The Doorstep: Changing Dynamics in West Asia, with Mohammed Soliman

Aug 11, 2022 40 min listen

How could the world change if the dynamism of India's rise is connected to the wealth and resources of the Gulf states and the technological powerhouse of Israel? Could a new Indo-Abrahamic corridor that connects South Asia with the Middle East and East Africa through to the Mediterranean be a major game-changer for the world of the 21st century? Middle East Institute's Mohammed Soliman joins The Doorstep this week to discuss all of this and more.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev. My co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Tatiana Serafin, is unable to make the recording today, but we will continue with our guest in a few minutes. To discuss changing dynamics in West Asia, the Middle East, the reorientation of India westward and Israel and the Emirates eastward, what those would mean for us in the United States, and what some of the doorstep implications would be we will be bringing on Mohammed Soliman, who is a global strategy advisor and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @ThisIsSoliman.

But before we bring Mohammed on, normally this is where we look at some of what has been happening in the news as we move forward. A couple of items of interest as they have been developing: We are still dealing with the aftermath of Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan with the People's Republic of China continuing some of its military exercises, which have the added impact of disrupting or delaying trade flows because areas where exercises are taking place are closed to traffic. We had Peter Sand on a few weeks ago talking about the ways in which delays in global supply chains can begin to stack up. This is a reminder that even without any overt use of force China can signal its displeasure with the speaker's visit to the island by creating some economic difficulty. This again points to the importance of supply chains but also the importance of developing alternatives, and some of that will come out in our conversation in a few minutes with Mohammed.

We are dealing with the potential re-eruption of conflict in the Caucasus despite a ceasefire in place between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There has been a resumption of some military activity, which points to the fact that as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues and as our attention focuses more on what happens there, we have seen in the last few months that in conflicts that were tamped down elsewhere people and governments are taking advantage of all focus and all eyes being on what is happening in Ukraine to try to change their position on the battlefield and to improve their position at the negotiating table. So we have seen an uptick in violence not just in the Caucasus but around the world, which is worrying and again something we will discuss in our conversation with Mohammed, the ability or inability of the United States to be able to focus on multiple problems at the same time and what effect this might have.

Of course at The Doorstep we are very interested in continuing to track the most key doorstep issues including what's happening in terms of prices at the grocery store and the pump. So far the Biden administration appears to be moving ahead with plans to continue to distribute and sell oil from the Strategic Reserve.

Finally, the factions within the Democratic Party reached an agreement and we have seen passage of a major piece of legislation that has implications for energy and climate and alongside that passage of legislation which looks at increasing the domestic production of semiconductors, a realization that rebuilding America's own domestic industrial base in this regard is both a national security issue but also a doorstep economic issue, for the jobs it creates but also to prevent these disruptions in supply chains that we have seen in recent weeks.

What it points to is something that one of our guests from last year, Politico's Nahal Toosi, described as "omnipolicy," that the Biden administration increasingly is operating from an assessment that dividing policy into foreign and domestic is not tenable and that in fact policy will span both of those buckets, and that something that rejuvenates America's domestic industrial base or its domestic capacity to produce hydrocarbons or to begin to develop green energy for the future has geopolitical impacts, whether it reduces our dependence and the dependence of our allies upon authoritarian suppliers or removes a lever of bargaining and influence that those suppliers may have or seek to exercise over us or our partners. As we are seeing the emergence of these narratives coming together, particularly around—as we have been looking at in recent weeks—the notion of climate geopolitics as a driver for both foreign policy and domestic policy, we have seen the United States take some major steps since we were with you last to enhance its capacity to do that.

While this has been happening domestically what has been happening in the world and what we are going to be looking at in our conversation with Mohammed momentarily is sea changes in what's happening in the broader Indian Ocean basin, East Africa, and the Mediterranean, a realignment that is occurring and this notion, as Mohammed has coined, of the "Indo-Abrahamic" corridor from India through the Gulf, through Saudi Arabia, to Israel, to Egypt, down into East Africa, up into other parts of the Levant, and then across the Mediterranean into Europe and North Africa, some fascinating developments that really have not gotten a lot of coverage but could have a real impact on our own security and our own economy in years to come as these new networks—or, as Mohammed will point out, old networks that are coming back again in the 21st century—begin to take shape.

With that let's turn now to our conversation with Mohammed Soliman.

