Future of Middle East Should Be Defined by Strategic Autonomy of Regional Actors

The world, one of multipolarity and increasing globalization, continues to change. Respect is the only way to win trust and confidence.

The last decade has seen China becoming increasingly influential in the Middle East, which has caused rounds of discussions about whether the country will fill the vacuum left by the U.S. or compete with it for geopolitical influence in the region. These discussions largely reflect broader concerns about a potential China-U.S. confrontation in the region but not the facts on the ground.

The future of the region should be primarily defined by the strategic autonomy of regional actors, and those who can better recalibrate their policy in accordance with the new regional dynamics will better demonstrate their presence in the region.

Actually, many regional actors in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, have achieved strategic autonomy over the past decade.

Strategic autonomy firstly means that countries must manage security issues according to their own efforts. In March 2012, when a resurgence took place in Bahrain, potentially threatening the stability of countries in the region within the context of Arab Spring, it was Saudi Arabia that dispatched forces in the name of the GCC to Bahrain, pacified the resurgence, and prevented a scenario whereby the resurgence could spread to other GCC countries. Then, in November 2011, it was also Saudi Arabia that brokered a transition arrangement among various Yemen factions, which led to Ali Abdullah Saleh handing over presidential power to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Later in 2015, shortly after Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the country’s defense minister, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of forces attempting to push back the Houthi movement’s advancement into the country. These efforts signified that the GCC countries would like to maintain their independent regional security efforts instead of depending on other countries.

Palestinians protest against U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit, in Gaza City, on Jul. 14, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)

Strategic autonomy is about building an independent defense industry. Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries also regard the localization of their defense industries as an objective of their national security. In their 2030 vision issued in 2016, Saudi Arabia set a target of localizing more than 50% of its military equipment spending by 2030, which means that Saudi Arabia aims to soon have an independent military industry.

Then, strategic autonomy means a diversified foreign policy. Handling relations with external actors has always been a significant challenge for Middle Eastern countries. Over the past couple of years, the U.S. has pressured GCC countries to take a side in its unilaterally-defined competition with China. But according to local experts, GCC countries won’t take sides with any specific country, choosing instead to put their own interests first. This suggests that they are going to diversify their approach regarding their relations with major external actors, and pragmatism will be the priority when it comes to forming their foreign policies. Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries are examples of this policy, and there are more countries that will take a similar approach. In fact, Iran has followed the course of strategic autonomy since 1979. It has established its own independent defense industry and operates on its own independent policy. Most Iranian presidents have been vociferous about keeping a foreign policy of balance between East and West. A policy of looking to the East could actually be regarded as a kind of modification of old policy.

The trend of strategic autonomy in the Middle East reflects new internal and external realities. Internally, a strong sense of independence has been on the rise over the past decade. For example, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was a struggle for independence and strategic autonomy, and successive generations have shown their resoluteness in adhering to this principle. In the last decade, Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries have found that the U.S. is an unreliable strategic partner and so decided to rely on their own abilities.

A man walks past an Iranian bank in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 28, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

Externally, the world has experienced major changes defined by multi-polarization. In recent years, the GCC countries have actively engaged in climate discussions, the crisis in Afghanistan, and the war in Ukraine. Thanks to this, the GCC countries have become another pole in the global political arena. In addition, new global dynamics have inspired regional actors to adopt a diversified approach to their foreign policies, defining another component of their strategic autonomy.

Competition will certainly be one of the major features of regional politics, despite the new context of strategic autonomy in the Middle East. The U.S. is pushing regional actors to take sides, pressuring them to suspend their economic and hi-tech cooperation with other countries by threatening its security relations with the GCC. Such coercion has seriously undermined the interests of regional countries and actors.

The world, one of multipolarity and increasing globalization, continues to change. Respect is the only way to win trust and confidence.


Jin Liangxiang is Senior Research Fellow with the Center for West Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.