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Middle East 2021 Changing Geopolitical Landscape & the United States

Paper No. 6763                          Dated 7-Mar-2021
By Dr Subhash Kapila
The Middle East Region in 2021 presents a complicated kaleidoscope
of churning of established geopolitical patterns and military
alignments as the United States and Russia jostle for influence with
China joining in substantively. Major regional States like Saudi
Arabia, Turkey and Iran and Israel also reflect the same churn
Notably, in 2021, the Middle East power-play of the United States,
Russia and China is no longer energy security-centric but has
emerged as a critical arena for the United States, Russia and China to
create strategic pressure points against each other related to lessening
strategic pressures applied elsewhere.
Overall, the United States even in 2021 enjoys geopolitical and
military predominance in the Middle East. In fact United States
predominance over Russia and China is notably asymmetrical with no
indicators to suggest that United States power in the Middle East is on
the decline.
The United States continues to enjoy considerable military
intervention power and capabilities in the Middle East as exhibited
from time to time. This emerges from considerable US naval
deployments in The Gulf, access to military bases of Gulf Monarchies
and Iraq. Also, virtually he entire Middle East Region is aligned with
the United States with the exception of the Northern Tier and Iran.
Russia has a limited sphere of influence comprising Syria, and Iran.
Russia has demonstrated military intervention capabilities in Syria
and its naval presence is limited to Eastern Mediterranean. Russia
however has geopolitical links with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with both
of them using Russia as hedging strategies. Russia carries out joint
naval exercises with Iran and has recently signed an ‘Intelligence &
Counter-Terrorism Agreement’ with Iran.
China in the past decade on the pretext of joining in the global naval
effort to control Somali pirates at sea is now maintaining a naval
presence in the Horn of Africa and in the approaches to The Gulf.
China has also been able to establish its first overseas military base at
Djibouti with multiple strategic aims of sustaining its naval presence
in the Middle East Region, Indian Ocean and also as a stepping stone
for extending its influence towards the Mediterranean Sea comprising
Southern Flank of NATO.
China has no notable sphere of influence in the Middle East with
exception of Iran with which it is said to have agreed for a Strategic
Partnership--- at least the Draft has been agreed upon.
The regional power contenders comprising Turkey, Saudi Arabia and
Iran present shifting patterns of geopolitical relationships and seem to
be playing off strategic cards of one Major Powers against each other.
Turkey under the last couple of years under President Erdogan with
megalomaniac illusions of Ottoman Empire grandeur stands out
distinctively as the one Middle East regional power which has not
only worked against the United States in recent years but flirting
alternatively with Russia and China. Turkey is emerging as a strategic
concern with its unwarranted military interventions in Syria and
Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has not only gone into a geopolitical downslide under
President Erdogan----theme of one of my Papers last year--- but also
now risks expulsion from the Euro-Atlantic NATO military alliance
of which it had been a long-standing ally from the Cold War era.
Turkey has antagonised both United States and Russia and it is
speculated that it could enhance strategic relations with China which
would need Turkey for China’s Mediterranean Sea naval ambitions.
Saudi Arabia has for long been a steadfast ally of the United States
with some aberrant short periods thrown in. US-Saudi Arabia
relations were robust and strong under President Trump but some
connotational changes may take place under President Biden over
Crown Prince Suleiman’s role. However, contextually, the United
States Biden Administration would have to continue to strategically
bolster Saudi Arabia with Iran and Turkey adversarially disposed
against the United States.
Iran which was once the main pillar of United States security
architecture till the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is ripe for the United
States to be reclaimed as such once more again. The new US
President Biden though indicating shifting signs in its Iran-policy
formulations has yet to come to grips with firm contours of a total
reset of its relations with ran to its strategic benefits. Iran therefore
continues to be in United States adversarial strategic cross-hairs
leaving scope for Russia and China to exploit.
The major geopolitical churning in the Middle East that has recently
taken place setting in motion new equations arises from Gulf States
like UAE normalising relations with Israel, with speculation that
Saudi Arabia too may soon follow suit. This changes the geopolitical
landscape in the Middle Eat for Russia and China as it would deprive
them of playing on Arab countries emotive fears and distrust of Israel.
The United States is a geopolitical gainer here.
The second notable geopolitical development concerns India which in
recent years has been able under leadership of PM Narendra Modi has
been able to forge substantive strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and the
UAE. Increasing military cooperation is visible. This overturns the
geopolitical advantages that Pakistan and China were exploiting in
The Gulf. These new relationships place India as an important
strategic player in the Middle East with convergent aims with the
United States and Israel.
With the above contextual geopolitical backdrop of the Middle East in
2021, in terms of China using the Middle East as a counter-strategic
pressure point against the United Sates in relation to military
bolstering up Taiwan or China’s military containment by America can
be said to have been lost by China.
China in past decades had displayed this propensity to ward off
United Sates strategic pressures in the Western Pacific.
Russia other than Syria does not seem to have many cards to apply
strategic pressure points in the Middle East against the United States.
However, what needs to be pointed out is that in terms of nuclear
weaponisation of the Middle East, there are disturbing signs that
Pakistan aided by China is actively involved in assisting Turkey to
evolve a nuclear weapons arsenal. That accounts for Turkey under
President Erdogan giving oversized importance to relations with
This could be a serious destabilising factor for the Middle East unless
the United States sets in motion a positive reset of relations with Iran
which too is said to be only a screw driver turn away from production
of nuclear weapons.
If Turkey and Iran emerge as nuclear weapons states in the Middle
East then Saudi Arabia cannot be left far behind. In past decades it
was being aired that Pakistan was involved with Saudi Arabia either
to provide nuclear weapons technology or access to Pakistan nuclear
weapons in case of an Iranian invasion. With changed geopolitical
equations Saudi Arabia may not be left with any option but to seek a
‘Nuclear Umbrella” of the United States
Concluding Observations
The United States despite its overall predominance may be impelled
to shift its focussed strategic concentration to the Asia Pacific to limit
the burgeoning China Threat menacing the horizon there. But much as
it would like to do so the United States under any political
dispensation would not be able to downsize its military embedment in
the Middle East.
China’s containment in the Western Pacific by the United States
could become that much easier if the United States unhesitatingly
resets relations with Iran and disciplines Turkey’s military
adventurism in the Middle East and East Mediterranean.
Geopolitical space exists for above initiatives for the United States as
NATO and India as the next door Regional Power contiguous to the
Middle East in 2021 enjoy strategic convergences on this count.
Strategically, the above would greatly jeopardise China’s ambitions
and plans for overland routes of energy supplies from the Middle
Therefore, the United States can be expected to remain and retain its
century old geopolitical and military predominance over the Middle