Mohammed, it's so wonderful to have you with us here on The Doorstep podcast today. It has been not quite a month since President Biden traveled to the Middle East, and we are still seeing some of the aftereffects of that visit, but one of the things that was remarkable was that the presidential visit to the region highlighted I think for many Americans some of the changing dynamics that are occurring in the region, particularly the emergence of what you have termed the "Indo-Abrahamic bloc" or in a more recent piece that you did for The National Interest, the rise of West Asia and the idea that India, looking westward across the Indian Ocean, connecting to the Gulf emirates and from there connecting to Israel, to Egypt, to the Mediterranean, and to Africa in a way that I think many Americans are not particularly focused on. Perhaps we could start our conversation by you discussing the genesis of the Indo-Abrahamic concept and why you think it may prove to be quite critical in the months and years to come.

MOHAMMED SOLIMAN: Thank you, Nick. It is very kind of you to invite me to the podcast.

Let me start by saying that, as an engineer by training, I take issue with the current map of the Middle East from a strategic standpoint but also from a culture/civilization/economic point of view. The Middle East is a very limiting and very fluid unnatural term that doesn't mean anything in the meantime. When policymakers in Washington, DC started to look at this region following 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq, the assumption was that you have that sort of region from Morocco and at the end of this map is somehow Iran. We don't know why, but this is the map that always exists in every single think tank in DC.

But when you basically look at the map from that perspective Iran is this big hegemon that is the end of the map. This by its own nature is flawed and does not reflect the strategic and the geographical realities of the region.

India has always been part of that. New Delhi has always been part of that sort of system. Centuries ago under Muslim empires that spanned from Damascus, Cairo, and Spain to the emirates of Delhi. On top of that the British Empire always saw India as part of that sort of geo-economic, geopolitical system. As someone who was born and raised in Cairo, one of the reasons that they told us historically why Egypt was occupied was not only because of the Suez Canal's centrality to Europe and Asia but mainly because the Brits saw it as an integral part of their own enterprise system that connected the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. So the whole idea of Delhi and Cairo as encompassing something called in my opinion "West Asia" is not really new. It is something that has always been there. However, post-Second World War, Cold War, the unipolar moment made that sort of terminology take a backseat and think about the region from a limiting standpoint.

That is my long spiel to give you an idea about the intellectual roots of why I am thinking about this region as West Asia encompassing what we call the Middle East today but also India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The moment we expand our views about this region, establishing a balance of power could be easier because the moment you only think about the restless Eurasian powers such as Iran let's say and Turkey in its own sphere, in your mind these are two rising Eurasian powers and creating a new sort of balanced of power around them could be difficult. But the moment you see that region from that perspective I think it is easier to think about alignments, about alliances, about blocs, about coordination mechanisms, about formats, and about dialogues. You have whole new possibilities that exist in this region.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It does seem to be that again thinking about this as a region that was artificially divided by American mapmaking, so to speak, to create this Middle East, essentially deeming that to be a largely Arab-Muslim construction, not sure what to do with Iran as Persian speaking, and then thinking of India only in the direction of China does leave out the possibility of how this as an organic as you said geo-economic and geopolitical region can in fact serve to be part of the transformation of global power that we are seeing.

I remember reading something about this saying that we think about this Indo-Abrahamic corridor—or West Asia, whichever term is used; I know there is also now this clunky bureaucratic term for Israel, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States of I2U2 as well that has been circulating—as essentially taking the dynamic economic potential of India, linking it to the resource and financial base in the Middle East, in the Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, and connecting it as well with the resources and potential of East Africa, and then having an outlet to, as you said, the Mediterranean through Egypt and Israel and then adding the technological connection. This would seem to be a potential game changer for the way that the world might shake out in coming years.

MOHAMMED SOLIMAN: Absolutely. Again that system existed centuries ago. That system was always there. I am going to use an Eastern term to describe the East. The East always traded with each other. Muslim traders from Egypt and Oman have always had access to Indonesia, Malaysia, and even some parts of Japan at that time. That economic integration around the "rimland," the literal states of Eurasia, has always been there. I think the moment the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company were introduced things became much more Western-oriented and much more tied to the geopolitics and geo-economics of Europe.

So what we are seeing right now is natural growth of that sort of system. It is happening organically. As you said, think about all the trade flow between the Gulf States and India, the massive Saudi, Emerati, Qatari, and Egyptian interests and investment in India and cooperation with India. Not only to speak about trade, we also speak about pharma and military and tech cooperation. We have seen the European Union and Israel investing in semiconductors in India.

