In spite of ominous North Korean nuclear development and quiet Chinese investment in economically disadvantaged countries, by far the most alarming political developments in Asia are the ones unfolding in the Middle East.
Many people tend to see the Middle Eastern region as separate from Asia but, in fact, only Egypt and Cyprus are not considered Asian.
With the exception of Iran, the heavy players in this region raise geopolitical concerns that are nearly the polar opposite to those of East Asia.
Whereas China is a strong contender to upset – or, at least revamp the economic world order, Middle Eastern countries pose a threat to global peace and security.
Furthermore, Russian influence in that region is growing. To what end, we don’t yet know; what are Mr Putin’s goals?
The deluge of news, reports and analyses is overwhelming; how is anyone to make sense of what is going on in the Middle East and, more importantly, how will doings in the Middle East and North Africa affect global affairs?
Your Superprof now attempts to condense the most cataclysmic events of that region into an easy to understand narrative.
An Overview of Middle East Affairs
Two main factors drive Middle East events: religion and oil.
More specifically said: historic divisions caused by religious doctrine underlie current imperial ambitions and strategic interests.
Let’s start by focusing on Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the largest landmasses, populations and GDPs in the region.
Were they to be on the same page religiously and politically, they would be a near-indomitable powerhouse whose global influence would be hard to resist.
Instead, the Shi’a of Iran constantly clashed with the Arab Sunni... but today, these clashes matter less than the political circles they operate in.
The Arab Spring uprisings were instrumental in changing the dynamics of the Middle East.
These relatively small-scale revolutions gave Iran the platform it needed to edge ahead as a political favourite.
Reasoning that if it were left to the people to choose between the existing conservative world order and a revolutionary regime, Iran bet that more people would cast off conservatism and embrace new, more radical political philosophies.
That is why Iran endorsed free elections.
The Saudis, by contrast, would do anything to deter the onslaught of democracy – an ironic position seeing as their strongest ally is the United States, the self-proclaimed defender of the democratic way.
Regardless of whether those rising up were Sunni or Shiite, Saudi Arabia decried the Arab Spring movement. The contrary political positions taken throughout the Middle East over that revolution gave us a front row seat to the rise and the suppression of political Islam.
Today, Middle East entente is no longer so clearly drawn along religious lines.
Oman, primarily Sunni, has a closer relationship with Iran, with whom it shares the Straits of Hormuz, than it does with its neighbour and religious kin, Saudi Arabia.
Other affiliations that don't follow religious lines include:
- The Sunni fundamentalist group Hamas is largely funded by Iran
- Qatar (majority Shi’a), who shares vast oil fields with Iran, was diplomatically isolated last year by a coalition led by the Saudis, another majority Shi'a country
- Turkey, a Sunni power, defends the Muslim Brotherhood (Shi’a) and maintains a military base in Qatar
- Turkey’s defence of the Brotherhood puts that country at odds with Egypt, another Sunni stronghold.
- Turkey is further ‘poking the bear’ by championing the Palestine cause, in direct contrast to Egypt’s interests.
All of which leads to Israel, what we might think of as the linchpin of Middle East politics.
Formerly considered an arch-enemy and a land of infidels, Israel has gained the Arab world’s grudging admiration and respect for her economic and strategic gains.
That is why, when the American president recently proclaimed Jerusalem the ‘eternal capital’ of Israel, few in the Middle East batted an eye, in spite of the fact that that ancient city is home to some of Islam’s holiest sites.
Now that we know who is aligned with whom and what their motivations are – less religious than political, let us take a look at the individual flashpoints that make up Middle East geopolitics.
How do Asian geopolitics impact activity in the Middle East?
How Does Geography Affect the Middle East?
First, we have to understand that the designation ‘Middle East’ is controversial, not the least because: what is that region 'east' of?
So-labelled by the British – following the logic that India was the Far East but this region was not quite so far, the phrase is generally thought to have been coined by Alfred Mahan in 1902 and grew in popularity when a London Times correspondent repeatedly used it in his writings.
