“Strategic Rivalries in the Middle East: Risks and Opportunities in New Security Dynamics”

By: Sayed Ghoneim; Chairman, Institute for Global Security & Defense Affairs (IGSDA)

Ghoneim’s strategic paper of his lecture given in the U.S. Central Command HQ in MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa (FL) on Wednesday, 16th of October 2019.

Introduction

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 till the start of so-called “The Arab spring” in 2011, the regional power dynamics of the Middle East were relatively stable, and US was the sole and dominant external power. Today, a combination of the upheavals, revolutions, and civil wars in the region, U.S. war fatigue and the return of major power competition have dramatically transformed the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The US and Russia try to formulate the regional resolution for the ME. On the other hand, although China is not currently playing a major role in the regional affairs of the ME, it seems, specially, after US-Iran crisis, that it’s coming as a strong player in the ME, building its economic and diplomatic relations throughout the region and is preparing to be more influential in the future.

The role of the European Union (EU) in the region has been relatively reduced and its focus has been shifted to prevent the risk of conflict in some ME and North Africa countries of illegal immigration, terrorism and transnational crimes. Some EU countries are seeking to impose a greater role in the near future, particularly the United Kingdom and France.

But six other players must be considered: the two regional powers (Iran and Turkey) and four other countries who also strongly try to contribute to the formulation of the regional resolution for the ME as well as other regions on one hand. Out of these four countries we can find Israel which is a small state who owns some huge national powers and permanently supported by the US; thus, some considers it a regional power. Then, three rich Arabian countries who depend on their resources and financial capabilities; Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) which is an actor medium power, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is considered an Actor Small State and Qatar which is known as an actor microstate; Although they’re not considered regional powers, they try to form the regional order as they have big interests in the ME, Africa and other regions. Their rivalries have expanded to several regions, such as; Horn of Africa, North Africa, Sahel and Sahara, Central Asia and the Balkans.

Egypt has specific roles in Libya and the Palestinian Cause and tries to expand its role in several parts in Africa.

To compare the recent economic status among Egypt, KSA, Israel, Iran and Turkey, please follow the link: https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/iran/egypt

These all foresee more instability in the region, the reason is the current lack of management of influence occurred as a result of the complicated rivalries among the playing actors using unbalanced powers.

Outlines:

  • Major and regional powers’ strategies;
  • Rivalries in the ME;
  • Possible risks and opportunities in the ME in new security dynamics;
  • Strategic recommendations;

Major and regional powers’ strategies;

After launching the Arab Spring revolutions, chaos spread in the Middle East, which led to new strategies being launched by all playing powers in the region.

In 2011 Barack Obama, the President of the US and his administration put amendments to the 2010 strategy, and then drafted an additional National Security Strategy in March 2015 (the Strategic Patience). In December 2017, Donald Trump, the 45th President of the US and his administration declared the 2017 US National Security Strategy (America First), turning very strongly to more on the ground.

Dmitry Medvedev, the previous president of Russia had drafted the Russian national security strategy (2009-2020), until Vladimir Putin became the president who drafted the amendment of the strategy issued on end of 2015; however, it was in effect starting from his Day One as the President of Russia in 2012.

Concerning China, it’s not possible to find a recent declared national security strategy; however; the American corporation “RAND” and other think-tanks have developed what they call ‘Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy’.

Regionally, in 2014, Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister at that time, declared his national security strategy so-called ‘New Turkey 2023’, in an attempt to convey through the mechanisms of Turkey into the top ranks internationally.

Israel has its own clear and specific long-term strategy supporting the concept of “State of Greater Israel”; however, short-term and mid-term strategies of Israel were clearly declared in the lecture titled ‘An Inside Look at Israeli National Security Strategy’ given by Moshe Yaalon (Bogy) on 19th of September 2016 in the Institute of Washington, the ex-Military Intelligence Chief, the ex-Chief of Army Staff and the ex-Minister of Defense of Israel.

In November 2003, Iran officially issued the “Islamic Republic of Iran Strategy for the Year 2025”; then in 2014, after Arab Spring, it has issued (but not officially) the 2036 strategy.

For more details about these strategies and initiatives having my personal views you may go through the next annexes:

  • Major Powers’ Strategies in the ME (Annex A)
  • ME Regional Powers’ Strategies (Annex B)
  • Strategic Initiatives in the ME and Africa of the US and China (Annex C)

Rivalries in the ME;

Major power’s rivalries

The US;

The US government funds the Shale oil exploitation. It gives US some independency but it’s not economically sustainable, I think that most of shale oil producers are losing money. So, President Trump wants to have a low-cost oil for his national industry, to lower the gain of Russia and to paralyze the shale oil production of Canada, but this will also kill his own shale oil production. Regular oil remains the key strategy of the world. What’s happening in the ME is affecting any country in the world, directly or indirectly even if a country is not importing oil from the ME. ME Oil is mainly exported to the East which is the “main factory of the world”. If the East is paying more its oil, all the manufactured products will be more expansive. Oil market is dynamic and global.

US works to maintain the advantage of selling oil only in US dollars and energy security for the US and for its Eastern and Western allies are two of the main reasons of the US (the non OPEC member state) presence in the Middle East; on the other hand, the US seeks to control the oil prices in front of Russia (the OPEC member state).

