It is worth noting that the active US entry into the region dates back to the 1940s of the last century. One of the first American allies in the region was Saudi Arabia, where the US Air Force base was opened in 1946. The American presence in the Middle East only increased in the following years. The camp of American allies in the Middle East has included such countries of the region as Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s accession to NATO made this country one of Washington’s key allies in the region for years to come. The fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran, withdrew Tehran from under Washington’s influence, but it helped to deepen relations with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf led by Saudi Arabia, also due to expansionist and aggressive aspirations of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Of course, all these years haven’t been without crises, for example, in late 1973, the Arab oil-producing countries have declared an oil embargo against a number of Western countries led by the United States and against Japan. As a result, the US automotive industry was hit hard, and the American companies exploited the situation to skyrocket the price of fuel, which ultimately hit consumers. The embargo was lifted in March 1974.
Throughout the entire period, in modern historiography called the “Cold War”, the US presence in the region only multiplied, and it is not just about military but also the economic presence. The US penetration into the Middle East continued after the Cold War. The US managed to become a guarantor of security for the Gulf countries, as well as an important partner of the other countries in the region.
The turning point in US policy in the Middle East came during Obama’s presidency. In fairness, it should be emphasized that Obama inherited a difficult legacy from George W. Bush. First of all, of course, it is worth noting Iraq and the chaos in which the country remained. Policies of the Obama administration, in fact, eventually led to the aggravation of disagreements between Washington and its partners from the Middle East. A number of disagreements and discrepancies have appeared with the key, in every respect, country in the region – Turkey. Then there were disagreements with Israel (because of US attempts to draw closer to Iran). A behind-the-scenes dispute with Israel became publicly known when, in March 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bypassing the White House and without informing the President of the United States, unexpectedly flew to Washington and spoke before Congress against the deal with Iran.
Not only Israel was against the deal between Iran and the P-6, but also a number of Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia. In the view of a number of Gulf States, an increased US interest toward Iran, in particular to the deal on the Iranian nuclear program, was accompanied by waning interest in its Gulf allies.
The Arab Spring, conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Iran’s actions (with varying degrees of success) to destabilize the situation in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as a sharp drop in oil prices, forced the Gulf monarchies to urgently reconsider their foreign policy guidelines. Saudi Arabia began to actively move closer to China, France, and Turkey. Measures were even taken to establish a dialogue with Russia. Qatar, having the largest US military base on its territory, suddenly decided to host a very serious Turkish military base as well. Bahrain came under the almost total political, economic and military influence of Saudi Arabia; UAE began to more closely cooperate within the framework of the GCC and have been involved in the Saudi coalition in Yemen.
Observing this picture, some experts were quick to draw conclusions about Washington’s final withdrawal from the region, and that China is gradually taking the place formerly occupied by the United States. In my view, this conclusion is hasty and rather ambiguous. I will try to explain why.
Of course, during the Obama presidency, the US position in the region has weakened. However, Washington’s influence is still very strong. The US continues to arm the countries of the region, and as we know, the arms trade is not only business, but also politics, and sometimes it is more politics than business. The US helps the coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, in their war with Yemeni rebels supported by Iran. American corporations still have a strong position in the region. The elite of these countries are much more tied to the US (education, treatment, real estate business, assets, advisors) rather than to China or any other country. Among the members of the elite and the middle class there are a lot of people who received their education in the United States and sent their children to study in the US. At first glance this may not seem important, but with deeper analysis this factor plays a significant role.
If you bring the issue of perception of China to the level of an everyman, there will be very few people who want to live, work or study in China, however, there is a huge number of people wishing to live, work or receive education in the United States. Even with hostile attitudes among a certain part of society and elites towards the United States, the US’s image is still more attractive than the image of China on a range of important issues. I will assume that China, because of its state structure and mentality, will never be able to compete with the US on the attractiveness of the image.
As for China, China certainly has its advantages over the US, they are expressed in a large number of the population (although, in a permanent slowing of growth of the Chinese economy, it can become a threat to stability), in the economic and technological progress which is observed in China over the last 30 years, as well as in proximity to the region as compared to the United States.
However, unlike the United States, China has a number of challenges straight at their borders. In particular, the still unresolved status of Taiwan, tensions with South Korea, Japan, India and Vietnam. The disputed islands in the South China Sea and China’s activity around those islands are causing more tension between China and its neighbors. In addition, there is a very solid American military presence along Chinese coasts, and China is naturally deprived of opportunities to be militarily present at the US coasts. It should also be pointed out that China’s competitors in the region, for the most part, are not the third world countries, but quite technologically advanced countries with nuclear weapon, or that possess the technology necessary for its creation (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India). There are many problems in China itself, including the problem of Tibet and the Uighurs, as well as a sharp contrast in the level of development (and, consequently, in the level of life) between coastal regions and the inland areas of China. The Communist elite are becoming more privileged and distant from the people.
According to a number of research centers, the real unemployment rate in China is several times higher than the one declared by the official statistics. The numbers vary from 10% to 20%. Even if we take the low threshold and add on the slowdown of the economy (that says that the number of unemployed, at best, will not be reduced), it turns out that the number of unemployed in China is equal to the population of Russia, if not more! In addition, China has tens of millions of undocumented women and girls (they are not taken into account in any official statistics on unemployment or in the population count).
Naturally, the US has its own problems, but with different scope, different coping mechanisms and different system. Moreover, in contrast to China, the US is not in confrontation and in a state of cold war with its neighbors (Canada, Mexico). Consequently, Washington is not distracted by conflicts with neighbors, and therefore is not diverting resources to it, nor the States suffer from ethnic separatism.
In China’s case, it’s exactly the opposite. All these factors, coupled with the other, act both as a deterrent to Chinese expansion, and as a suitable leverage for competitors, which is not only the US.
Based on the foregoing, I dare to assume that in the foreseeable future we will not witness China forcing the US out of the Middle East. However, China is slowly, in an Oriental manner, trying and will continue to try to take its place in the sun, which, of course, also provides for a more active role in the Middle East. It is worth noting that these efforts are associated with a number of risks, including in the form of US counteraction.
Judging by the statements of the President-elect of the United States, Donald Trump, he is quite skeptical of China and its new role in the world. So, I suppose China will have to compete with the United States not only for influence in the Middle East, but also for influence in the basin of the South China Sea, where, by the way, the US has a lot of allies.
Whether China will be able to build and effectively realize the tactics and mechanisms of global competition is very much an open question…