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Near and Middle East: A region in flux.

Re-centering the Middle East.

Text: Ralph Weber und Madeleine Herren

Time and again, the Middle East has been subjected to external definitions: Europe sees the region as a gateway to Asia, while for present-day China it is part of a vast economic area.

Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber, Prof. Dr. Madeleine Herren. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber, Prof. Dr. Madeleine Herren. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

On June 2, 1877, the geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen gave a lecture on the “Central Asian Silk Roads up to the 2nd century A.D.” in Berlin. In it, he described the desirable characteristics of trade routes, which he said should be short and fast. A center of power should control the transit of the most precious of commodities – Chinese silk, according to the geographer. “Silk Road”, the term coined by von Richthofen, has since gained widespread currency, even though the transcontinental silk road dominated by China was, even then, a thing of the distant past.

Did the silk roads ever exist?

According to von Richthofen, China’s weakness had allowed the silk trade network to shift to Persia. With the spread of silk worms smuggled out of the Middle Kingdom to Lebanon, Italy and even Basel, Asian-European networks in the Middle East had found a new center. Whether the silk roads first “invented” in 1877 ever existed – something that some researchers vigorously deny – is less relevant.

Today, we are faced with a conspicuous contradiction: Global networks have become so significant that they have been adopted by Chinese foreign and economic policy under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This project, launched in 2013 and framed as a modern Silk Road, consolidates Chinese interests in the creation and expansion of intercontinental trade routes and infrastructure networks. The core focus of this global project lies in a region plagued by chronic political instability: The Middle East, also known as the ‘Orient’, MENA (Middle East & North Africa) or MENAT (Middle East & North Africa and Turkey).

Authors such as Cyrus Schayegh claim that the asymmetrical tensions in the Middle East region can contribute decisively to our understanding of globalization processes. At the University of Basel’s Institute for European Global Studies we share this view. To illustrate the issue, let us consider two opposing but interdependent and interrelated concepts: On the one hand, the scientific “monopoly of interpretation” developed in the late 19th century in the Western world that determined what holds this culturally, politically and economically fragmented region together, versus China’s reinterpretation of the region, on the other. Both perspectives portray the Middle East as a platform for global exchange and as a center shifting along conflicting needs.

From European appropriation …

Richthofen’s Silk Road represented a research field marked by a real gold rush atmosphere: It was no accident that the first International Congress of Orientalists was held in Paris in 1873. The primary focus of the conference was on Japan, which had just opened up to Western trade, with special attention given to the production and trading of silk. Switzerland, an active participant in the silk industry, formed a national committee, achieving a remarkable position in a rapidly developing field with its early involvement.

Whereas the field of Etudes Orientales was initially devoted to East Asia, by 1873 the research focus had shifted to the Middle East with Egyptology, Semitic Studies and Assyriology. The fifth Congress of Orientalists, held in Berlin in 1881, was attended by the German Society for the Exploration of Palestine, and included an African section. The Prussian minister who delivered the opening speech observed that professorships in Oriental Studies had been established at 34 universities in Prussia alone, while museums were filled with exhibits collected on research expeditions.

The International Congresses of Orientalists point to the unmistakable political relevance of the Middle East region and its Eurocentric appropriation, which was not relativized until after World War I. On the other hand, the congresses also show that even for major empires, a new geopolitical strategy was emerging. This strategy, based on securing connections and networks, was pertinently expressed by the metaphor of the Silk Road.

… to the Chinese reinterpretation

Today, a defining aspect of the Chinese vision of the new Silk Road is the transition away from the conquest of new territory toward a greater emphasis on interconnectedness. The BRI, launched in 2013 by the newly appointed President and party leader Xi Jinping, is said to encompass an estimated 68 countries, 65 percent of the world’s population and almost 40 percent of the global economy. It includes large-scale projects which, alongside Eurasian connections, extend from Latin America to the Arctic. Behind all the rhetoric about win-win outcomes lies a bid to cement a new world order oriented towards the East and China as a new center, and establish the Renminbi as the new global currency.

The effects of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East are already clearly discernible. During a visit to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2016, President Xi announced investments and loans amounting to 55 billion US dollars. Countless infrastructure projects, including railways, oil refineries and ports have either been completed or are currently in the construction or planning stages, often in parallel with new free trade zones. From 2005 to 2016, Chinese investment in the region totaled almost 140 billion US dollars. Currency swap agreements have been signed with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Egypt.

How is this gigantic infrastructure project reordering the world? And above all: What does “Middle East” mean from a Chinese perspective? A strategy paper published in 2016 describes a “1+2+3” formula, in which cooperation in the established energy industry represents the one core, infrastructure projects and trade/investment are the two wings, and nuclear power, space technology and renewable energy the three breakthroughs. Rather than referring to the Middle East, the document speaks of “Arab nations”. When it comes to peace-keeping and stability, however, the Western coined term “Middle East” takes on a much more prominent role. It is only in these contexts that the term “Middle East” (Zhōngdōng 中东) is explicitly mentioned – a geographical absurdity from the Chinese perspective, which only highlights the borrowed term’s Western origins.

Powder keg metaphor

The use of the label “Middle East” is rather peculiar. It seems that the traditional metaphor of the “powder keg”, along with the religious and political tensions it represents, is simply projected on the “old” Middle East, i.e. the Eurocentrically defined old center. In China’s proposal for the future of international relations, the words “Islam” and “Muslim” do not appear. Exchange between cultures and religions is claimed to be based on religious tolerance, but the focus is on the fight against terrorism.

The Chinese interpretation of the Silk Road suggests a separation of the problem into economy and politics. Whereas the economic component is primarily anchored in bilateral agreements, the Western-modeled metaphor “Middle East” is used in reference to failing multi- lateral conflict mechanisms. This separation is especially evident in the case of Israel: The country is a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and China is its second-largest trade partner. Nevertheless, this does not prevent China from favoring a two-state solution with an independent Palestine.

In the Middle East, China seems intent on using economic connections to sideline the region’s political and religious problems. Saudi Arabia and Iran are courted, and if necessary played off against each other; Israel is economically adjusted, and even in Syria China is seeking to play a mediating role. Analytically, this reveals a confrontation of conflicting monopolies of interpretation. What is missing, however, are multilateral peacekeeping efforts that take into account the self-perception of local actors and how they relate to their externally imposed “centering”.

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