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Research Questions

  1. How do China and Russia view strategic competition globally and in the Middle East?
  2. What does strategic competition among China, Russia, and the United States look like in the Middle East?
  3. How can the United States shape strategic competition in the Middle East to advance its own interests?

Although U.S. strategic competition with China and Russia is largely focused on efforts in Asia and Europe, this competition will play out in other regions, including in the Middle East. This report details the political, economic, and military interests and activities of China and Russia in the Middle East, and identifies where those efforts contest, intersect, or complement U.S. interests and activities. The authors systematically identify the dimensions and locations in which strategic competition is occurring, where it is most likely to take place in the future, and where and how it is most likely to threaten U.S. interests. They provide recommendations for the steps that U.S. policymakers might take to maintain an advantageous position in the region and in strategic competition with China and Russia.

Key Findings

Although Russia presents short-term challenges, China poses a greater threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East in the long term

  • China is economically and demographically larger, globally engaged, and has been strengthening its armed forces across all domains of warfare.
  • Chinese documents routinely accuse the United States of maintaining a "Cold War mindset." Chinese officials view modern strategic competition as similar to the Cold War in that it is global in scope and not geographically contained to the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Russian objectives often place Moscow in opposition to the goals of the United States and its allies. Russia views itself as occupying a place of privilege and significant influence in its immediate post-Soviet neighborhood and seeks recognition as a great power.

China and Russia have approached the region differently, but both have sought to remain on good terms with all Middle Eastern states, regardless of intra-regional disputes

  • Both countries are diplomatically active in the region, as reflected by their senior leaders visiting the majority of countries there, often multiple times.
  • Russia has been far more active than China in the military domain, even prior to its military intervention in Syria in 2015.
  • China has pursued economic engagement while remaining cautious about deepening its involvement in regional diplomatic and security affairs.

Recommendations

  • There is much that the United States can do—if it so chooses—in the Middle East, regardless of the activities of Russia and China. Examples are working to settle international disputes, helping build trade and investment relations between U.S. companies and the region, and providing aid where necessary and useful.
  • Some Chinese and Russian activities could be beneficial to countries in the region, such as China's infrastructure construction activities. The United States might engage to help local actors take advantage of those activities in ways that magnify benefits to the region without disadvantaging the United States.
  • The United States should be selective in the Chinese and Russian activities it tries to counter in the region, undertaking competitive actions in response when Washington assesses core interests in the region to be at risk.
  • The United States might consider prioritizing activities in countries hosting significant Chinese and Russian activities that run counter to U.S. interests. Top areas for future competition are Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, which are also important to core U.S. interests in the region.
  • The United States might choose to implement cost-imposing strategies intended to create dilemmas for Beijing and Moscow that tie up their resources and attention and reduce their ability to compete. Such strategies in the Middle East would complement those already being implemented in Asia and Europe, and are likely to be lower risk.
  • Finally, the United States should seek areas of cooperation, however limited they might be.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Views of Strategic Competition

  • Chapter Three

    Strategic Competition in the Middle East

  • Chapter Four

    Shaping Strategic Competition in the Middle East in the U.S. Interest

  • Appendix

    A Panorama of the Great Powers in the Middle East

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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