The cognoscenti has interpreted the October 5 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries+ (OPEC+) decision to cut its collective oil production by two million barrels per day (mbpd) as yet another sign of the fading Pax Americana in West Asia.
A rare strongly worded public exchange between Washington and Riyadh has followed may well imperil their seven-decade-old bilateral compact leading to a wider realignment. Although oil prices have remained stable, some American conspiracy theorists believe that the inflationary move was intended to help the Republicans win a majority in the US midterm elections and pave the way for Donald Trump’s return.
This dramatic episode underlines the discernible trend towards regional multipolarity. The United States (US) national security strategy published last week also corroborates this shift by downgrading the region to fourth in the priority hierarchy. The document criticises the past “unrealistic faith in force and regime change” and seeks to “eschew grand designs” in favour of “more practical steps that can advance US interests and help regional partners.” The document is deafeningly silent on oil and gas security, hitherto the raison d’etre of Pax Americana in West Asia.
If Pax Americana is winding down in West Asia, who or what will replace it? The US ensured linearity, stability, and predictability in this strategically important, but potentially volatile region. Washington intends to remain primus inter pares for the foreseeable future and has fostered regional alliances through mechanisms such as the Abraham Accords and the India-Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE)-US (I2U2). The Pentagon’s recent indulgence of the Pakistani military establishment can also be seen against this backdrop. This incipient order is likely to be shaped by a combination of assertive regional players acting in concert with foreign interests in this emerging power vacuum. It is difficult to predict the new order, but the following two broad surmises can be offered.
First, regional players seem to lack a cohesive pattern. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are quite like-minded on many issues, but are locked in competition for Gulf supremacy. They have major regional policy differences. Though Israel is increasingly mainstreamed, it often provokes strong popular resistance in the region. While largely accepting Israel as an antidote to Iran, many Gulf Arab regimes worry about a blowback. Turkey has lately mended its fences after decade-long flirting with political Islam, but its regional acceptability is circumscribed by a struggling economy and a potentially messy presidential election next year. Iran is struggling under US economic sanctions but continues to pose a strategic threat, both directly and through regional proxies. Egypt, Syria and Iraq are preoccupied internally. On all important oil production issues, too, any drastic fall in demand due to a possible global recession in the coming months could unleash fierce competition between States.
Second, none of the foreign players offers any long-term and comprehensive succour to the region. For local players, their attractiveness to these new foreign players is not a comprehensive substitute for US dominance, but only as an adjunct or counterpoise. Most of these foreign powers are motivated by their dependence on the Gulf for their energy requirements or investments. They lack the full complement of policy drivers. The European Union is preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict and imminent stagflation. It is desperate for an alternative to Russian oil and gas but has little strategic value to contribute. Russia has its hands full with the Ukraine conflict and dealing with crippling western sanctions. It is likely to remain an outlier with scant capacity to anchor the volatile region. China’s economic heft and pretence at being a strategic alternative seem to have dipped as it battles lockdowns induced by its zero-Covid policy and declining economic growth. Until China gets its mojo back, its role in the region will remain largely transactional.
Thus, West Asia waits for Godot while grappling with several known unknowns — unable to envision what disruptions are in store in the foreseeable future, how long this wait will be, and how it will evolve. It is in everyone’s interest that the ongoing transition be orderly and gradual. Consequently, greater policy cohesion among various players is highly desirable. But given various imponderables, it may not be possible to seed it.
The West Asian region is critical to India for hydrocarbons, remittances, investment and its market. But faced with such a chaotic transition there, what options do we have?
One, we need to reduce, to the extent possible, our dependence on crude and gas imports. Two, we need to go for long-term energy-for-security arrangements with suitable partners in the region. Three, on the whole, bilateral engagements are preferable to any nebulous multilateralism. Four, while engaging regional players, we should be well-prepared to anticipate their expectations and respond realistically. Above everything, both please-all mantras and overcommitments need to be avoided.
It is heartening to note that over the past few weeks, our bilateral high-level contacts with important regional players have intensified. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met his counterparts from Iran and Turkey and Indian ministers have visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. We need to deepen this trend and expand it to include other regional players such as Israel, Iraq, and Syria.
Mahesh Sachdev is a former Indian ambassador
The views expressed are personal
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