The Middle East in the shadow of the empire

The Middle East in the shadow of the empire

As America‘s moment of domination in the Middle East fades away gradually, it seems that China is gearing up to move in. At the height of unipolarism, it seemed that history itself had come to an end, and that Washington would remain in control of the energy-wealthy Middle East forever.

Nonetheless, in the course of a few years, the world was “Back in the Great Game: The Revenge of Eurasian Land Powers”, as Pepe Escobar describes it. China is playing a high stakes game of Go on a massive scale, incrementally making strategic decisions alongside Russia to render the opponent powerless, despite not having even realized he was under attack. This turn of affairs inspires several important questions: Is China a globalist state?  Will it have better luck than the Americans in this regard? Will Washington willingly leave power? Most importantly, however, is China ready and willing to lead?

The Myth of American Decline

Over the past few years, the United States has begun questioning the global role it once embraced. The empire that Washington absent-mindedly acquired seems to be costing more than it’s worth, and the American government might want to shed the burden. What that might involve is the subject of our analysis. The reversal of fortunes has many Americans worried that the downturn is symptomatic of broader decline. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten and reshape our global economy, there are many uncertainties that lie ahead, Strategists wonder whether corona, wars in the middle east, and the Iraq war have left America so damaged it has fallen into a state of “Imperial decline. Is the post-Soviet “unipolar” world, established after America’s first war against Saddam Hussein in 1991 coming to an end?

Thomas Wright and Stephen Wertheim have been engaged in heated debate around the issue. In general, Wright notes, American alliances, security guarantees, and international economic leadership over recent generations have been a great success. It makes sense to prune lesser commitments, but certainly not to abandon Washington’s essential global role.

On the contrary, says Wertheim: it is precisely the notion of American primacy that needs to go. Instead of policing the world with endless military interventions, Washington should

withdraw from much of the greater Middle East, rein in the “war on terror,” rely on diplomacy instead of force, and concentrate its attention on trying to steer the global economy toward fairer and greener pastures.

For Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “the American era in the Middle East is over “- and because of the geopolitical importance of the Middle East, American global power has also been weakened significantly, perhaps permanently. Zbigniew Brzeziński, national security adviser to Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, blames all three post-cold-war presidents for wasting America’s moment of supremacy. In his recent book, “Second Chance”, he praises George Bush senior for his handling of the collapse of Soviet communism with “delicacy and skill” but ends up giving him a B overall for failing to exploit the victory in Kuwait in 19991 to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. He gives Bill Clinton a mediocre C for his vacillation. George Bush junior gets an unforgiving F for his “catastrophic leadership”. The most powerful image of America, says MR Brzezinski, is no longer the Statue of Liberty but the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Unless MR Bush’s successor takes urgent steps to restore America’s political and moral standing, he says, “the crisis of American superpower will become terminal”, and the epoch of American dominance will be shortened. There are naturally other views on the matter.

Robert Kagan, a prominent commentator, is confident that the American-dominated “unipolar” world will endure. America has weathered worse disasters than Iraq, he says, not least soon after victory in the Second World War, when the Soviet Union developed the hydrogen bomb and communists took power in China. Certainly, America faces stronger regional antagonists, but no one is competing for global supremacy just yet, whether alone or in concert. If anything, many states want America’s help to “balance” a rising China and a growing Russia. He argues that a superpower can maintain its dominant position “as long as potential challengers inspire more fear than sympathy among their neighbors.” We hear a lot of talk about China being America’s strongest challenger, but this is still a hotly debated topic. China nonetheless arouses fear and more questions than answers when it comes to the needs of the Middle East. America may yet prove to have lost a war – be it in Vietnam or Iraq- without ceasing to be a superpower.

Three hardline political commentators offer different ways Washington could lower its sights. Graham Allison suggests dealing with the loss of hegemony by accepting spheres of influence. Jennifer Lind and Daryl Press favor limiting US objectives to whatever the domestic and international markets will bear. Stephen Krasner advises settling for “good enough” governance in the world. Lastly, Kathleen Hicks throws cold water on any hope for dramatic defense cuts, explaining what it would actually take to reduce military spending and why it’s easier said than done.

