Middle East: New Configuration of Power in the Post-Trump Era

Just before the end of his term, President Trump succeeded in brokering peace agreements as part of a normalization process in the relations between Israel and the Arab world. In the space of a few weeks, Israel was officially recognized through the opening of diplomatic relations by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Meanwhile, it appeared that Saudi Arabia and Oman were on their way to normalize relations with Jerusalem and there were rumors that Indonesia was going to follow the trend. Such rumors in Pakistan, on the other hand, were met by a radical Islamist opposition to any normalization with the Jewish state to such an extent that Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, had to reassert his position of support for the Palestinian state and his opposition to Zionism. This development had come in the wake of Washington recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Israel agreeing not to annex the West Bank, and the full recognition by the US of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, conquered by Israel in the wake of the 1967 war against Syria.

The normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel came in with the United States agreeing to legitimize Morocco’s annexation of Spanish Sahara, a territory which had been vacated by Spain in 1976, something that Rabat had been seeking for a long time regardless of the opposition of the Organization of African Unity and ostensibly against international law and precedent. Trump was able to convince Arab parties to recognize Israel by promising arms and foreign aid, more importantly, opposition to Iran and its nuclear policies gave Washington even more psychological leverage amongst conservative Arab states.

There were a series of factors which allowed President Trump to seize the moment and achieve these diplomatic breakthroughs which contributed to the changing balance of power in the Middle East. These developments had not been expected and did not receive the deserved attention in terms of power shifts in the region and in the international system. Such an evolution will be seen in the context of an increasing shift away from the use of fossil fuels, specifically oil and coal, and an increasing trend towards renewable energy, ranging from solar power to hydrogen power, and as many expected, advanced nuclear power, with a possible move towards nuclear fusion. An indicator of these trends was the realization on the part of some Middle Eastern powers that their possession of oil reserves was not guarantee for future economic wellbeing and security. Thus, confrontation and war with the Jewish state and support for the Palestinian cause had become an ever greater liability for the future of political and economic wellbeing of many states, ranging from Africa to the Persian Gulf.

The trend away from fossil fuel was and is being further highlighted by the concerns over climate change and the policies that states will follow to mitigate the effect of climate change and global warming. Indeed, one crucial concern in the financial world, for example, was the role of the insurance and reinsurance companies in planning new insurance policies and possibly high premiums for catastrophes, fires and severe weather storms such as hurricanes. These trends inevitably influencing the corporations whose profits derive from investments in economic enterprises connected to the energy sector, ranging from oil refining to coal powered power plants, the plastic industry, the automotive industry, air transportation, shipping, and tourism. Areas of interest for alternative and renewable energy sources range from solar power, hydrogen power, nuclear power through both fusion and fission, and eolic power.

The consequences of such a shift for the financial institutions and investment banks, and most importantly for pension funds, are difficult to fathom. In analogous terms, the consequences for international power relations become ever more problematic for forecasting international security trends and future balances of regional and global power. The breakthrough of the Trump Administration in brokering peace agreements in the Middle East is an indicator of how decision makers in Washington crafted US security policies in the Middle East and the Mediterranean to further American interests. Traditionally, as John Kerry and the Obama Administration had kept harping on, there was a constant focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict and how failure to resolve the Palestinian – Israel conflict would block peace from being reached in the region. Indeed, the success and appeal of Iran in the area owed much to its fanatic opposition to the Jewish state and its support for the Palestinian cause. As it was, it turned out that given the trends in the Arab world, the Palestinians could not now veto peaceful relations between Arab states and Jerusalem. The Saudi state did not object to these developments and its role as the guardian of Islamic holy sites, its control over huge petroleum resources, and foreign exchange allowed Saudi rulers to indirectly promote Israeli-Gulf cooperation.

The trend away from the use of fossil fuels is taking place, paradoxically, when Turkey is challenging many of its neighbors for control over oil and gas production in the Mediterranean while truculently threatening Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, France, and the European Union. In fact, Erdogan, at the United Nations was denouncing Trump and the United States, along with Israel in virtually anti-Semitic terms in his promotion of Palestinian rights and independence. Ankara was meanwhile moving arms, mercenaries and advisors into Libya while claiming rights over large swaths of the Mediterranean Sea. The Turkish moves in the Mideast and North Africa were matched by an increasing Russian military and political presence in the region, highlighted by Moscow’s military presence in Syria, and an ever larger navy in the Mediterranean. Trends in the Middle East and Persian Gulf also witnessed an ever increasing interest in Chinese investments, especially in the case of Iran, where the Ayatollahs were enticing Beijing in return for oil, gas, and financial backing of the Iranian economy with the hope of blocking American influence in the Gulf. Peace trends were being paradoxically strengthened by the ever increasing fear on the part of Arab States of Iranian Shiite imperial ambitions that saw a very successful manipulation and control of paramilitary organizations controlled by Iranian officers and the revolutionary guard in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Yemen, and very likely in some African States as Islamic radicalism spread throughout East and West Africa.

