Centralization of Energy: Power Shifts in the Middle East and North Africa

By Dr.. Diana Galeva
The geopolitical competition between the major powers, coinciding with the intensification of the Ukrainian war, has highlighted the political and economic importance of the Middle East and North Africa region. US Vice President Kamala Harris recently headed the “strongest delegation” of high-level since President Joe Biden took office, which He came to the UAE to offer condolences on the death of the former President of the State, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as well as an attempt to intensify efforts to calm the tense atmosphere with allies in the Gulf region.

In the interview that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave to The Atlantic Monthly in March 2022, a week after the conflict in Ukraine began, the Saudi crown prince appeared indifferent to what Biden thought of him, and stated that Mr. Biden should focus on his country’s national interests. The Saudi crown prince justified his country’s unwillingness to pump more oil by increasing oil prices to more than $100 a barrel in February.

With the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Washington negotiated with Qatar to meet the needs of Europe in the event of a shortage of its energy needs. In March, Germany and Qatar had already agreed on a gas deal; This made Qatar help end dependence on Russian oil. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an unannounced visit to Algeria, while European countries, including Italy, Spain and other European Union member states, considered relying on various alternatives to solve their energy crisis.

Algeria is also one of the most important suppliers of gas to Europe; Where it secures 11% of its imports, while Russia provides 47% of its gas needs. After his visit to Algeria, Lavrov made another unannounced visit with the aim of discussing energy issues, but this time to the Sultanate of Oman, which he had previously visited in 2016. The latter, during his meeting with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, affirmed Oman’s commitment to the OPEC alliance Plus, and stressed the need to adhere to the rule of international law.

These examples highlight the strength of countries in the MENA region in the economic and energy sectors. It turns out that this is not new; These countries have always been seen as the most important historical allies of global actors, primarily because of their energy resources. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the conflict in Ukraine marks a turning point in the transformation of these power dynamics. Instead of the influence of major powers in the Middle East and North Africa, the region has now emerged as a powerful bloc at the global level.

strength point

The Middle East and North Africa region, especially the energy-rich Arab Gulf states, drew their strength from their economic potential and assertive foreign policies. These countries have conducted a range of case studies as part of scholarly debates about global powers, challenging established international relations theories. However, the majority of analyzes focused on the study of the regional balance of power, including the redistribution of power in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of a combination of events such as the war on Iraq and the protests of the so-called “Arab Spring” and the events that followed.

In addition, these events sparked later 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, by Mehran Kamrava. In 2013, Christian Coates Ulrichsen referred to the rise of Gulf powers and argued that the changing structure of global politics suggested that power would be distributed among a larger number of actors, most of whom came from outside Western society. In the same context, he explained that the Gulf states will continue to rise as regional powers with an increase in their global spread; This is part of a broader reorganization of the international system.

On the other hand, the conflict in Ukraine represents a different turning point in the global balance of power, with an increasing awareness of the global importance of actors in the MENA region. In this respect, it seems ill-conceived to frame the situation in terms of a devolution of power away from American peace and toward a multipolar world (or other possible outcomes of war in Ukraine) with a clearly defined set of big and small powers. Instead, it seems best not to take the state-centric view of understanding the distribution of power between external powers and regional actors and consider the critical role of the region as a whole.

One way of expressing this shift is by referring to the world’s shift towards an international system made up of blocs based on security needs. For example, Finland and Sweden are seeking to join NATO, while the European Union considers membership applications from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Meanwhile, Russia maintains close relations with Belarus and can unite with South Ossetia. In these cases, the world turns toward united blocs in terms of national interests, primarily driven by security concerns, despite the importance of energy needs and security concerns during the recent conflict. Hence, the Middle East and North Africa region will benefit from these shifts in the international system. These shifts also challenge the liberal view of the international system and the role of institutions, and correspond more closely to neorealist analyzes.

It is worth noting that the countries of the Middle East and North Africa participate in the main organizations that make up the global energy market. For example, the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) controls more than 71% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves, 44% of marketed production, 53% of pipeline trade, and 57% of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports; The organization includes countries from the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Libya and Qatar, as well as countries outside the Middle East and North Africa: Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.