Russia returns to the US fields of the competition as a worthy successor to the Soviet Union specially after Putin took over, the US continued attempts to envelope the Russian inside their geographical boundaries, banning its return as a major power; however, most of these attempts didn’t meet the expected success, and now the Russians are gaining new ground each day at the expense of the US mistakes in this axis to strengthen Russia’s presence in the ME in the most important Levant countries on the Mediterranean Sea (Syria).

China became a giant economic power; because of the US intellectual property rights, the US declared the Trade War on China, in time that China slowly and steadily approaches the world with a huge strategy of precise and phased time plan to be powerful, prosperous and economically influential that paves the way for a parallel political influence protected with strong armed forces; China, who’s currently having a military base in Djibouti, seeks to become a counterpart major power depriving the US of being the only or even the most powerful country in the world.

No doubt that the US watches closely the near future of relations between Russia and China. It’s obvious that both big Eastern powers are looking ahead, particularly at the business opportunities available to them. Yet despite the rapprochement between Russia and China in the international arena, The US may foresee that the cooperation that characterized these two powers during the war in Syria is likely to give way to economic rivalry that will remind them both of the bones of contention between them.

Europe Union (EU) is the main ally of US but also the main competitor to it from economic point of view. The US supports the UK Brexit to build a huge Anglo-force, in the meantime it weakens the strength of the EU. The EU lacks common foreign policy and its economy is mainly based on foreign trades. Security is mainly based on the US contribution to the NATO. EU defense is not autonomous.

The actual tensions in the Gulf has showed to the EU the need to be more independent from the US when dealing with security affairs. Jeremy Hunt, former UK defense Minister (just before the accession of Boris Johnson as PM) was wanting to establish a naval force under the EU lead, not the US and France and in a less measure Germany want to be more self-sufficient in that matter.

The main political dissensions about Iran is between the US and EU. Three countries from EU (E3) are signatories of Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA). Two EU countries are permanent members of the UN security council. Two others are currently also temporary members: Belgium and Germany; this could give EU some power of the current regional issues. It seems that France and Germany have always sought to liberate themselves from the image of the United States.

Europe mainly has a problem with Washington on its policy towards Iran, where , according to some statements said by both leaders, they consider the US is adopting a policy of “selfishness” on the one hand, and “recklessness” on the other, where the US sanctions on Iran harms the European interests, and they believe that the US-Iranian escalation may deepen the security crisis in the Middle East.

As such, the EU and the US do not yet have a common ground on the situation with Iran, while UK remains alone.

US-Turkish relations used to be strong and coherent, based on their mutual interests. They’re balanced by Erdogan’s policies which are seen by the Middle Eastern states as manipulating policies to achieve the greatest Turkish interests and maintaining Turkey’s important position on the one side and for the US and NATO on the other. Turkey will maintain this balance in the short-term to push it to a better position economically and militarily.

Relations between the US and KSA is farther than huge weapon’s deals. The US is constantly seeking to Influence the world order; this lead to control the oil in the ME and its price policy, to enable the US to influence the industrialized countries such as EU countries, Japan and China. Also, to confront the oil interests of Russia by maintaining the advantage of selling oil only in US dollars.

The relationship between the US and Iran has been changed since the Iranian Mullahs regime seized power. Since that day in 1979, the successive US Administrations, Congress and the Pentagon have not stopped over decades of trying to undermine Iran aiming at breaking its network of influence across the ME. However, the European Union is also afraid of the current Iranian Islamic regime possessing the nuclear weapon. The US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) which is known as the nuclear agreement with Iran, embarrassed the European position which supports the nuclear agreement and weakened the Russian position in support of Iranian policy in the Syrian affairs and drags Tehran to the new negotiating table with the Trump administration.

The US, Israel and KSA are well aware that Syria and Lebanon to the north and Yemen to the south on both sides of the ME represent two strategic bridges for the Iranian influence; the Northern bridge is to the Mediterranean, and the Southern bridge is to the Red Sea. Based on that, Saudi Arabia, the most important regional enemy of Iran, has continued trying to undermine this Iranian expanding influence in the region. Of course, this enmity between the two countries is in Israel’s interest and opens the gates wide for Israel to pursue its constant demand for support for the US against Iran. Hence, Israel has gradually begun displaying its relations with KSA that has been hidden behind the scenes for years.

The US, Israel and KSA are well aware that Syria and Lebanon to the north and Yemen to the south on both sides of the ME represent two strategic bridges for the Iranian influence; the Northern bridge is to the Mediterranean, and the Southern bridge is to the Red Sea. Based on that, Saudi Arabia, the most important regional enemy of Iran, has continued trying to undermine this Iranian expanding influence in the region. Of course, this enmity between the two countries is in Israel’s interest and opens the gates wide for Israel to pursue its constant demand for support for the US against Iran. Hence, Israel has gradually begun displaying its relations with KSA that has been hidden behind the scenes for years.

Russia

Putin’s way of thinking (my personal view)

Putin won the presidential elections in March 2012 by 64% of the votes. Such an event happened in the time that the Baltic States, about 60 km west of his western borders, and amid the chaos of the ME that followed the eruption of the Arab Spring Revolutions and the decreasing oil prices among other problems, thus, Putin decided to set accurate definitions of his challenges.

