Dark Clouds Over West Asia

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Known in history as a crossroads of civilisations, West Asia has turned into a theatre of war fueled by racial, religious and economic interests of regional and global power. The vast land mass, which was once a trade thoroughfare between the East and the West, has become a site of power politics, bringing immense suffering to its people.  This region has attracted the attention of both ancient and modern day superpowers because of the existence of major maritime sea routes in this region and availability of ample trade opportunities and abundant energy resources.

The Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz constitute vital life line for this region. Suez Canal links Mediterranean and the Red Seas, providing a short-cut route in the maritime trade between Asia and rest of the world. The Strait of Hormuz provides passage for transporting more than 20 per cent of Arabian oil to different parts of the world. This makes it necessary for the global powers to maintain close watch over this region to ensure a free flow of the maritime traffic through these waterways. In 1956, an international crisis had emerged on the control and operation of Suez Canal when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to nationalise it, inviting foreign military intervention to protect the international status of the canal. 

Cold war period

During the cold war period the United States of America remained deeply engaged in the West Asian affairs because of its interest in gaining access to its rich oil resources and protecting the above two sea routes.  It did not have to face major competitors in this region during that period. Following the Cold War, however, the USA fought three major wars in this region to bolster its supremacy. Its military intervention in Kuwait in 1991 to beat back the forces of Saddam Hussein embroiled it in another major war against Iraq in 1993. Its prolonged Afghan War following 9/11 attack, its military involvement in Syria and Libya greatly strained its economic and military resources, forcing it to yield space for emerging superpowers - particularly Russia and China.

Despite its intensive engagement in the politics of West Asia, the USA has not been able to cultivate a comfortable relation with the Arab world. It is primarily because of its blind support and military assistance to Israel’s aggression, destruction of Palestinian cities and indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians for over four decades. This has given a twisted perspective to its superpower image in the Arab world. The US has maintained relatively low profile in West Asia after its withdrawal from Afghanistan despite the existence of several US military bases in this region. The growing incursion by emerging military and economic superpowers in this region shows that the US in no longer in a position to call the tune in the geo-politics of the region. 

During the Syrian War, Russia had a trial of strength with the US and successfully defended Bashar al-Assad whom the US  wanted to dislodge from power in a manner in which it had ousted Libyan dictator Colonel Maummar Gaddhaffi and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. It was also an occasion for Russia to test its fighter jets, air defense system, tanks and precision munitions which proved to be as effective as or even better than those of the US. With the exercise of its proven military capability, Russia has established itself as a major pillar of the geo-political dynamics of West Asia and the world.

In the same vein, China is also going all out to expand its influence in West Asia through its flagship multi-billion dollar project known as Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Apart from forging alliance with Arab countries through development partnership, China has also positioned itself as a diplomatic player.  China’s successful initiative to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran recently has been described as a major setback for the US-driven Abraham Accord designed to subvert Arab unity by bringing Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together. 

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and China have signed a 25-year cooperation, under which China has committed to invest $4 billion in Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure building on condition that Saudi Arabia will sell oil to China at a discounted price.  Similarly, China has also developed economic cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 1919, China committed to spend $3.4 billion to build Jebel Ali Port in the UAE which is the second busiest port of the world and the largest in the region.  China’s engagement with Arabian countries as an economic superpower does not confine within Islamic countries only. It is also deepening economic and military engagements with Israel. According to media reports, China has invested $15 billion in infrastructure development like electric railway construction in Tel Aviv and expansion of a terminal at Hifa Port.  

India’s aspirations 

As the fifth largest global economy and the fourth largest military power, India also aspires to extend its sphere of influence in West Asia. India’s growing involvement is proved by the fact that it imports 70 per cent of oil from Arab countries. Its cumulative trade with Arab world amounts to $160 billion. A large number of Indians are working in West Asia and send $50 billion annually as remittance. In recent years, India has achieved considerable success in the modernisation of its army and is trying to assert itself in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf region. India’s investment in the expansion and modernisation of Chabahar Port in Iran as a connectivity hub is often viewed as its countervailing move against China’s involvement in building Gwadar Port in Pakistan.  

In view of the strategic game plan, which the superpowers are scripting for themselves and their intricate gambits and counter moves, it is not difficult to predict that ominous clouds of war are brewing over West Asia. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war which has already shocked the world with its devastation and brutality may only be a trailer of what is to come.

(Dr. Bharadwaj is former Ambassador and former Chairperson of Gorkhpatra Corporation. bharadwajnarad@gmail.com.)

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