Political Developments

The EastMed from Below: Why Low Geopolitics Matter

One of the paradoxes of geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East regions is that, despite their inherent complexity, they are often interpreted through too simplistic explanations to understand the dynamics of regional instability and define the security challenges (“war for oil”, “Crusades”, “Jihadist war”, “war against terrorism” etc.) Nevertheless, as the result of the dramatic chain events following the war in Iraq and the so- called “Arab Spring”, broader international audiences have been gradually becoming more acquainted with the dangers stemming from the fragmented social fabric of the region. Regional complexity and the existence of sub-state systems of interest mean that focusing exclusively on “high geopolitics” or international diplomacy is not enough to understand the deep currents of change flowing across the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean without developing a deeper understanding of the security drivers of indigenous actors. For this reason, it is vital to include the “internal realities” and peculiarities of local actors into any analytical frame seeking to explain and understand geopolitical change in the region.

First, state sovereignty in the region has ceased to be taken for granted; geographical boundaries and areas of jurisdiction are increasingly contested, and conflicts evolve on at least three intersecting levels: national, transnational, and international. As a result, geopolitical orders change as the historic blocs whose commitments are central to them are replaced or reformulated around new commitments and strategies. In fact, post-imperial borders have since the early 20th century shaped rigid perceptions of jurisdictional landscape in the region. Borders designated from afresh the morphological and anthropological nature and meaning of territory and for decades boundaries outlined the juridical space and sphere of influence that represented the line of physical contact between people and authorities and naturally afforded opportunities for cooperation and discord. The established function of nation-state borders has growingly come to impose the limits of territoriality, denote sovereignty over people and land, and represent a limit to state action. Yet this pattern of geospatial division from “above”, and the ways it was misused, needs to be re-examined as it has proven fiercely problematic for the region and its people alike, failing to resolve the internal security dilemmas and instil trust.

Although border settlements rarely postulate an ideal coincidence between place and culture, boundaries are usually accepted as perimeters of discrete cultural entities, impeccably homogeneous internally and neatly dissimilar externally. However, borders in the Middle East region barely delimitate natural or self-evident differences between separate ethnographic landscapes, but define zones variously demarcating separation or interaction between trans- border realities and spaces. Today, the Middle East as a whole is a region in which boundaries on landscapes steer up cross-border mobility, induced by vital local and national inter- dependencies within an often-contested territorial environment. In this manner, borders have been instrumental in turning up culturally, religiously and politically interconnected landscapes into fragmented and oppressive spheres of authority, sowing up the seeds of discord.

From a macro-geopolitical point of view, the Eastern Mediterranean region constitutes a “borderland region” itself. As such, it could be investigated as a transition area or a strategic crossroads, or even a contact zone blending the Orient with the Occidental. But, for a deeper understanding of system dynamics and for defining the security trends in the region one must go beyond the epiphenomenal state-system relations and “national strategies” and focus more on the ‘low geopolitical’ perspective. These lower perspectives are intrinsically geospatial, focusing on the delicate ethno-political and religious synthesis and balance in the region as reflected on the nature of cross-border affiliations and interests.

Second, the developing political contestations and the ensuing destabilization and overthrow of established regimes have exposed some interesting albeit multifarious interlinkages reflected on the theatres of conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The fluidity caused by the Arab Spring domino has led to the grouping and spreading of indigenous heterogeneous forces beyond formal borders, activating a distinct clash of interests and leading up to the constellation of newly emerging power-blocks and alliances as a result of the overlapping security contestations between revisionist and status quo actors. Initially, the revival and mobilization of interethnic affiliations along the Turkey-Syria-Iraq axis exposed the interconnectedness and dormant dynamics in the region, changing the way in which the region has traditionally been viewed and examined by policymakers.

Dominant transnational dichotomies, such as secularism vs political Islam, Sunni vs Shia, Christianity vs Islam, and critical minority/majority contestations shape current security perceptions and define the role of influential actors and alliances across the region. Cleavages have become politically divisive due to the reconfiguration of power-relations and the triggering of counter-reactions, and because of the emergence of novel security notions, which are partly inspired by a deliberate instrumentalization of “otherness” and the use of “proxies” by international powers. This ongoing security transition has exposed not only the transnational nature of dependencies and the cross-border character of activities in the region, posing questions as to the intrinsic challenge of democratic state-formation and ethnic accommodation in the region – but it has also nurtured a drastic, yet still fluid rearrangement of international and regional power politics. Regional state and sub-state leaderships feel the need of positioning themselves in this rivalry nexus in one way or another.

Third, security interests and confrontations in the region cut through horizontally; all states in the region face internal power contestations, while alliances are formed not only between states, but also across sub-state actors in the region. This inevitably makes it very difficult for states to decide with whom and on what for to align. Developments on the lower strands of the geopolitical (dis)order offer a perspective of the upcoming forces shaping the region, the pressures and opportunities that may arise and the risk-measures required to counter these with a view of preventing the emergence of hegemony, control, and dependence. The Eastmed region is an important security sub-system in flux; in search of order and equilibrium. Neither order in such a complex area nor any kind of regional equilibrium could ever be successfully promoted from “above” without mapping, understanding, accommodating, and stabilizing the ‘lower geopolitical’ landscape.

Dr. Pavlos I. Koktsidis
Adj. Lecturer, Department of Social & Political Sciences University of Cyprus

Natural Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Regional Destabilizer and the Quest for a Security Provider

The relatively newly-found natural gas reserves in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), coupled with the much more significant findings in Israel and Egypt generated over-excitement and disproportionate optimism regarding the economic future of the island, the prospects for a settlement to the Cyprus problem, and even regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Alas, the findings created more challenges than opportunities. This piece deals with the developing regional instability due to the ongoing Turkish aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean and the European Union’s (EU) inability to act as a security provider.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, neither the initial findings, nor the more recent (potential) findings in Block 6 of the Cypriot EEZ, actually contributed towards either the normalization of regional bilateral relations or the settlement of one of the most protracted conflicts in the world. On the contrary, the hydrocarbons in the Cypriot EEZ have become yet another excuse to highlight the complexities that dominate the Eastern Mediterranean regional inter-state relations, primarily among Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus (RoC), Israel, Egypt and to a lesser extend Greece. The regional complexities are defined by the deeply securitized status between Turkey and the RoC, the ‘cold’ relations between Egypt and Turkey, as well as the politically cold, but economically stable, relations between the former and Israel. The numerous trilateral agreements among Egypt, the RoC, Israel, and Greece, only exacerbated the challenges as Turkey was left out from the developments of a region in which it believes to have the primary role as an aspiring regional hegemon.