Putin became sure that he must change his cautious pragmatic manner he followed in the two previous presidential terms during the last decade. He seems that he had two main options: either Russia’s isolation and exclusion from regional and international problems with the aim of solving accumulated domestic problems and rebuild his economy OR shift to restore Russia’s regional and global prestige to face the growing American and Western influence and eventually benefit from the resources available in areas of potential Russian influence. Putin decided to work on the second option (international rivalry on one hand, and personal interests of Putin on another hand).

Putin set short-term objectives to restore Russia’s leadership in the region through several main axes, mainly to strengthen nuclear and cyber capabilities and achieve rapid deployment in the Black Sea via Ukraine. He sought to exploit loopholes to thwart American strategies in the areas of interest by the support of Russia’s loyalists in eastern Ukraine and Crimea and the political and security problems facing the countries of the ME. Putin has planned to expand his influence in the Middle East through the Mediterranean Sea via Egypt and Turkey (separately) on one hand and via Israel and Syria on another. In the meantime, Israel was building an Eastern strategic depth in Syria that guarantees the protection of Israeli national security, that led Israel to deepen relations with Russia in several fields. However, GCC countries are considered main target of Russia in terms of military and security partnerships.

Putin’s doctrine in his war against the US (Chaos confronts the US’s strategies)

Putin strategy has been built to compete (disrupt and gain) the US for seizing over the influence in the region. The chaotic areas might be the best battleground for Putin in front of those who think in an organized way such as the US. Observers believe that Putin is the master mind behind WikiLeaks documents in the US and Europe.

In line with above mentioned, Putin may use some unexpected tools through his intelligence services. They went so far to the extent that they suspected the possibility of the Russian intelligence’s role, in collaboration with some regional and internal powers, in the making of ISIS instead of Al-Qaeda in Iraq to hit hard the stability on which the US and some other major powers relied to carry out their long term strategies that included many segments of western interests with the Gulf states. That is coherent with some reports telling that Putin has made the most important decisions for Russia during that period and solely orchestrated the details with the Russian Intelligence (KGB).

This may meet NATO reports telling that Putin doctrine in his war and rivalry includes political intrigues, fights over resources and financial flows, and irreconcilable civilizational conflicts. On the battlefield in these wars, regular forces act alongside a number of new actors—irregular forces of rebels and fighters, criminal gangs, international terrorist networks, private military companies, and legions of foreign mercenaries, units of spetsnaz and intelligence formations from different countries, military contingents of peacekeepers from international organizations, and even non-governmental and humanitarian organizations and structures, representatives from printed and electronic mass media, volunteers, activists from civil society and even non-state actors such as the “Night Wolves”.

Viewed through the prism of this doctrine, Russia’s activities in several regions including Latin America come into clearer focus. While the US position remains preeminent due to the strong accountability by the congress and opponent parties, etc.

A review of Russia’s activities in the region shows that, despite limited resources, this doctrine which is used by Putin and so called “Gerasimov Doctrine” is being implemented through a policy that incorporates multiple elements of soft power, coupled with military training and hardware, to directly displace US influence. This includes counter narcotics and disaster relief, as well as engagement in regional forums.

Implementation on the ground

Putin carried out decisions, most of which he made unilaterally. He intervened militarily in east Ukraine making use of the slow pace of the EU and NATO in granting Ukraine their membership. He resumed negotiations with Turkey to transport gas to Europe through that nation in return of providing the latter’s needs of gas.

In the ME, Putin seized the opportunity provided by the sluggish movement of the United States in countering terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Putin decided to intervene militarily in Syria to put a decisive end to the situation there. He made a deal with the Syrian president to establish two military bases Hmeimim and Tartus with the aim of defeating terrorism and preserving the Syrian regime. This movement annoyed the western hemisphere and Gulf States, but this Russian intervention found a great support by Turkey and Iran.

By the end of 2015, Putin was sure that matters were running down the courses he desired. He might have found compensations in striking secret alliances with anti-western nations. But the most important new ally is Turkey, which is the one of the strongest allies to the west.

Putin’s temporary allies and rivalry between Russia and the US & NATO

Along with Bosnia, Montenegro was the only none-NATO coastal nation remaining on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea, with the exception of NATO countries (that coast threatens many NATO countries: Italy, Albania, Greece and Croatia). If Montenegro had gotten into an alliance with Serbia to its east, Montenegro could have been regarded as a dangerous coastline that could be exploited by Russia to threaten the Adriatic Sea countries which are mostly NATO members. Therefore, in 2015, NATO decided to begin the formal accession of Montenegro, despite of its 2000 personnel small army. This was considered a smart action taken by the Western camp in their rivalry with Russia.

On the reverse, the US supported the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) who’s mostly Kurds to fight ISIS in Syria; this has been taken by Turkey as a double standard attitude practiced by the US that it supports an organization proscribed as terrorist. Turkey considered it also a de facto clear support to the Kurds that may lead to the independence of Kurdistan as an independent state which was mainly supported by Israel and KSA. That make Turkey carry fears of dividing its territories beside other three countries (Syria, Iran and Iraq) which have big populations of Kurds. This attempt to promote Kurdistan independence encouraged Erdogan to proceed with hidden diplomatic agreements with Russia, Iran and Syria, having the opportunity to deploy Turkish forces inside Syria and thus undermining the US military presence, plans and goals in Syria.

Related to the mentioned above, after the 2016 military coup in Turkey, Erdogan had to keep his military Generals busy with military involvements (according to my expectations that time).

