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Sunday 24 September 2023

The Shifting Sands of Geopolitics: MENA, Ukraine, and the Global Chessboard

Saleem Zahid 

In a region marked by complex and ever-evolving power dynamics, understanding the role of key players such as the United States, Russia, China, and regional actors is essential. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has rippled through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, shaping alliances, trade relations, and defense strategies.

The Ukraine conflict has triggered a tectonic shift in global geopolitics, leading to a profound reevaluation of alliances and partnerships in the MENA region. For decades, MENA nations have been steadfast allies of the United States. However, the conflict compelled these nations to embark on a delicate balancing act, endeavoring to preserve their historical ties with the U.S. while exploring new alliances and partnerships that align with their evolving interests.

There was an initial shockwave when many Middle Eastern partners did not automatically align with the U.S. against Russia. Instead, some MENA countries opted to explore relationships with other global players, including Russia and China. This pragmatic approach reflects the region's growing desire to assert its agency on the international stage.

The Ukraine conflict also raised questions about the reliability of the United States as a partner in the eyes of MENA governments. Despite the U.S. government's efforts to emphasize its unwavering commitment to the region, many MENA nations began to question the consistency and predictability of U.S. foreign policy, particularly concerning Iran.

The Biden administration's approach, characterized by releasing intelligence about Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and labeling Saudi Arabia as a "pariah state," created significant strains in regional relations. MENA countries sought a more dependable and coherent stance from the United States, especially regarding their security concerns.

Russia's role in the MENA region has undergone a significant transformation, drawing attention to Moscow's evolving strategy. Russia's reliance on Iran for military support, including advanced drone technology, has far-reaching implications for regional dynamics. While some MENA nations viewed Russia as a potential partner, concerns arose regarding Russia's long-term commitment to the region and the potential influence of its deepening ties with Iran.

China, on the other hand, has been steadily expanding its footprint in the MENA region. Brokering economic agreements between traditional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, China signaled its willingness to engage constructively with MENA nations. Furthermore, China's active participation in the BRICS economic group, which now includes several MENA countries, hints at its ambition to strengthen economic ties and potentially bypass Western sanctions.

In the quest to align more closely with the United States and the West, MENA nations must navigate a complex landscape. Several conditions and considerations should guide their path:

1.    The United States should prioritize its core national interests and adopt a pragmatic approach when engaging with regional partners. While values like human rights and democratization are important, they should not be the sole drivers of foreign policy.

2.    MENA nations require consistent reassurance that the United States is genuinely committed to their security and overall interests. Being perceived as a reliable ally, especially during times of crisis, is paramount.

3.    Regional conflicts, similar to the one in Ukraine, must be resolved through peaceful means. All parties involved should engage in constructive dialogue and prioritize diplomatic solutions over military escalation.

4.    Dialogue and a deep understanding of each other's interests are fundamental to building strong partnerships. Assumptions about the motivations or behavior of regional actors can lead to miscommunication and strained relations.

5.    MENA nations must maintain a delicate equilibrium in their relationships with global powers. Engaging with various actors while safeguarding their sovereignty and national interests is essential for their long-term stability and prosperity.

In today's rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, the United States and the Western world face multifaceted challenges and opportunities. As we contemplate the shifting dynamics of international relations, the insights shared during the recent discussion with experts and scholars from various regions resonate deeply.

The central theme that emerged from this dialogue was the increasing influence of regional actors in an era characterized by digitalization and the rise of intermediate zones. MENA countries are gaining leverage in negotiations with major powers, maximizing their interests through strategic cooperation. This trend challenges the traditional hierarchy of global power and suggests a more multipolar world where regional actors play a crucial role in shaping their own destinies.

In the future, great powers may transition from being dominant controllers to service providers for regional countries. This profound shift implies a more balanced and equitable global order, where regional actors have a significant say in defining their fates.

There has been an intriguing disparity between the political discourse and the economic impact of international relations in the MENA region. While regional players continue to value the United States as important political allies, they harbor legitimate concerns about the potential weaponization of economic relations.

To address this, improving relations between regional countries and the Western powers, particularly the United States, could provide assurances against the securitization of economic ties. By offering guarantees that their economic interests will not be undermined, MENA nations may be less inclined to explore alternative economic alliances, such as those offered by Russia.

As we navigate this complex world order, embracing a pragmatic and cooperative approach will be crucial for ensuring a more stable and prosperous global landscape. The lessons learned from the Ukraine conflict underscore the importance of flexibility, consistency, and collaboration in international relations.

The MENA region, like many others, seeks stability, security, and prosperity. Achieving these goals requires adaptation to the ever-changing geopolitical chessboard. Understanding the motivations and concerns of regional actors and addressing their legitimate interests is essential.

And as the world grapples with new challenges and opportunities, the United States and Western powers must engage with regional actors as genuine partners, respecting their unique challenges and priorities. By doing so, they can effectively navigate the shifting sands of geopolitics and work toward a more peaceful and prosperous future for all.

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