The Middle East today is among the world’s least stable regions. The Iraq War in 2003, the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010-2011, and the eruption of civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq in the years following have all created a political power vacuum.
These political changes have had undeniable repercussions for U.S. hegemony. Several heads of state, who once served as crucial regional allies to the United States, have been overthrown, creating opportunities for other foreign powers with designs on the region.
Russia is one state that has endeavored to capitalize on this weakening U.S. influence. In 2015, for instance, Russia directly challenged U.S. regional hegemony with President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that the former Soviet Republic would militarily intervene in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Russia’s intervention is not an isolated event, but rather underscores the increasing influence of other non-American and non-Arab states in the Middle East. In addition to Russia’s expanding role, for example, both Iran and China have gained greater political and economic influence, further weakening U.S. power in the region.
Russian Influence in the Middle East
Besides its role in Syria, Russia is a major arms dealer in the region. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of weapons contracts signed between Moscow and Middle Eastern countries, like Iraq and Egypt, increased substantially. In addition, Lukoil, one of Russia’s largest oil companies, has invested heavily in Iraq while also seeking new contacts in Iran.
Russia has always been keen to pursue economic relations with Iran. Initially opposed to the UN sanctions imposed on Iran in 2006, Russia sought out the Islamic Republic as a major trading partner after the sanctions were lifted in 2016.
Russia also initiated warm diplomatic relations with Egypt when relations cooled between the United States and the Arab republic following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. As the United States made moderate cuts to Egypt’s military aid package in the coup’s aftermath, Russia and Egypt took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen their diplomatic ties. Positive relations continue to persist; the two nations have since held talks to discuss regional security and trade. Although U.S.-Egypt relations appear to be improving under Trump, Russian-Egyptian relations still remain strong.
Turkey is another one of Russia’s strong regional allies, notwithstanding the assassination of Russian Ambassador Adrei Karlov in Ankara this past year. In the wake of the shooting in December 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the attack was an attempt to jeopardize the country’s relations with Russia. Diplomatic ties had been strained by the conflict in Syria and a military crisis in 2015, but were quickly normalized following the shooting.
On March 10, 2017, Presidents Putin and Erdoğan met in Moscow to discuss “the entire scope of Russian-Turkish relations” with a focus on economic ties, according to a press release issued by the Kremlin. At the meeting, the two nations signed an agreement to establish a Russian-Turkish investment fund, and “agreed that 2019 will be a year of cross-culturalism and tourism” for both parties, according to Al-Monitor.
Iran’s Growing Role
Another strong regional player, Iran has long sought hegemony in the Middle East. In 2015, Ali
Younesi, former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, indicated this when he announced at a conference, that, “since its inception, Iran has [always] had a global dimension. It was born an empire,” according to Politico.
In the past several decades, Iran has increased its influence in the region, by supporting Shiite groups in different Middle Eastern states. By providing support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, some Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran has managed to increase its regional power base. Through its proxy, Hezbollah, for instance, the Islamic Republic has achieved influence in Lebanese politics.
The U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal has helped give Iran greater legitimacy as a regional actor. Saudi Arabia, the United States’s long-time ally, has been the most upset by the deal. The Kingdom has always been threatened by Iranian influence in the region and careful to counter this influence whenever possible.
Economic and military partnerships with Russia and China are strengthening Iran, as well. These alliances, coupled with the country’s incremental economic development post-sanctions, create the potential for Iran to expand its economic impact in the Middle East.
In the past several years, China has expanded its footprint in the Middle East. Trade between China and several countries in the region has risen significantly in the past decade, and, in 2014 alone, was estimated to be $230 billion.
As part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China has invested billions of dollars in development projects and trade deals across the region. In North Africa, China has invested heavily in Algeria’s oil infrastructure, and even proposed building a new capital city for Egypt.
In the Gulf region, meanwhile, the People’s Republic recently signed $65 billion worth of trade deals with Saudi Arabia. As the world’s second-largest oil consumer, China relies on the oil-rich Gulf states, as well as Algeria, for a majority of its oil imports.
Beijing’s interests in the Middle East stretch beyond economic ties, however. Since 2010, the country has sought to cultivate good diplomatic relations with several key actors in the region, including Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia among others.
China has also clearly taken sides in the Syrian conflict. Along with Russia, China has vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions and has reportedly delivered military assistance to supporters of the Assad regime.
A New Regional Order
Pursuing a regional and global order less dominated by the United States, Russia, China, and Iran are all working to strengthen their positions in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the United States has certainly not disappeared from the region, and several global challenges, from radical violence to nuclear proliferation, and energy security, still plague the Middle East and threaten to prolong U.S. involvement.
As Russia, Iran, and China step in to address these issues, however, key regional actors may prefer to forge new diplomatic and economic relationships with these powers, instead of with the U.S. government.