Turkey is a regional power, the second largest military force (size) in NATO, and an ally to the US and Israel. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and owns two straits: Bosporus and Dardanelles which are considered the most important passageways for Russia to cross to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. Therefore, Turkey should be the best and most important location to transport Russian gas to Europe through pipeline which cross Turkey’s territories. These all obviously led to think of the reasons of Putin’s patience at Erdogan’s arrogance and rudeness after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian aircraft over Syrian territories in 2015 and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara at a later time by the hands of a Turkish security officer besides several other incidents.

In terms of the Russian rivaling strategy Syria, Israel and Egypt enjoy precedence beside Turkey, since they are the key to the Mediterranean Sea that links between the Middle East and North Africa from the south and Europe from the North. These countries represent either a security valve for south European countries or a source of threat to the US influence in the region. Egypt and Syria are easier to use and deal with, especially in the presence of the pressures they suffer because of the Islamist proxies either the Muslim Brotherhood Organization, supported by Qatar and Turkey, or the fundamentalists, supported by Gulf states, but it seems that Turkey and Israel are more fruitful to have alliance with. Putin’s was able to exploit the slow tempo of the US in destroying ISIS when he immediately intervened militarily to defeat it, on one side, and to prolong Assad’s rule on another.

Does really Russia enjoy opportunities or put itself in a big risk in the Middle East?

According to my understanding of Putin’s thinking, he sees himself enjoying the opportunities of influence and acceptance in the ME; in time the U.S. may see Russia is drawn into what could prove to be a long and costly effort to “gain interests” in the ME.

China

“The Victorious Warriors win first then go to war, while defeated warries go to war first then seek to win”.
“Sun Tzu” in his book “The Art of War”.

Superiority before rivalry

China doesn’t want the US to be the unipolar dominate power and doesn’t want to replace the US in this regard, but it seeks to be a global economic power. To achieve this goal, China doesn’t intervene in any conflicts that it considers worthless compared to its major goal. The Chinese have demonstrated their ability to adhere to this path, as well as their focus in the current stage on quiet economic control, without provoking unnecessary fuss, working to crush their economic opponents and expand the spread and acquisition of important economic positions, either by huge loans (dumping countries in debt), or direct purchase to secure sources of natural resources and ports along sea transport lines.

Along with this concept, China is developing its initiative (Belt & Road), an attempt to expand its economic presence using its diplomatic power and its smart soft powers in the Indo-Pacific, ME, Africa and Europe, investing in several important seaports and airports, building new strong relations with the most important countries in all regions from Asia to Europe via the ME and Africa.

China doesn’t prefer to use its military power in any current or near future phases, as its strategy is based on (acceptance) by the peoples and their leadership using the economic power, not based on (provocation) using the military power.

Isolating the US allies

China is currently working hard on building the proper environment and circumstances to increase and enhance its economic and diplomatic relations with the EU in an attempt to isolate the EU interests with the US. It exploits the USA strategy mistakes in towards the EU, maybe same as with Japan and Republic of Korea. The factors that China may use to achieve this goal are the EU’s fears of American hegemony and its withdrawal from the JSPOA that severely affected the EU interest.

China is deepening its relations with the Gulf countries, Egypt and other key nations to the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; and enjoys variant relations in the economic, commercial and cultural spheres, in the meantime it watches closely the Palestinian Cause and the Iranian-Israeli-Arab Sunni rivalry.

In general, as for the situation in the Gulf, China doesn’t feel comfortable toward the US-Iran crisis. However, it will keep on its relations with Iran supporting it by voting in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and cooperation in the transfer of military technology, perhaps in the missile field, so as not to disturb its firm plan and self-commitment to the present phase. The Gulf remains an energy source and an important corridor for the Chinese big initiative B&R, but the true power of China is being increasingly noticed in the future in Africa, Europe and Latin America. China is working quietly, slowly, but steadily, for more control and build up the force. A Chinese navy has been stablished in Djibouti since 2017.

China’s strategy and its initiative (B&R) avoid mistakes of the US’s

  • In the time that US approaches are mainly based on its political values and military power using the tools of aids and sanctions (Stick and Carrot), the Chinese strategy and its initiative (B&R) are based on economic cooperation; national interests are preferred compared to the values.
  • China’s B & R signed a partnership with Arab League.
  • China made big efforts to build a separate strategy with each Arab country of those signed the B & R initiative.
  • Showing more cooperation at the international level rather than competition.

How the Middle Eastern Peoples Perceive USA and China?

Middle Eastern peoples believe that the Asian presence in the region specially China and Japan is much better and acceptable than the Western counterpart (hegemony and influence) specially USA and UK, because they see them giving their military and political powers the priority of dealing with the issues, exercising pressure with economic and military sanctions to achieve their political and economic goals.

By contrast, China offers its economic potentials to promote political relations with friendly countries without hinting at the use of military force or political and economic pressures.

Therefore, China enjoys a large economic, political and military acceptance among the nations of the Middle East.

The Middle Eastern peoples see China attracts partnerships and alliances; especially with its persistence on developing the communities of partner nations without intervention in their internal affairs or disrespecting borders and privacies of other nations.

Russia is also perceived cooperatively better by the Middle Eastern peoples.

Visualizing the result of the major powers’ rivalries in the ME

First, we may have to study these three definitions;

Power: The sum and the quality of all resources available to a nation in the pursuit of national objectives.