Similar calls for retrenchment were heard half a century ago, when the United States was at another low ebb in its global fortune, faced with declining relative power, increasing isolationism, a lost war in the periphery, and  a scandal ridden president under siege. However, just a few years later after some creative strategy and diplomacy, the country had extricated itself from Vietnam, reshaped the global balance of power, reestablished its position in Asia, and become the dominant force in the Middle East. Although it took some time, the US economy ultimately rose to the challenge posed by increased international competition and came out stronger for it. Could such miracles be repeated or is it finally time for America to come home, as Foreign Affairs’ Gideon Rose suggests?

China’s silent power

We may be witnessing the beginning of a new chapter in the relationships between China and the Middle East. China will continue to give a lot of attention to Africa and the Middle East.

At a time when the Americans are discussing reordering their security priorities with a so-called “pivot” towards Asia, China, after all, sees the pivot as menacing, despite American efforts to persuade them otherwise. It seems that China will not have better luck than the Americans. Arabs have long urged China to change its policy in the region, and time and again, China (much like America) created further problems for itself. Its tolerance of Israel‘s occupation of Palestinian territories may be the biggest call to jihad for the radicalized young men that Beijing fears the most. Today such criticism is more relevant than ever. Shifts in leadership and the war in Syria will change the Middle East and China‘s relationship with it. There is not much evidence to suggest that China will be any different?

At the end of the day, I think Mr. Xi Jinping will have to do some bold rethinking. We are entering a new era which requires a new type of policy and a big imagination. But is China ready? Diplomatically, as is the case in other areas, China is punching below its weight. As risks grow in the international arena, this might prove to be a less than ideal strategy. Nonetheless, China’s real story is still being written, the country’s true power still to be tested.

The same is true of China’s engagement with the world as a whole, according to two new books. In “China’s Silent Army”, Spanish journalists Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo claim that China is at the height of its expansion across the world and that its long-term vocation is global. The world, they argue, faces a slow but steady conquest that is already laying the foundations for the new world order of the 21st century: “a world under China’s leadership”. The two reporters set out to show, in a highly readable fashion, the growing Chinese impact on every corner of the globe. From the gas fields of Turkmenistan to the bazaars of Dubai and the mines of Congo, they find Chinese workers trying to extract what they can from foreign customers and the earth’s crust. The arrival of goods and people from China is changing how business is done. Chinese traders have taken over the main thoroughfare of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, which is now known as Boulevard Mao. They are plundering Burma’s forests and jade mines. “The Chinese overseas community is like a giant Masonic lodge,” complains one Argentinian. “We feel like we’re living in a Chinese colony,” adds a Peruvian miner, whose mine (and town) were bought by a state-owned Chinese company.

Certainly, there is plenty to complain about. Many Chinese companies bring their own workers to Africa or treat local workers badly when they do hire them. Environmental damage is widespread. The unaccountability of Chinese companies at home is extended abroad as they team up with rapacious local elites.

Economists and other international financial institutions argue that the Chinese loans are not entirely risk free. They are becoming increasingly worried that the East Asian giant is employing carefully disguised “debt trap” diplomacy and burying many developing and poor countries in massive loans and then forcing the highly indebted countries to hand over some of their key infrastructure, like what happened in Sri Lanka. Beijing’s cumulative loans to Africa since 2000 amounted to $124-billion by 2016, according to figures compiled by the China-Africa Research Initiative (CARI).

This is a short summary of some of the worst elements of the spread of Chinese influence around the world, but the hyperbole weakens the argument. The authors claim that all the jobs created, infrastructure built and cheap goods provided are “undoubtedly eclipsed by its approach to labour conditions”, ignoring the fact that Chinese investment brings positive change as well as problems. They indicate that the “Chinese miracle” at home has been a miracle mainly for the political elites, a claim that is easy to disprove simply by walking around any Chinese city. Most improbably, they claim that the world is becoming “Sinicized”.

Another book, ”China Goes Global”, tells the other side of the story. The author, David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University, says it is wrong even to suggest that the world is, or will be, “under China’s leadership”. The country is not nearly as powerful as people think, he argues. Its footprint is “broad, but not deep”. Mr. Shambaugh takes issue with the idea that China is trying to lock up international mineral production and provides statistics to back up his argument. “Buy up, yes,” he writes. “Lock up, no.” Chinese companies’ share of global mining investments was less than 6% of global transactions in 2010. Few Chinese mergers and acquisitions abroad have been successful, and China’s overseas direct investment is on a par with Denmark’s.

The author goes on to look at the country’s global security and cultural presence. He concludes that China has either not tried (in the case of a military presence) or has tried and failed (in pushing its soft power) to expand its influence globally. He believes the notion that China will rule the world to be “profoundly overstated and incorrect”. And he adds that the nation has a “very long way to go before it becomes—if it ever becomes—a true global power”.

