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Middle powers thrive in the post-Ukraine world order

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine confirmed a global shift that many international relations experts have been heralding for years: we now live in a multi-polar world. Thanks to major geopolitical turning points – from Washington’s missteps in Iraq to the 2008 financial crisis – as well as long-term shifts – most obviously the rise of China – it is now clear that the ‘unipolar’ era of unfettered American leadership after the Cold War is over.

Despite the impressive unity that the Western world has shown in supporting Kiev, the fact the White House has not been able to persuade, cajole or pressure the rest of the world into material support for their position lays bare this reality.

Aside from Australia and Japan, Asian countries have not joined the sanctions regime on Moscow, nor have states in Africa, South America or the Middle East. These states are both wary of alienating Russia or China, but crucially, they know that the West no longer has the strength to bend other states to their will.

This has created clear strategic opportunities, and some countries, especially the world’s so-called ‘Middle Powers’, have wasted no time in leveraging this new geostrategic context to enhance their positions. The Middle East is a good example of this, where three ‘middle powers’ – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – have led the way.

Before Russia’s invasion, Turkey’s relations with the west, especially the United States, were at a low ebb. While remaining in NATO, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was furious with Washington for backing ‘terrorist’ Kurdish militants against ISIS. In turn, the US was wary of Ankara’s increasingly close ties to Moscow, including its purchase of Russian S-400s, which led Washington remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter programme.

Yet post-Ukraine, Erdogan has successfully leveraged Turkey’s strategic position on the Black Sea, and its close ties with both Moscow and Kiev, to its advantage. Europe’s new security fears means Turkey can use its potential veto over Sweden’s NATO application to squeeze concessions from the US and EU. Ties with the US may still be frosty, but western priorities in Ukraine have amplified Ankara’s importance, giving it greater leverage.

The same is true of Saudi Arabia. Before the war, President Joe Biden tried to shun Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, condemning the Kingdom’s human rights abuses, its heavy bombing of Yemen and the Prince’s alleged role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet the huge spike in global oil prices caused by the Ukraine war and Russian sanctions has provoked a volte-face from the White House. With cap in hand, Biden shook off his own concerns and previous criticisms, and visited Saudi in July to plead for oil production increases. Riyadh refused, a stance it also took when Boris Johnson visited in March. Such was the West’s desperation for cheaper oil, the Crown Prince was able to secure diplomatic rehabilitation without granting any concessions.

While western leaders may hold outdated views of Saudi Arabia as a client state, in reality it has spent the last few decades diplomatically diversifying. It enjoys close ties with China, which is the greatest consumer of its oil. Long before the Ukraine war, Riyadh was dealing with a multi-polar reality: continuing its close links with Washington, but not relying on them in the way it once did. The war has exposed this reality to a surprised west, forcing Washington and its allies to a humbling climbdown.

While Turkey and Saudi Arabia have used the Ukraine crisis to improve previously damaged ties with the West, the UAE was in no such bind, and has found even greater success in this new context. For many years now, the Gulf state has expanded its ‘multi-networked’ approach, building relationships across the world.

While continuing to strengthen its ties with the US, the UAE joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019 and has signed an array of trade agreements with Asian states including India, Indonesia and South Korea. They have become a leading investor in Africa, investing billions across the continent.

The UAE has been particularly adept at leveraging strong ties with the West to further cultivate these relationships. Many of its flagship initiatives have been hand-in-hand with the West: from the Abraham Accords to major investments in India through the I2U2 grouping, to the US-UAE Partnership for Accelerating Clean Energy in emerging economies.

This has allowed the UAE to position itself as something of a ‘global Switzerland’ – a (mostly) neutral actor that courts ties and investment from all the global superpowers. Wealthy Russians fleeing sanctions have headed to Dubai and Abu Dhabi with their assets, while the less well-off have headed to there to avoid conscription. All are adding to an economy already booming due to raised oil prices after the war and are additionally reinforcing the UAE’s image as a neutral safe haven.

For emerging diplomatic powers, the successes of these ‘middle powers’ offer invaluable lessons. Pragmatism and flexibility are among the most valuable strategic principles in a world without a single arbiter, and the ability to deftly leverage great power rivalry could serve states well in the years to come. While these principles may not represent anything new, the new multipolarity means they will likely be the dominant feature of global foreign policy in the coming decades.