There is also a noteworthy exaggeration from almost all parties regarding the importance of the Cypriot findings for the periphery and Europe, which revolves primarily around two axes: (a) the degree of the natural gas supply diversification for Europe and (b) the potential positive impact on regional political relations. Leaving aside the current small confirmed quantities which cannot in any, for the time being at least, act as a natural gas alternative for the EU, the focus should be whether these or future findings, could actually change the regional negative political relations.

Could the hydrocarbons lead to regional peace and stability?

The existing evidence does not support the argument of “peace pipelines”. There is no concrete proof that energy relations lead to the alleviation of conflict; on the contrary, stable and cooperative political behavior is usually a prerequisite before the development of any energy-related investments. If anything, energy as a referent object of security has a multiplier effect on the states’ political securitization relations, meaning that in cases where states have deeply securitized political relations, energy is more likely to enhance the security concerns and enhance the securitized environment, and the reverse; desecuritized political relations ‘allow’ for energy collaborations, and the latter will most likely strengthen the former. The impact of energy on de/securitization relations lies on the fact that hydrocarbons and oil are very rarely treated solely as economic commodities. More often than not, they are also used as political tools to enhance states’ foreign policy influence and empower their political position vis-à- vis adversaries.

The Eastern Mediterranean and specifically Cyprus and Turkey that are at the heart of the developments act as witness to the aforementioned arguments. It is easily observable that in cases where political relationships are desecuritized – e.g. Cyprus with Israel and Egypt – there is room for collaboration and the discovery of hydrocarbons enhanced their bilateral relations on a political, economic and even military level (see for instance the numerous defense-related agreements between the RoC and Israel). The reverse is true for the RoC- Turkey relations, which are increasingly becoming more securitized because of the hydrocarbons, enhancing dramatically the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish warships have already prevented the Italian ENI from reaching its drilling target in Plot 3. Erdogan also warned that Turkey will prevent any future exploration efforts, while it promised to send its own drill ship in the contested RoC EEZ. There is little doubt that both ‘promises’ will significantly heighten the tensions between Turkey and all other actors (including the EU), reduce even further the prospects for settlement of the Cyprus conflict, and pose more challenges for the security providers of the region.

Can the EU become a regional security provider?

There is a relatively high risk of a Turkish confrontation with international drill ships, much like there is a risk of confrontation (or a mistake) in the Aegean Sea between Greek and Turkish forces, making the prospects for a full blown Eastern Mediterranean crisis a real possibility. The regional stability is anything but guaranteed, and the EU has to decide whether or not it wants and can take the responsibility of the security provider in the
southeastern part of its borders. Any attempt to act as a security provider will have to overcome Turkey’s own aspirations for the specific role. Indeed, Turkey’s hegemonic aspirations and more importantly the way it pursues them pose quite a big challenge. As an aspiring hegemon, Turkey believes that it cannot stand idle to the regional developments. In 2008 the then Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized the position that ‘Turkey is not a state that follows the fact but guides them’. Similarly, he noted that Turkey ‘cannot define itself in a defensive manner’, further arguing that Turkey’s new regional active role is to ‘provide security and stability not only for itself, but also for its neighboring regions’.

To act as a security provider the EU must overcome one major challenge – in addition to the absence of real security mechanisms – namely the fact that it forgot how to think geopolitically. Its overreliance on NATO for decades and the sole focus on soft power since the end of the Cold War contributed to this problem, which means that it now has to re-learn how to develop a geopolitical culture. The events in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as the developments in the Middle East, have demonstrated that the EU is essentially a toothless tiger when it comes to issues of hard security. The developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, coupled with the relative US withdrawal from the wider region of the Middle East, pose yet another challenge, but also an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate that it can have a much bigger role to play in its region and beyond.

The Opportunity: It is of utmost importance for the EU to maintain the stability in the sub-Regional Security Complex (RSC) of the Eastern Mediterranean, and this is a great opportunity to project some form of power, and more importantly, its willingness to act. Clearly it is irrational to expect that the EU will become a military power overnight, but some form of harder soft power is necessary in cases where different actors play by different rules, some of which include the presence of warships in an EU member state’s EEZ. If successful, it can use its actions as a stepping stone to extend its influence and global reach beyond the EU borders. It will also enhance its credibility as a security provider within the EU and more importantly in the periphery, while it will further justify the need for more mainstream security initiatives along the lines of PESCO.

The Challenge: The aforementioned opportunity is also a major risk if not utilized. Specifically, if the EU fails to act as a security provider, it will send a very clear message, namely that the Union cannot even protect a Member State’s interests from a candidate state! If the EU is incapable of protecting its own backyard, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to build a reputation and the associated credibility that would allow the Union to act as a security and peace provider in the eastern and southern periphery; a notion that is adopted by essentially everyone, including many EU officials. EU tolerance towards Turkey’s aggressive behavior only weakens the EU position and vision for more global influence, as outlined in the most recent Global Strategy.

We should make no mistake; the Eastern Mediterranean is in need for a security provider. There is a huge power gap in the specific sub-RSC, and in the absence of a strong EU and US presence, the region is “up for grabs” with Turkey being the prime candidate to win the competition. The problem is that Turkey does not behave in a way that facilitates regional stability; on the contrary through, literally, gunboat diplomacy it enhances both the regional security dilemmas as well as the need for a regional security provider. In the absence of one, the hydrocarbon findings are likely to politically split the region in two antagonistic parts with zero-sum interests. Political – and potentially military – relationships are likely to become further securitized, leading to a region, partly within the EU outer borders, of constant uneasiness and potential instability. Security gaps rarely remain vacant for long; if the EU is unwilling to fill this gap, then some other actor will, be it a regional one, such as Turkey, or an external one such as Russia or the US, or perhaps a combination. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for specific EU states to further detach their geopolitical role and goals from the EU’s. Countries like France could take on this opportunity, which would most likely be welcomed by countries like Cyprus, not least because the Turkish alternative is unacceptable, but this is not necessarily a positive development of the long-term EU strategic and geopolitical goals.

Constantinos Adamides
Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Department of Politics and Governance
Director of the Diplomatic Academy
University of Nicosia

Can East Med Gas Resources Help Resolve the Cyprus Issue?

The discovery over a period of seven years, (2008-2015) of approximately 2,56 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas beneath the waters of the Exclusive Economic Zones of Cyprus appears to have revolutionized the regional geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. Some of the conventional thinking which resulted from their evaluation is that the region will have a major impact on Europe’s gas diversification strategy assisting it to significantly diminish its dependence on Russia by exporting to the EU anywhere between 20-50 bcm/year, while at the same time help to solve the Cyprus problem.

