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Can Great Powers be manipulated?

Can Great Powers be manipulated?

Are Russia and China being manipulated by Middle Eastern countries? Read an analysis of the situation by an international relations scholar.

This guest post is by Atilla Can Ekici. Atilla completed his master's degree at Birkbeck, University of London in 2020. He continues his doctoral education at the University of Plymouth, which he started in 2021 under the guidance of Dr Patrick Holden. His main areas of work are Saudi Arabia, Iran, foreign aid, and the Middle East.

In a Middle East where China is increasing its presence and Russia is maintaining its active position in Syria, the realisation of America that it is not the only alternative and the use of this by the Middle Eastern states creates an incomprehensible picture. Are the Middle Eastern states really trying to get a defense deal from the US using Russia and China, or are they really after an alliance with Russia and China?

In this blog post, we will try to find answers to the questions we asked above by examining Jon Hoffman's article, The Middle East, and the Manipulation of Great Power Competition, published in The National Interest, who continues his doctoral education at George Mason University.

The aim of the Gulf countries

According to the author, the Gulf states especially after Yemen strikes want a guarantee from the United States with an agreement such as the countries in Europe and East Asia that have a mutual defense agreement with the United States, but the author says that such an agreement is not in America's interest, and he thinks it will formalise his bond with the authoritarian status quo which is the cause of instability in the Middle East.

Middle Eastern states, on the other hand, seek to keep bilateral relations stable no matter who takes over the administration in the United States. The difficulties faced by the Saudis, who have secured a huge number of arms deals with Trump and thus bilateral relations, when Biden comes to the administration, show that Middle Eastern states are right in their concerns.1

We are reminded once again that there is no room for a vacuum in world politics, especially in the Middle East, in the statements of US officials: The further the US moves away from the Middle East and its regional partners, Russia and China will try to fill that gap.2

How can international relations students interpret the changing Saudi-American alliance? Read an analysis of the current situation:

What's the future of the Saudi-American alliance?

Russia and China are dealing with their own problems

However, Hoffmann argues that neither Russia nor China can, and will not, fill the American "vacuum" in the Middle East. A regional system backed by a foreign hegemon necessitates huge amounts of political, economic, and military resources, as the American experience in the Middle East demonstrates.

Both Russia, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, and China are experiencing severe economic problems at home. Additionally, in order to preserve their control, Moscow and Beijing must invest a significant amount of money in internal security.3

Gulf countries are taking serious steps

On the other hand, the regional powers are content with the constraints placed on Russia and China and do not view them as viable alternatives to the United States; instead, they aim to use great-power rivalry in order to further their own geopolitical objectives.

They are acting seriously by doing this. The first was the United Arab Emirates' decision to forgo authoring a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution denouncing Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, together with China and India.4

In exchange for their abstention, Russia voted in favor of designating the Houthi movement in Yemen as a terrorist group alongside the UAE in the UNSC.5 Second, amid tensions with Washington, Saudi Arabia recently invited Chinese president Xi Jinping to visit Riyadh, and the kingdom is reportedly in talks with Beijing to accept Chinese yuan instead of U.S. dollars for oil sales.6

America cannot give up on the Middle East

Although a president like Biden has harsh words for Saudi Arabia, it still cannot be stated that America is increasingly "leaving" the region, according to Jon Hofmann's piece published in the National Interest. Under Biden, American Middle East policy has been predicated on consistency rather than change.

Despite a CIA report directly accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden has refused to hold him accountable. He also continued to support Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their disastrous military campaigns in Yemen, which have left the this country in a humanitarian crisis.7 It should also be added that arms agreements with the states of the region are ongoing.8

While this is the case on the Biden front, a recent letter signed by thirty members of Congress in the US and sent to Secretary of State Blinken specifically targeted Washington's relationship with Saudi Arabia. The letter, signed by the chairmen of the House Foreign Relations Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and the House Rules Committee, highlights how America's partnership with Saudi Arabia and its continued support for the Saudi monarchy contradict the United States.9

Members of Congress seem to have forgotten one thing in signing this letter: Israel. In the Middle East, which has not yet stabilised after the Arab Spring, it does not seem realistic to expect America to reduce its relations with the Saudis and the Gulf countries.

To sum up, although the U.S. wants to allocate its resources to Asia against rising China and to Russia, which is already the biggest problem, it seems difficult to devote less resources and time to the Middle East.

The biggest reason for this is Israel. Neither China nor Russia dares to directly target Israel, and even if their bilateral relations continue, they will never be able to give Israel the same assurances that the United States provides to Israel. For this reason, whether the US sees the bluffing of the Saudis and the UAE or not, it will have to maintain bilateral relations with these countries, if for no reason at all, just for Israel's security. 

As part of Plymouth’s MA International Relations: Security and Development, you’ll study modules such as Economic Diplomacy and Development and Strategy and Security and have the opportunity to discuss issues such as Saudi’s role in a changing Middle East. Find out more:

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1 Jon Hoffmann, May 9, 2022, The Middle East and the Manipulation of Great Power Competition, The National Interest

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Michelle Nichols and Humeyra Pamuk, Feb 26, 2022, Russia vetoes U.N. Security action on Ukraine as China abstains, Reuters

5 UN Security Council, Feb 28, 2022, Security Council Renews Arms Embargo, Travel Ban, Asset Freeze Imposed on Those Threatening Peace in Yemen, by 11 Votes in Favour, None against, 4 abstentions, UN Meetings Coverage and Press Releases

6 Stephen Kalin, March 14, 2022, Saudi Arabia Invites China’s Xi to Visit Kingdom Amid Strained U.S. Relations, The Wall Street Journal

7 Jon Hoffmann, May 9, 2022, The Middle East and the Manipulation of Great Power Competition, The National Interest

8 Al Jazeera and News Agencies, Feb 4, 2022, US State Dept backs latest raft of Saudi, UAE, Jordan arms sales, Al Jazeera

9 MEE staff, April 13, 2022, House Democrats call for 'recalibration' in US-Saudi relationship, Middle East Eye

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