When the US replaced colonial nations as the dominant power in the oil-rich states of the Middle East over half a century ago, it was faced with two competing drivers. On the one hand, as the world’s oldest democracy, the US was driven by the desire to proselytize the newly established states and sheikdoms in its own liberal democratic mould. On the other was the desire to ensure stability of the despotic ancien regimes to ensure optimum exploitation of the abundant oil and gas reserves of the region for its own energy-greedy economy. In the end, the temptation of cheap oil and gas edged out the democratic and reform impetus. This state of affairs has continued, with one or two notable exceptions, until now.
Today, however, the US has emerged as the champion of democratic reform in the region, partly because it can afford to do so; having wisely diversified its fuel supplies, it now imports only around 12% of its needs from Arab states. Washington’s support for the ongoing popular revolts and the broader democracy agenda is regarded as a great betrayal by many of the Middle East’s monarchical and autocratic regimes, which were often dependent on its backing for their survival. Faced with existential crises, these regimes have threatened to reach out to other rising powers, notably China and India.
Ironically, these two countries, which also benefited from the US-backed stability in the region, now find themselves in the same position that the US was in the previous century. China, which imports around 50% of its fossil fuel supplies from the Middle East, and India, which is dependent on the region for more than 70% of its hydrocarbons needs, are now faced with the dilemma of either ensuring stability or promoting democratic reforms.
While China is unlikely to support a democratic agenda over stability of the regimes, India finds itself in a particularly disadvantageous position. As the world’s biggest democracy, it can hardly be seen as a promoter of autocratic regimes, especially at a time when the will of the region’s people is for greater freedoms.
But neither New Delhi nor Beijing is in a position to ensure stability of the regimes even if it wanted to. Neither have the necessary political will, network of relations, military alliances, or economic capacity that the US has built up over the past decades to ensure stability. Though China is in a better position given its economic strength, Beijing cannot go it alone in the region.
Ironically, while India and the Gulf-region regimes in particular are co-dependent on two significant assets, this has not led to any formal strategic alliances. India, having been slow to diversify its supplies, depends on the region for its oil and gas needs, while the Gulf countries are equally dependent on skilled Indian technical manpower to maintain their critical infrastructure, especially in telecommunications. Despite this reliance, the relationship between the two has remained largely mercantile, especially when compared with US strategic underpinnings in the region.
Thus, India and the other emerging powers by themselves will be unable to fill the gap left by the declining US influence in the region; for either greater security or a smooth democratic transition, it would require some sort of regional or cooperative arrangement, which does not exist at the moment. One possible grouping that could seek to collectively address this challenge is the Group of Twenty (G-20) nations, which includes some significant countries from this region. However, for that to happen, the G-20 will have to broaden its agenda beyond narrow economic and financial concerns to embrace political issues. It will also require capable leadership initiative from one of the emerging powers. The question is: who will bell the cat?
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight..
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