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  • Writer's pictureNawaf M. Al-Thani

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

The Future of ‘Great Power’ Dominance in the MENA Region

For several years but especially post the war in Ukraine, the Middle East and North African countries of the Arab world, better known as the MENA region, have seen the sands of the global order shift ever so slightly in a way that has not been seen in decades, with China attempting to bring the MENA even closer into its sphere of influence.

The main driving force behind China’s plans to expand its influence in the MENA region seems to be a profound sense of vulnerability, with an increased dependency on energy from the region, which provides 40% of China’s hydrocarbon-based energy.

Furthermore, while I do not think China’s military will be the primary tool it chooses to secure its interest in the region, I would not disregard it entirely either. After all, while Chinese kinetic military activities may not be an immediate concern, non-kinetic military activities have occurred in the past, especially with prominent US allies in the Gulf region like the UAE, something that has had concerns over the transfer of American Military technology and the dangers of “trade espionage.”

In addition, with the recent announcement of China’s defense budget increase and party and government rhetoric about security concerns over Taiwan, China’s “Defense” influence may advance even further, partly because of the current global security climate and partly because of a growing dependency on energy from the MENA region.

However, the main tools that China uses today, and will continue to do so in the immediate future, remain heavily reliant on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and other sub-initiatives like the Health Silk Road (HSR), and other bilateral initiatives, which already have had varied results and effects in the MENA, something that took a big hit during COVID-19 and the ensuing economic global turmoil.

Ultimately, it seems that the goal of China is not to see conflict, as much as can be avoided, and not to directly replace the US as the principal partner in the region, but instead, to make the United States more and more, through time, irrelevant.

Some subscribe to the view that China may want the US to incur the cost of maintaining its presence. While at the same time, China reaps the economic benefits, or so it may hope. After all, China today views itself in the MENA region as the US did in the interwar years between WW1 and WW2 as a nation that must acclimate to its distance and a rival presence in the region.

To help it achieve its goals and combat the “Debt Trap” narrative, China may argue that a U.S.-led rules-based international order is a new form of imperialism, a version 2.0 that may resonate from a historical perspective with many in the Arab World. A replacement, however, would be a new form of mercantilism, a bilateral-based government-to-government relationship.

This would be economically attractive, at least on the front end. Hence the driving of the imperialism 2.0 narrative, another point that China may view as appealing to the MENA, would be to communicate to the region that the Chinese approach to economic prosperity will be free from what some in the MENA region may view as the unadaptable Western style of “liberal democracy”; crippling environmental requirements. And would even be free from a fear of a Chinese desire to export its values and culture, something that could be attractive to MENA nations that, by and large, are non-democratic.

This latest development by China to successfully bring the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran closer than they have been in many years should be of note to the United States. While pursuing the effects of what the US calls “Great Power Competition” in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, the competition for the world’s richest reagin is already in full swing.

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  • Writer's pictureNawaf M. Al-Thani

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Caught Between A Rock, And World War III

ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System)

More than seven months after the Russian-Ukrainian war, the world faces a new reality, the official annexation of four regions of eastern Ukraine by the Russian Federation to be part of "Mother Russia." With great pomp and circumstance, President Putin announced the annexation in a ceremony held on the 30th of September at the Kremlin.

It is unclear at this time what Mr. Putin's end-state solution may be to his current woes following the ramifications of his invasion of Ukraine. Still, it's possibly going to be a hybrid solution where the West, namely the United States, convinces Ukraine to accept "the status quo" in exchange for some type of non-NATO defense pact, which the West hasn't yet committed to. Of course, this will require Ukraine to forgo its aspirations of joining NATO and enter into negotiations with Russia. Those negotiations however would not include issues about Ukraine's occupied - now annexed - regions.

Getting to that point, however, is the unknown or 'X' factor. Because, on the one hand, you have the West taking a page right out of the Cold War's history book by supporting the Ukrainians with advanced weaponry - like the NASAMS - that have had proven quite effective results on the battlefield, à la the Mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. However, on the other hand, we have Mr. Putin saber-rattling, threatening to use his nuclear arsenal and calling up 300,000 reservists in what seems to be an unwillingness to back down.

The continued Russian losses on the ground, as we have seen in Kharkiv and other places, won't be avoided by adding untrained and untested conscripts and certainly won't be helped -if and inevitably when- more advanced weapons are sent over from the West to aid in Russia's defeat. Systems like the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) would have a range of 300 km, that if deployed in Ukraine could hit targets inside Russia across its borders with great accuracy.

In the end, assuming that Ukrainian gains don't continue, Mr. Putin may contemplate doing one or both of the following. He may start by moving his tactical nuclear capabilities inside the now newly minted annexed regions of Ukraine, a thing that would escalate his threats and bring the world closer to actual - albeit limited - nuclear conflict. Another thing Mr. Putin could do is to advance his activities through intelligence operations, cyber warfare, and electronic warfare, targeting Western countries that have been supportive of the Ukrainian government to undermine and disrupt their economies, and critical infrastructure, or sow social and political discord.

On the diplomatic scene, as a permanent member of the security council, Russia could throw a wrench into the workings of the United Nations and its specialized agencies, affecting the decision-making process of the UN at the highest level. Finally, from an economic aspect, the Russian Federation may further explore, through its strategic partnership with China, ways of further developing the export of its energy to third-party customers but on a much larger scale. That, in turn, may affect the US economy by weakening the dollar, which has been the currency of record in the energy market, which is why most major global Energy (Oil and Natural Gas) producing countries have their currencies pegged to the 'Greenback'. However, a shift of that magnitude may have long-term and unknown implications for the US and other global economies.

It may be a bit early to see or even predict what will happen in Ukraine, and it is always an unwise bet to try and figure out what Mr. Putin is willing to do. What is clear, however, from what we see on the ground and what is occurring in the global economy, is that if things continue on the current trajectory, the West and their allies will find themselves, if not firmly, in a 'hot' war, then assuredly in a Cold one.

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