These projections also failed to take notice of the extensive history of the global oil & gas industry over the last 110 years that essentially reconfirmed the hypothesis that oil & gas reserves by themselves do not alter but usually consolidate the pre-existing geopolitical power trajectories in the region where they are discovered. If the trajectory of regional geopolitics is cooperative, cooperation is enhanced.

If it is contentious, conflict (or the possibility of conflict) in enhanced. In other words, there is not (and never has been in the geopolitical history of the oil industry) such as thing as a “peace pipeline”. There is little chance that these discoveries could provide a critical positive incentive to change the cost/benefit analysis of the parties involved in the region’s entrenched conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, the maritime disputes between Israel and Lebanon or for that matter the Cyprus conflict.

The discovery of the Gaza Marine field in the EEZ of the future Palestinian state in 1999 did not move Israel or the Palestinians closer to peace. The discovery and monetization of Leviathan in Israel as well as the contested claims between Lebanon and Israel over an 854km 2 portion in their respective EEZ did not seriously worsen their bilateral relationship nor did it stop Lebanon from moving forward with its own exploration round that was completed after a four years delay in late 2017.

The proposed linkage of the Cyprus Question with the monetization of Cypriot Gas reserves boils down to the erroneous understanding that the potential revenues generated by the export of these gas reserves can act as a “peace incentive” for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots since (a) it would limit Turkey’s own dependence on Russian gas and further diversify EU gas imports from Moscow via Turkey, (b) give a positive incentive to the Turkish-Cypriots to share the ROC’s prospective wealth and (c) provide a major means of financing the cost of reunification thereby facilitating an overall settlement.

Let’s Talk Turkey: Facts Vs Perceptions

The volume of the potential gas exports Turkey could realistically import, not only from Cyprus, but from Cyprus and Israel as a whole, are too limited to generate a major shift on Turkey’s policy of continued military occupation and colonization. If Cyprus was to sign a standard 15 years contract in order to sell 7,5 bcm/y from its single commercially exploitable discovery, the Aphrodite field, this would amount to around 11% of Turkish demand that is expected, according to the projection of the Turkish Energy Ministry to reach around 65 bcm/y by 2023-2025 although this estimate may is likely to be overoptimistic regarding the pace of the projected demand increase for Turkey’s gas markets.

Moreover, even in cases when the bargaining power relationship is reversed, as it is partly the case between Russia and Turkey, Ankara is highly unlikely to make key foreign policy concessions in order to get cheaper and/or more diversified gas imports.

If Turkey, which is dependent on Russia for almost 53% of its gas demand, would shoot down Russian military jets for allegedly violating its airspace for 17 seconds in December 2015; what kind of concessions the Israelis and much more so the Greek Cypriots could expect to get before selling Ankara respectively 60% and 100% of their net export capacity?

It would also represent 100% of Cypriot exports tied to one market, exported via one route and liked to one price not a very promising option given the mercurial diplomacy of Mr. Erdogan. Under this scenario Cypriot exports to the EU are not an option. All the gas remains in Turkey and is consumed for Turkey’s domestic needs, an unwelcoming prospect for most Cypriot political forces which want to see Cypriot gas contributing in the EU’s gas import diversification.

No Easy Wealth: Can Cypriot Gas Exports Pay for the Costs of Re-unification?

Unfortunately Turkish Cypriot political parties appear to be more focused on securing an equal right with the RoC in granting the licenses to the International Oil Companies (IOC) and in sharing the gas profits -even in the absence of a solution- than constructively engaging the Greek Cypriots on issues of critical importance to Nicosia and Athens, such as Turkey’s rights of military intervention and the presence of Turkish troops in Cyprus even after a settlement is reached.

Turkish Cypriot political forces would essentially prefer for Nicosia to stop all hydrocarbon related activities which they deem as illegal and unilateral. Their demand to share licensing authority is nothing short of demanding the recognition of their self-proclaimed “TRNC” by the internationally recognized government of the country and that is something that no Cypriot President or Greek-Cypriot political party can accept.

Finally, the potential net profits generated by Aphrodite’s monetization will be -although significant- too limited to allow the RoC to self-finance the majority of its reunification costs that could reach anywhere between €20-25 billion. The current basic scenario Cyprus is working on is based on price of $6,5 MMbtu (million British thermal units) projecting an average net annual inflow of revenues estimated to be between EUR 370-420 million over a 15 years period.

This projected wealth is not something that will be immediately available. Even if the export contract was signed today it would take until 2021-2022 for the exports to start and for 2025-2026 for any serious revenue to begin flowing into the coffers of Cyprus, reunited or not. This is hardly enough to cover a substantial cost of reunification expenses, including compensation of the refugees that must be available during the first post-settlement years, in order for any settlement plan to have a realistic chance of being accepted by the majority of Greek Cypriots in a referendum.

Dr. Theodoros Tsakiris
Assistant Professor of Geopolitics and Energy Policy, University of Nicosia
Member of the Board, Hellenic Association for Energy Economics (HAEE)

Cyprus Problem and the Day After: From Conflict Management to Crisis Management

This short piece intends to initiate a new research agenda for the Cyprus Problem. An extended literature, as well as a number of reports and analyses, focus on alternative options for arranging the problem. Little, if any work has been made however on the day after a settlement is reached. Under what conditions a Cyprus settlement will be made viable? When such a question is raised the short answer is that “we can’t work on the day after when the basic provisions of the settlement are not known.” Knowing the details of an arrangement is an important pre-requisite for contemplating on the day after, but such a knowledge is neither necessary nor essential for planning the day after. International experience on post-conflict societies offers a very good basis for designing some contingency plans, as well as for thinking ahead of the day after.

One should not expect that if a settlement is reached the Cypriot society will evade polarization overnight. Neither should one expect that disengagement from third-state influence will be easily achieved. History is tough, but the future of the island must not be based on historic mistakes. Recent developments demonstrate that real or perceived threats across the communities, as well as across other parties which are involved in the Cyprus conundrum, may trigger minor or major crises that could develop into a perfect storm. The 1960s experience must have taught some lessons. Overcoming past and present concerns and reservations for reaching an agreement is very difficult, but putting an agreement into effect is much more challenging.

The most crucial, still least discussed aspect of a political settlement is a successful transitional period. Both policy-makers and people need to know that a settlement will go through a transitional period. It is necessary to envisage the fundamental mechanisms and institutions that will guarantee a successful transition and prevent an unfortunate collapse during such a transition. In the post-Cold War era almost one out of two peace deals fail during the transitional period. Transitional periods in post-conflict societies are very risky. Both the political system and the society are stressed by contingent or intentional crises that, if not tackled at their inception, they may go out of control and the whole structure may go astray.

