Geopolitical shifts in the Middle East: turning away from the West

As the major powers of the Middle East continue to compete with each other for influence, public opinion is increasingly dissatisfied with the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union. On the other hand, Russia and China are gaining popularity.

One of The BBC poll was published last year among Arab youths reveal the United States’ declining popularity: a majority of 57 percent of youth now see the United States as an enemy rather than an ally. Russia, on the other hand, is seen as a close ally by 70 percent of the youth surveyed. Only a fraction of 26 percent see Russia as an enemy.

SPD closed Friedrich Ebert Stiftung recently conducted similar but wider public opinion polls in Israel, Turkey, Iran, and nine other Arab countries.

In five countries traditionally seen as allies of Washington, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, the public trusts Russia more than the US. In seven countries, the war in Ukraine is considered a geopolitical conflict between Russia and the West and not as a war between two countries. Across all nine countries, Washington is seen as the biggest beneficiary of the war.

Russia is better than the US

Across all the countries surveyed, a majority of respondents supported a US military withdrawal from the region. Majorities in seven countries reaffirmed the thesis that a US withdrawal would make the Middle East safer and improve ties in the region. Even in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – Washington’s closest Middle East ally – the prevailing public perception is that a Russian presence in the Arab region is more beneficial than an American presence.

Across all nine countries surveyed, a majority of respondents agreed that Europe relies on the United States for military protection. In seven countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, a majority of respondents opposed a stronger European military presence in the region.

Looking at the current world order, the majority of respondents in six Arab countries see the world moving towards a more multipolar order. In three countries, the current US-dominated order is expected to change soon.

According to another survey by Arabic barometer commissioned by the BBC, China is more popular than the US in eight out of nine Arab countries. Some of these countries are considered old allies of Washington.

Victory in the propaganda war

On social media in the Arab world, the majority of people clearly reject Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Rejection, however, is aimed primarily at the US and the EU: they are held responsible by the Arab public for involving Russia in a war that is economically unprofitable for the Middle East and North Africa.

In various publications, including both pro-governmentand also personalIn the paper, the Arab writer accused the US and EU of applying “double standards”, referring to the US and EU’s strong response to Russia’s war in Ukraine compared to the two actors’ passivity in other international conflicts, such as Israel’s ongoing operation in the Gaza strip. arguethat Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was no worse than the US invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush.

But there are other, deeper reasons for the Arab world’s discontent with the West: the region’s long history of Western colonialism, the West’s continued alignment with Israel, and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many of the Arab Spring generation also feel abandoned by the West which continues to support the region’s authoritarian regimes for economic and political reasons. These factors have fueled the rise of Islamist and anti-Western nationalist currents in recent years.

Despite its role in the Syrian war, Russia is clearly gaining popularity in many Arab countries. This is often seen in the region as a counterbalance to US dominance. Supplying subsidized grain and fuel to several Arab countries has also helped Russia win Arab hearts and minds.

China, on the other hand, is seen by many Arabs as a non-colonial power that has in recent years focused on building economic ties without explicit political ambitions. China is now the Arab countries’ biggest trading partner. The impact of these ties was evident when Arab nations unilaterally sided with Beijing during recent official visits by US and European officials to Taiwan.

Pragmatic balance

Even if public attitudes towards Russia and China are in line with the policies of Arab governments, a political-strategic shift towards China and Russia at the expense of the US and Europe is unlikely in the near future.

The Gulf states cannot do without US military and political protection. In addition, the armies of most Arab countries depend heavily on the supply of weapons from the United States. Arabs cannot do without the highly advanced technological advantage of the West or the billion-dollar Arab-European-American trade balance. Nor can they do without the substantial financial support that the United States and the EU provide to dependent Arab countries through the International Monetary Fund.

But the Arab countries will act pragmatically and realistically. They may gradually loosen their heavy dependence on the West and try to diversify their political, economic and military alliances – either with Russia and China or with neighbors such as Iran, Turkey and even Israel. Like Henry Kissinger recently after the China-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran saidThe multipolar Middle East will be a “new game with new rules”.

Kissinger’s analysis refers not only to the Saudi-Iran agreement to resume relations, but also to other important regional changes. Egypt, Türkiye and Iran have reset their relationship. Five Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Bahrain, have expressed interest in joining the BRICS group, which already includes China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. The BRICS countries may soon outgrow the G7 economic interests, which some Europeans have raises concerns.

Arab states will continue to deepen their alliances with Russia and China and work to develop alternatives to the Western model. The challenge for them is to proceed carefully so as not to provoke the West.

Walid Al-Sheikh

© Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2023

Translated from English by Gaby Lammers

Walid Al-Sheikh is a journalist and political analyst based in Berlin. Follow him Facebook and Twitter on @Walid_Alsheikh.

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