The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we shed light on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is hosting its next summit in Goa amid the growing involvement of countries from the Middle East, with potential repercussions on the international stage.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is growingly becoming a significant focal point for Middle Eastern countries. Established in 2001, the SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and security organisation led by China and Russia which also includes four Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – along with India and Pakistan. In this framework, Iran is expected to be the next full member after signing a memorandum last September. Similarly, Arab states have shown an increasing inclination toward joining the bloc: Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were recently admitted to the Dialogue Partnership (a status Turkey has enjoyed since 2013), while Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are vying to join. As the foreign ministers of the SCO prepare to convene for the upcoming summit in Goa on May 4 and 5, it’s likely that the issue of admitting new members will be high on the agenda. This is especially true for Tehran. The process of inclusion of countries from the Middle East underscores these countries’ growing desire to diversify their foreign relations, as well as China’s and Russia’s rising ambitions in a region traditionally considered a US zone of influence. The success of SCO further indicates the redefinition of global balances and its rising impact on the MENA region.
Experts from the ISPI network react to the implications of the growing involvement of Arab Gulf states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Joining the SCO will reinforce Tehran’s international confidence (yet without economic benefits)
“Iran’s bid for a full and permanent membership status within the SCO, which Iran perceives as the club of non-western powers, was approved in 2021. Crushed by the US economic sanctions and mounting domestic economic pressure, a seat at the table of world economic powerhouses such as India, China and Russia is a glimmer of hope for the Iranian regime’s economic survival. Although, realistically, long-awaited investment by China and India, which is supposed to be a critical economic motive for Iran, is unlikely to occur under the current international sanction regime. In any case, the political prestige of the SCO membership status for Tehran is immense. Following the latest round of uprisings that started in September 2022, conversations between European capitals and Iran have been overshadowed primarily by discussion over the exchange of foreign citizens captured in Tehran and new sanctions in response to the violent repression of popular protests, with no sign of normalisation in sight. Against that backdrop, SCO membership will boost the regime’s confidence at the international level.”
Sara Bazoobandi, Marie Curie Fellow, GIGA Institute; and Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
Riyadh wants to have its cake and eat it too: Beijing for the economy, Washington for security
“Saudi Arabia is reacting to the growing multipolarity of the global system by pursuing a foreign policy of strategic balancing with the great powers. The decision to become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Council reflects that Riyadh’s strategic security interests may lie with the West, but its economic interests remain for the most part in the East. The timing of this announcement, which comes after the China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal in March 2023 and the China summits held in Riyadh in December, demonstrates a certain momentum in China-Saudi political relations and how both countries are seeking to move beyond their traditional relationship, centred around economics – and particularly oil. However, it is essential not to overestimate Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the SCO. Gulf Arab states are trying to pursue strategic balancing act among the great powers, a policy felt as imperative for middle and small powers in a multipolar world order. Nonetheless, the US remains their most significant external security partner, despite the challenges in the relationship. In reality, China cannot replace Washington’s security role for Gulf Arab states. Still, Saudi relations with China and Asia are certainly on the ascent.”
Anna Jacobs, Senior Analyst, Gulf States, International Crisis Group
A platform to strengthen the Riyadh-Tehran ties?
“The gradual integration of Saudi Arabia and Iran into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will further increase opportunities for Riyadh and Teheran to improve their bilateral relations. Above all, the progressive convergence towards this international forum has the potential to advance their economic ties and cement the bilateral agreement recently signed in Beijing. At the same time, their integration will also spur China and Russia to observe the March deal and encourage them to abide by it. The SCO will also provide an alternative platform where Riyadh and Tehran could address their political and security concerns, with the support of Beijing, Moscow, as well as other member states.”
Hesham Alghannam, Director General of the Strategic Studies and National Security Programs, Naif Arab University for Security Sciences
Moscow and Beijing must prevent new partners from bringing their rivalry to the SCO
“Certainly, China and Russia have long dominated the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since it was established two decades ago. However, as the SCO’s membership grows, it could potentially pose a challenge to the two leaders as power becomes more diffuse. India and Pakistan, for instance, previously brought South Asian issues and their rivalry into the SCO. There’s no reason to think that Iran’s recent membership and Saudi Arabia’s decision to become a dialogue partner could not do the same for the Gulf. At the same time, international relations are becoming growingly multipolar and states self-interested, resulting in an increase in transactional behaviour between them – which could lead to pushback. While Iran seeks solidarity and support against the West through the SCO, Saudi Arabia has yet to abandon its traditional US ally. That could put a block on any efforts to advance influence by China or others.”
Guy Burton, Adjunct Professor, Brussels School of Governance
SCO expansion in the Gulf shouldn’t be a major concern for Washington
“Amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, a global energy crisis, great power competition, unresolved tensions between some of the Gulf states, Iran and China’s 25-year cooperation programme from 2022, and other ‘Look East’ policies, any Gulf state membership in the SCO appears to take on a new meaning. The rapid series of dialogue partner applications from the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE so far) is symbolic and is indicative of China’s official discourse about global power. The SCO has been called the ‘anti-NATO’; however, it is governed by consensus, lacks institutional capacity and is, therefore, more a forum for discussion. The potential for further fallout from a failed US – Iran nuclear deal, resumed construction at a suspected Chinese military site in the UAE, and any GCC state ties to Wagner should be more of a concern for US policymakers than an expanding SCO membership.”
Robert Mason, Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; and Non-Resident Research Fellow, Gulf Research Center
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Francesco Schiavi