Blinken visit won't stop US decline in Middle East
Published: Jun 06, 2023 09:15 PM
 Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off his visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, after CIA Director Bill Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. During his visit, Blinken is expected to discuss bilateral and multilateral issues with the Saudi side, including cooperation to mediate the conflict in Sudan, and promoting ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. He will also hold a ministerial meeting with the foreign ministers of the GCC countries. 

The frequent visits of senior US officials to Saudi Arabia are driven by deeper strategic considerations. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter and one of the most important allies of the US in the Middle East. Blinken's visit demonstrates the US is attaching greater importance to its relations with Saudi Arabia, which is becoming increasingly detached from the US orbit impacted by the tide of reconciliation in the Middle East. The US is eager to stabilize its relationship with Saudi Arabia and save its precarious Middle East alliance system. However, there are contradictions in US' Middle East policy, and it has been out of touch with the new geopolitical reality in the region. Therefore, it is unlikely that Blinken's visit will yield any significant results.

Besides the agendas discussed at the table, Blinken aims to achieve the following three goals. 

Firstly, the US hopes to strengthen coordination with Saudi Arabia on energy policy. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US has used both soft and hard tactics against Saudi Arabia, hoping that the latter would join the US camp to fill the supply gap caused by the Russian oil embargo through increased oil production, stabilize oil prices, and s ease domestic inflationary pressures. However, Saudi Arabia did not succumb to US pressure and instead strengthened cooperation with Russia under the "OPEC+" framework and restricted production many times, which humiliated the US.

Just before Blinken's trip, the OPEC+ group of oil-producing countries reached an agreement to extend output cuts into next year. Saudi also announced on Sunday it would?cut one million barrels of oil a day in July to boost sagging oil prices. The failure of energy policy coordination reflects that Saudi Arabia and the US have changed from cooperative partners to competitors in the field of energy. This change has fundamentally shaken the alliance between the two countries based on the logic that the US provides security for Saudi Arabia in exchange for oil supply from Saudi.

Secondly, in terms of geopolitics, the US is eager to curb the further spread of the effects of the Middle East reconciliation tide. After China successfully facilitated the reconciliation and resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March this year, a wave of "reconciliation" with strong potential and climaxes has been set off in the Middle East. The rapid geopolitical changes go against the wishes of the US and accelerate the decline of US power in the Middle East.

Thirdly, in terms of great power competition, the US is attempting to exclude China and Russia in the Middle East where international competitive factors such as resources, markets, technology, and military converge. On one hand, the US is implementing a strategic contraction from the Middle East, while on the other hand, it is vigorously guarding against countries like China, Russia, and Iran filling the "vacuum" left by its departure. The US is making every effort to obstruct strategic cooperation between Middle Eastern countries on the one side, and China and Russia on the other, and is launching new cooperation plans to counter the two countries' influence. During Sullivan's visit to Saudi Arabia in May, the US discussed railway project to link the Middle East with India. The intention of the project is to engage in an "infrastructure war" with China and disrupt the advancement of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East. 

However, numerous contradictions have led the US' Middle East policy into a quagmire. Even frequent visits by high-ranking officials like Blinken cannot change the declining influence of the US in the Middle East. 

Firstly, the US cannot realize a "withdrawing while fighting" approach in the Middle East. After the US reduces its military presence, it's inevitable its Middle Eastern allies will seek strategic autonomy and ease the strategic tension with regional adversaries. The overall relative decline of US strength and the reduction of its input in the Middle East will inevitably lead to the decline of its Middle Eastern alliance system.

Secondly, the US' Middle East policy is far behind the changes in the region. The geopolitical changes in the Middle East reflect the historical trend, in which regional countries seek unity, development, and strategic autonomy. However, the US still attempts to gain arbitration power over Middle Eastern affairs by stirring up regional conflicts and camp confrontation, hoping to benefit from the chaos. The wave of reconciliation sweeping across the Middle East indicates that the US is lagging behind the changes of the era, and its Middle East policy that goes against the tide will inevitably suffer defeat.

Thirdly, the Cold War mentality should not define the relationship between the Middle East and major powers. The US views the Middle East as a new battleground for strategic competition with China and Russia. However, the interests of Middle Eastern countries have become highly diversified, and they are no longer willing to blindly follow the US and serve as pawns in its global strategy. Instead, they formulate foreign policies based on their own national interests, engage with multiple major powers, and seek diverse balance. The scenario of rallying allies to resist China and Russia, a Cold War tactic of the US, is no longer possible in the Middle East. The vibrant cooperation between China and Middle Eastern countries in the fields of economy, trade, and investment, as well as the close coordination between Russia and oil-producing countries in the Middle East on energy policies, reflects the ineffectiveness of the Cold War mentality.

The author is a professor with the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn