The ingress of China into the Middle East indicates the U.S. is on the way out, paving the way for regional states to take decisions in accordance with their own interests rather than Washington’s demands. President Joe Biden has made no secret of his desire to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken—in an interview before taking office—saying he envisioned a Biden presidency that would do “less, not more” in the Gulf region. Attending a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia in July 2022, Biden attempted damage control, vowing the U.S. “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” This appears eyewash amidst attempts to “normalize” ties with Iran and greater influence of China.
Over the past year, Gulf states have improved their ties with Beijing, Tehran, and Moscow—in that order. This is despite the Biden administration publicly downplaying the importance of China-brokered peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, though it is clear it is not too pleased about the growing Chinese influence. America has also increased its domestic oil and gas production, reducing its reliance on the Gulf.
Key to the U.S.’s withdrawal is the circumstances arising from its exit from Afghanistan in 2021. Despite it being clear to all that the Taliban would not ensure equal rights for women and deny them education as well as employment, Washington still considers it a “wise” decision to leave Kabul when it did. It is likely that this same “wisdom” would soon apply to Iran, with the revival of a nuclear deal that restores ties between Tehran and Washington—with conditions. Amidst this, the real winner remains China, which has shied from alienating any of its trade partners, leaving it in the best possible position to replace the U.S. as it increasingly looks inward.