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Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan

Dr. Paul Sullivan is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, a nonresident senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States in…

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The U.S. Desperately Needs To Rethink Its Middle East Strategy

Is the Middle East still important? This is a seemingly absurd question, yet some are asking this in Washington. The Middle East is the source of massive reserves in oil and gas. Much of the fuel to produce goods and trade from Asia and the EU comes from the Middle East. Much of the world economy relies on Middle East energy. The region has strategic chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz, The Suez Canal, and The Bab al Mandab. It is a source of some of the more significant threats in the world, such as from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other groups. It contains some of the most important security connections in the world. Consider the neighbors of the Middle East and not just the Middle East. The Middle East is a crossroads for energy and security. It also could be one of the generators of change and improvement, if it is allowed and supported to do so.  However, as the U.S. becomes more focused on “The Great Powers Conflict” in Asia, especially with China, it is becoming clearer that the U.S. is losing the plot in the Middle East. Consider the slow to no reaction to the shipping of Iranian fuel with the help of Hezbollah and Syria to Lebanon.

The U.S. could have done many different things to help the Lebanese with this without handing a massive public relations and political victory to its adversaries. But, in some ways, Washington’s sanctions have painted it into a corner on such issues. Consider how the U.S. took the anti-missile batteries from Saudi Arabia as the Houthis are still attacking Saudi Arabia with missiles. The Saudis made a deal with the Russians in response to this and other moves by the U.S. The U.S. handed leverage to the Russians. These are just two of many examples of how the plot is being lost. 

Related: China Oil Consumption Seen Peaking In 5 Years

Indeed, China is a threat in the Pacific to Taiwan and others. It is a threat to the freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific. It is an economic and technological threat to the US and has been for a very long time. It is a cyber threat to the US. It is developing leverage in many countries with its Belt and Road Initiative. It is now the largest trading partner with almost all Middle East countries. It is building significant diplomatic, economic, and even military leverage in the Middle East. China is moving into the region as the U.S. moves in other directions. By the way, it is getting more likely that China could have a piece of the nuclear power pie in Saudi Arabia. 

Russia has also been creating greater leverage in the region. Its recent big defense deals with Saudi Arabia are examples. The U.S. basically opened the door to them. Similar things happened when the U.S. cut back on defense aid to Egypt a few years back. The Egyptians were in Moscow in quick order to make defense and other deals. Russian advisors are back in Egypt. The Russians are building a huge nuclear power complex on the north coast of Egypt. There is no doubt that the Russians have far more clout and leverage in the region than before. Much of this is due to missteps by the U.S. or simply U.S. neglect of this vital region. 

The U.S. should be in the running on nuclear power plant exports and other crucial leverage-giving exports in the region. We could export small modular rectors to the region. These have much lower proliferation and safety risks than older, larger plants. We could further develop the safety of this trade by applying 123 agreements as we did in the UAE. The UAE has the gold standard nuclear power agreement with the US even though the plants were built by a Korean company. 

Related: Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Driving Up Natural Gas Prices Worldwide

Why am I mentioning nuclear power plants? Because whoever exports a nuclear power plant to another country can develop 80 to 100 years of leverage and clout in that country. Nuclear power plant exports are dominated by Russia with China second. The U.S. is not even in the running. 

We have seen above some examples of how the Russians and Chinese are building leverage and clout in the region. If the U.S. wants to turn more to the “Great Powers Conflict”, then it should realize that the “Great Powers Conflict” is not just in Asia, but also in the Middle East (and Asia begins in the Sinai). The Middle East is a contested space. 

One cannot win a backgammon and chess game by letting the other sides, one’s adversaries, make clever moves while we do not have good counter moves and we do not think many moves ahead. 

The U.S. seems to be losing the plot of the 4D chess game in the Middle East. It is not too late to rethink strategies. The U.S. needs to be in the game for the long run and think in the long run. The U.S. needs to regain the plot in the region and how it connects with the big pictures in geopolitics, geo-economics, energy, security, and much more. It is not too late. 


By Paul Sullivan for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on September 19 2021 said:
    In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the only truly superpower. In fact former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went as far as to depict the United States as the indispensable superpower. While it was true then the United States was the most powerful country on the planet, the arrogance of power went into its head and has since blinded its vision of the world. It took the rising power of the strategic China-Russia alliance to awaken it to the fact that the world is already moving away from unipolar to a multipolar order and that its indispensability is eroding fast helped by actions and policies of China and Russia.

    Moreover, the United States has been committing one strategic mistake after another. The most recent one was in Lebanon. More than two years of hardship and misery and blackout facing the Lebanese people and with an economy declining by 45% since 2018 with 77% of the Lebanese people below the poverty line didn’t stir the United States a bit. Only when Hezbullah outmanoeuvred it and brought Iranian crude and fuels to the country did it ask Egypt to supply Lebanon with natural gas and Jordan to supply it with electricity via Syria. By then, Hezbullah has won an outstanding victory and humiliated the United States

    Another major mistake is that at a time of Saudi oil infrastructure vulnerability to attacks by the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen, the United States decided to withdraw its anti-missile defence systems from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis will end up buying Russian anti-missile systems as Turkey, a member of NATO, defied the United States and did exactly that.

    In 2018 The United States under former President Trump walked away from the UN Security Council-approved nuclear deal with Iran. Iran immediately resumed enriching uranium to higher levels. Moreover, it managed to nullify US sanctions with help from both China and Russia and continued exporting crude to the tune of 1.5 million barrels a day (mbd). And as a slap on the face of the United States, Iran signed a 25-year strategic alliance agreement with China.

    The United States withdrawal debacle from Afghanistan has marked a major turning point for global geopolitics. The strategic winners were China and Russia.

    For Russia, it has enhanced its military and political influence over the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan bordering it. For China, Afghanistan will soon come under its thump via aid and soft loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

    And while the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific region to confront China, I don’t think it will fare better there than in the Middle East.

    The United States could improve its international image immeasurably and achieve much more if only it refrains from wielding its overwhelming military power as its opening gambit and start for once with overwhelming goodwill instead like acting for once as an honest broker to help create an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel, letting Taiwan return to the motherland peacefully and immediately lifting the sanctions on Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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