The post-settlement situation in Cyprus will not be a harmonious one. It will probably evolve around a relatively long period of crises. Bearing that in mind, one should expect that the Cyprus problem will not be settled up until the system will be able to swiftly, effectively and justly tackle these crises. A comprehensive survey by the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD) demonstrates that there are a number of possible triggers for crises in Cyprus after a settlement (see https://www.seedsofpeace.eu/index.php/where-we-work/europe/cyprus/security-dialogue-project/interim-research-findings-and-a-new-security-architecture ). On reflection, SeeD team put forth a number of recommendations for a new Security Architecture in Cyprus. That Architecture is based on the principle of endogenous resilience and suggests that both preventive and reactive institutions and mechanisms must be in place from day one. Some of these mechanisms must be in place even before the settlement is put in effect, i.e. during the interim period between a formal agreement and the referenda. At the moment SeeD team is refining propositions for a comprehensive proposal of some Special Transitional Arrangements.

Since January 2017, the relevant parties have opened talks on the security dossier. No comprehensive discussion however was pursued for addressing Cyprus’ post-settlement needs in terms of crisis management, security institutions and transitional arrangements. Talks on security are confined to traditional bargaining positions over foreign troops and military guarantees. Any compromise on these issues will be controversial and most of all it will probably not be relevant to the actual (internal and external) security needs of Cyprus in the new era. Serving third-state security interests and priorities may not be compatible with Cyprus’ security interests and priorities.

It is high time to delve into these issues in a comprehensive manner with a new methodology. So far the security dossier was mostly discussed among the historic guarantor powers. Community leaders were also engaged in discussions about the role of guarantor powers. That method engenders no progress. Instead it produces more disputes, polarization and deadlocks. A comprehensive discussion on security must be based on a detailed and nuanced threat analysis, as well as on the security institutions –soft and hard security institutions– that will address these threats. Most of all a security architecture for Cyprus must be based on certain principles and a shared vision. To reach such an outcome a democratic participatory method must be followed that will engage the people of Cyprus and all the relevant stakeholders. International organizations, such as the UN, the EU and OSCE should also be part of these deliberations. Historic guarantor powers may offer advice and support, but their role should not militate against a self-sustained and endogenously resilient security architecture in Cyprus.

One should make no mistake. A settlement to the Cyprus problem will not be the end of history. Cyprus and its communities will have to come to terms with the challenges of the day after, domestic, regional and global. The attention will definitely be shifted away from the management of a conflict to the management of post-settlement crises. Serious preparation, thought and planning are needed to that end. To put that in an aphoristic manner, for as long as there is no commitment to that direction there is no genuine eagerness for a comprehensive, viable and lasting solution to the Cyprus problem. To the contrary, ill-preparation may conceal intentions for a new, post-settlement Cyprus conflict. Cypriots have seen enough in 1960s and 1970s. They should not repeat the same mistakes.

Giorgos Kentas
Associate Professor of International Politics and Governance
Senior Researcher

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 1, February 2017″

The Middle East: Back to Basics

The region of the Middle East is supplying us with top news headlines practically on daily basis, and unfortunately, most of them are of tragic nature. The frequency and scale of information coming from the region is so massive and diverse that many simply no longer follow them, and those who do discuss and focus only on the “latest” news. The same applies to experts and commentators on TV and the radio, whom we also have in abundant supply.

Without being a trained expert on the Middle East but having an experience of working in the “neighbourhood”, I conducted a small personal experiment recently – I picked a couple of “respectable” international editorials (although, I am in doubt what is the criteria and how to measure “respect” to all forms of media content supplies nowadays), and checked their news lines, commentaries and analysis columns on the region for one month, and then tried to see what kind of picture of the region this barrage of information creates for an average reader.

The result, in general, met my expectations – it was total confusion. The content is dominated by description of the most recent events accompanied by reactions from officials, and diverging expert opinions of what to expect or what should be done in the coming days or, maximum, weeks by the main actors. Commentaries from the officials and quoted experts (including columns in the “analysis” category) leave the impression that everyone is focused only on the short-term and pre-occupied with the immediate situational micromanagement.

I very much hope that this is only the impression created by the media, and those who make decisions in the region and beyond, do have well trained and experienced expert teams, who provide solid advice, develop and try to implement medium and long term strategies. Although, series of actions undertaken by some regional and global actors from time to time leave the taste of spontaneity, adventurism, personal ego of the leaders and dangerous gambling without clear logic and goal.

On the other hand, developments unravelling in other parts of the world demonstrate similar behavioural patterns (though with much less blood and human tragedy), and therefore, perhaps, everything we witness today across the Middle East should be put into global and historical context. And all that gambling and adventurism is a sign of growing uncertainty and anxiety, which in turn stems from the crisis of the whole global model – the model, which broadly speaking, was in place since the end of the WW2, and which is now reaching its expiration date in front of our eyes.

We do not know how the new world will look like but it is clear already now that the Middle East will be one of those regions, which will be re-shaped most dramatically as a result, and it is the broader Middle East due to its geographic, religious, economic, and hence, geopolitical centrality as the main “crossroads” of the planet will be affecting the rest of the world in the ways most unpredictable – the Middle East, which is the connecting point between Europe, Asia and Africa, the birthplace of three world religions as well as major oil and gas region on the planet.

The Oriental wisdom says that when you are lost and do not know which way to go, you should come back to where you started. In other words, if one tries to figure out which forces going to shape developments and long-term future of the region in this environment of information glut and barrage of short-term expert opinions, one should go back to fundamentals – factors which do not change with personalities or electoral cycles.

There are many ways to look at the world but geography, religion, ethnicity and economy are still the main long-term defining factors. Our reality is not shaped by slogans, wishes or promises but rather by constraints and limitations, which we cannot overcome – we cannot change geography, most of us cannot betray faith we belong to and give up ethnicity we were born into, and limited available economic resources dictate that we can go only that far.

The unravelling chaos of the Middle East is the dramatic manifestation of these fundamental factors – factors, which no political leader or government policy can cancel or change. These factors rather shape the logic and patterns politicians and governments forced to pursue, no matter their personal wishes or rhetoric, or electoral slogans and promises.

And this is how we have to look at the fundamentals shaping the geopolitical reality we are living in.

The ongoing crisis of the Middle East has several fault lines, which over-cross and mutually enhance each other, making the situation ever more complex and explosive. And despite the fact that problems of each country in the region differ from others and we should avoid generalization, nevertheless, arguably there is one issue, which is common for the whole of the Middle East – it is the IDENTITY CRISIS, which is manifesting itself simultaneously along several fault lines:

     – clash between modernity and conservatism
     – clash between religion and the nation state
     – clash between ethnicity and nationality

These multiple internal fault lines, which cross each country in the region are both the result of past social-economic and political failures in case of some countries, and the manifestation of evolution in search of self in case of the others.

