Recent developments in the Middle East, such as Iran’s President Raisi’s visit to Syria, Syria’s return to the Arab League, and China’s role as an interlocutor to facilitate the restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, have far-reaching implications for the region’s dynamics. These developments not only illustrate the evolving geopolitical landscape, but also highlight the growing power rivalry between the United States and China. In this commentary, I will try to analyze these events and their implications for the Middle East, examining China’s growing influence, Syrian reintegration, and the US response within the broader geopolitical context.
President Raisi’s Visit and Syria’s Strategic Importance:
Raisi’s visit to Syria after a long hiatus is a sign of deepening strategic cooperation between Iran and the Assad regime. The visit will remind countries that have normalized relations with Syria that Iran remains a major player and should not be sidelined. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran’s economy has been hit hard by international sanctions, but Iran has managed to allocate significant resources to support its regional allies. The visit challenges US isolationist policies in the region and coincides with the growing influence of China and Russia. Raisi’s visit aims to strengthen Iran’s position in post-war Syria and boost its ambitions in the region.
Syria’s Return to the Arab League:
Syria’s rejoining of the Arab League reflects a major shift in regional power relations. While some countries are seeking normalization with the Assad regime, Syria’s return shows that regional actors are taking a piecemeal approach based on their own interests. The participation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Arab League summit symbolizes this regional restructuring and the pursuit of self-interest by each country. Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League comes as the country is still grappling with the aftermath of a devastating civil war that has caused immeasurable human suffering and economic loss. According to the United Nations, the conflict has claimed more than half a million lives and displaced millions of Syrians. Syria’s return would pose a challenge for the United States, which opposes the Assad regime, further complicating an already complicated geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
China as an interlocutor and its growing influence:
China’s role as an interlocutor between Saudi Arabia and Iran has facilitated the restoration of diplomatic relations and highlights China’s growing influence in the Middle East. China’s pragmatic engagement, economic partnerships and diplomatic efforts make it an important intermediary in the region. Beyond its role in Saudi Arabia-Iran relations, China is aggressively expanding its economic presence, investing in infrastructure projects and forging partnerships in the Middle East. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, China-Arab states trade reached $319.295 billion in the first three quarters of 2022, up 35.28 percent year on year and close to the total of the whole year of 2021. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is gaining momentum and attracting countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. China’s diplomatic and economic engagement successes strengthen its position and challenge traditional US dominance in the region.
US reaction and great power competition:
The U.S. response to these developments must be understood in the context of intensifying great power competition between the United States and China. The Middle East has become a major battlefield as the two countries vie for influence and power. The US opposition to normalization in Syria and the Assad regime is part of a broader strategy to counter China’s growing influence and prevent China’s growing presence in the region. The United States has long viewed the Middle East as a key region because of its energy resources, geopolitical importance and the presence of key allies, according to the Congressional Research Service. But China’s growing presence and influence in the region is challenging America’s traditional dominance.
To counter China’s growing influence, the United States has pursued several strategies. One is to maintain a strong military presence in the region. As of 2023, about 50,000 US military personnel are stationed in the Middle East, with significant bases in countries such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. Additionally, the United States has conducted joint military exercises with regional allies to strengthen security cooperation and demonstrate its commitment to regional stability.
Economically, the United States has sought to strengthen ties with regional partners through trade agreements and investments. The United States is also a major donor of foreign direct investment (FDI) to the region, particularly in areas such as energy, infrastructure and technology.
Moreover, the United States makes diplomatic efforts to advance its interests and maintain its influence. This includes supporting regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and working with international organizations such as the United Nations to address regional challenges. The United States has also used sanctions as a means to pressure countries such as Iran and Syria to restrict economic activity and block destabilizing actions.
Despite these efforts, however, China’s economic strength and diplomatic strategy have allowed it to gain a foothold in the region. China has become a major trading partner for several Middle Eastern countries, with a significant proportion of bilateral trade. For example, trade between China and Saudi Arabia exceeded $78 billion in 2021, making China the largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia. China’s investment in the region, especially through the Belt and Road initiative, has also brought economic opportunities and infrastructure development to Middle Eastern countries. In response to China’s growing influence, the United States has sought to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the region. The United States attaches importance to security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and conducts joint military exercises and arms sales. The United States also supports regional initiatives such as the Abraham Accords aimed at promoting normalization between Israel and Arab states.
The changing dynamics in the Middle East, characterized by China’s growing role, Syria’s reintegration, and the US response, have significant implications for the region and beyond. China’s expanding influence, as demonstrated by its role as an interlocutor in facilitating the restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, challenges the traditional dominance of the United States. Syria’s return to the Arab League reflects a major shift in regional power relations and poses a challenge for the US, which opposes the Assad regime. These developments occur within the context of intensifying great power competition between the United States and China, with the Middle East serving as a critical battleground.
China’s pragmatic engagement, economic partnerships, and diplomatic efforts in the region have allowed it to strengthen its position and challenge the traditional US dominance. China’s growing economic presence, exemplified by the significant increase in China-Arab states trade, and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, attract countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the US has pursued strategies to counter China’s influence, including maintaining a strong military presence, strengthening economic ties, and engaging in diplomatic efforts. However, China’s economic strength and diplomatic strategy have enabled it to gain a foothold in the region, becoming a major trading partner for several Middle Eastern countries.
As the rivalry between the United States and China intensifies, the Middle East remains a crucial arena. The United States’ efforts to counter China’s growing influence and prevent its increasing presence in the region are part of a broader strategy. The US views the Middle East as significant due to its energy resources, geopolitical importance, and the presence of key allies. The US response includes maintaining a strong military presence, pursuing economic partnerships, employing diplomatic efforts, and utilizing sanctions to advance its interests and maintain influence.
In conclusion, the changing Middle East, characterized by China’s growing role, Syria’s reintegration, and the US response, presents a complex geopolitical landscape. China’s expanding influence challenges the traditional dominance of the United States, while Syria’s return reflects a reshuffling of power relations in the region. The great power competition between the United States and China unfolds in the Middle East, where both countries vie for influence and power. The management of these power relationships and the pursuit of national interests by diverse actors will play a crucial role in shaping the future stability of the region.
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