The people of that region have never referred to themselves or their countries by any term even vaguely resembling that deriding label first ascribed during British colonialism. Only recently – and grudgingly have they accepted the phrase ‘Middle East’ to denote that general area.
While this region is considered to be one of the cradles of civilisation, this collection of arid countries was virtually overlooked by the powerful Western European nations until around 1870, when the Suez Canal officially opened.
We say ‘virtually’ with full knowledge that the Ottoman Empire exuded a strong global influence, especially in its heyday. We’ll come back to the Ottomans in a bit.
Until the Suez Canal opened any Western European maritime venture - say, British traders heading to or from India would have to sail around the southern tip of Africa. This was a particularly dangerous voyage, especially at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean in tumultuous, watery clashes.
About 80 years after the Suez Canal made traders’ routes far shorter and much less dangerous, a suddenly oil-hungry world focused predatory eyes on the Middle East.
Geologists intuited vast petroleum reserves throughout the region. Oil was discovered first in Persia (Iran) and later in Saudi Arabia. The area suddenly found itself in custody of an ample supply of the world’s hottest commodity.
Granted, petroleum reserves in Poland, Russia and the Americas had been meeting the world’s demand for nearly a century but, with back-to-back world wars and the growing aviation and automotive industries, the discovery of Middle Eastern oil fields was timely indeed.
However, far from uniting those disparate countries, they remained divided along traditional religious lines that not even the formation of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) could blur.
Note: OPEC, founded in 1960, lists Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait as initial members.
The Ottoman Empire
At its most powerful, this caliphate ruled over most of southeastern Europe as well as western Asia and parts of North Africa.
Established in 1299, it was founded by Osman I who, in a rather odd twist, was abetted by fugitive Byzantines. Their inside knowledge of the territory and politics of cities surrounding Anatolia, the seat of power for Osman I helped the new emperor gain territory in a way that went unsuppressed for centuries.
Osman I was long in his grave by the time the Ottomans enjoyed their greatest period of expansion, which started in the 15th Century and went on for more than 100 years.
During this time, they successfully battled for lands as far as the Iberian Peninsula while maintaining their hold on European countries from Hungary to Italy. Well, at least Venice. Furthermore, through their alliance with France, the Ottomans became a major power player throughout Europe.
All good things come to an end, so too did the might of the Ottoman army.
But then, they got complacent. Ottoman weaponry could not compete with Russian and Hapsburg war machines; they were soundly defeated in several encounters which forced them to give up territory and led them to redesign their armoury and military strategies.
In ways big and small, the Ottoman Empire impacted global politics and economy for centuries.
By the time it collapsed in 1922, this empire had left its mark on the world, not the least for its genocide of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians which led to the territory’s occupation by the Allied Powers.
The land was partitioned off and much territory was ‘given’ to France and the United Kingdom. Those occupying forces were later forcefully evicted (Turkey’s War of Independence, e.g.) or they quietly gave those lands back to their rightful occupants.
Since then, other than for strategic military planning and its resources, the region known as the Middle East has been left on its own.
What Resources Does the Middle East Have?
The first thing people think of when asked that question is: oil. That is a limited view of the richness and riches of the region.
Far from being the blighted, desert-like landscape of our imagination, the countries labelled Middle Eastern have far more to offer the world in the way of resources.
Let’s talk about them now.
We wouldn’t be so foolish as to downplay this commodity; indeed, Middle Eastern oil pretty much keeps our world moving – both economically and literally.
The vast oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supply nearly half of the petroleum used in the world today.
While demand for crude oil has fallen off a bit in recent times – fewer aeroplanes flying and cars moving ever closer to hybrid or full-electric, there is nevertheless no end to the demand because oil is used to make everything from plastics to cosmetics.
It’s sort of like winning the lottery twice: more than 30% of the world’s natural gas reserves lie under Middle Eastern land, too.
Unlike the oil fields – the richest and most abundant of which are mostly in the western countries, the Permian Khuff lies in the Persian Gulf, about midway between Iran and Qatar. Those two countries are second and third behind Russia in natural gas resources and production.
Following those two mega-producers, the UAE ranks third, Saudi Arabia fourth and Iraq fifth in natural gas reserves.
