How competing interests created Middle East’s vortex of crises

DR. MOHAMMED AL-SULAMI December 13, 2021

Washington’s interference in the region has never solved the most integral, thorny issue: The Palestinian cause. (AFP)

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The Middle East has long been fiercely fought over by empires and superpowers due to its critical geopolitical location, unparalleled natural resources and status as a center for diverse ethnicities and faiths. The so-called Arab Spring led to the weakening or collapse of some Arab political systems and the eruption of chaos and conflicts, such as in Syria, Yemen and Libya. This security vacuum led to the proliferation of militias that serve the interests of some regional and global powers, which explains why we are witnessing heated and rapidly spiraling competition between regional and international actors, further exacerbating the Middle East’s vortex of crises.

The global powers have contributed to the current deteriorating conditions in the region. The US, as a global superpower, has wielded hegemonic control over Middle Eastern affairs for decades. This American hegemony was initially based on thwarting Soviet influence, but later shifted to fighting terrorism and maintaining its own regional interests. Washington’s interference in the region has never solved the most integral, thorny issue: The Palestinian cause.

Russia also views the Middle East as a vital sphere of influence as it aims to restore its former imperial power and influence, gain a bargaining chip against the US and other global powers, and open up a market for its arms. Moscow seeks to restructure the region in a way that serves its own interests. This is evident from its intense competition with the US in Syria, its support for Iran in the nuclear talks, its attempts to improve relations with Turkey, and its participation in the Saudi Arabia-led OPEC-plus deal to maintain its interests in the energy markets.

While China seems aligned with Russia in regional competition against the US, it does not pursue a military interventionist policy; instead, it is seeking to establish trade relations with the countries of the region, given its great need for energy supplies. China aims to make the region dependent on its exports and it wants to exploit its regional purchasing power and enhance and secure its massive Belt and Road Initiative, which stretches from East Asia to Europe via the Middle East.

To mitigate the intensity of the region’s conflicts, all parties should enhance their partnerships and avoid conflicts of interest

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Finally, the EU seeks to protect its interests by supporting Washington’s regional policies. This has been more evident with France than any other EU member states, with Paris working to gain a foothold in the Middle East by playing an active role in Lebanon and Iraq, while also aiming to forge close trade relations with a number of other countries, such as Iran. This is in addition to French opposition to Turkish policies on issues like Azerbaijan and Greece.

Regionally, meanwhile, Iran seeks to export its 1979 revolution and exploit the world’s diverted attention to strengthen its Middle Eastern interventions and enhance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Tehran’s insistence on pursuing its disruptive policies has led to catastrophic conditions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The global powers have contributed to this woeful situation by adopting a policy of appeasement and inaction toward Iran, even while using Tehran as a bargaining chip in their increasingly heated international competition. The recent assassination attempt on the Iraqi prime minister is another clear example of Iran’s interventionist policies and support of nonstate actors operating outside its borders in blatant violation of international law. 

In contrast, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states seek to play various positive roles to avoid any problems that could keep the region in an endless cycle of chaos and violence. The Gulf states have overcome many crises and managed to avoid becoming sucked into a quagmire that could make them dependent on external countries through adopting a moderate approach, enhancing strong political systems that protect human rights, and promoting the values of tolerance and coexistence. Through this moderate approach, the Gulf states seek to extend the hand of cooperation with neighbors and friendly countries everywhere to create mutually beneficial and strong relations.

The Gulf’s endeavors have been instrumental in maintaining stability in global energy markets and preserving the OPEC-plus deal through forging understandings with Russia without harming oil consumers or other oil producers. The Gulf states’ strong sense of responsibility and wish to be part of a healthy and stable international community helped stabilize oil markets. They have also made strong progress as a result of adopting positive social, economic, political and religious policies, as well as a conciliatory path in their foreign policies. The Gulf bloc aims to maintain good relations with regional countries based on mutual respect, nonintervention in the affairs of other countries and fostering unity rather than imposing their will on the region through creating and exploiting crises, as some regional countries do. 

Turkey faces many complex problems that impact its regional policies. It is geographically situated between two major rivals, Russia and the West. Its disputes with its European neighbors have prevented it from gaining full EU membership, while it has also failed to fully align with Russian policies. Economically, meanwhile, Ankara wants to secure its trade interests, which often conflict with the interests of other countries. As a result, Turkey has adopted an aggressive approach, entering a myriad of conflicts with regional countries. With the constant changes in its relationships with other states in response to rapidly changing developments, Turkey’s behavior has become a source of, rather than a remedy to, instability. 

To mitigate the intensity of the Middle East’s conflicts, regional and global powers should enhance partnerships and avoid conflicts of interest. International actors have a number of converging interests: Securing the flow of trade; countering terrorism and religious extremism; curbing the spread of nonconventional weapons; fighting human rights violations; addressing deteriorating humanitarian conditions; and stopping the influx of refugees. These interests could be better served by supporting allies who share their concerns about economic and international security.

Regional countries have different — and often diametrically opposed — perspectives on economic and international security when compared to global powers. This underlines the need for both regional and global powers to adopt policies that serve the region’s peoples, while protecting their rights and decreasing the number of conflicts that generate multiple crises. It is imperative that the global powers and international organizations that are involved in the region address the dangerously destabilizing actions committed outside the framework of international consensus and protect regional countries from being exploited or attacked.

• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulamiDisclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view


1 reply

  1. Some readers are wondering why we keep supporting the Palestinian cause when on the other hand the Palestinian Authority does not support the cause of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Ah well, it is just in our blood to support justice and equality, whether the love is returned or not. …

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