Adapting to a Multipolar World

In the more complicated global order emerging today, the Middle East and Europe have to think in strategic terms.

The year 2024 began with a protracted war in Ukraine, an uninterrupted conflict in Gaza, and a worsening crisis in the Red Sea, while analysts touted new narratives about a rising multipolar world, an alternative world order, and the forever decline of Europe. Middle Eastern and European countries are directly impacted by such developments. Their mutual relationship will be too if both sides do not begin thinking in strategic terms, which means defining a common vision for the region that encompasses security and peace, energy, technology, and investment.

Seen from Europe, the concept of an increasingly multipolar world takes many forms. To begin with, there are the permanently disruptive actors. Russia has brought war to European soil with repercussions within NATO and the European Union. Iran and its proxies are multiplying threats and attacks in the Middle East. Further afield, North Korea is boosting its military arsenal. Meanwhile, other actors, such as China and Turkey, are striving for a bigger role on the world stage. And, finally, there are new coalitions of interests taking form, such as the recently-expanded BRICS, which are mounting a challenge to the existing world order.

An outcome of all this is that global and regional institutions have had a diminishing role. The United Nations Security Council has reached a state of quasi-paralysis over Ukraine, since Russia has used its veto power to conduct its invasion with full political immunity, while its threat of using tactical nuclear weapons has added relative impunity for the military component of the invasion. The Council of Europe, the guardian of human rights principles on the continent, expelled Russia soon after the invasion of Ukraine began, and sees Turkey denying the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, even while remaining within the institution.

Beyond narratives underlining the decline of European influence in the world or focusing on the “withdrawal” of the United States and other Western countries from the Middle East, the realities on the ground present a different picture. Here are four observations on the current situation seen from a European standpoint.

First, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had wide-ranging implications for Middle Eastern and European countries. Oil and gas supplies to Europe have had to be reorganized due to sanctions against Russia, while the policy of “greening” the European economy will gradually introduce new structural limitations. In the long term, it is still an open question whether oil and gas exporters from the Persian Gulf region, or others, such as the United States and Norway, will benefit or lose from this shift in trade patterns.

Second, since the October 7 Hamas attacks against Israel, the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has upended implementation of the Abraham Accords and the associated political momentum. Similarly, the role of Iran and Yemen in reacting to the war has destabilized the entire region. A case in point is the policy of Ansar Allah (usually referred to as the Houthis) to disrupt maritime traffic in the Red Sea, which has provoked Western military operations to oppose this. The result has been heightened threats to security in the region.

Despite widespread condemnation in the UN Security Council and by fourteen countries, Ansar Allah’s leadership has vowed to keep attacking ships. An indirect effect of this has been the massive reorganization of maritime traffic from Asia and the Arabian Gulf to Europe, and the associated economic impact on Egypt, which has seen a sharp drop in Suez Canal transit fees.

Third, Turkey has entered a novel partnership with Russia. This has included advance payments on a Russian-owned and -operated nuclear plant in Akkuyu to produce electricity, deferred payments (in roubles, not dollars) on imported Russian gas, and acquisition by Russia of shares in Turkish refineries where Russian crude is transformed into Turkish final products, allowing Moscow to evade Western sanctions. In 2023, an election year, Turkey traded substantial financial benefits for Russian leverage over its energy sector. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to conduct a security-based foreign policy in the Middle East—in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean—which involves an element of unpredictability.

Fourth, regarding the Western military presence in the Middle East, it remains impressive, contrary to conventional wisdom. The United States is obviously in the lead with a large force deployed across the wider region—in Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). France maintains permanent bases in Djibouti and the UAE and has operations in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Iraq. Similarly, the United Kingdom has bases in Cyprus and operations in the Red Sea and Iraq. Overall, the security situation in the region is highly unstable and the risks of escalation are many.

Multiple disruptions and violent actions or reactions may define the short-term, but they do not on their own mean an alternative world order. A multipolar world will likely be defined by several things: a reshuffling of trade patterns and consumption when it comes to energy, whose repercussions are unknown; a continued military presence of Western powers where their vital interests are at stake; the emergence of new military actors in and around the Middle East; and the continued dominance of Western countries—the United States and the EU in particular—in the economic, financial, technological, scientific, and normative fields.

Political leaders in the Middle East and Europe may debate the need for an alternative world order, and the former may lament the impotence of the latter regarding key international conflicts. But the current pattern of disruption, violence, and limited wars will not lead to a promising era. Rather, dialogue and diplomacy will.

Beyond the October 7 traumas, it is high time for EU leaders to look at the Middle East in strategic terms, and for Gulf countries to propose their vision of peace and security in the region. Consultations held on the situation in Gaza and the Middle East Peace Process on January 22 between EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and representatives from the Palestinian Authority and Arab League, constitute a first step in this direction. However, much more is needed to make such a dialogue truly strategic.

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