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

Religion used to be the driving force behind alliances in the Middle East
Middle East studies show that religion is less important in matters of strategic alliance Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

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 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 lynchpin 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?

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.

Also discover how African geopolitics play out in the Middle East...

Israel is a Middle Eastern heavyweight
Israel has a lot of weight in Middle Eastern affairs Image by Eduardo Castro from Pixabay

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...

Russians are helping Syrians broker peace
Accused of atrocities during the Syrian war, Russians are now helping Syrians with their peace process Image by Dianne Ket from Pixabay

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 issues 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...

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.