As the Gulf saw conservative Sunni Arab States reassess their relations and past confrontations with the state of Israel, the diplomatic breakthroughs were an indicator of shifts in the balance of power in the area as Turkey and Iran were articulating nationalist neo-Islamist ideologies generated by Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. In the 20th Century, the region’s preeminence from West Asia to North Africa was connected to international demand for oil and gas. From the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf, to Libya and Algeria, oil and gas became one of the central themes in international conflict and cooperation with oil producing states manipulating the price of oil. Geology gave these states in the Middle East and North Africa an incredible leverage in extracting concessions both economically and politically from Europe and the United States. However, by 2020, concern about climate change and the increasing CO2 emissions, convinced all nations of the necessity for decreasing the use of fossil fuels and to seek alternatives in renewable energy or nuclear power.

The economic shifts in the evolution of energy alternatives were inevitably shaping the economic evolution of the international system. Leaders of Gulf States, as well as other oil producing nations such as Norway, realized that the demand for advanced technology and scientific research was now as important as the financial resources that had been accumulated in the last two generations. The trend toward peace treaties was structurally driven. Thus, ideology was now taking a more secondary seat in the political calculations of the leadership in the Arab and Islamic world. All the same, it had been inevitable that for some countries ideological considerations did not lose their primary role in their foreign policies, as in the case of Turkey and Iran. By September of 2020, Ankara had goaded Azerbaijan to go to war with Armenia as a conflict between the two Caucasian countries would have enhanced the neo-Ottoman ambitions of Erdogan’s Turkey. Some of Erdogan’s statements were already causing apprehensions in Tehran as he implied by the end of 2020 in Baku that Iranian Azerbaijan, with a Turkish-speaking population, was part of the greater Turkey that Erdogan was envisioning.

Iranian Shi’ite ideology was not to be underestimated in Tehran’s policies as the Ayatollahs’ aggressive moves within the Arab and Islamic world were rationalized in terms of defending Islam and Shiism. Trends in the Gulf toward more peaceful relations with Israel and more cooperation with the United States were ever more motivated by anxiety and fear about Iranian political ambitions. Turkey’s own imperial moves in North Africa, the Caucasus, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Turkish vocal and truculent support for Palestine as it denounced “Zionism” were again indicators of historical ideological motivations that were provoking anxieties in many Arab countries, particularly Egypt, the most important Arab country. Erdogan’s cooptation of the Muslim Brothers, an organization dedicated to Pan-Islamism, and by now based in Turkey after fleeing Egypt, was not to be underestimated. The Muslim Brothers were very influential in Tunisia, Morocco, Qatar and they were supported even by the Iranian Mullahs, regardless of their historical aversion towards Sunnis.

The trends toward new configurations of power relations in the region and in the Mediterranean had been made strategically possible by the fact that in the United States and Canada, more oil and gas was being produced than ever before, and the United States was not dependent on oil imports as the case had been in the 1970s and 1980s. If anything, the US could be an alternative to Europe and Japan for oil and gas. President Trump tried to pressure but failed to convince Germany to abandon the construction of gas pipelines from Russia, offering American gas via maritime routes.

The ever increasing surplus of oil and gas in the world was decreasing the economic power of many states, not only in the Middle East but also in states such as Mexico, Venezuela, Angola and Nigeria, a trend that was enhanced by the discovery of new fossil fuel deposits in the world. In the Mediterranean, the discovery of gas and oil deposits in the territorial waters of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt saw increasing cooperation in building sea pipelines to carry gas through Europe. Cooperation was brought forward amongst gas producing states within an International Organization, including, Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Greece, Italy and Jordan.

What stands out in terms of the historical developments shaping the international system is European Union’s inability and certainly Germany to have a role in promoting peaceful developments in the area. Even the much vaunted role of China in the international system does not see a comparable Chinese involvement in promoting peaceful trends in the area. As it is, the international system relies –as always- on Washington and Moscow with the contributions of Paris and London in promoting a more stable Middle East. That is to say historically the role of the Great Powers that had shaped the Middle East in modern time is not declining. Trump had indeed reasserted American power in the wake of Obama’s failure to resolve some of the more outstanding conflicts of the Middle East. The evolving shift away from the use of fossil fuels has been matched by a reassertion to Great Power politics echoing the developments of European 19th Century history, as Imperial Russia, Great Britain and France competed for hegemony over the territories of a declining Ottoman Empire. The paradox now is that Erdogan’s Turkey has become a revisionist power trying to reassert a historical role more consonant with Ottoman history and reflecting a virulent Turko-Islamic nationalism.

National and international rhetoric about climate change, human rights and the more progressive world has not necessarily impacted on international power politics whilst the arms race in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific were and continue to be harbingers of new political scenarios. Realism and idealism continue to shape international diplomatic activity, national rhetoric and political ideologies regardless of the fact that the Covid-19 virus did have an impact on slowing down diplomatic interaction and that climate change rhetoric appealed to more active political parties in Western countries.

The successful diplomatic activity of the Trump administration which has begun in 2017 with Trump’s visit to the area and Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, triggered the chain of developments that brought more Arab States to recognize Israel. In turn, the expansion of alternatives to fossil fuels, the fear of climate change and new developments in mass communications and artificial intelligence portend to be the harbingers of structural changes in the international political economy.