【明報文章】The Middle East is in chaos. It is still a managed chaos, but the geopolitical tensions could spiral out of control. The region, which just over a year ago was considered as a geographic area no longer seen as pivotal, where geopolitical troubles seemed to subside and the US – traditional great power – looked elsewhere, now has come back to the forefront of global geopolitics.
Much of what is happening in the Middle East is exaggerated. Neither the entire region is pivotal economically nor are there powers able to openly challenge the greater powers. The region remains sandwiched between Russia, China, India and the US from a far, which makes the Middle East vulnerable and highly unstable.
Yet with the war in Gaza, unfolding crisis in the Red Sea, Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian military officers in Syria as well as Iran's active support for various Shia and Sunni actors across the Middle East makes the latter a focus of global geopolitical changes. To this should be added recent tensions between Iran and Pakistan which led to the bombing of each other's territory.
The Middle East is therefore back on agenda of major powers. To be more precise, Russia, China or even India have never stopped regarding the region as a critical area. The change was taking place in the US thinking which over the past several years seemed to shift its attention away to the war in Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific region for more intense competition with China.
The recent events in the Middle East indicated that Washington cannot afford the decrease in its influence in the region. In fact, the US now strongly believes in the need to strengthen its position. For the American leadership the alternative would signal a collapse of the existing balance of power in the Middle East and the rise of a completely new order beneficial to other actors.
It is still however unclear how the US will be able to maintain its posture. The fulcrum of its prestige lies in its stated ability to bring Israel and major Arab states to the table, and the power to keep sealines safe. Both of these missions are now endangered especially the Saudi-Israeli reconciliation because for Saudi Arabia any major rapprochement with the Jewish state amid the brutal war in Gaza will only cause negative reactions from across the Arab world.
This means that Saudi Arabia will prefer a strategy of wait and see and will likely try to extract from the US as many concessions as possible. Among them the most prominent are easy access to the US military industrial sector, potential transfer of some kind of nuclear technologies for civilian pusposes and thirdly an expanded version of military and security cooperation which could involve Washington's security guarantees. At least this is what the statements from the leadership of the two countries aluded to.
Seen from a global perspective, disturbances in the Middle East are not separated events but are intervowen into the shifting world order. More chaotic, brutal and based less on multilateralism, the emerging system will be fraught with many challenges and outrights threats. Coupled with the climate change, insecurity in supply chains and potential new pandemics, these shifts are indeed all-encompassing and turn more threatening with each new instability.
The changing order in the Middle East however does benefit some actors and those are not so much bigger powers such as the US, China, Russia or the EU, but more the so-called middle powers. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey use intensifing rivalry among greater powers and aptly choose not to side with any single power. In an increasingly multi-aligned world overdependence is now seen as dangerous to national interests.
In the Middle East it is not longer a competition between the US and global territorism, not the US against dicatotorship. The Middle East has now turned into a geopolitically overcrowded space and it is hard to draw parallels with any other period from the past centuries when such a multiplicity of actors was vying for influence in the area stretching from the Meditarranean to Pakistan and Central Asia.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia.