The End of US Domination at the Persian Gulf

Think tank calls on Berlin and EU to intensify their efforts to gain influence at the Persian Gulf. So far, China is main beneficiary of US partial withdrawal, and could become the stabilizing power of the Middle East.

BERLIN/TEHRAN/ABU DHABI (Own report) - The incoming German government should intensify its efforts to gain influence at the Persian Gulf, thereby assuring that the EU can be "an actor" in the "global contest" for obtaining regional power. This demand is raised by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in its current position paper, due to the power vacuum that is developing from the US focus on its power struggle against China, and therefore withdrawing from the Middle East. The People's Republic of China, on the other hand, is strengthening its position, not only in Iran, with which it had concluded a 25-year "strategic partnership" last March and is seeking means for circumventing US sanctions, but in Arab Gulf countries as well. Beijing, for example, is also expanding its activities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and in Saudi Arabia - and is supplying them with 5G technology from the Huawei corporation, that Washington is so fiercely opposing. Appeals to Berlin and Brussels to strengthen the EU's position in the region, have so far been in vain. The DGAP warns that in light of the global "rebalancing of power, " raising the question of whose order will prevail.

"Fill the Vacuum"

The next German government should strengthen its influence at the Persian Gulf and develop an overall strategy for the region, demands the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in a current position paper. As the DGAP notes, the United States has reinforced its focus on its power struggle against China, and in this context, has long since embarked on a "gradual withdrawal" from the Middle East. The withdrawal started with Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" and was followed by Donald Trump's efforts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which Biden has now concluded (Afghanistan) and which he hopes to have largely completed (from Iraq) by the end of the year. As the era of a US-dominated Persian Gulf comes to an end, notes DGAP, "the new order will be decided by both littoral countries and outside powers jostling for influence. "[1] The think tank includes Turkey, alongside Russia and China, to the external powers. All three seek "to fill the vacuum left by the United States," writes DGAP. Berlin and the EU must formulate a coherent regional approach to the Persian Gulf, if they do not want to continue to lose influence.

Toward Becoming a Regional Power

According to the DGAP's position paper, over the past few years, particularly Iran has had success toward its aim to become "the dominant regional power around the Persian Gulf. "[2] For example, Tehran, has not only successfully "kept Saudi Arabia in check by wearing it down in Yemen and through regular attacks - whether on oil installations on land or ships in international waters." It has also "prevented a full alignment of the Gulf states by working closely with neutral states like Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar." Although several Arab Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, sensing the loss of US protection, had sought to compensate by a modicum of cooperation with Israel (the "Abraham Accords"), however they also sent clear signals to Tehran "that they infinitely prefer an arrangement with their neighbor to all-out confrontation." Iran, for its part, has been able to consolidate its alliances with the Shiite militias in Iraq, with Lebanon's Hezbollah, with the Yemeni Huthi and with Syria's President Bashar al Assad, and therefore it emerges reinforced from the previous years of power struggles.

"Sides With Non-Western Powers"

In relationship to external powers, the DGAP points out that Iran seeks "to free the region from US hegemony" and "sides with non-Western powers." This includes "choosing Russia as its main military partner in the Syrian theatre" and "China its main economic partner." The latter is due, not least, to US sanctions that "prevent European companies from dealing with the country."[3] At the same time, however, "only Beijing's geopolitical Belt and Road Initiative, which crosses the region over land and at sea, offers a coherent vision of the future." In fact, Tehran is systematically developing its cooperation with Beijing. Last March, both sides signed a "strategic partnership" agreement, which, according to reports, encompasses joint activities in projects ranging from ports, railroads and other infrastructure construction to investment in Iran's oil-and-gas industry, as well as transfer of military technology.[4] The establishment of an Iranian-Chinese bank, to help Tehran evade US sanctions, is also speculated to be among the plans.

"More of China, Less of America"

China is beginning to surpass the West not only in Iran, but in the United Arab Emirates and in some aspects in Saudi Arabia as well. Since the United States began producing more and more of its own oil and gas through fracking, the People's Republic of China has risen to become the Arabian Peninsula's biggest customer for raw materials. At the same time, there is growing distrust of Washington, which is withdrawing from the region. The uncoordinated withdrawal from Afghanistan has reinforced this. "There's a trust deficit with America which is growing by the day," Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of politics said recently. "The trend is more of China, less of America on all fronts, not just economically but politically, militarily and strategically in the years to come. There's nothing America can do about it."[5] The Emirates were incorporated into the production and resale of Sinopharm's Covid-19 vaccines, they are banking on 5G technology from Huawei, in spite of the intense negative pressure from the USA. Saudi Arabia also is using 5G technology from the Chinese company for its flagship Neom megaproject. Although none of the Arabian Gulf countries are planning to seriously reduce their cooperation with Washington, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are relying parallel on intensive collaboration with Beijing.

The question of Order

Since some time, think tanks have been calling on Berlin and the EU to be more energetic in their engagement in the Middle East, to avoid losing even more influence. "Europeans" should intensify their political and security activities and for example, play a leading role "in facilitating a new security dialogue in the Gulf" advised the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) back in December 2020.[6] In June 2021, the German Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS) announced that the EU had a "historic opportunity" to provide support with "political and economic measures and offers" in Persian Gulf conflicts, if it seized this "opportunity" it would, at the same time, become a "counterweight to Chinese influence in the region."[7] However, since then, there have been no significant activities on the part of Germany or the EU. Now the DGAP is reiterating and urging that the next German government "formulate a coherent regional approach to the Persian Gulf;" It is necessary to insure the EU "an active role" in the "global rebalancing of power" in the Middle East.[8] DGAP warns, "regional alliances are shifting that are part of a global rebalancing of power, ultimately raising the question of whose order will prevail." That the West will prevail, is becoming less likely.


[1],[2],[3] Cornelius Adebahr: Looking Beyond Iran to the Persian Gulf. German Foreign Policy Must Get Serious about the Entire Region. DGAP Memo Nr. 5. November 19, 2021.

[4] SuneEngel Rasmussen, Aresu Eqbali: Iran, China Sign Economic, Security Agreement, Challenging U.S. Pressure. 27.03.2021. See also Iran's Shift to the East

[5] Andrew England, Simeon Kerr: 'More of China, less of America': how superpower fight is squeezing the Gulf. 20.09.2021. See also Counterweight to China at the Gulf

[6] Cinzia Bianco: Gulf of difference: How Europe can get the Gulf monarchies to pursue peace with Iran. 10.12.2021.

[7] Stefan Lukas, Sebastian Sons: Ein historisches Momentum im Nahen Osten. Neue Chancen und Herausforderungen für ein europäisches Engagement in der Golfregion. Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik: Arbeitspapier Sicherheitspolitik 6/2021. See also Counterweight to China at the Gulf.

[8] Cornelius Adebahr: Looking Beyond Iran to the Persian Gulf. German Foreign Policy Must Get Serious about the Entire Region. DGAP Memo Nr. 5. November 19, 2021.