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Our New, Non-Polar World

By Nesrine Malik

March 27, 2024

As the United States braces for what is set to be another bruising election year and turns ever more inwards, a recalibration has been taking place elsewhere. While the country’s diplomatic presence and projection diminishes, nodes of geopolitical power and economic influence are becoming established in the Middle East and southern Europe, overtaking both the United States and Western Europe as influential parties across Africa and the broader Middle East region.

The classic economic powerhouses and challengers to Western hegemony, China and Russia, those harbingers of a “multipolar world,” are now joined by others quietly establishing what is now a non-polar one. Over the last decade alone, Qatar has become the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and is now in position to replace the United States as Russia’s replacement as gas supplier to Europe. The United Arab Emirates has ambitions to expand its economic power by securing gold supply and valuable Red Sea ports on the African coastline and so is forging stronger links on the African continent, supplying arms and funding to militia forces in Sudan and establishing supply routes in Chad. It is bailing out Egypt with an injection of hard currency for which in return it received sizable Egyptian real estate assets in perpetuity. And it is, as financial services provider to the world, serving as a valuable weak link in the chain of sanctions against Russia.

Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, is also repositioning, abandoning its role as religious sponsor and patriarch of the Muslim world (with mixed results to say the least) for something more glamorous and lucrative, assimilating it into global polite society. Taking its cue from Qatar and the soft power it has accumulated through sport and entertainment partnerships, Saudi Arabia has pivoted towards influence through popular culture. In less than five years, Saudi has effectively acquired professional golf in the PGA Tour, lured big footballing names to its local tournaments, and is investing heavily in tourism and shiny expatriate high life—the sort that made Dubai such a regional hub. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the condemnation of the country’s proxy war in Yemen, and Joe Biden’s pledge to make Saudi “the pariah that they are” now seem to belong to a distant era.

Such developments and dispersals impose new limitations on Anglo-American and European foreign policy. Since the invasion of Ukraine, several African countries refused to condemn Russia’s actions, and, in the wake of recent coups in Sub-Saharan Africa, Russian flags were raised, accompanying chants of condemnation of what are perceived to be the extractive interests of neo-colonial European powers such as France. China has for almost two decades been a behemoth of African trade and infrastructure investment, but with it several disparate growing influences, from Turkey and the Arabian Gulf to the sprawling economic and security network of the Wagner Group, have also made inroads. Isolation and sanctions, or disinterest in engaging meaningfully, (i.e., not through invasion or military presence) with countries in the throes of transformative political upheaval merely sends their leadership to other vendors of capital, arms, banking facilities, and global mobility and credibility.

There is another shift brought on by a conflict in the Middle East. Events there have diminished the custodians of a liberal world order, showing them up as severely limited, either through lack of willpower or capacity, in their ability to bring about a peaceful resolution to a war in which they have considerable sway. More undermining to global authorities is the destabilising effect of the conflict in the Middle East region, on domestic politics in countries whose governments are perceived as supportive of the war, and a broader post-World War II pact that now appears to be unravelling as NGOs and human rights organisations come into conflict with their own founders.

The outcome is a world where moral and security credentials are up for grabs. Where Vladimir Putin can riff on neo-colonial resentments in Africa and run a sanctions-circumventing gauntlet. Where South Africa at the International Court of Justice can momentarily capture the aspirations and imaginations of weary populations long starved for a credible movement and language of global justice. Where the country that seems to hold most of the cards and ability to secure hostage releases and ceasefires is not the United States, but Qatar. What was supposed to be America’s final act of domesticating the Middle East and isolating Iran through the Abraham Accords, now looks hubristic, unrealistic, and short-sighted—a move predicated on the assumption that time can stand still at the precise moment it suits foreign policy interests. But history marches on, and the nature of what constitutes (another) new world order will be determined away from DC, London, and Geneva. Declining superpowers can choose to come along with it, seeking relevance through consensus and consultation, or they can choose to barricade themselves against it and become overtaken.

Nesrine Malik is a journalist and critic who explores issues of race, identity, politics, and world affairs.