The Middle East has undergone a radical transformation since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Arab states have either been severely weakened or have collapsed; territorial boundaries are fragile and no longer impervious amid devastating, far-reaching transnational conflict. Regional actors, who have augmented their military capacity since the war on ISIS started, have reverted to old geopolitical rivalries and inter-state confrontations. Amid this regional contest, a reawakened and resurgent Russia has disrupted what was previously a US enforced and shaped regional security architecture. Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East also comes amid an increasingly assertive China. Its global ambitions to challenge the Western-led international order has manifested itself through the inroads Beijing has made into cash-poor Middle East countries through investment and reconstruction packages, within the ambit of its “One Belt One Road” vision. This paper analyses the multiple alliances and conflicts that underpin the region’s political and security challenges, looking at how these have enabled opportunity structures for alternative authorities on the ground but also at the international level. It explains how commercial interactions with the Middle East have allowed China to adopt a panoramic, comprehensive strategy for the region, one that has undermined Western influence. It argues this is because Beijing remains an untested power in a region that has a pressing need for Chinese capital inflows but one that has yet to fully comprehend the implications of forging a relationship of dependency on China. While the West has a legacy of conflict in the region and support for autocrats, the US and its European allies have also invested billions of dollars into the promotion of good governance and civil society. Despite resentment toward Western meddling in the region, the US and its allies have established themselves as pioneers of democratic norms and much of the region continue to associate these with the West. The same cannot, and most likely will not, be said about Russia and China in the coming years.
Paper produced in the framework of the IAI-FEPS project entitled “Europe and Iran in a fast-changing Middle East: Confidence-building measures, security dialogue and regional cooperation”.
1. The rise and decline of US influence
2. The breakdown of the old order
2.1 Russia’s moment?
2.2 China’s growing visibility