Middle East Interests Shift From the West to Asia
As western influence wanes, Gulf countries look for a new guarantor
By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat
With Xi Jinping’s mid-December visit to Saudi Arabia, most of the analysis has focused on the Chinese side, especially on Beijing’s campaign to strengthen its foothold in the Middle East. However, little attention has been paid to how the recent visit also exemplifies the Middle East’s growing interest in Asia.
China is obviously the focus of this newfound interest, with Chinese technology flourishing across the Gulf region in the form of the Digital Silk Road exemplified by Huawei 5G communications – which the US has tried vainly to block – and BeiDou satellite navigation technology. The Gulf countries are “natural cooperative partners in China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative,” according to the China Institute of International Studies. China, with no natural fossil fuel domestic production, is an eager suitor.
Beyond that, the diversification of Middle Eastern foreign policy, which has for decades focused primarily on the US as its guarantor, into the East and Southeast Asian region is a manifestation of attention which is starting to be paid, particularly as trade matures between the regions. According to the independent think tank Asia House, trade is set to reach approximately US$578 billion by 2030, surpassing that with advanced economies by 2028, if current growth rates are maintained. China’s trade with Saudi Arabia alone stood at US$81.7 billion in 2021, exceeding Riyadh’s trade with the US, the UK, and the Euro Area combined (US$81.4 billion).
This “Pivot to Asia” policy, as it has come to be known, has raised concerns for the West. As a traditional partner, especially in political and security cooperation, the West is increasingly wary of its restive client states who are starting to look at strategic opportunities outside of their allies. For the Middle Eastern leaders themselves, organizations like Asean are a springboard to strengthen political, economic, and security relations. The region, with its sizeable Muslim population and its growing economic potential, is a natural magnet. Thus, a steady parade of officials to Asia from Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia has exemplified new Middle Eastern footholds, which previously had been neglected.
The deeper the engagement, the more estranged the Middle East is expected to become from potential political and economic partners in the West as the regional countries seek new trade and diplomatic arrangements. The Xi visit to Riyadh is only the most visible example. The Arab leadership is increasingly active in strengthening diplomatic representation in Asia and its member countries to enhance their position in international affairs and increase options for developing strategic partnerships.
The Middle East countries, shored up by fossil fuel revenues, have been undergoing massive economic growth. Large international business and finance centers have emerged as well as the region’s capacity for investment grows. They continue to push for ambitious development. Based on their economic visions, the Arab countries expect foreign investment to keep their projects going in the long term and sustainably, and investors from the Asian economies are also expected to be willing participants.
"Pivot to Asia," a catchy slogan purloined – maybe ironically – from former US President Barack Obama’s vain attempt to reorient the US’s foreign policy, is also one of the motivations for the Arab countries because of the continuing reduction in US military power.
“Proponents of a major reduction of forces (in the Middle East) argue that it is necessary because of growing competition with China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in Europe, a declining U.S. reliance on Gulf oil and gas, a reduced threat from terrorist groups, and a need to focus on diplomacy rather than military force,” according to Seth G. Jones and Seamus P. Daniels, in an analysis for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
There is thus an assumption that the US is beginning to let go of the region in which it is the main security partner. Its Middle East partners see that US military power is currently more focused on Asia to deal with China's growing power. Therefore, due to the uncertainty of US commitments, Arab leaders are taking the initiative to seek alternative partners, especially given that the US and its allies are no longer the only ones dominating the global order after growing China's presence.
China also cares little about the messy human rights concerns that Western powers seek to impose on Middle Eastern satrapies. Beijing cares little that there is convincing evidence that Saudi leader Mohamad Bin Salman was involved in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. US President Joe Biden has gone so far as to call the Saudi prince a “pariah.” This has seriously affected the closeness of the relationship between the two and may well have spurred the invitation to Xi to visit Riyadh.
The West, however, is not unaware of the shifting global situation and involvement in multilateral cooperation in Asian regional organizations such as ASEAN and indeed some of the Middle Eastern states continue to see it in their interest to maintain productive ties, particularly as the US, in particular, remains a guarantor of stability, with volatile political situations countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen and with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State continuing to exploit sectarian and ethnic tensions to gain support.
Although the influence of the West continues to wane as the Middle East states cultivate other ethnic, diplomatic, political, and economic interests, close relationships nonetheless continue to remain with, for example, the European Union, which recently launched a Joint Communication on “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf states” which aims to deepen and broaden cooperation.
In this partnership, the European Union is also committed to increasing its political and economic presence in the GCC and the wider MENA region. The European Union's commitment to the Middle East was announced in line with increasing Western concerns of the two as cooperation in the Middle East shifts to Asia, especially China. Whereas previously Europe was the largest trading partner of the Gulf, in 2020 total Gulf-China bilateral trade cooperation unseated it by US$161.4 billion.
The Middle East states’ interest in maintaining relations with Western treaty organizations such as NATO is based on mutual foreign policy benefit. However, cooperation with Asia is an attempt to equalize the perceived deficit of interest from Europe and the United States, especially in conditions of global crisis. Middle Eastern countries are likely to continue to forge relationships with Western and Asian nations to achieve the best outcome for their long-term security and economic interests. Nonetheless, the world’s long-term arrangements are beginning to shift.