Is the Middle East moving from a policy of hedging to a more transactional policy?

Oil prices soar as Russian-Ukrainian tensions rise in Virginia, U.S., Feb. 25, 2022. /CFP

Oil prices soar as Russian-Ukrainian tensions rise in Virginia, U.S., Feb. 25, 2022. /CFP

Editor’s note: Guy Burton is Adjunct Professor at Vesalius College, Brussels. The article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Are some Middle Eastern countries beginning to abandon hedging as a foreign policy strategy in favor of more transactional behavior? If so, it could mark a departure and raise questions about the future of international relations in the region.

Hedging is an approach of diversifying relationships and spreading risk while avoiding difficult relationships with anyone. It is an approach that is built with a view to the future.

In contrast, a transactional foreign policy has a more immediate and functional scope. He is more concerned with generating mutually beneficial results at this time.

Among the governments that seem to do so are those that have always been close to the United States. Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey have all taken paths that diverge from Washington’s. Plus, they all seem to be going down a similar path at the same time.

What makes the current behavior of these countries remarkable is that it is taking place in the larger context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Regional governments are being asked to choose a side by their American ally and partner, and the results have not gone according to Washington’s wishes.

While Western countries have crafted sanctions against Russian banks and individuals, the four Middle Eastern countries have avoided doing the same. Saudi Arabia has so far ignored US President Joe Biden’s request to increase oil production and lower oil prices.

Meanwhile, further afield, UAE leaders recently welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – despite longstanding Western opposition to the government and tougher US sanctions in the form of the Caesar law two years ago.

In each case, the reasons of America’s partners have been very pragmatic and self-interested. Israel and Turkey, for example, have interests in Syria, and although they distance themselves from Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, they benefit from coordinating their actions with each other.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both forged business ties with Russia in recent years. Additionally, both countries are part of the OPEC+ group of oil producers which includes Russia and which seeks to keep oil prices high to generate more revenue for their economic diversification strategies.

Some observers have suggested that these countries welcome Russia at the expense of their US ally demonstrating how much the region – and global politics – has changed. The American unipolar moment is over and the Middle East, like the rest of the world, is entering a more multipolar era, where the United States is one of many important powers.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2022 ./CFP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2022 ./CFP

Skepticism about US intentions has also coincided with many of these governments also becoming more active in their foreign policy. This behavior was partly motivated by the fear of the instability generated by the uprisings in the Arab world after 2011 and the collapse it generated both in states and societies, from Syria, Libya and Yemen to Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon.

Against this view there is another, currently untested. What if the assumptions are wrong? What if the United States stops behaving like a disinterested or weak power and instead does well? If so, much of the current behavior of these countries may change.

Certainly, there is room for this to happen. While it is certain that the United States is no longer the sole world power and that many question the foundations of the current Western-dominated liberal order, the fact remains that the United States has substantial resources and capabilities.

At the same time, if the United States decides to put pressure on its partners in the Middle East, it could also have significant consequences for its partners, itself and the region.

On the one hand, if the United States drew lines and demanded that regional governments decide their position, it could help American interests in the short term by ensuring that they align themselves with Washington’s objectives in the regional and global affairs.

However, forcing governments to choose sides could also create problems in the United States. While this would ensure a common front for Washington, it could cause Middle Eastern leaders to question how much of a “partnership” their relationship with the United States is. This could lead to a long-term weakening of mutual trust.

US pressure on its regional allies could also have broader implications for regional international relations. This could put an end to the emergent mode of transactional behavior in foreign policy that we are witnessing. But it can also mean the end of hedging as an option since it usually occurs under conditions of uncertainty and the presence of multiple and competing poles.

In sum, a tougher US approach could have long-term implications for the region. This could limit its partners’ foreign policy options, which, given their growing autonomy in recent years, could translate into growing ill will towards Washington.

Moreover, in the longer term, this could be particularly problematic for the United States if its current global and regional advantage erodes and ceases to be relative. If this were to happen, then the character of the international system of the Middle East could undergo a further transformation in which other powers could become more important and in which the forms of interaction between them and the regional states could be significantly different from this that they currently are.

(If you would like to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at [email protected] Follow @thouse_opinionsTwitter for the latest comments in CGTN’s Opinion section.)

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