 Other countries also enjoy observer status in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, including Iraq, the UAE, and other countries outside the Middle East and North Africa region. Meanwhile, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) include Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as countries outside the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, and Venezuela. In addition, non-OPEC countries joined the organization in late 2016 to form the OPEC Plus alliance, with the aim of exercising more control over the global crude oil market. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa share power in these energy institutions with other global actors.

It should also be noted that no country in the MENA region alone has sufficient power in the energy sector; The narrow view of the state-centric situation ignores the role of regional cooperation and the region’s collective influence at the global level, which goes beyond single-state policies or deals. The emergence of the Middle East and North Africa region as a unified bloc would enable it to become the most important supplier of energy globally. Countries had already had a certain degree of power through regional agreements, but they channeled this economic leverage into a “zero game” rather than a “win-win” regional status.

regional bloc

Zero-sum politics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has focused on prioritizing the power of coercion; The state-centric view and the new realism of regional alliances focus on state actors seeking to impose their interests on others through overt or covert military actions or through the promotion of economic supremacy. Hence, the army remains one of the main components of strategic thinking in the region. However, prioritizing economic power has greater potential to bring the region’s energy-rich actors onto the global stage.

By acting as a single bloc, the region is likely to benefit more from dealing with energy diplomacy as a tool of persuasion power. However, persuasion methods have been criticized for being too idealistic, especially given the region’s internal competition and the eager desire of regional actors to prioritize coercive force strategies. In short, the main obstacle to a state-centric view of building alliances in the region is that states begin to compete against each other, rather than work toward common interests.

Accordingly, these interactions have also been reflected in the divergent foreign policy agendas of actors in the MENA region. For example, the Emir of Qatar met Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Tehran; The talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major world powers are beginning to show signs of faltering. It is known that Iran and Qatar are neighbors that share the largest natural gas reserves in the world; So if the 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, last week Iran agreed to revive a major gas pipeline project to Oman. This has resulted in preliminary discussions about EU investment in the project and future imports once US sanctions are lifted.

In a related context, steps were taken at the international level regarding new political trends and negotiations. In January 2022, the Iranian president visited Moscow. The purpose of the visit was to win Moscow’s support by using anti-Western rhetoric when addressing the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly) and to defend Russia during the ongoing tensions with the West; He noted the failure of the “strategy of hegemony” and that the United States had now placed itself “in its weakest position.”

 However, the visit reportedly drew criticism and was not well received, and the Iranian president left Moscow empty-handed, unable to renew an earlier (and now expired) agreement between Russia and Iran twenty years ago. The Iranian president also met in May with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. The meeting focused on improving relations in the sectors of trade, culture and science, and was seen as an attempt to pave the way for future energy negotiations once the JCPOA is renewed. Meanwhile, the Emir of Qatar (Iran’s neighbor) visited Spain, at a time when the European Union was thinking about finding alternatives to Russian gas. Although no formal joint agreements have been announced, it appears that Iran, Qatar, and Oman are pursuing win-win strategies to supply energy to Europe. Thus, these three countries face direct competition against other regional actors, in a “zero-game” approach.

For its part, Iran continues to pursue regional policies that undermine the rights of its neighbors, such as its support for the terrorist Houthi militia that has carried out terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is clear that these actions aim to undermine the economic power of these countries. In another recent incident, it was reported that Kurdish, Turkish and European officials met to discuss a plan to pump Kurdish gas to Turkey and Europe, with possible support and participation from Israel. It was reportedly condemned because due to this supply agreement, Iran bombed Erbil with ballistic missiles last March.

fruitful approach

In conclusion, the major world powers are currently preoccupied with security and military concerns related to the emerging crisis in Europe, and it is time for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa to change their mindset. The region’s emergence as a bloc could also prioritize “win-win” approaches using the power of its own energy resources; By shifting from internal competition to regional agreements on the provision of energy at the global level, the countries of the region can strengthen their position on the global stage and support the region’s influence and independence.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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