In the current geopolitical contest, it can be observed that the balance of power is shifting from the US to the Asian region. Support and relations with countries are significant in maintaining or shifting the balance of power in international relations. Middle eastern countries specifically Saudi Arabia and Iran have a very important role in this regard. These countries, due to their oil wealth and geo-strategic value, have always played a fundamental role in shaping the world order from the era of colonialism to the Cold War, and even post-Cold War.
The US’s shift to the Indo-Pacific region, deteriorating US-Saudi relations, US-Iran hostility, KSA–Iran reconciliation, and the emerging Cold War have allowed both China and Russia space to maneuver in the Middle East. The shift in the relations between Saudi Arabia and the US is primarily because of the latter’s shift to the Indo-Pacific region.
The US wants to contain China which is a major threat to its superpower status, which is why it has been improving its relations with India, ASEAN, and even Solomon Island countries. In addition to this, over the course of history, the US has tried to impose its sets of values on other countries and thus, its habit of policing has pushed countries towards new allies.
President Biden has categorically stated that America will not support Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war because of human rights violations. The US is only providing defensive weapons and security to Saudi Arabia while imposing a ban on providing offensive weapons to it against Yemen.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia, as per its 2030 vision, is shifting its economic dependence away from oil and that is where improving relations with China and Russia is significant. Finally, the sanctions on both Iran and Russia have allowed the two countries to engage in trade which has reduced the economic damage caused by the US’s sanctions.
To begin with, China and Saudi Arabia have been improving relations in the military and technology spheres. Since Saudi Arabia is no longer being facilitated by the US in offensive weapons against Yemen, this need is fully filled by China. China’s policy is to enhance bilateral relations without there being interference in the internal affairs of a state. Therefore, China is now offering Saudi Arabia its C-H4 drones which it can use in Yemen.
In addition to this, Saudi Arabia is now looking to make more deals in weapons with China. It can facilitate it by providing swarm drones, hypersonic missiles, surveillance, and artificial intelligence technology. This is a major shift seen in Saudi Arabia’s policy as it is the largest arms buyer of American weapons.
China is also heavily investing in technology and economic projects in Saudi Arabia. China has recently cemented a deal with Saudi Arabia of $500 billion for the construction of the megacity Neom. The deal also includes Huawei, China’s tech giant, which the US believes is a tool used by China for espionage. Under this deal, Huawei is going to provide data centers and cloud computing while building high-tech complexes.
With this, China has also made a deal of a joint venture of about $207 million with SenseTime, a Chinese tech company that too is banned by the US. Under this agreement, China is going to establish an artificial intelligence lab in Saudi Arabia. Besides this, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) extends to the Middle East. After cementing a 25-year deal with Iran, in 2022, China alone has made a $5.5 billion investment in Saudi Arabia.
The recent OPEC plus announcement of cutting down 200 million barrels of oil per day was seen by the USA as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to favour Russia. Although Saudi Arabia’s official stance is that the decision was primarily based on national interests. In addition to this, Russia is also providing military cooperation to Saudi Arabia, especially in building nuclear reactors.
Relations with Iran
These changing relation trends show that the vacuum created by the pivot to Asia has significantly benefited China and Russia. China has made Iran part of its BRI project and is also buying cheap oil from Iran which otherwise it cannot sell to the international market. Russia is also enhancing its military and economic ties with Iran.
Western countries have claimed that Iran has provided drones including Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6 to Russia for its war in Ukraine. In exchange, Russia has been providing Iran with military and technical support. Russia is also likely to provide 24 Sukhoi Su–35 fighter jets to Iran which are intended to enhance the capacity and modernize Iran’s air force.
Russia’s increasing military alignment with Iran is a threat to the US’s national interests in the region. Furthermore, Russia is also enhancing economic ties with Iran in hydrocarbons. Russian state-owned company Gazprom has signed an MoU of $40 billion to build gas projects including LNG terminals in Iran. It has also pledged to establish mutual trade centers that will help Iran cater to large cargoes that come from Russia through India.
Russia is also developing a trading corridor in partnership with Iran and India. The corridor is going to start from the Persian Gulf and go up all the way to the Caspian Sea by bypassing Europe. The aim behind this trade link is to avoid sanctions from Europe on both Iran and Russia; an attempt by these countries to relocate their supply chains. This is a major success for Russia as it will provide it with direct access to the South Asian markets.
The reconciliation between decades-old arch-rivals Iran and KSA is going to become a watershed moment in the history of the world. As the deal is brokered between these two countries by China, it will not only increase China’s economic but also political influence in the region. This rapprochement is going to reduce the conflict and proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries. Thus, limiting space for the US to maneuver in the region.
After analyzing the entire changing situation of the Middle East, it might not be wrong to say that China and Russia are on the course to take the space that the US once enjoyed in the region.
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