The Middle East in crisis: diplomacy under pressure

As the Middle East region, and Saudi Arabia in particular, tries to strike a delicate balance between competing demands from the US, China and Russia, MAP partner and Middle East expert Dominic Asquith looks at the rising threats to the region’s stability, security and economies.

“While the US has been disengaging from the region, Russia remains present as a strategic actor.”

One of the principal foreign policy challenges facing the Middle East is the need to manage competing demands from the US, China and Russia and adapt to a more fragmented world as relations sour between these three world powers.

Saudi Arabia in particular faces a dilemma given conflicting pressures from the US and Russia on whether to help alleviate the west’s energy crisis by producing more crude. Pumping more oil would alienate Moscow, when it needs Russian cooperation within the OPEC+ group to manage supply when prices are falling. The creation of OPEC+ has been one of Riyadh’s few signature diplomatic successes since the emergence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the kingdom’s de facto leader.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine conflict has highlighted to governments the extent to which the US has pivoted away strategically from the region. Washington’s foreign policy priorities will now be increasingly directed towards Russia, Europe and Asia. This means a significant realignment for the Middle East in terms of its international relationships, as well as the balance of power within the region, with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals, facing a delicate balancing act.

But while the US has been disengaging from the region, Russia remains present as a strategic actor, for example through its military role in the Syrian conflict and its role in fighting ISIS. It also has deep financial linkages with considerable Russian wealth and investment in the UAE. This complicates Western diplomatic efforts to shore up support against Moscow and ensure cooperation on sanctions.

Meanwhile, beyond the oil exporters of the Gulf Cooperation Council, we believe there is a threat to stability in the region stemming from the Ukraine conflict, namely the disruption of wheat supplies and its impact on food security. This is a particularly ominous development for countries in the region that are not oil producers, such as Egypt, one of the world’s top importers of wheat and reliant on Russia and Ukraine for around 85% of its supplies. There is a very real threat, therefore, of inflation, food shortages and social unrest that could act as a trigger for wider instability.

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