And all these internal crises are dramatically aggravated by never-ending competing foreign interests and interventionalism driven by the region’s geographic and economic importance mentioned earlier. Simultaneously, this foreign military and economic activism clashes with ambitions and competition of regional players, each overburdened by its own multiple internal crises along the fault lines I have just mentioned.

As a result, we’ve got a crisis of enormous depth, complexity and magnitude, and sometimes even absurdity, where regional or international players cooperate in some areas, and wage proxy wars against each other in other areas. For example, according to the estimates of some Western think tanks on the Middle East, there are no less than 12 (twelve) overlapping wars being waged in Syria today, where Assad loyalists fighting rebels, ISIS and Turkey, Iran is fighting against Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turks fighting Kurds, Sunnis against Shias, Russians and Iranians indirectly fighting Americans, and at the same time Iran cooperates with the US in neighbouring Iraq against ISIS, and the list goes on.

One would wonder when all this will end? I am afraid, we have no good news in that department for the foreseeable future. Once a seasoned Soviet general told me that the war is always the business of the young. “Old people do not go to war” he told me.

The Middle East is one of the youngest regions on the planet – around 40% of the region are people under the age of 25. They are living in the areas of acute land and water shortages as well as constant demographic growth and population density. Add to all that the factors mentioned above, and we end up with the recipe for an explosive cocktail.

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut solutions to the problems of the region, and probably, it will continue living through dramatic and very painful turbulences until it reaches internal balance, and stability will start emerging from within. And this process will take many years.

This piece of writing will leave many with the sense of exaggerated pessimism. I sincerely hope I am very wrong and things will turn out differently for the region. But there is also an element, although “dark”, but of optimism in the presented doom-and-gloom picture. As famous Spanish writer Cervantes once put it: “to be prepared is half the victory”.

Marat Yuldashev
Consultant with Experience in Cyprus
Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Research Associate

Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 2, April 2017″

Jordan, Palestine at the Crossroads of the East Mediterranean’s Energy Roadmap and the Importance of Cyprus

In the East Mediterranean energy setting, Cyprus is at critical stage en route to natural gas production providing promising prospects for Jordan and Palestine.

Jordan’s core objective lies in security of energy supply and the restructuring of its oil and gas market. The interruption of natural gas supplies via the Arab Gas Pipeline from Egypt and the influx of Syrian refugees present major burdens on the Kingdom’s budget, having prompted Jordan to look into various gas supply options. These include a supply of gas from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates through the existing floating storage and re-gasification unit (FSRU) at the port of Aqaba; oil and gas pipelines from Iraq; and, gas from Israeli offshore fields.

Acknowledging that at a time of regional instability, natural gas from the Israeli Leviathan and Tamar gas fields practically fall within Amman’s broad strategy for transformational change in energy supply, including a diversification of natural gas imports from alternative sources, a transition from a non-binding letter of Intent to an actual agreement between Leviathan’s American partner Noble and Jordan’s National Power Electric (NEPCO) happened in October 2016 for the supply of 1.6tn cubic feet over a fifteen-year period.

The agreement has notably given rise to a number of protests and demonstrations across the kingdom demanding its revocation. The government of Jordan has realized that there is need to strategically assess its public tactics toward Israel and balance domestic projection of its energy policies including the restructuring of its oil and gas market. It is in this framework that the government granted licenses in 2016 to three companies to distribute petroleum products, namely Total Jordan Co., Manaseer Oil and Gas Co. and the Jordanian Co., and schedules to have the energy market open for additional international competitions in the foresseable future.

As a pioneer in supporting a regional dialogue on energy developments,
Amman works with scientists, NGOs and think tanks to strategize regional energy cooperation and long-term planning. Emphasis is placed on addressing environmental impacts of oil and gas exploration, the establishment of national monitoring systems and improvement of legal frameworks. Equally important, the kingdom also looks into other energy options primarily for electricity generation. For example, the development of renewable energy resources is at the forefront of Jordan’s strategy to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons, namely projects like the Green Corridor that is designed to support the national electricity network in the south of the Kingdom.

Though even if successful in developing renewable energy resources, they could not substitute reliance on gas. Thus additional options that Jordan examines for the supply of gas from the East Mediterranean include Cyprus on the presumption that certain political and commercial obstacles are overcome; and, the import of Palestinian gas from Gaza Marine field via a pipeline across Israel. The Kingdom already signed an agreement seeking to purchase 150 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from Cyprus either by gas shipments to the LNG terminal in Aqaba or by pipeline to Egypt.

Out of all gas supply options, Jordan prioritizes the import of gas from the Palestinian Gaza Marine field. The Kingdom has signed a Letter of Intent with the field’s former operator British Gas Group for the supply of 150- 180 million cubic feet per day of natural gas. But, the Palestinian Gaza Marine gas field, one of the first regional discoveries in 2000, remains untapped despite its close proximity to the shore.

The field’s new operator, Royal Dutch Shell, has assessed that the delayed development is the result of low oil and gas prices. To reach a breakthrough in the field’s $500 million development, the project could garner financial support from donor countries and organisations such as the World Bank’s Partnership for Infrastructure Development Multi-Donor Trust Fund or even from U.S. financial institutions like the Overseas Investment Private Corporation (OPIC). The value of U.S. financial support in the field’s development may prove to be two-fold, as it can both address Palestinian development challenges and advance U.S. foreign policy priorities.

The exploitation of the Gaza marine gas field would help Palestinians generate revenues, offer a domestic source for electricity and water desalination, and prioritize exports to neighboring counties like Jordan.

In this regional energy calculus, Cyprus is assessed to gain significant economic benefits from its commercially viable levels of hydrocarbon resources. These benefits come in the form of job creation, foreign direct investment, royalties, and taxes paid to the state treasury by energy suppliers. The island’s third licensing round for the blocks 6, 8 and 10 within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has attracted major international energy players on the basis of closeness to the Egyptian Zohr and the Israeli Leviathan gas fields.

The awarding of exploration Cypriot blocks to the ENI Cyprus Ltd and Total E&P consortium; and, to the ExxonMobil Exploration & Production Cyprus Ltd and Qatar Petroleum International consortium necessitates synergies among local and international players, users, and producers eager to export gas to a broader market. The connection of gas discoveries in Cyprus with Egypt’s by pipeline and re-export reserves as liquefied natural gas by utilizing the Egyptian Idku and Damietta LNG facilities is an option currently examined by energy companies on the basis that economies of scale reinforce profitability.

On grounds of developing East Mediterranean gas fields and the infrastructure for the transportation and marketing of gas, a new philosophy of cooperation in which everyone wins has to prevail so that countries like Jordan, Palestine and Cyprus enjoy a prosperous future.