That sort of integration is structural and is a game changer. It is also a reflection of a reality that has always existed. I think the moment people realize that we are pivoting to a multipolar system—again, I come from a school of thought where everybody believed a bipolar system was the natural system. When we are checking through history maybe Tamerlane was the last global emperor, but before and after him we always had multi-civilizational powers. The system was that we always had multiple powers to combine the hemispheres, so right now we are back at that kind of understanding and realization. So nations are moving toward integration, toward cooperation, and toward trying to pivot away from the West and Europe from a structural standpoint because again it is a reflection of geography, distance, demographics, trade, and also the whole idea that the East is on the rise and power is already shifting to that direction.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: As you just mentioned the semiconductor issue—of course semiconductors have become a headline issue as people realize the question of dependence on supply chains that run through China and concerns about interruption of supply chains between China and Taiwan and the rest of the world—actually opens up the reemergence of these trading networks and opens up an "alternative" Asian supply chain, so to speak, that runs as you said from Indonesia, Malaysia, through India, to the Gulf, to Egypt and Israel, into the Mediterranean, and then from there to the trans-Atlantic world. This would seem to be something that even if Americans are not following it closely the reemergence of these ties and the strengthening of these ties could have a real impact on where Americans are sourcing critical goods and services. From where you sit have you seen any realization in either American business circles or investors that this may in fact be the dynamic growth area, or is this still as you said something limited largely to the region itself, that is, that the Emeratis, the Israelis, and the Indians are doing this and that the American business community may just be somewhat on the sidelines?

MOHAMMED SOLIMAN: America is lucky. Why? Because here in America, in my opinion as an outsider from the way America works it has a massive decentralized power system in a way that even if the diplomatic and strategic community in DC thinking is still stuck in the past, tech and financial communities in New York in California are way ahead. The Googles, the Facebooks, the Twitters, and the Teslas of the world are at the forefront of this. When you look into the level of cooperation and the initiatives that U.S. tech companies have been pursuing in these nations I think in my mind it is a practical realization of what we are talking about, not from a strategic standpoint, but they see something there and they invested there.

We see that in the way they are approaching for example cable, the fact that you have the Blue Ramen coming from India, Saudi, Israel—this is basically the Google cable. It is a reflection of their own geopolitical and geographical understanding, which again tells you how U.S. tech companies are understanding this at a faster pace than some of our own friends and colleagues in DC.

I do not see America as a defined bloc when it comes to what is happening in the rimland. I think some powers in America understand that, are going through with it, and embracing it. But also I think DC is trying to keep up with it. The I2U2 is a game changer from that standpoint. I remember when I wrote that piece about the Indo-Abrahamic alliance almost a year and a half ago the thesis was these three nations are going to build that. It is going to be India, the European Union, and Israel, but in the future we are going to have Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and then we are going to extend that to the Eastern Mediterranean powers Greece and France. That sort of system is going to be built naturally.

I did not have the expectation that Washington would embrace it, but to their credit they did. Why? It is a strategic idea that solves problems that Washington has been grappling with—how to do more with less in West Asia, how to pivot to Indo-Pacific and focus on Taiwan without losing that level of strong relations and partnership that you have with West Asian nations, and how can you also create a balance of power that we lost after the war in Iraq.

Let's be frank. In my opinion one of the biggest reasons I see West Asia as an unbalanced system is the war in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was a strategic disaster that we continue to pay the price for every single year. Once you lost Iraq and had the Syrian Civil War that whole system collapsed, and when you have an East—as someone born and raised in Cairo we call the Levant the East—it is an unbalanced system. It became a region that is under the direct influence of Iran and Turkey, and they themselves transformed to become much more trans-regional powers. When you look into that kind of West Asian construct it solves a lot of problems for Washington, the Indo-Abrahamic as a baseline for a foundation for how America should think about that region strategically and develop a strategy toward the region.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You have already anticipated what my next question was going to be, which is that a somewhat sclerotic policy apparatus in Washington, which can be wedded to its geographic divisions and boundaries and the like, is having to evolve.

Your sense from the president's visit to the region, if you have a sense, if you have been hearing things—is this concept, is this strategic vision beginning to percolate down? Is there an understanding that we have to be thinking of?

One of my concerns, also looking at this from the outside, has been that ever since we drew the lines that separated in the military combatant commands India from Pakistan, where the Central Command ends and the Pacific Command begins, has always been to think of India in terms of China, India in terms of the Pacific, whereas this construct also requires us to think about India in fact as a player and force in the Gulf, in the Levant, in East Africa, and not as a sideshow but as a strategic imperative for them. From your perch do you see that this concept is gaining greater traction in that people are willing in the policy world to work through the stovepipes that traditionally have segmented these different parts of the world?