Influence: The capacity to use the national powers to formulate the international or the regional resolution, building the regional / the international order.

Popularity: The public acceptance by the peoples, that can be peoples of another country or countries of a specific region; it’s a result of the public opinion and the collective awareness of specific community towards another community or towards somebody.

For example, I’d suppose a comparison among the US, Russia and China; when we look at these three major powers, we’ll find that the US is the most powerful country (by considering the elements of its national powers), the most influential country in the region and least acceptable (at the public level) among the Arab countries, despite the large number of cases of immigration from this region to the US.

Then we find Russia is the least powerful country among the three, but its influence in the region became rivaling to the US influence, and the second acceptable by the peoples of the Arab region.

When studying China in this comparison, we find it the second powerful country in general among the three, and the least in the political and the military influence, while we find it the most acceptable and popular country in the Arab region.

From this perspective, you may assess the situation differently to determine which country of the three can impose its will in the short term and which country can remain or become the most powerful, influential and most acceptable by the peoples of the Arab region and can impose its will at the long term.

Regional rivalries

Regional rivalries in the ME are more complex and intersected, which is due to several reasons, such as; the big divergence of regional interests and objectives, the unbalanced national powers among the key countries in the region and giving the financial element a significant role to the formulation of the regional resolution disregarding the regional stability.

Beside the US and Russia, three regional powers (Iran, Turkey and Israel), try to formulate the regional resolution for the ME, specifically in the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, but their influence is expanded to other regions.

Israel supported the sectarian rivalry between the countries of the region and supported the idea of the Kurdistan independence to be separated from four important countries (Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as Turkey); bearing in mind that the first three countries are the most serious threat to Israel.

Israel is working to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the region, hoping that Israel will remain the only nuclear power in the ME and Africa. Israel also seeks to play an active role in regional conflict management rather than conflict resolution with the Palestinians. It shares Saudi Arabia’s strategic goals of undermining Iran, which Israel has made it a common enemy, but Arab public opinion places limits on the depth of Saudi-Israeli cooperation.

Turkey, a NATO member and traditionally a close ally of the West; currently is increasingly involved in regional affairs as it seeks to extend its influence in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Balkans, which has returned to Turkey many problems and crises, especially after increasing its movement to explore for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean without international, European and regional agreement.

Iran practices provocative and aggressive attitudes in several places in the region, it aimed to produce the nuclear weapons. Iran enjoys a geostrategic location that controls Hormoz Strait having close sea boundaries with all Gulf countries. Militarily, Iran depends on its internal strategic depth compared with UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, those countries which lack this advantage; therefore, these three countries always in need to secure their coasts and sea boundaries with Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to impose their will on each other by maximizing their influence and control in areas of conflict, or at least seeking to strike a balance between them. Iran sees Israel as the main enemy that must be balanced with the same weapon (nuclear weapon), it also gets ready for balance with Pakistan.

Iran has used Houthis and Hezbollah as military tools to support its existence and influence in the region and to confront the Israeli-Saudi expected coalition against it. Iran also expanded its economic and trade relations with strong stockholders such as China, India, and the EU, bearing in mind, that any war will severely affect the prosperity of UAE and will hinder the development of all GCC countries, as well as it will increase the instability of the region.

KSA is a medium power but UAE is a small state and Qatar is a microstate, they all have big interests in the ME, North of Africa, Horn of Africa, central Asia and Balkans. They pay a lot of efforts to contribute in the formulation of the regional resolutions of those regions. However, they’re not considered true regional powers that can formulate the regional order of any of those regions.

The huge financial element used by some Gulf states allow them to increasingly involve in the rivalries in different areas. More lack of international influence management in the ME and other surrounding regions is expected.

Based on the above, Israel and KSA seek to overthrow of the Iranian mullahs; the sectarian and ethnic civil wars from Syria and Yemen could be expanded to their main source, which is Iran.

Egypt, which has a specific role in Libya and the Palestinian Cause and who’s trying to expand its role in several parts in Africa, still facing several obstacles that don’t make it practice its regional role as it should be; the main obstacles are as next:

  • Egypt suffers internal political and security issues such as terrorism, fragile political system (absence of the strong political parties and their true political will).
  • Current economic situation that affect its capabilities; till today the Egyptian currency (the Egyptian Pound) is not self-sustainable and GDP per capita in Egypt is only $2,573. GDP growth: 5.3% (18/19) 5.5% (19/20), which should be 9.5% annually.
  • Egypt is not desired by other regional powers and regional actors to be influential state in the Middle East; bearing in mind the historical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in Yemen because of their conflict of interest in Yemen. On the other hand, we find KSA and Israel goals in Syria specially towards Bashar Al Assad do not meet the Egyptian political interests.

Therefore, Egypt is still not able to be or even accepted as a regional power in the Middle East; Egypt is currently able to practice limited roles in Gaza, Sudan and wider role in Libya (in North Africa region) confronting terrorism and illegal immigration in addition to transnational crimes and containing the refugees.