Antonia Dimou
Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses
Associate at the Center for Middle East Development

University of California, Los Angeles

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 3, June 2017″

What Should the Gulf Crises Teach Us?

One of the most disturbing trends in international politics today is a rapid deterioration of the security situation in the Gulf area, – a region which remains a critically important part of the global economy, finance and transportation. The foreign military involvement in the civil war in Yemen and the approaching humanitarian disaster in this country, the recent unprecedented pressure on Qatar by a number of neighboring Arab states are just the most graphic illustrations of this dangerous development. The Gulf Cooperation Council is in the state of paralysis and its future remains unclear. Many Gulf countries are getting increasingly vulnerable to domestic social and political unrest. The United Nations Security Council, including its permanent members, shows little appetite for any meaningful action and takes a deplorable position of an idle bystander.

Can the Gulf area be ‘fixed’? If not, are we going to observe an even deeper disintegration of the region, an emergence of ‘failed states’ on its map, violent social and political transformations, regime changes and spillovers of political extremism and international terrorism to other part of the world? What should the Gulf crises teach us?

The unraveling instability and the rise of insecurity in the Gulf demonstrates that traditional models of providing regional security simply do not work in the XXI century. Let us outline two of them.

The first model was centered on a regional hegemonic power that could takes responsibility for stability in its “natural” sphere of influence. In the Gulf case, the role of the regional hegemon is claimed jointly by Saudi Arabia and UAE, with Saudis providing most of the ‘hard’ power, while Emirati contributing its political ideology and strategic vision. Even if we put aside moral and legal deficiencies of this model, both Yemen and Qatar cases question the mere feasibility of a ‘regional uni-polarity’: neither Saudi Arabia nor UAE seem to be capable of successfully ‘managing’ arguably much less powerful regional players. On the contrary, political divisions in the region are getting deeper and prospects for a regional reconciliation are becoming more and more remote.

Another traditional regional security model is based on the leading role of an out-of-area hegemon, which acts as an external security provider and an honest broker in regional disputes. The United States appears to be the perfect candidate to play this role. In fact, the concept of a “Greater Middle East” popular with the J.W. Bush – Junior Administration in the beginning of the century, envisaged building various military and political alliances in Middle East and North Africa under the US security umbrella. This concept, however, turned out to be stillborn – not only because it was incepted by DC based analysts and bureaucrats with questionable knowledge of the region, but also because it implied the idea of division; the intention was to mobilize the Arab world for a joint struggle against US opponents and foes in the region.

It is too early to make any final judgements about the Donald Trump
Administration strategy in the Gulf region, but there are grounds to suspect that the United States might repeat its past mistakes. The concept of an “Arab NATO” backed by US and targeted against Iran seems to gain momentum in Washington. The odds are that this concept will be no more successful that the concept of a “Greater Middle East”: the Arab world, including the Gulf region, is very complex and highly diverse, interests and priorities of various Arab states are in no way identical. An attempt to create a defense alliance similar to NATO in the Golf region does not look realistic or even desirable.

Nevertheless, let us imagine that such a military bloc could indeed emerge in the Gulf region. What security problems would it be in a position to resolve? In the best case scenario, this arrangement would freeze the current conflicts in the Gulf in the format of a regional Cold War. As we know from the European history of the second half of the XX century, this format has many negative strings attached, including mutual mistrust and suspicions, continuous arms race and political tensions, and, most importantly, an inherent risk of the Cold War turning into a real ‘hot’ war.

Where should we look for alternatives to these deficient models? It seems that the only plausible alternative is a collective security model applied to the Gulf region as well as to Middle East at large. This model might look too radical, naïve or detached from the current regional political realities. Nevertheless, the desperate situation in Yemen and the stalemate around Qatar suggest that any half-way, tactical solutions are not good enough to handle basic security problems of the region.

One of the fundamental principles of any international collective security system – its inclusive nature. It goes without saying that leading Arab nations – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others – have to play a decisive role in building such a system. However, can one ignore non-Arab states of the region -such as Iran, Turkey and Israel? These states are no less interested in a stable, predictable, prosperous and vibrant Middle East than their Arab neighbors are. It would be not only unfair, but also highly shortsighted to remove any of these states from the regional arrangement. To exclude just a single major player would make the whole system extremely fragile and unreliable.

The new regional collective security system should be based on universal international law principles, including respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, protection of basic human and minority rights, etc. The United Nations Security Council or special mechanisms launched by the Security Council should provide credible guarantees for the enforcement of the new arrangement. For instance, one can consider an analogue to the P5+1 setting, which turned out to be quite efficient in dealing with the Iranian nuclear portfolio. A system of an efficient international monitoring of the situation in the region should also be considered. One of the options is to create a regional OSCE-type institution.

All these questions, no matter how disputed and controversial they might look, can be successfully dealt with, if one indispensable precondition is met. This precondition is that major regional and non-regional actors should fully understand the real scale of the challenge they have to confront. This understanding should lead to a sense of historic responsibility in restoring the regional stability. Unfortunately, such a sense is in a clear deficit today.

Andrey Kortunov
Director General
Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 4, September 2017″

Security Equation in Eastern Mediterranean: Global and Regional Contexts

Eastern Mediterranean as a crossroads, where West and East meet, has traditionally had strategic significance. Nowadays, the emerging strategic landscape in the region is getting more and more complicated and unpredictable. The global context is characterized by two crises – the Russia-West crisis after Ukraine and the EU-US crisis after the election of president Trump. It is widely recognized that relations between Russia and the West are on decline and Russia is steadily drifting away from EU, NATO or US. It will not be an exaggeration to say that these relations have reached their lowest point in the past 25 years. There have been many disagreements between Russia and the West in the past – Kosovo problem, Iraq, Caucasus crisis, Libya, human rights, energy deals etc, but it is security orientation of the post-Soviet states and the Russia-NATO/EU rivalry in this space that constitutes the crux of the fallout.

The divide on the macro level of the international relations has a strong impact on the regional cooperation, which is why there is a strong dialectical link between Ukraine and Syria or security in Eastern Mediterranean at large. Russia’s strategy in the region as its foreign policy at large is defined by three factors – post-imperial syndromes, security concerns and negative experience of the Russia-West cooperation after the collapse of the USSR. With the loss of the great empire and status equal to the US status rebuilding has become the guiding star of the Russian foreign policy. As for security concerns, the biggest threat to Russia, as it seen in Kremlin, is regime change through the so-called export of democracy and orange revolutions. Sovereignty in its traditional Westphalia meaning has become a sacred cow for Moscow, which is why Russia’s support of Assad is not so much about Assad himself but rather a matter of principle – no regime change for the sake of democracy. And which is why the mess in Libya is a reminder of the evils of the regime change policy.