Metals and Minerals
Far less thought of in connection with the Middle East, mining is a strong and growing industry in that region.
Iran alone is ranked among the top 15 mineral-rich countries. It lays claim to the world’s largest zinc deposit, the ninth-largest copper deposit, and ranks 12th globally in iron deposits. This country also holds large uranium and lead deposits.
Mining in Iran is an underdeveloped industry in part because of the lack of infrastructure, difficulties in exploring the rugged terrain and stringent government control.
Afghanistan too holds immense veins of iron and copper, as well as cobalt and gold. Besides those four, minerals critical to modern technology production such as lithium, tantalum and fluorspar abound.
Maybe that explains why Russia and the US are so contentiously fighting for supremacy in that country…
By contrast, Iraq is known more for its above-ground production of valuable building resources: sand, gravel and sandstone; clays, limestone, gypsum and kaolin. While essential, these common earth materials belie the riches beneath.
Besides oil, geologists have found significant reserves of gold and diamonds as well as iron and steel.
Saudi Arabia isn’t just blessed with the largest oil reserves in the world, they also have substantial gold and silver veins. Iron, aluminium and zinc deposits abound. As though that weren’t enough, the mining of clays, lead and pozzolana – used in cement-making, also contribute to the country’s GDP.
Turkey holds 75% of the world’s boron reserves. This country would do well enough if that were its sole mineral but there is also substantial gold, silver, lead, tin, iron and mercury… on top of vast coal deposits. Copper, chrome and marble also contribute to making Turkey one of the most resource-rich countries in the world.
Syria: before its terrible, lingering war, this country supplied around 2% of the world’s demand for phosphate rock. It is also rich in iron ore, manganese ore and gypsum. In more peaceful times, you could find active marble quarries and rock salt mines.
We probably don’t need to go into the long list of minerals and other resources found in Egypt: gold and other precious metals, precious and semi-precious gems, ores, phosphates and salts.
Still, Egypt has one resource which other countries in the area are thirsting for: water. The Nile River ‘feeds’ no fewer than 11 African countries including Egypt.
By contrast, the Tigris River runs from Turkey through Iraq and the Euphrates detours through Syria before reconnecting with the Tigris in southern Iraq.
The other Middle Eastern countries – Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel and others have little access to fresh water which sometimes leads to a ‘water war’ in which one country might dam up or restrict water flow to its downstream neighbour.
Intangible Human Heritage
No discussion of Middle East resources would be complete without touching on human heritage.
Earlier, we mentioned that this region is considered one of the cradles of civilisation: where humans first learned to colonise, to move away from migration and settle in one place.
In this region, the oldest and most complete code of law was written and preserved, one of the earliest forms of writing – cuneiform was invented and the first philosophers and mathematicians pondered the worth and duty of human existence.
Ur, Babylon, Akkad and Hattusa; Antioch, Nineveh and others – cities we know mostly through our religious texts flourished in this region, long ago.
Indeed, the Abrahamic religions took root and grew there, and the people left behind remarkable treasures, buried under centuries and layers of dirt, perhaps deliberately meant for future generations to discover.
Through civil strife, religious turmoil and outright war, all of these countries, with their resources, maintained their precarious balancing act of keeping the region rich.
And then, Donald Trump won the American presidency.
The Iranian Nuclear Deal
In spite of Iran being home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, most people consider the current Islamic Republic, established in 1979, to be the only Iran there is to contend with.
That does not explain the international bias in dealing with Iran, which could only have sprung from historic negotiations and conflicts. Suffice to say that there is substantial mistrust toward this country from global political leaders.
Not every Iranian was happy with their country’s new leadership, either.
For instance, the Kurdish Rebellion, started a mere two months after the formation of the Islamic State in 1979, was brutally quelled, as were subsequent grassroots movements against the established government.
With the new regime nearly continuously in turmoil, world leaders had good reasons to fear and mistrust Iranian leadership.
Few foreign investors considered Iran as a base of operations; the country’s main economic resources were oil and petroleum products, including plastics.