These current Egyptian roles and influence are based on seven main pillars of strengths as follows:

  • Egypt’s geostrategic location that embraces the Suez Canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Egypt’s cultural, and historical heritage and the Islamic institution “Al Azhar” that affects most of Arabian and Muslim countries.
  • Egypt’s human power that constitutes more than one fourth of the population of the Arab Region, about 60% out of the Egyptian population is youth, 50% of them live in the villages, having big desire in liberty, democracy, arts, creation and operating micro and small projects.
  • Strong Armed Forces that is difficult to divide into factions and which is improving its military professionalism.
  • A sectarian and ethnic cohesion of the Egyptian people (No Communitarism).
  • A diplomatic power supported with engagements in important international and regional coalitions and partnerships.
  • A growing and diversified economy with expected strong purchase power and becoming a regional hub for energy which is considered a political tools of diplomacy foreign policy.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concerns and interests

  • For security reasons, the countries of The GCC used to be allied with the US as a means to achieve defense and security.
  • Political and security sides of the GCC may not meet the expected success, it was clearly noticed during the Arab revolutions, in addition the remaining inter-chronic border issues, which showed some internal disputes in the GCC specially during this decade.
  • The attempts to turn the GCC from (Cooperation) to (Union) which was called for by the Saudi King at the summit in Riyadh, December 2011 seem to fail.

Main internal challenges and disputes of the GCC are summarized as follows:

  • Main internal challenges and disputes of the GCC are summarized as follows:
  • Goals and interests towards some issues in the region and towards sources of threats are not unified or matching.
  • The split of Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain began, while Kuwait and Oman play a neutral role, a role that relatively declined after King Salman took over the responsibility.
  • The lengthy continuation of the war in Yemen, which resulted differences of views among the coalition on a hand and among the GCC on the other hand.
  • Dispute resolution relies on internal meditations but not specific mechanism.
  • The centrality of governance in some countries is considered as a major role of controlling the policies of each country of them, as well as the tendencies of independence (Qatar and Oman) that are sometimes incompatible with the nature of the union.
  • Some border issues still remain, mainly with KSA and between Qatar and Bahrain.
  • Priority is focused on achieving economic integration; commonly before political and security aspects.
  • The Omani opposition to the GCC military union as it may seek launch a regional war against Iran. That’s why the Sultanate of Oman didn’t participate in the war in Yemen.

Regional and international position towards the cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council:

The US and the EU have common interests based on the cohesion of the GCC that support their economic and security interests. UK has established a new military base in Bahrain. It was also keen to negotiate early on a free trade agreement with the GCC countries after its Brexit from the EU. UK planned to host (at some stage) the summit of the GCC in London. But the split of Qatar and the accumulate consequences has limited some of the British expectations.

Russia is a major competitor to the US (who is supporting KSA in the Syrian crisis); the current division of the GCC is in favor of Russia (as a pressure means) that could be used in its negotiations with KSA when it seeks wider expansion of their influence in Syria, pushing it to do so through Russia.

Qatar split enables the successes of the Israeli strategy in the region, specially confronting Iran and its proxies as a common enemy of Israel and some (but not all) of the GCC countries.

Iran is certainly the biggest beneficiary of a non-coherent GCC and its non-transformation into a union, as they form big threat against Iran.

Turkey’s strategy is negatively affected after Qatar split as the KSA, UAE and Bahrain increased their support to Egypt against Qatar and Turkey in addition to their political tool “Muslim Brotherhood”.

Egypt’s advantage in the current Qatar split comes from a different perspective. The current situation, which has aligned KSA, UAE and Bahrain against Qatar, has increased the need to by the first three countries of the dispute to seek Egypt’s support, bearing in mind that Qatar and Turkey are enemies of Egypt. This severely weakens the stand of Muslim Brotherhood Organization as its financially and politically supported by Qatar and Turkey.

Hotbeds of regional rivalries

Regional powers and acting states in the Middle East are engaged in intense competition for influence and the formulation of the regional order of the region.

The most important areas of rivalries:

  • In Syria we find Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
  • In Yemen we find Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and I expect that Qatar may take a supporting role to Iran against Saudi Arabia and UAE.
  • In Libya we find Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side, Turkey and Qatar on the other side. There is also a competition in the Balkans among Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
  • In Gaza UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Qatar, Turkey and Iran on the other, while Israel is a third party trying to benefit from the other parties. In the time that Egypt, Jordan Israel and the Palestinian Authority are the main responsible and sponsor of Gazza issue in front of the international community.

Possible Risks and opportunities in the ME in new security dynamics;

Changing of security dynamics in the ME

Middle Eastern countries independence creating new security dynamics

Most of Middle Eastern states have become less dependent on the US. Accordingly, Russia willingness to fill the power vacuum in Syria, in addition to China flexing its economic muscles across the region, have created a new reality. However, there are several indicators of the Middle Eastern country’s independence creating new security dynamics as next:

