The geopolitical competition playing out among the great powers in Europe has shed light on the political and economic significance of the MENA region. US Vice President Kamala Harris recently led the "strongest delegation" to the UAE since President Joe Biden took office, during which she offered her condolences on the death of its ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The conflict in Ukraine has brought UAE-US tensions into focus and the visit was seen as "a bid to step up efforts to repair frayed ties with Gulf allies."
In an interview with The Atlantic Monthly in March 2022, a week after the Ukraine conflict began, Saudi Arabia and the UAE appeared neutral about the war. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared unconcerned towards Biden’s views about him and that Mr. Biden should focus instead on the US’s national interests. The Saudi Crown Prince defended his country’s unwillingness to pump more oil as prices rose beyond 100 USD per barrel in February.
With the Ukraine crisis looming, the US approached Qatar, another energy-rich country, to meet Europe’s needs in case of an energy shortage. By March, Germany and Qatar had already agreed on a gas deal, and Qatar helped to end dependency on Russian oil. Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made an unannounced visit to Algeria, while European countries including Italy, Spain, and other EU member states, have considered various alternatives to resolve their energy crises.
Algeria is also an important gas supplier to Europe, providing 11% of its imports, while Russia supplies 47% of European gas. After the Algeria visit, Lavrov took another unannounced trip to discuss energy issues—this time to Oman, which he had previously visited in 2016. During a meeting with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, the latter affirmed Oman’s commitment to OPEC+ and emphasized the need to adhere to the rule of international law. All these examples highlight the power of MENA states in economic and energy spheres. This is clearly not new: these states have always been perceived as key historical allies for European great powers, largely because of their energy resources. However, the Ukraine conflict arguably marks a turning point in the transformation of these power dynamics. Instead of external "great powers" shaping the MENA region, the region has now emerged as its own powerful bloc in the international order.
Pre-Ukraine Power Dynamics
The MENA region, and especially energy-rich Gulf states, have derived their power from their economic capabilities and assertive foreign policies. They have served as case studies shaping scholarly debates about power and challenged well-established international relations theories. However, most analyses have focused on examining the regional balance of power, including the redistribution of power within the MENA region as a result of events such as the Iraq War, and the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
At that point, a power vacuum emerged within the region, particularly in the Arab League between 2010 and 2012. Such regional shifts have generally been explained by scholars as a redistribution of the balance of power. For example, "The Small Gulf States: Foreign and Security Policies Before and After the Arab Spring," edited by Khalid S. Almezaini and Jean-Marc Rickli, was particularly interested in expanding understandings of the methods that these states employed to pursue their foreign and security objectives. International relations theory has usually labelled these countries as "vulnerable states," but the power vacuum created by the collapse of key regional actors (Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Bashar al-Asad in Syria, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq ) opened opportunities to guarantee some Gulf states to secure their regional standing and increase their influence.
These events later provoked scholarly debates regarding the use of the terms "weak state" and "strong state," as discussed in the 2016 volume Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East, edited by Mehran Kamrava. In 2013, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen had pointed to the rise of Gulf powers and argued that the changing architecture of world politics suggested that power would be distributed among a greater number of actors, many of them non-Western. In particular, he argued that the Gulf states would continue to rise as regional powers and would extend their global reach, within the context of a broader reshuffling of the international order.
The Ukraine conflict marks a different kind of turning point for the global balance of power and for a wider recognition of MENA players’ global significance. In this regard, it does not seem accurate to frame the situation in terms of a shift of power away from the Pax Americana and toward a more multipolar world (or other potential outcomes of the Ukraine war) with clearly defined great and small powers. Instead, it is more useful to move beyond a state-centric view in understanding the diffusion of power among external powers and regional players, and to consider the crucial role of the region as a whole.
One way to express this shift is to suggest that the world is heading towards an international order composed of blocs whose recalibrations are driven by security needs. For example, Finland and Sweden are seeking to join NATO, while the EU is considering membership applications from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Meanwhile, Russia maintains close ties with Belarus and could merge with South Ossetia. In all of these cases, the world is moving towards unified blocs of national interests driven primarily by security concerns, although energy needs and energy security concerns have also been important during the recent conflict. The MENA region stands to gain from these shifts in the international order. Such transformations also challenge the liberalist view of the international system and role of institutions, and align more closely with neorealist analyses.
