Although Israel and Europe are coming out of the COVID-19 crisis (at least for now), the US is still deeply submerged in it, with 1.52 million confirmed cases, tens of thousands of new cases per day, 90,000 deaths and economic chaos.
According to strategic experts at the University of Haifa, the Corona crisis could accelerate US disengagement from the Middle East as the government – in an election year – decides to focus on the country’s internal-economic and medical problems. At the same time, the vacuum could speed up China’s penetration into the Middle East, which may harm Israel’s strategic interests, especially regarding its struggle against Iran.
A 15-page, Hebrew-language report on the subject was written by a team headed by international relations Prof. Benjamin Miller, head of the Haifa University’s National Security Research Center and Dr. Moran Zaga, a researcher in political geography at the university.
The report reviews the strategic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Middle East, including the US-Chinese fight for geopolitical influence in the region. According to Miller, “If Trump’s campaign slogan in his first presidential campaign was ‘America First,’ the Corona crisis will make it ‘America Only.’ If Democratic Party candidate Joseph Biden is elected, the economic, health and social crisis will also make him focus primarily on the domestic arena,” continued Miller.
But he continued that China has long been working to improve its strategic position in the Middle East – as elsewhere in the world. The US withdrawal will create a strategic vacuum for China to enter. “The Corona crisis is exacerbating the US-China conflict, and as China gets closer to the Middle East, we will see an escalation in their relations with the Middle East as well. We are witnessing a new kind of “Cold War” between the US and China,” he said.
Trump has constantly blamed China for COVID-19, even suggesting that it intentionally or accidently leaked the dangerous virus from a Wuhan lab – even though this claim has never been proven scientifically.
“China is not anti-Israeli, but it certainly does not have the special relationship that the United States has with Israel,” the University of Haifa team wrote. “The Israeli strategy, certainly in recent years, has been heavily reliant on the US. In the fight against Iran, the Israeli strategy has been based not only on the power of the US, but also the fact that America is ‘bringing’ with it the moderate Sunni Muslim states. But an increasing distancing of the US from our region is liable to make the Sunni states to prefer China.”
This policy, the report continued, “has no ideological commitment to the US, and certainly all human rights and democracy issues – which nevertheless circumscribe relations with the US – don’t exist opposite China, whose connection to the West involves the supply of which is nevertheless a limitation in relations with “Their relationship with the West was the supply of a security umbrella in exchange for oil. China, too, can provide this umbrella. Since China already has close relations with Iran, such a move weakens Israeli strategy,” said Miller.
Regardless of Chinese interests, the Corona crisis is already causing Sunni Muslim states to approach Iran, Zaga adds. “In fact, apart from Saudi Arabia that is still in conflict with Iran, the other Gulf states are in the process of reconciliation with Iran as part of a joint fight in the Corona crisis. The US process of distancing itself from the region causes many of the Gulf states to reassess their regional ties and consider whether the US can be trusted or whether it would be better to approach Iran in the absence of a protective umbrella,” she explained.
To all these issues, one must add that the Middle East already has another superpower – Russia – which in fact creates a situation where three superpowers compete for geopolitical influence in the Middle East.
“At this stage, there are common Russian and Chinese interests – to weaken American hegemony. What will happen if they succeed? Remember that in the past, Russia and China have struggled quite a bit with each other. This may well be the case now,” Miller concluded.
In the years 2000 to 2002, Miller was a visiting professor at the department of political science at Duke University in North Carolina. Before that, he was a tenured member of the department of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley and was a research fellow at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of technology and Princeton University.
Zaga is a lecturer in the department of geography and environmental studies at the University of Haifa. Her main research interests include international boundaries and geopolitics of the Middle East, focusing on the Arab Gulf Countries. Her dissertation dealt with the significance of boundaries in the history of the Arab World. She is also a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking and a policy fellow at Mitvim-the Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.