It wasn’t until Hassan Rouhani, the country’s current president, came into power that Iran was able to improve relations with other world powers; doing so led to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Rouhani’s agreement to restrict his country’s uranium production lifted the embargoes on Iranian oil and other products; that country’s economy started to recover from the crippling sanctions it had operated under for so long.
And then, Donald Trump became the United States’ 45th president.
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The Middle East’s Real Geopolitical Heavyweight
From the start, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the Iran nuclear deal.
He contended that lifting sanctions and providing Iran even with minimal nuclear concessions was tantamount to nurturing a religious extremist regime and making it all the more dangerous for permitting it to develop a nuclear arsenal, no matter how slowly.
He was not the only world leader uneasy about the pact but he was by far the most vocal... and, once the latest American president took office, he had a way to put a stop to it.
The Iran nuclear deal had been endorsed by France, Germany and delegates from the European Union, as well as Russia, China, the UK and the US.
It would only take one signatory backing out to negate all of the positive effects that the deal had so far accrued, including stability in the Middle East – one step closer to peace.
That is exactly what the American president threatened to do, less than a year after taking office.
Less than a year after that, the U.S. did back out of the deal, and then went further by reimposing sanctions on Iran. The president then demanded that allies also not honour the treaty they had signed.
Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have a conduit into the White House; did he put a bug in the American president's ear about ending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? We almost have to believe he did.
How do America's actions play out on the European geopolitical stage?
Another Mideast flashpoint was declaring Jerusalem the true capital of Israel with no regard for the Palestine State.
The root of the problem is the conflict that arose when Jewish folk immigrated into the region during the mid-20th century, effectively displacing Palestinians who had historically occupied that region.
The idea was for Israel and Palestine to coexist as neighbours but sectarian violence and territorial incursions have thus far prevented a peaceful solution.
Palestinians had long been promised at least the part of Jerusalem that was religiously significant to them.
However, in declaring the entire city the capital of the Israeli state, the American president has undone decades of negotiations toward a peaceful solution to Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
Were his actions a prelude to an as-yet-unseen foreign policy agenda or did Israel’s leader have anything to do with the apparently whimsical reversal of decades-old policy?
If indeed Mr Netanyahu is calling the plays that Mr Trump executes, he is, without a doubt, the Middle East's heavy hitter.
Discover also how U.S. policy affects Latin American geopolitics...
What does Russia Have to do With Things?
As U.S. diplomacy increasingly favours Israel and Saudi Arabia, Russia is flexing its diplomatic muscles in the countries neglected by the U.S..
Once isolated and ostracized, today’s Russia is all about optics and appearance.
True, the Russians were painted as bad actors in the Syrian civil war, but on the other hand, Mr Putin did help resurrect Bashir al Assad and that regime is now the strongest in the country.
And now, Russians are helping to broker peace in Syria; an amazing turnabout.
Mr Putin’s diplomacy doesn’t stop there; he has forged deep ties with Egypt and is now working with Turkey to solve some of its most pressing economic and environmental issues.
Historically, the only interest the U.S. has shown in Turkey was their help in fighting terrorism.
Has the man every European leader has felt uneasy about suddenly mastered the art of international relations? Are Russian geopolitics getting ready to take centre stage?
And what are geopolitics, anyway?
Or does it have more to do with recent uncertainty projected by the United States that Mr Putin finally sees a way to make his country a more powerful player in global affairs?
Even though today’s Middle East conflicts are about political and strategic power, they were born of sectarian and religious differences.
It hasn’t helped matters that borders have historically been mostly arbitrary and leadership traditionally focused mainly on short-term goals rather than long-term solutions, both for their people and for the region.
The silver lining of the dark clouds that shroud Middle Eastern skies is that leadership is turning away from tradition and drawing diplomatic lines along mutually beneficial enterprises rather than along religious affiliations.
Egypt and other Sunni monarchies turning to Israel for innovations in security and information technology is a fine example of such.
Still, in spite of these rays of hope stabbing the reality of Middle East turmoil, we can only wait and see what will happen, the more those countries pivot away from fundamentalism and embrace the give and take that is politics.
Now get an overview of global geopolitics...