‘The Great Game” was once the name given to the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Afghanistan and the passage to India – and now it refers to the rivalry between America and China in the Middle East.
The Chinese initiative in normalizing relations between Tehran and Riyadh caught Israel at a time when public and political attention was focused on other matters; the judicial reform controversy and the escalation of Palestinian violence.
The US has been immersed in different economic and social crises; the consequences of foreign policy errors and miscalculations; the lack of a ground strategy over several administrations – especially in the Middle East – which is coming home to roost; and its deep involvement in the war in Ukraine.
Hence, it’s difficult not to reach the conclusion that whatever the practical results for Saudi Arabia, Iran itself, Israel and other countries in the region – for now, at least – China is the big winner. China has been successful both in the contest between it and the US in terms of the global order, and in terms of its direct interests in the region, which include a free-flowing supply of oil despite local wars and acts of terrorism. Its “Belt & Road” project and control of shipping routes in the region has been a concern for China, however.
China also perceives its increasing influence in this part of the world, as a way to offset America’s “pivot to the East”, a region that Beijing regards as its own front and backyard.
For Iran, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, and perhaps with other players in the Arab World, is a way to reinforce its geopolitical situation without having to renounce its nuclear goals and plans for hegemony in the Middle East. It also provides a chance for the country to improve its dire economic situation and to limit Israel’s enhanced standing in the region since the Abraham Accords.
As mentioned, the latest development caught the US unprepared, and the possible consequences of this have, once again, highlighted the problematic and sometimes contradictory nature of its understanding of the Middle East. At least in part, this derives from the traditional, conflicting perceptions in the US, of its role as the global policeman, and what it regards as its historic mission to spread democratic and liberal values in the world, values which are not naturally suited to the character of most Arab and Islamic states.
Minimal media coverage
THE FACT that coverage of the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia – and China’s role in it – was relegated fairly quickly to the back pages of American newspapers and disappeared almost completely from American news broadcasts, can be seen as a result of the ambivalence and inconsistency in the US approach to the Middle East. This is also evidenced by the intention of the Obama administration to promote stability in the region by making Saudi Arabia and Iran joint leaders of the entire Muslim world, reinforced by the proposed nuclear agreement with Tehran – all without considering the interests of other players in the region.
The Trump administration adopted a more uniform approach. Since they too believed that America must divert its principal strategic efforts toward the Far East, they strove to strengthen the links between Saudi Arabia and Israel. They also withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran and intensified sanctions against it, and backed the Netanyahu government’s successful move to promote Israel’s geopolitical aims in the broader Middle East.
The Biden administration, in contrast, tried to adopt two parallel courses simultaneously: A return to the Iranian nuclear agreement, while bolstering the American security presence in the region, among other things, because the war in Ukraine showed that Middle East oil and gas were not obsolescent after all.
Notwithstanding the main strategic “pivot to the Far East,” it decided to support its traditional allies against the Iranian threat – the large military exercise with Israel being a concrete expression of this, although the cooling of relations between Washington and Riyadh hindered this course of action.
A Middle Eastern official said: “The US is perceived as leaving the Middle East and China fills the void, China becomes the winner here.” This isn’t, however, as everyone in Washington sees it and as one source quoted in Politico noted: “The Biden administration, which has openly worried about China’s growing clout in the Middle East, has met this development with a shrug.”
In fact, the Obama approach seems to enjoy a second coming in certain quarters. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, who leads the Middle East Panel in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, thinks that “better relations between Riyadh and Tehran mean that there will be less conflict in the region.” Martin Indyk, America’s former ambassador to Israel, exulted it as a “win-win” for American interests. Another source close to the administration disingenuously added that the agreement reduced the threat of nuclear escalation and conflict in the region.
The above, of course, is either strategic blindness or wishful thinking – or both. Though Saudi Arabia joining the Shanghai Co-Operation Organization – a Chinese led regional security and trade club – may be mostly symbolic, and OPEC’s decision under Saudi leadership to cut oil output might have happened anyway, neither of these actions is positive for the US or justifies the wishful assessment that the latest development was a “win-win situation” for America.
The implications of the above for Israel are complicated, and call for a wide range of diplomatic and other steps. On the other hand, China, unlike Soviet Russia at the time, is not Israel’s enemy, to wit, it has economic and other interests in expanding ties with Israel (something which is also in Israel’s interests).
Bad news for Israel
CLEARLY, RELAXING the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran is bad news for Israel. Still, the new situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not predicated on the lessening of contact between Jerusalem and Riyadh. For instance, while Beijing was hosting the talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the latter was leaking to The Wall Street Journal that under certain conditions, it was open to moving forward on normalization with Israel.
The basic concerns of the Saudis regarding Iran’s intentions have not disappeared and security ties with Israel, even if secret for the moment, are part of its realization of this. Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to enlarge its circle of international relations to include, in addition to the US, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Arab world, China, and now Israel as well.
It also sees itself as playing a crucial role in the region, balancing Egypt, Iran, Israel and Turkey to protect its own security and wield regional influence. Moreover, by 2030 it is aiming to become a modern advanced economy not dependent solely on oil, as well as a center of culture and tourism. From this aspect too, it views Israel’s military and technological prowess as highly important.
Further, in spite of the cooler relations with America, Saudi Arabia is neither ready nor able to give up the American defensive shield, and it believes that Israel, as America’s ally, has a role in securing this.
This also suits Washington’s interest, and as former ambassador Martin Indyk recently wrote, the US sees Israel as an important element for assuring regional stability. Israel certainly doesn’t share Indyk’s view that the new situation reduces the threat of nuclear escalation, nor basically do most of its neighbors.
For this, a hopefully soon-to-occur meeting between the American and Israeli leaders in order to coordinate positions and moves, for both countries is a shared interest, and every effort must be made to ensure that Israel’s internal disputes do not negatively affect this.
As Biden has reiterated his opposition to a nuclear Iran, delaying the meeting, especially for the wrong reasons, does not serve either ally’s interests.
The writer, a former MK, served as the ambassador to the US from 1990-1993 and 1998-2000.