Independent Foreign Policies

  • Turkey is a telling example of how Middle East governments can pursue foreign policies independent of, or in outright contradiction with, the wills of global powers. Despite being a NATO member and traditionally a close ally of the West, Ankara has managed to follow its own security agenda on the most divisive regional issues, such as the Syrian war, relations with Iran, and the Saudi-led Qatar crisis. On the Syrian file, Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition, has worked for a no-fly zone, prevented US supported Kurdish groups YPG/YPJ from obtaining a contiguous territory, and only very late and reluctantly participated in the fight against the Islamic State. This has resulted in multiple open conflicts, threats of military confrontations with the US in Manbij, and the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015. A year after, Turkey launched its first ground operation (Euphrates Shield) in Northern Syria to remove so-called terrorist groups – including the YPG forces supported by the US. Later the Afrin offensive followed to ‘root out the Kurdish militias” according to Erdogan. US watched with so-called “concern”, but little was done.
  • Although both US and Russia have close ties with the Syrian Kurds, the two powers appear to have quietly accommodated Ankara’s main security concerns, including accepting Turkish military presence in both the northern border regions and Idlib. In the diplomatic arena, Turkey has similarly gained from its dual relationship with US and Russia. Though Turkey is part of the Western dominated Friends of Syria Group, Ankara was at the same playing a lead role in Russia’s competing diplomatic track (the Astana and Sochi talks) and cooperates with Russia on de-escalations deals and lately on the de-militarized buffer zones in Idlib.
  • Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf States have similarly witnessed a widening room of maneuver, even on hard-core security and military matters. KSA launched a military campaign in Yemen fighting the Houthis and seeking to put former president Mansour Hadi back in power. In 2014, some sources announced that Egypt and UAE twice launched secret airstrikes in Libya against terrorist elements around Tripoli without informing or seeking approval with the US in advance. This would have been unthinkable only a few years back.
  • The recent conflict between Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Hadi’s government showing the UAE increasing independence, as it’s trying to do what it wanted earlier dividing Yemen. If so, I think that Oman will get angrier than before and even more than KSA, which means GCC will go under threat very soon.
  • On 24th of March 2019, the Egyptian-Jordanian-Iraqi summit in Cairo took place, announcing wider relations at economic and security levels. However, it seems that there’s a very important political indicator of this Arab tripartite summit, it recalls the old alliance the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC) that was founded in February 1998 with an Iraqi / Iranian political understanding, having same 2019 members in addition to Northern Yemen. It seemed as a competitor to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that was founded eight years earlier. I don’t say that Egypt and Jordan have political understanding with Iraq, but both countries try to be more independent having new alliances away from the Gulf dependency.
  • Across the region, US allies became less dependent on Washington, as they can seek various forms of rapprochement with Russia, deepening economic and new security ties with China and buying Russian arms. US is undoubtedly still the most powerful external actor, but Egypt, Saudi, Turkey and even Israel are able to play external powers off against each other, thereby obtaining concessions and leverage. Several US weapon systems were for instance put on hold to Egypt, but later released after President Sisi held meetings with Putin and Gulf allies and Israel put pressure on the United States. Meanwhile, non-US allies such as Iran and Syria can circumvent US sanction regimes and trade restrictions through China and Russia, and at times through the EU, who are developing a nifty bank mechanism to facilitate continued trade with Iran, despite the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.
  • The increasing US preoccupation with Iran also affected the security dynamics in the ME, as the Trump Administration has taken over Saudi and Israeli security perceptions on Iran. Similarly, the Iranian threat appear to have overturned Trump’s impulse to withdraw from war theaters across the Middle East. Despite the fact that Trump numerous times have announced that he wanted to pull out of Syria – including in closed discussions inside the White House – the US is now staying on. Not in order to push the Assad regime to real transition nor to protect the Kurds- but to contain Iran, as Israel and Saudi long have worked for.
  • Moreover, as in the case of the US, Russia’s allies in Syria do not always do, what Russia would like them to. Moscow has for instance strived to enroll the so-called auxiliary forces supported by Hezbollah and Iran into the regular Syrian army, but unsuccessfully. Similarly, Moscow initially persuaded Iran and Hezbollah forces to move further away from Syria’s south-west border to Israel, but only for a while. As the Syrian war draws to a close, Russian tensions with Iran and the many affiliated militias are likely to come to the fore.
  • On the other hand, UAE may start to rely more on China in term of security. MBZ visit to China in July 2019 seems to be a part of this security dynamic change.

Autonomous Regional Dynamics

  • The Middle East has its own autonomous security dynamics that are relatively independent of external forces and powers. The region’s fault lines are dominated – not by global rivalries – but by multiple indigenous contestations. For instance, Turkey, Qatar and Oman try to take a middle position in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are leading what is sometimes called a revisionist, or Shia, alliance against an opposing status-quo Sunni alliance, yet the former also includes Hamas and the rather secular regime of Assad. Egypt, KSA and UAE share concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood, but they disagree over the nature of the Assad government and the Syrian rebellion. The Iraqi government continues to entertain close relations with both the US and Iran, both of whom have fought the Islamic State group in Iraq. Arab relations with Israel remain strained, not least because of the plight of the Palestinians. But, behind the scenes, Israel and several Arab states increasingly work together on Iran. In short, regional amity-enmity relations are multiple and contradictory, but they operate rather independently from the international level.

The US-Iran Crisis

  • If Iran will have a nuclear weapon, other countries will try to have it too, specially KSA;
  • Increased sanctions on Iran exhaust the Iranian people but strengthen the Iranian regime;
  • More security dynamic changes are expected;

Obstacles of war against Iran:

  • The current unsuitable security environment in the region compared with the time of war on Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
  • Increased regional rivalries.
  • Unbalanced internal geographical depth and number of targets between Iran and specific opponent states (such as comparison of internal geographical depth between Iran & UAE).
  • Denying war by EU and the international community.
  • President Trump was keen to get Nobel Prize still eager to; also, he’s keen to succeed in the coming US presidential election.

