new era” in the region.
The article was a major misstep, and an ode to how history proceeds by human events and decisions and not by laws. More importantly, Sullivan’s article makes clear which region of the Middle East the United States is trying to save. The Middle East today is a region where the United States has suffered three decades of failure. In the 1990s, the United States tried to bring the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to a successful conclusion. This collapsed after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After the turn of the twentieth century, the United States tried to forcefully establish a pro-American oil democracy in Iraq. More things than the peace process have gone wrong. After 2010, inconsistent support for the Arab Spring brought not new Democratic friends, as President Barack Obama had hoped, but suspicion and resentment among the same already authoritarian allies of the United States (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia).
The Trump administration has abandoned efforts to move the entire Middle East in the desired direction through an integrated plan and has instead tried to convince countries to make bilateral deals with Israel. This would automatically create a region centered on Israel and the United States, which would grow away from the laggards and losers. This has always been more popular with participating governments (including the UAE and Bahrain) than ‘the streets’. But the Biden administration went further, pushing Israel and Saudi Arabia together. Biden had to accept his personal alienation: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bin Salman both tried to influence him in the US elections (Netanyahu through religious voters and American Jews, and Bin Salman through high oil prices). So, there were no longer friends, but leaders for whom the status quo in the Middle East favored – and who wanted to build a “new era” together.
As with the vision set by the United States when it invaded Iraq, there was tension between this plan and reality. Some words in Jake Sullivan’s encouraging text – “calm” and “de-escalation” – already indicate where his Achilles heel is. The United States wanted to be the status quo power. They wanted to present themselves as the source and owner of peace, and thus made themselves vulnerable to disrupting it. This is where Iran, the leading force against the status quo in the region, undermines the plans drawn up in Washington.
Trita Parsi describes that there is a “fundamental strategic conflict” between the United States, Israel, and Iran The treacherous alliance: Secret deals of Israel, Iran and the United States Which each country presents as an “ideological clash.” In this conflict, Iran has made itself a sponsor – owner – of destabilization. The decisive moment was when the United States refused to give Iran a seat in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s. Iran saw that the success of the peace process would isolate it in the Middle East, and responded by communicating with Hamas. Although the two are religious opposites, Iran has emerged as the main sponsor of Hamas.
Iran has established and recruited pawns throughout the Middle East. If there are groups hostile to the positive balance in the region for the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, they can count on Iranian support. Such militias are capable of destabilizing the status quo, as Hamas has now done. Iran has similar allies in Lebanon (Hezbollah), in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Tehran calls it the “axis of resistance.” The United States can try to isolate, negotiate, or integrate Iran outside the Middle East, but Iran has impressive tools to subvert that.
Remaining completely neutral is not possible in the Middle East, and the recent war makes that clear
This chess game represents China It was set up perfectly. The country presents itself to the world as the calculating, non-ideological, non-violent party that has good relations with everyone. It is the opposite of the United States, which desires prosperity and development for all, and to achieve this goal it is working to form an alternative world order that transcends violent and unfair Western hegemony. In the Middle East, China is carefully trying not to find anything and not take responsibility for political problems.
Last summer, it became clear how China is automatically positioning itself as an alternative to the United States. Then, the two arch-enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, reached an opportunistic, fragile but so far stable agreement. They called on China to present itself as a “mediator,” although this was more an expression of distrust or hostility toward the United States than of China’s actual role. Silencing criticism of China’s brutal treatment of its Muslim minority also shows that the Middle East is happy to embrace China as an alternative power.
However, remaining completely neutral in the Middle East is not possible, and the recent war makes this clear. After the Hamas attack, China’s official response was an “appeal to all parties concerned for calm” – a laughably meaningless appeal that Israel interpreted as insulting. In the weeks that followed, China gave greater form to so-called “pro-Palestinian neutrality”: paying lip service to impartiality, but with clear sympathy for the Palestinian side. This is also where most of what China calls the “Global South” is located.
China’s Belt and Road Summit, an economic summit held in Beijing earlier this month, demonstrated the effectiveness of China’s stance. There was a lot of talk about cooperation and progress, none of the Middle East or Ukraine, and a lot of swipes at “countries that raise tensions” or do other evil things. Thus, China presents itself as the leader of an alternative space in the world (which also includes Russia): a space in which peace prevails and focuses on economic growth, respect, and equality.
By contrast, it is the space in which the United States sows the seeds of wars and rivalries, from Ukraine to the Middle East, and applies double standards when things go wrong. Washington can make all the objections it wants — about China’s role in Russia’s war, or about China’s diplomatic absence from school in the Middle East — but it would be foolish to ignore how this story has reached most of the world. China can let the Middle East get off track and blame the United States for the damage: You break it, you own it.
The same applies to Russia. Moscow’s geopolitical situation is a bit more complex than many people imagine: Russia is not a source of destabilization like Iran, which works to undermine the status quo by burdening everyone with problems. Vladimir Putin’s regime enjoys good relations with most Arab countries, as well as with Hamas, whose leaders visited Moscow last week. But Putin also had a good personal relationship with Netanyahu, a shared dislike of Biden, and secret agreements with Israel that seemed to be working out well.
Israel is the most pro-American country that does not provide military aid to Ukraine, while it has a lot to offer Kiev, and Zelensky has often asked for it. One explanation lies in Syria, where Israel has regularly launched air strikes on the Syrian army and pro-Iranian militias in recent years. Russia controls Syrian airspace with fighter jets and advanced air defences, but these appear to be miraculously ineffective against Israeli aircraft. It is no secret that there is an agreement under this – an agreement not to allow Syria to fall into the hands of jihadists or Iran.
Therefore, Putin appears to have doubts about how to respond to the Hamas attack. He first issued statements comparing the Chinese to nothingness. Now Moscow is also moving toward “pro-Palestinian neutrality,” but neither a fiery stance nor excessive diplomatic activity can be expected from Russia in the short term.
This leaves room for regional powers in the Middle East. Egypt and Qatar, which have overachieved for years, are active on the diplomatic front, while Turkey presents itself as the mouthpiece of the Islamic world. But for now it is the United States that is trying to draw and play cards, as the most powerful country in the world (and still is), while China and other players are ready to pick up whatever falls from their hands. The United States does not appear to have particularly strong power, but it has an important role to play: it cannot help but lose the status quo in the Middle East.
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