Tectonic shift in the Gulf : The Tribune India

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Tectonic shift in the Gulf

Arab states moving away from the US and towards China

Tectonic shift in the Gulf

Opportunity: The view in the Gulf is that the US has grown distant as it switches focus to other regions, and that China is among those keenest to fill any gap. Reuters

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

The UAE and Saudi Arabian foreign ministries issued a joint statement on Thursday, announcing ‘the success of the mediation led by UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz for the release and exchange of two prisoners between the US and Russia’. The two Gulf Arab states said, ‘The success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the US and Russia.’ Their statement highlighted the ‘important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties.’ It concluded with the foreign ministries expressing ‘the gratitude of their respective governments to the governments of the US and Russia for their cooperation and response, and for the joint mediation efforts made by the leaderships of the two countries.’

Saudi Arabia is protecting its own interests in a world order in transition by opting for a multifaceted set of relationships. India has a lot to learn from this.

No doubt, it was a proud moment for the Emirati and Saudi diplomacy that they mediated between two warring superpowers. But it didn’t last for long. Within hours, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tersely stated that ‘this negotiation was between the US government and Russia’. She refused to concede any role to Prince Salman, and insisted that ‘the only countries that actually negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia’.

On the contrary, the Kremlin thanked Saudi Arabia and the UAE for facilitating the high-profile prisoner swap. Spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, ‘We highly appreciate the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which traditionally make a significant contribution to such processes.’

The neoconservatives in Washington hate to be seen as taking help from two ‘autocrats’ on a human rights issue — albeit, two of the US’ closest allies in West Asia historically. It messages the tectonic shift in the geopolitics of the Gulf region. This shift in India’s extended neighbourhood impacts its core interests.

The backdrop is no less dramatic — a grand welcoming ceremony in Riyadh for Chinese President Xi Jinping with the traditional Al-Ardha (sword dance) at the Murabba Palace; Saudi-Chinese agreement proclaiming comprehensive strategic partnership; decision on biennial summits of the two heads of state; 34 investment agreements covering green energy, transportation, logistics, medical industries and construction; twinning of Vision 2030 with China’s BRI; MoU with Huawei to bolster investments in cloud and establish smart industrial infrastructure in key Saudi cities; Saudi hub for Chinese companies operating regionally, etc.

The Middle East Eye reported that Xi’s visit ‘will elevate these economic synergies to a new level and a possible free trade agreement, oil deals in yuan and membership of BRICS Plus would hugely strengthen Gulf-China ties and further challenge US hegemony.’ The visit signals Beijing’s growing influence in West Asia amid severely strained US-Saudi ties following Saudi refusal to President Biden’s entreaties to the kingdom to boost oil production and Riyadh’s rejection of US demands to roll back ties with China and Russia.

During Xi’s visit, Saudi Arabia hosted two summits with the Gulf and Arab leaders. The view in the Gulf is that the US has grown increasingly distant as it switches focus to other regions — and that China is among those keenest to fill any gap. Saudi Arabia tops the list of destinations for announced Chinese foreign investment in the Gulf region over the past 20 years, totalling $106.5bn, ahead of Kuwait with $97.6bn and $46bn for the UAE, according to Janes IntelTrak data. Saudi Arabia is China’s largest supplier of crude and China is the kingdom’s largest trading partner.

Unsurprisingly, oil loomed large over Xi’s visit, although China’s relationship with the kingdom and other Gulf countries has gone beyond oil in recent years, particularly when it comes to technology. The US has offered to work with Riyadh on 5G technology, but Saudi elites — unlike India’s — refuse to be the captives of western technology. US hackles have also been raised by speculation that Saudi Arabia could shift to settle its trade with China in renminbi.

Saudi Arabia is only protecting its own interests and its future in a world order in transition by opting for a multifaceted set of relationships. The Saudis see their future in the East, primarily based on economic interests. India has a lot to learn from this. Another key lesson here is that in West Asia, the role of external players has sharply declined and the interaction of regional players is becoming the driving force. India’s misplaced hopes and expectations anchored on US-led regional formats like the Abraham Accords, I2U2 and the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain look unrealistic and outdated.

Third, the capacity of the great powers to pursue their own agenda in the West Asian region is diminishing while the role of the leading regional states is increasing. Going ahead, therefore, India should expect the regional players — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Qatar — to make their own decisions based on their perceptions and capabilities rather than on the interests of outsiders.

This calls for adjustments on India’s part. The recent controversy over the reported visit of Zakir Naik to give religious sermons in Qatar is a case in point. In such situations, the prudent thing to do and the effective tactic to adopt for external players will be to refrain from trying to impose something, but to build India’s interests into the system created by local actors. Russia and China have had remarkable success in this direction. On the contrary, the boorishness of the White House in snubbing the Saudi and Emirati rulers shows the US’ unwillingness or inability two adjust to the spirit of our times.

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