The conflict in Ukraine resulted in the sanctions war and Russia’s exclusion from the main international forums. Russia’s isolation from the West left her no choice but to seek new allies and exploit any gap or flaw in the regional strategies of her opponents. Nowadays Russia is present in the Mediterranean region on an extended scale. It is enhancing its political, economic and military involvement both in Eastern and Southern Mediterranean through regular political contacts with the authorities of the largest countries in Levant and North Africa, arms sales, trade and energy cooperation, renting military bases and conducting military exercises.

The EU-NATO-US relations are also in flux although the nature and substance of the crisis between Europeans and Americans differ from the former. “There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump not only sent shockwaves around the world but has increased the risk of an unsettled future US relationship to the world and its European allies. Europeans and Americans alike worry about the future transatlantic relationship …”.[1] The US as a main security provider of the West is rethinking its foreign policy becoming a less reliable and predictable partner for Europe, which has strong implications for security in Eastern Mediterranean, first and foremost for Syria. Although it is not clear what will happen in the Mediterranean with Donald Trump as president of the United States, some of the American analysts argue that despite the different style of the new administration, it is unlikely to see a radical change in US policy to date in the Mediterranean. A US withdrawal from the Mediterranean in terms of politics and security would not even be possible. The Mediterranean region remains an important asset, even essential for the United States especially with the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, Turkey or Egypt. The key question is not whether the US will be active – it will be – but whether this activism, and the strategy behind it, will be pursued in a more unilateral way.[2]

The possibility that the European allies in NATO or the European Union will fill the American role in the East Mediterranean is not feasible. EU is not a real strategic actor, it is in the process of rethinking its strategic autonomy and presently it lacks the necessary military assets, a clear strategic vision, as well as the political will to take a lead as a security provider for the East Mediterranean.

China is asserting herself as a new global power, although her global ambitions are more about economics than politics at least for the time being. China is “neither a missionary culture nor a values superpower… Clan-focused Confucianism and the fear bred by communism have persuaded the Chinese to mind their own business”.[3] However the very fact that Chinese are showing their flag in an area far from their traditional area of operations undermines the wide spread assumption that the Mediterranean will became a purely Western sphere of influence.

The regional balance is even more complicated due to the fact that the main regional actors – Turkey and Iran – are reconsidering their regional strategies on the basis of big-power nationalisms. And even within the socalled allied coalitions like the Astana peace process on Syria there exist differing interests and competing regional strategies of the actors – Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Despite the complexity and multidimensionality of the security landscape in the Mediterranean, the main challenge to the regional security is the deep divide in the relations between Russia and the West, since neither Russia, nor the West can stabilize the region without each other. Russia‘s expansion in the region is widely perceived in the West as a threat to the global and regional stability. However it is not Russia’s expansion but rather her isolation that presents a threat to the regional and global security.

Nadia Alexandrova-Arbatova

Head, Department of European Studies
Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO)

Russian Academy of Sciences

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 5, November 2017″

Will IRAN Become a Regional Hegemon in the Middle East?

The recent crisis in Lebanon, with the mysterious resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is one more episode of the undeclared war between the two main players that take part in the contemporary power game in the Middle East: Iran and Saudi Arabia.[1] This is a Cold Warstyle conflict in the form of a struggle for influence between the two main players through their proxies. This struggle is predominantly taking place in ethnically and religiously polarized states, like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.[2] In that context, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Arab Gulf, as well as Israel and Trump administration, are concerned due to the ongoing Iranian surge for increased regional influence, which has been pretty successful in Iraq and Syria.[3] Inasmuch this process is part of an Iranian agenda in pursuit of regional hegemony, namely undisputed dominance in the Middle East,[4] (and it seems that Iran’s adversaries have no doubt that this is the case) this kind of behavior could be called as hegemonism.[5] This article examines the perspectives of Iranian hegemonism and, specifically, the possibility of the development of an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East in the years to come.

Hegemonism and balancing in contemporary Middle East

As we have already noted, what is perceived as Iranian hegemonism has been expressed through the fostering of Shia proxy groups in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria (with the mobilization of Lebanese Hezbollah), as well as in Yemen and in the Gulf states during the initial stages of the “Arab Spring” convulsion.[6] This surge coincided with the intensification of the US-led multilateral talks on the Iranian nuclear program, which ended to the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. This deal signified a long-waited détente in Tehran’s relations with the West. However, both the activity of Iran’s proxy groups and the (temporary?) end of US confrontation of Iran’s nuclear program alarmed traditional US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia who raised concerns about Iran’s hegemonic aspirations, as well as its unexpressed ambition to act as a “nuclear free rider”, thus triggering a nuclear domino in the region.[7] Iran’s regional adversaries have been attempting to balance Iran’s influence as a form of counter-hegemonic reaction. Theoretically speaking, balancing is a strategy that seeks to prevent an aspirant hegemon from securing his hegemonic position.[8] The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, as well as the efforts to curtail Hezbollah’s political leverage in Lebanon, seem to consist part of such a strategy. In that sense, Iran seems to hold the advantage of initiative, while the anti-Iranian coalition is trying to undermine Iran’s position in the context of a zero-sum game.

Speaking about hegemonic attempts in the Middle East, history has shown that they have been stillborn. For example, Nasser’s efforts to embrace the Arab world and create a pan-Arab movement and Erdogan’s neo-ottoman revisionism have not been fruitful. The main reason is a systemic one: these attempts emerged in the absence of the right structural prerequisites in the region. Neither Nasser or Erdogan’s revisionism, nor contemporary Iran’s “hegemonism by proxies” were/are based on a distribution of capabilities characterized by clear-cut power superiority of the potential hegemon over the rest of the system’s units. In none of these cases did/do the aspirant hegemon enjoy significant military superiority, which would provide him with a critical comparative advantage over his regional competitors.[9] Since the right distribution of power is absent hegemonic aspirations cannot enjoy legitimacy at the regional level, which is a sine qua non element for a viable hegemonic order.[10] In other words, you cannot be a regional hegemon unless your neighbors acknowledge you as such.

