China will likely continue to rely on diplomatic and economic tools, rather than security cooperation, to expand its influence in the Middle East. The only way US President Joe Biden can counter these efforts is to up America’s diplomatic and economic game.
CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – When US President Joe Biden visits the Middle East next month, his hosts – particularly Saudi Arabia – will likely try to persuade him to re-engage with the region. Far from allowing the United States to focus on strengthening its position in great power competition with China and Russia, they might say, the strategic disengagement from the Middle East gives China an opening to strengthen its own regional influence. But the reality is not so simple.
As a major producer of fossil fuels, the Middle East is clearly important to the United States. In fact, it was sky-high energy prices that forced Biden to try to mend his relationship with Saudi Arabia. Until recently, Biden shunned Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.
Biden’s about-face highlights the extent of Saudi Arabia’s influence. And the Kingdom will likely use this leverage to urge the United States to maintain its military engagement in the Middle East. Warnings (which Israel is likely to echo) that China will move quickly to fill any security vacuum left by the US will seem to further bolster his case.
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