MENA countries are involved in key organisations that are shaping the global energy market. For example, the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) controls over 71% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves, 44% of its marketed production, 53% of pipeline trade, and 57% of the LNG (liquefied natural gas) exports. The organization includes countries from the MENA region: Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Qatar, as well as non-MENA states: Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago. Other states have observer status in the GECF, including Iraq, the UAE, and other non-MENA states. Meanwhile, OPEC member states include Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, as well as non-MENA states including Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, and Venezuela. In addition, non-OPEC nations joined OPEC in late 2016 to form OPEC+, with the goal of exerting further control over the global crude oil market. MENA states share power in these energy institutions with other global actors.
It is also worth noting that any MENA country on its own is not particularly powerful in the energy sphere. A limited state-centric view of the situation overlooks the role of region collaboration and the region’s collective impact on global dynamics, which reaches far beyond that of a single state’s policies or deals. The emergence of the MENA region as a unified bloc could enable it to become the most important supplier of global energy. Individual states already held some degree of power in their hands through regional agreements, but had previously directed this economic clout towards "zero-sum" games rather than a regional "win-win" situation.
MENA as an Energy Bloc
"Zero-sum" policies in the MENA region have involved prioritizing hard power. A state-centric and neorealist view of regional alliances focuses on state actors seeking to impose their interests on others, through overt or covert military action, or by developing economic superiority. The military remains a key component of the strategic thinking in the MENA region. However, prioritizing economic power has greater potential to elevate energy-rich MENA actors on the world stage. In operating as a single bloc, the region is likely to gain more from treating energy diplomacy as a tool of soft power. However, soft power approaches have been criticized for being too idealistic, especially given the region’s internal competition and the continued desire of regional players to prioritize hard power strategies. In sum, the major limitation of a state-centric view of building alliances in the region is that states start from the position of competing with each other, rather than working towards common interests.
These dynamics have also been reflected in MENA actors’ divergent foreign policy agendas. For example, the Emir of Qatar met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran as talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major global powers seemed to falter. Iran and Qatar are neighbours that share the world’s largest natural gas reserves, so if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) returns, both Iran and Qatar will benefit from having a coherent plan to make their energy resources available. There are already indications that this is starting to happen in the region and beyond. For example, Iran agreed last week to revive a major gas pipeline project to Oman. This has resulted in preliminary discussions regarding EU investment in the project and future imports once US sanctions are lifted.
Steps have also been taken at the international level regarding new policy directions and negotiations. In January 2022, Iranian President Raisi visited Moscow. He aimed to curry Russian favor through employing anti-Western rhetoric when addressing the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia) and defending Russia during its ongoing tensions with the West. He stated that the "strategy of domination" had failed, and that the US now found itself "in its weakest position." However, the visit reportedly generated more criticism than praise, and Raisi left Moscow largely empty-handed. He was unable to achieve the renewal of a previous (but now expired) twenty-year agreement between Russia and Iran. In May, President Raisi also met with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. The meeting focused on improving relations in trade, culture and science, and was also seen as an attempt to pave the way for future energy negotiations once the JCPOA is renewed. Meanwhile, the ruler of Qatar—Iran’s neighbour—visited Spain, just as the EU was considering alternatives to Russian gas. Although no official joint agreements have been announced, it does appear that Iran, Qatar and Oman are pursuing mutually beneficial strategies to supply energy to Europe. In doing so, they stand in direct competition with other regional players, in a zero-sum approach.
Iran continues to pursue regional policies that undermine its neighbours, such as its backing of Houthi militias, which attacked oil facilities in Gulf states belonging to the Saudi oil giant Aramco. Also on January 17, the Hothi’s missile and drone attack towards Abu Dhabi killed three people of the facilities of state oil from ADNOC. This clearly aims to undermine the economic power of these countries. In another recent incident, Kurdish, Turkish, and European officials reportedly met to discuss a plan to pump Kurdish gas to Turkey and Europe, with the support and possible involvement of Israel. It was reportedly condemned because of this supply agreement that Iran struck Erbil with ballistic missiles in March.
The use of hard power is not limited to Iran, but rather has been central to the strategic mindset of the entire region. However, Iran remains a productive case study to evaluate changing regional energy dynamics, as well as the use of soft and hard power. Most alliances are currently grounded in a state-centric view, which often equates to a "zero-sum" approach. The great powers are currently occupied with security and military concerns due to the crisis in Europe, and the time is ripe for a transformation in the mindset of the MENA states. The MENA could emerge as a bloc prioritizing "win-win" approaches employing power derived from their energy resources. By shifting from internal competition to regional agreements on supplying energy at the global level, MENA states can strengthen their individual standing on the world stage and bolster the region’s influence and autonomy.