MOHAMMED SOLIMAN: That is a very tough question, one of the hardest questions I have gotten recently.

A few weeks ago, I think late in July, we had a trilateral dialogue between India, the UAE, and France, nothing beyond that diplomats from these three nations were discussing in a trilateral format. When you think about the nations, it is India—South Asia—we are speaking about the UAE—the Gulf—and we are speaking about France, which also people think about France as just a European mainland power. Again, we know when we look into the French Empire footprint it exists in East Africa, it exists in the Pacific, and it exists in Latin America. It is a multi-theater power.

Again, I think it is a reflection in Delhi that we are more than Indo-Pacific. We are a nation of 1.4 billion people, a civilization, we have so much at stake when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. We also have a lot at stake when it comes to the west of us, West Asia. We also need to have a global vision as a rising power that wants to present itself as a leader in the future. The last 40 years were all about us waiting for the rise of China. I think the next 40 to 50 years will be us talking about the rise of India as a reality.

I think that realization, the fact that you have that sort of format aside from I2U2—you have India as part of another dialogue with the UAE and France, and you have India increasing its own cooperation with Greece, again a country that is focused entirely on its own sphere in the Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea—it gives you an idea that Delhi is shifting its own thoughts and ideas and also thinking in much broader geographical and geostrategic terms because again it is a massive power, it is a rising power, and it understands that it cannot focus entirely on a very small immediate sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific. Countries are seeing India differently as well. The fact that you have the Near East Affairs department at the State Department thinking and working with Delhi on issues in West Asia and the Middle East is a big change.

But I agree with you. The problem that we have right now is that the U.S. military footprint divides the world in a very interesting way that is in my opinion a post-Cold War and Iraq War understanding of geographies, which is very limiting, and I think it requires innovation. It requires that the Department of Defense needs to do some sort of geostrategic revision of these sorts of lines.

Let's talk about East Africa, the Horn of Africa, since you mentioned that. The biggest players in this region are Gulf nations. That's it. That is all they need. From a financial, economic, geopolitical, and security standpoint these are the most influential powers in East Africa. Let's talk about the civil war in Ethiopia and the role of Turkey, the European Union, and Iran in that kind of region. Literally in East Africa and the Horn of Africa we are not speaking about China and we are not speaking about Russia. We are speaking about West Asian powers being much more dominant in that region.

How are we going to grapple with that question? How are we going to grapple with the question that in Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia you had Israel, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey very invested. When you think about it from a Central Command standpoint these dynamics do not make any sense, but when you open up and think about it from a strategic, systematic, trans-oceanic approach I think it actually makes perfect sense, and you are able to understand that there is the mainland, there is the rimland, there is connectivity, and there is the old traditional historical system. A system means waves of conflicts and cooperation at the same time, so when you think about systems from conflict and peace standpoints all of that makes sense. The U.S. military footprint does not reflect that understanding. I hope it will not take a shock or a crisis for the United States to understand that. I hope so.

The problem in Washington is that there is very limited strategic bandwidth to think beyond the immediate threat. Let's be frank. In Washington Ukraine took all the air from the room, and then when we had the Pelosi visit to Taiwan it is basically war in Taiwan. We did not even hear any sort of discussions about the Balkan situation. I don't remember hearing or reading that much about the Nagorno-Karabakh situation in the last few weeks. We just didn't because we don't have the strategic bandwidth to think beyond the big strategic threats—which I am not saying is wrong, but I am just saying that here in Washington people only respond to crisis and do not think in a strategic 10-, 20-, and 30-year approach, which is also terrifying to some extent.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is a real issue that we are not set up to deal with poly-crisis, when you have multiple problems, each demanding attention. The established national security establishment is set up to focus on the crisis of the day. This point about reactive I think is also critical, that we are not set up to shape environments as much as we are to respond to the immediate issues and whether or not that changes or not will depend on what happens in our own domestic evolution.

No matter what happens in Washington it sounds like what you have laid out here is that this is a process not started by the United States to return to historical patterns that existed prior to the Cold War but is driven by the countries of the region, and that this is going to be a reality moving forward.

There is one last point if I can bring this in, which is, as you said we talk about India, we talk about the UAE, and then of course there has been the position and role of Israel. Israel here it seems—again, as an outsider looking in—that for many years tried to position itself or tried to say to the United States and the West, "We are an outpost of the West in this region." It would seem that the Indo-Abrahamic concept essentially is Israel coming to terms with the fact that it too is a nation of the Levant and that it is rediscovering its position as a Levantine actor and not as a Euro-Western entity that was implanted into the Middle East. Is that what you are seeing in terms of how Israel is being received particularly in the Emirates and elsewhere, that this is Israel finally in a way embracing that it too is a Levantine power and state? Is this a pathway forward? This may be a question that we can't answer: If Israel begins to embrace itself as a Levantine state, what does that mean for a way out potentially for its perennial issue with Palestinians?

