New testing ground for peace?
As the United States continues to diminish its role as chief global adjudicator, a new regional order is being written in the Middle East with a knock-on impact reverberating through Asia.
At the centre lies the fractious relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, played at first glance through the time-honoured prism of Sunni-Shia rivalry, accompanied by the habitual violence of Middle Eastern politics.
Recently, this has included drone strikes on Saudi Arabian oil installations and attacks on tankers, blamed on Iran; the murder by Saudi Arabia of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and the proxy Iran-Saudi Yemen conflict, as well as Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria.
The Trump administration has played its part by abandoning balance and ramping up support for Israel and Saudi Arabia in order to knuckle down against Iran.
Yet Trump’s readiness to abandon the Kurds in northern Syria – thus handing that space to Turkey on one side and Russia, Iran and the Assad regime on the other –signals that the United States has become an unpredictable fair-weather friend.
Trump’s Tweet succinctly summed up policy: ‘Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!’
That distance and the vacuum it creates is focusing regional minds, with new roles emerging from China, India, Pakistan and Russia, whose regional power increases daily. How these four governments work together will go a long way in determining future regional stability.
For 70 years now, the US and Europe have attempted and failed to rid the Middle East of its brutal fault lines. It is 16 years since the invasion of Iraq and almost ten since the Western-encouraged Arab spring. Yet, on many indicators, the region is worse off and more precarious than it was 20 years ago.
Neither Sunni Saudi Arabia nor Shia Iran shares Western values, either in accountablegovernance or respect for human rights. Neither has begun to take eitherChina’s lead infocusing on economic growth, or India’s in absorbing differing ambitions and points of view under the umbrella of democracy.
In that respect,both countries are decades behind Asia.
Of the two, Saudi Arabia is the most brittle. Its wealth comes from oil, its governance is in the hands of a sprawling royal family and its legitimacy rests on its strategic alliance with the United States.
The young Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has shown himself to be hot-headed and short-sighted. His military intervention in Yemen has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Iran, on the other hand,has leaders and institutions experienced in horse trading, deal-making and compromise. It wears its status as a quasi-rogue state like an old glove, still unforgiven for its anti-American revolution 40 years ago. It holds elections which, laced with caveats, do offer up glimpses of public opinion andit is playing a longer and smarter game.
As Asia grows in political and economic influence, so does its interest in retaining as much calm in the Middle East as possible. It is not only about energy supplies.
A US-backed war against Iran would risk spilling over into Pakistan and unleashing sectarian violence which, in turn, could spill over into India. In that respect, Islamabad and Delhi should play up their shared goal for Middle East stability.
They have already taken steps. Pakistan and Iran have a chilly relationship but, last month, Pakistan’sprime minister Imran Khan was in Tehran for talks about how to defuse rising tensions.
Meanwhile India, with its warm Iranian ties, has become closer to the Gulf States. The United Arab Emirates has given Indianprime minister Narendra Modi the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civilian award, while Saudi Arabia delivered the country an investment boost by putting $15 billion into the Reliance energy giant.
Sitting above all this are China and Russia, whose own relationship continues to strengthen. China is a long-time ally of Pakistan, as Russia is of India. Moscow’s decisive role in Syria has made it the main power broker of the Middle East. Despite being a battlefield ally with Iran, President Putin proved his new status with an October visit to Saudi Arabia, his first since 2007.
Another indication of shifting sands is the fading prospect of any pan-Islamic front being part of a new regional order. There has been a wall of silence from the wider Muslim world about India’s action in Kashmir, just as there has been about China’s incarceration of some million Uyghur Muslims in camps in Xinjiang.
The new, evolving canvas is likely to be transactional and pragmatic. To make the most of it, India and Pakistan will have to move with skill in a balancing act that will need the simultaneous strengthening of ties with Beijing, Moscow, Riyadh and Tehran, while retaining solid links with Washington.
But to become trusted players in helping to forge Middle East stability, India and Pakistan would need to stop fighting between themselves. Perhaps here is an opportunity to test the ground for peace in South Asia, too.