Expectations:

All fingers are on the triggers and nobody wants war ! It’s difficult to speak about de-escalation of the crisis when maximum pressure is already put on Iran. Sanctions are so high that it prevents Iran to have some freedom of movement. It’s about US sanctions, but the effects are the same as international sanctions, because any country dealing with Iran will be economically sanctioned. Iran has no other choice than to react to putting some pressure on the international community. But Europe lost the momentum to react. I believe that the Iranian reaction through its enrichment of uranium is to prevent any other aggressive action from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or the Iranian Armed Forces. I believe that US is trying to trap other countries in the conflict by demanding some involvement of those nations to protect the sea lines of communications. Even if Trump seems not to be committed for war, everything is put in place to force him to launch a strike. There will be a trigger. The question is when? Depending on some reaction from Iran, I’m also wondering, what will happen if the crisis expanded out of Hormuz strait in the Mediterranean or the Red Sea?

Possible risks and opportunities in the ME

Risks;

Main risk factors

  • Bad governance (failure and/or corruption) in several countries in the region.
  • The inability and/ or unwillingness of the country (government & people) to understand and implement the international standards (political, security, economic, social, educational, health, law, etc.), or even creating local standards. Instead, several Middle Eastern governments apply arbitrary interpretations of such concepts to be in line with the wrong prevailing concepts attitudes.
  • Regional conspiracies by a state/s against another state in the same region, such as; the conspiracies by the rivaling Middle Eastern countries inside the countries of interests.
  • International/ regional negative reactions and the adopted ways of interventions to the crises in the region. These reactions and interventions in a way not supporting running crisis, such as; reactions and intervention in failed states. Also, the Palestinian Cause as an important example: The Israel-US persistence on going counter the two-state solution and the consideration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Meanwhile, there is an Arab status shift from a negative attitude to a supportive position of US-Israel moves.
  • International and/ or regional isolation; this weakens the targeted country to make it dependence on the country that isolated it.
  • Environmental challenges, such as; climate changes leading to desertification, warming, sacristy; etc.

Results

  • Lack of the institutional regimes of most Arab countries in the region, with centralization of the decision, which is mostly decision of one person (the ruler).
  • Increasing of communitarism and sectarianism in some countries in the region led to more social split.
  • Civil wars and spread of terrorism, bearing in mind that continuation of instability in other hotbeds may keep the vacuum for more chances to re-spread terrorism.
  • Demographic pressure and illegal immigration that lead to uncontrolled changes in the nationality map.
  • Transnational crimes.
  • Despite the centrality of the resolution, the decisions in the Arab nations could be not independent due to the increasing of the intervention by external powers.
  • Hezbollah became more influential in Lebanon.
  • The region lacks a common formula for regional security, which leads to conflicting strategies that do not help stability.
  • Gulf crisis (Qatar split): KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt boycott Qatar.
  • Israel’s increased a qualitative military and technological superiority and its exclusivity in nuclear armament throughout the region from Mauritania to Iran.
  • The possibility of Israel’s success in supporting the demise and division of important countries in the region (Iraq and Syria) in support of the presence of a new nation (Kurdistan) on the account of Syria, Iraq and Iran considering the expected division of Yemen will increase political and security tensions in the region and in addition to political and security intervention as well.
  • These all affected the stability of the region and threatened the energy security; the sea navigation routs and the international trade in the ME.

Opportunities;

  • Reconstructions in post-conflict countries.
  • Modern education in all levels specially in Egypt.
  • Investment in health sector specially in Egypt.
  • New Gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean as a replacement of the regular oil.
  • Possible huge investments in the ME specially with the availability of a considerable number of cheap labors is available in the region; China has the biggest opportunity in this issue.
  • Seaports investments, China also has the biggest opportunity in this field.

Strategic Recommendations;

  • The U.S. must avoid any military actions against Iran, specially from a land of a small prosper bordering country.
  • Increased U.S. and international sanctions on Iran will exhaust the people of Iran but it will strengthen the Iranian regime and may push them to go for more aggressive actions in the region; therefore, it’s recommended to find other way rather than sanctions towards Iran.
  • Consider the possibility of limiting and controlling the huge financial element used by the rich countries that involved in the regional rivalries.
  • The U.S. in cooperation with its allies have to work on changing the environment of “regional rivalries” to the environment of “conflict resolution” in all hotbeds areas.
  • One of the main goals of terrorism in the ME is to change the identity of most of its countries from “nationalism” to “religionism”; therefore, it’d be helpful if the US and the EU start strengthen the roles of the Arab League and other Arabian coalitions. This also requires Israel to change its ways of approaches towards the Middle Eastern issues instead of dealing with its nations as artificial states. On a direct way, Israel must stop its sectarian view towards the ME countries.
  • To avoid more rivalries and instability, I’d recommend that the U.S. and China must initiate inclusive negotiations trying to put forward a new map of influence to share/ divide economic, political and security influence in a balanced way through clear agreements between two Great Powers (G2).
  • To maintain balance, I’d recommend Japan and the U.S. to urge launching the Japanese strategy “Free and Open Indo-Pacific – FOIP” that may (compete against) or (cooperate with) the Chinese initiative “Belt and Road – BRI”; however, bear in mind that this will give the opportunity to India (the FOIP partner) to have a bigger role in the Middle East.

Sayed Ghoneim
Fellow, Nasser Higher Military Academy
Chairman, IGSDA-Online

www.igsda.org

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