MOHAMMED SOLIMAN: Again, a very tough question. The moment that Israel moved from the European Command to the Central Command—I think in fall of 2021, just a few months ago—I think is a realization that this is the case. It is a realization on the strategic level that Israel should be seen not as an outpost but as an integral part of a broader defense architecture that exists in that region. It seems also again that Israel will have been moved or reassigned within U.S. strategic thinking without Israel being consulted on that. It is also an Israeli realization as well because it is a need. It's a must at this point.

It is also a reflection of a broader trend, basically consolidation and alignment between U.S. partners and allies in the region. Beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), most U.S. relations have always been bilateral. The Quad is a relatively new thing, and we can argue that we are all indebted to the late Prime Minister Shinzō Abe for what he did in terms of bringing a new strategic thinking, branding the Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific, and building this from a humanitarian-focused Quad to a balance-of-power security alignment in the Indo-Pacific.

Beyond that most U.S. relations outside of NATO have been bilateral. They were never through alignments, mini-alliances, or coordination mechanisms. So all that we have seen for the last five years is completely new, having AUKUS with the Brits and Australians or let's embrace the I2U2 format, let's talk about new different formats and alignments including a defense format like the Negev Forum that includes the Abrahamic coordinations, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and the United States, and then the old peace agreement signatories like Egypt. These sorts of formats are completely new to United States thinking, actions, and moves.

This is how I see Israel. I see Israel as part of that kind of new approach to deal with the new emerging global threats that Washington is trying to deal with, so how we bring all our allies and formats that make sense that could be issue-based could also be able to pivot or serve a broader strategic need that Washington might need. I am not saying that we are going to have a coalition of coalitions where all these coalitions are serving a broader purpose of containing China. I am not saying that at all, but I am saying that it could help by the fact that taking away some of these military assets from the Middle East and West Asia to the Indo-Pacific is what Washington wants, and this is a win. This is a victory. Israel is being seen from that perspective.

The second part—again, I come from the realist school of thought—is that the Indo-Abrahamic was also a realization from the Gulf States and Israel that Israel may not be enough alone. The Gulf and Israel, the Arab alignment, the Abrahamic coordinations on their own, are maybe not enough to create a balance of power. This is why it should be expanded to add India. I think also this is something in the mindset of grand strategists in Tel Aviv: "How can we—also 'us' as a small nation, 10-15 million people—be part of a broader architecture because we also know that Washington is very distracted by broader strategic objectives so we need to be part of something bigger?" This is how I think the Israeli grand strategists are thinking about these kinds of emerging questions.

To your question about the Palestinians, I think we need a solution. I know I am not saying anything new. There is a moral and realist case for finding a solution. I do not claim to be an expert on the situation, but there must be a solution even from a realist standpoint. The more that situation continues the more it consumes Israel from a strategic standpoint because you are always distracted. Every few months you are always going to have the same issue. Also it takes away from the focal capital. It puts strains on you and your own Arab alliance because it is not easy—the more you integrate the more they have leverage as well, and the question of public opinion will be much more important.

I don't have a solution in mind by advocating that this situation needs to be settled, and I think there are many proposals. You have the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by the Saudis back in 2002 and you have the Abrahamic coordinations pushing for it. I think there should be a framework that Israel should embrace from a realist standpoint and not only from a moral standpoint.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is a good way to summarize some of the things we do at Carnegie Council, that it can be both from a realist perspective and a moral perspective to adopt policies of this type by which you recognize power realizations but you are also doing it with an understanding of an ethical framework. It is a nice tie back to the work of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Mohammed, I would like to thank you. This has been a wonderful conversation. We have covered a lot here, and I think it will give our listeners—many of whom I would wager have not really thought about India, the UAE, and Israel being in the same place geostrategically speaking, geo-economically speaking, because of the way in which we have our mental maps of the world, but also why this matters and how this is an emerging development.

Thank you for walking us through this. Thank you for giving us a sense of the dynamics at play, and as these events progress we will certainly want to have you back on in the future to give us an update on where things are heading.

MOHAMMED SOLIMAN: Nick, it is such a pleasure. Thanks so much for inviting me. I enjoyed the conversation back and forth. You are such an important voice in this space, and that was such an honor.

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