Mr. Shambaugh also investigates China’s global economic expansion. Exports, he says, are still dominated by low-end consumer products and there is almost no Chinese brand recognition. “Merely having a global presence does not equal having global power,” he writes. Chinese people and companies may have gone global, but China is not influencing world affairs beyond the realm of trade and the energy markets. It is not influential in addressing and solving global problems because its leaders are too busy trying to address domestic problems. The fact that China does not really have a civil society of its own means it is less likely to engage in civil society abroad. He believes China to be a narrowly self-interested power that ventures overseas to support its own economic growth and little else.

The author admits that he was surprised by his findings. He had expected to come to a very different conclusion. However, in one example after another he provides solid quantitative evidence for his argument. “China Goes Global” is a fascinating and scholarly challenge to the received wisdom about China’s rise, and an important critique of the accepted narrative of Chinese expansionism.

All things said, China is far away from offering a real alternative to the US. It is very clear that China is not in a hurry to grab power, nor is it ready to go beyond vague statements about the importance of cooperation in the Middle East.


In the article I sought to review the change the Arab World has experienced over the last nine years. In analyzing this theme, I hoped to come to understand the impact of agency and contingent choices during this transition. Scholars of political transition have frequently noted the importance of choices for the future shape of regimes and their choices of allies. What may appear to be only temporary compromises often turn into persistent barriers to change, and might set the terms of interaction between social, political, and foreign actors for decades to come. It is very important to notice the link between the myth of American decline and the rise of a New China. We cannot separate the facts from myths, large and small. Several lessons can be drawn from the analysis of this article:

⦁         America will stay in power so long as the American public continues to support American global dominance, and the government remains vigilant and responsive to trouble in China or India, to say nothing of Europe.

⦁         For too long, the US and the EU have mistaken stagnation for stability. It remains a challenge for the transatlantic community to turn the debate away from democracy promotion and its potential pitfalls in the region. The lesson is very daunting: democracy needs more money than talk.

⦁         The international community itself has to change together with the Arab world. In terms of security-oriented foreign policy, the Arab awakening still constitutes a threat. It remains a fundamental challenge for America and Europe, which have substantial geopolitical interests in the region. For now, Western security policies are based on a reverse priority list with Iran on top and economic help further down. Meanwhile, China is still worried as a result of its fresh historical memories. In effect, they remain under the strong influence of two security-driven states in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Israel. While specific recommendations for the US, China, and EU member states in this regard would not be realistic, it is vital that the countries’ representatives act with those considerations in mind and work towards a more balanced approach.

⦁         Admittedly, the West is losing influence among the transitioning Arab states. Their policies will inevitably respond to the popular sentiment to formulate a more independent foreign policy. This does not mean, however, serving ties with Israel or becoming instantly friendly with Iran, though those themes were used by the former regimes to gain legitimacy for their rule internally and internationally. We are beginning to hear the rising voice of the public opinion in shaping the new foreign policy. This is especially the case in regard to new efforts to resume normal relations with Iran.

⦁         The Arab world is predominately preoccupied with who will rule their countries rather than how– in a transitional period this is understandable, but ultimately detrimental, as many of the current grievances such as unemployment and inequality are a result of the pitiful state of the economy. A democracy that cannot deliver basic material needs will not last. Unfortunately, a period of populism is seemingly starting in America, Europe and elsewhere, reinforcing our preoccupation with political games rather than real work. While responsible politicians should know better than to play this game, they have acquiesced to the mood in the street.




Mohamed Sabreen
Mohamed Sabreen is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Newspaper, Cairo. Contributing Editor for Forbes Arabia Magazine, United Arab Emirates, and a member of EUROMED and the Media Task Force. Among the numerous positions he held previously include the Managing Editor of Al Bayan Newspaper (2006- 2007), Media Advisor for the European Union’s Trade Enhancement Program (TEP-A) (2005-2006), Media Coordinator at Al-Riyadh Development Authority, Saudi Arabia (1991-1994), and has been the Contributing Editor for Al-Shark Al-Awsat Newspaper,  Al-Eqtisadiah Newspaper, Sayidaty Magazine, and Al-Majallah Magazine. He is the Permanent Fellow of the World Press Institute and has been a member of the Egyptian Press Syndicate since 1982.

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May 2024