The “Concert of the Middle East”

The Middle East is not that kind of a regional system where the development of a hegemonic regional order is a likelihood. The existence of at least three regional peers with potential hegemonic aspirations and balancing potential (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia), as well as the existence of several other pivotal players of considerable size and/or capabilities (i.e. Israel and Egypt) assure that none will be able to achieve undisputed regional supremacy, as counter-balancing alliances will always be a choice for the rest. Moreover, the balancing role of extra-regional great powers such as the United States and Russia suggests another factor that decisively limits the possibility of a future hegemonic order. Therefore, as stability through hegemony cannot be the case in the foreseeable future (except for the unlikely scenario of an unexpectedly rapid course of uneven growth that would favor one regional power over the rest), stability through balance is the most possible future form of regional order.[11] The ongoing regional instability which is characterized by multiple conflicts and power competitions could drive regional and interested extra-regional powers towards a modus vivendi similar to 19th-century’s “Concert of Europe” and an analogous form of a “complex balance of power”.[12] In that context, the main pillars of the balance of power will agree to the terms of stability and express their readiness for balancing action (either diplomatic or military) whenever these terms are disputed. Such balancing mechanisms are already in place (as the P5+1 model of negotiations for the nuclear program of Iran, or the Geneva and Astana processes for the Syrian crisis indicate). What we still lack is a new “Concert of the Middle East” that will seal this new regional order and legitimize the new balance of power. Regional systems like the Middle Eastern one naturally tend towards balance of power. Therefore, a future Iranian hegemony is a rather unlikely scenario.


[1] Bilal Y. Saab, “What Hariri’s Resignation Means for Lebanon,” Foreign Affairs, November 6, 2017.
Accessed on November 12, 2017.
[2] Michael Knights, “What Would a Saudi-Iran War Look Like? Don’t look now, but it is already here,” Foreign Policy, January 11, 2016.
Accessed on July 13, 2017.
[3] Jonathan Spyer, “Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, November 21, 2017.
Accessed on November 22, 2017.
[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 40.
[5] David Wilkinson, “Unipolarity without Hegemony,” International Studies Review 1 (1999): 141-171, 143-144.
[6] Reva Bhalla, “The U.S.-Saudi Dilemma: Iran’s Reshaping of Persian Gulf Politics,” Stratfor, July 19, 2011.
Accessed on 23 July 2011.
Jonathan Spyer, “Is it Iran’s Middle East Now?” Fathom, Automn 2015.
Accessed on 13 November 2015.
[7] Efraim Inbar, “Implications of US Disengagement from the Middle East,” BESA, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 122., 14. For alternative approaches on a potential nuclear domino and nuclear balance see Rizwan Ladha, “A Regional Arms Race? Testing the Nuclear Domino Theory in the Middle East,” al Nakhlah, Spring 2012.
Accessed on 12 November 2016.
Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb. Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability,” Foreign Affairs 91 (2012): 1-5.
[8] Stephen G. Brooks, William C. Wohlforth, World Out of Balance. International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 22-25.
[9] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 40.
[10] Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society (New York: Routledge, 1992), 17.
[11] Ross Harrison, “Defying Gravity: Working Toward a Regional Strategy for a Stable Middle East,” Middle East Institute, Policy Papers Series, May 2015. George Friedman, “The Middle Eastern balance of power matures”, Stratfor, March 31, 2015.
Accessed on 11 April 2015.
[12] Hedley Bull, Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan Education, 1977), 97-98.

Michalis Kontos

Assistant Professor of International Relations
Department of Politics and Governance
University of Nicosia

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2017″

The Future of Gulf-Asia Relations

In the first semester of 2017, Gulf politics were marked by numerous international events. Among them, three had a distinct significance. First, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, travelled to Delhi at the end of Januarywhere he was invited as guest of honor to the celebration of India’s Republic Day, a privilege given in the recent past to the former US and French Heads of State, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande. Four weeks later, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, embarked on a historical month-long Asia tour that brought him to Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, and China. Lastly, in June, in the midst of the biggest diplomatic crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council opposing Qatar to Saudi Arabia and others, Turkish President Erdogan announced the speeding up of Turkey’s military base in Doha, its first overseas military permanent deployment since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

These three episode highlight one common development: Gulf strategic partnerships are no longer exclusively looking at the US and Western traditional powers and eye increasingly towards Asia. These new ties do not serve as a substitute but have a pragmatic purpose: to send a signal to Washington. In other words, this Gulf-Asia rapprochement can be understood as a way for Arab rulers to hedge against the declining influence of the US.

This new geopolitical landscape is the result of two separate trends from the last decade. First, from the chaotic reconstruction of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to the inconsistencies of the Obama policy in the Middle East, the unpredictability of US policy in the region grew and caused local actors to diversify their strategic options.

Second, the growth of Asian economies – in particular India, China, Japan, and South Korea – is now driving oil markets. This means by extension that Asia’s economic ties to the Gulf are becoming more consequential than those of Western powers with Arab oil producers. If we exclude the US, the four biggest importers of oil in the world are today in Asia: China, India, Japan and South Korea which total 40.6% altogether of oil purchases in 2016. Over the next fifteen years, China, India and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will define the global energy consumption, leaving the countries of the OECD far behind.

The conjunction of these two trends has several ramifications. To start with, economic interdependence begets common security interests. The flow of commodities from the Arab peninsula to the Asia Pacific region relies on regional and maritime stability. Any trouble onshore (e.g. failed State, civil war) or offshore (piracy attacks) can disrupt this movement. This is why the last years have been marked by an increased role of Gulf and Asian navies in counterpiracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, Gulf stability is becoming a security priority for Asian countries, as evidenced by documents such as China’s Arab Policy Paper.

This interdependence may rely on Gulf oil supplies but it is widening its scope to include other sectors. A South Korean consortium has been building the UAE’s first nuclear plants since 2009. Saudi Arabia aims to follow the same path as it signed partnerships for its own nuclear program with South Korea and China. Investments in infrastructures also play a central role in Gulf relations with India and China, especially as countries like Saudi Arabia aim to position them as regional hubs for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In addition to these economic indicators, Gulf-Asia ties are also visible in the military domain. High level visits between military commanders increased, multiple defense agreements were signed and followed by numerous cooperation programs in the field of military education or joint training.

If this rapprochement is significant, does it mean a geopolitical revolution in the Gulf? One has to remain cautious: as of today, it does not mean a realignment of Gulf countries between the US and Asian powers. At the military level, it is unlikely that any country – be it China or India – could and would replace both the resources and the security guarantees provided by the US to the Peninsula. Moreover, the strategic rapprochement between Gulf and Asian countries may also be impeded by the way it impacts – as well as is impacted by – the local competitions. For instance, it is not clear how Gulf countries, which historically have had a strong military relationship with Pakistan, could strengthen their strategic dialogue with India without challenging their ties to the former. This is why this new geopolitical landscape should neither be ignored nor overestimated. In any event, given the current foreign policy style of the Trump presidency, the logic of hedging – meaning for Gulf countries to diversify their international relations and to cover against the US unpredictability – is likely to become the new pattern of Gulf strategies but it remains to be seen how much it will affect the regional security system on the long term.

* The views expressed in this paper are strictly those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the UAE National Defense College, or the government of the United Arab Emirates.

Jean-Loup Samaan
Associate Professor in Strategic Studies
UAE National Defense College

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2017″