James Watt CVO
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Out with the Old

James Watt CVO served as British Ambassador to Egypt, to Jordan and to Lebanon. He has dealt with the major issues and conflicts affecting West Asia and the Arab world and has extensive commercial experience in those markets.


The war in Gaza has accelerated the demise of the United States’ role of regional hegemon in the Middle East. What is replacing it? The region’s states are making their own cautious choices, spreading their bets, and while US military and economic power continue to predominate, China is inevitably part of the formula. Non-state actors will still play a disruptive part, as will Israel’s defiance of its obligations, while the region constructs an ever-shifting network of ad hoc relationships to take control of its affairs.

Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza, launched following the Hamas atrocity of 7 October, has delivered a fatal blow to the moral authority of the United States and its Western allies, not only in the region but far beyond. Such authority was already in decline, as was shown by the neutral position taken by most regional states towards Ukraine. The geopolitical consequences are profound. While US military and economic power in the region remain predominant, the indecisiveness shown by President Biden, for eight long months, towards insisting on a ceasefire have revealed, more clearly than ever, the paralysis of US policy-making in matters concerning Israel. It has also brought into severe disrepute Western claims to lead the law-based international order constructed since 1945.  

China has not had to miss a step in seeming to inherit that role, careful to share it collectively with like-minded powers (and fellow-travellers such as Russia), not only through the BRICS and the 2001 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but through declaring respect for the UN system and UN principles. Chinese statements on Palestine and Gaza are the unambiguous kind that European governments used to make, years ago. Chinese mediation secured the crucial re-establishment of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March last year, closing a dangerous fissure in regional security.

States in the Middle East are conscious of China’s further potential role as a peace-broker between the Arab capitals and Tehran, for one thing, and even one day in helping take forward a genuine settlement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution. They are clear-eyed about the obstacles, however, and wary of being drawn into taking sides in the rivalry between the United States and China. But China’s national interest in trade, investment and energy supplies is a lot easy to accommodate that the ideological commitment to Israel that underpins US policy.

Some choices though are having to be made in the economic sphere. The UAE’s G42 Holding, already playing a key role in building a powerful national AI programme, recently opted for a development partnership with Microsoft, accepting as a condition the exclusion of Chinese companies. Saudi Arabia, for its part, with ambitions in AI but so far lacking the UAE’s capacity, has just seen an Aramco-owned fund announce a $400 million investment in the Chinese start-up Zhipu AI. Not too much should be read into these choices. For both countries the maximum national autonomy, involving keeping a range of options open, guides their adoption of advanced technologies.  Israel, meanwhile, once a favoured partner for tech development, has become politically problematic in the light of Gaza.

Riyadh is very much keeping lines open to Washington, while politely moving on from the over-ambitious US plan to embed Israel in a new bilateral strategic relationship. Meanwhile China has just hosted the tenth China-Arab Summit in Beijing, serving to deepen economic and political ties with several significant Arab countries. Beijing has continued to include in the final communiqué support for the UAE’s claim to the three islands occupied by Iran in 1971, drawing the usual protest from Tehran, and confirming a long-standing coolness in China’s view of the current clerical regime, and a strategic choice to favour the Arab states.  

What will characterise the post-hegemonic order in the Middle East? The greater influence of regional actors, for a start, both state and non-state, and new networks among them and with emerging powers in other parts of the world. The United States and Israel will remain as potent factors in terms of coercive power at state level, but apparently unable to contribute the political solutions that are so greatly needed. For their part, the Europeans have made themselves largely irrelevant. Russia has a forlorn role among the ruins of Syria, and in playing second fiddle to Iran there is unlikely to attain the kind of influence it has now gained in parts of Africa. Internationally, the actions of states such as Malaysia and Indonesia, within the wider Muslim world, and Brazil and South Africa, upholding International Humanitarian Law and support for the United Nations, will probably count for more than in the past.  

That leaves the fate of the region, to a degree arguably never seen in modern times, in the hands of its own states. Several, such as Egypt and Jordan, are challenged by extreme economic difficulties. Others such as Iraq and Libya are overcoming, on their own terms, years of conflict and instability. The oil states of the Gulf provide a diplomatic and financial cornerstone. But other states are too weak to function as they should. Yemen reels under the anarchic and violent Houthis, Syria has become a narco-fiefdom of the ruling elite, and Lebanon is helpless in the grip of Hizbullah. Other armed non-state actors threaten peace from Iraqi territory. Palestine is in a disaster category of its own.

One weakened and embattled state, Iran, has made a policy of instrumentalising armed non-state actors for its own strategic advantage: Hamas, Hizbullah, the Houthis, and groups in Iraq, as well as bringing Shi’ite militias into Syria from Afghanistan and elsewhere. Though its control over the “Axis of Resistance” is often overstated, Iran does benefit from a shared sense of outrage at Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, and the powerful motivation this brings to the different groups.

That outrage has been given technological expression, not only through the effectiveness of transborder social media, but through missiles and drones readily available to states and non-state actors alike. Iran led the way in developing these low-cost, flexible armaments, and with them the doctrine of the swarm attack. Iran’s mass missile and drone attack on Israel of 13 April was largely countered by Israeli and US defences, though at a cost cited by Washington sources of around $1bn. More significantly, between 5 and 9 ballistic missiles succeeded in striking the Netzarim airbase in southern Israel. In Iranian eyes, this proved that the swarm worked, and can work again.  

Clearly, there are no military solutions to the crisis in Palestine, or to the many conflicts and injustices flowing from it. That has been said from the start. And equally clearly ignored by Israel’s Western backers, as much as by Israel itself. In circumstances, it can hardly be wondered at that the states of the region are finding their own way forward, apolar and hegemon-free, to achieve better results.


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