The Asianization of the Middle East

Mohammed Soliman is the Director of the Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He is also a member of McLarty Associates, a global strategic advisory firm, and a Visiting Fellow at Third Way, a DC-based think tank. You may follow him on X @ThisIsSoliman.

There’s an undeniable global power shift underway, with economic and technological influence shifting from the West to the East. This shift isn’t solely about China’s rise but the broader rise of Asia, and also reflects Europe’s unquestionably declining role as a major player. This transition is keenly felt in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf region, where nations are expanding their focus beyond the West. The Gulf now looks eastward, recognizing its place within the Asian supercontinent. While Washington remains preoccupied with China, the Gulf embraces a broader perspective, fostering partnerships across Asia, from Japan and South Korea to India and Indonesia. This “Asianization” of the Gulf is not just a strategic move but a necessity for its future within a multi-civilizational, multipolar world order. Initiatives such as I2U2 (with India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States as its members) and the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor, along with the participation of leading Middle Eastern powers in BRICS and the Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), signify a deliberate pivot towards Asia. These minilateral formations go beyond traditional bilateral relations, indicating a shift in the dynamics of Asia-Middle East relations. Consequently, the Gulf and the broader Middle East are repositioning Asia at the center of their geopolitical and geoeconomic future by embracing a patchwork of minilateral formats that builds up a “broader Asian order.”

A GCC-ASEAN Summit in Riyadh

I2U2: First Signs of the Asianized Middle East

I2U2 was initially formed during a call hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his counterparts, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, in October 2021. The I2U2 aims to promote sustainable investment among partner countries by combining innovative, technological, and productive capacities, skilled workforces, and entrepreneurial dynamism. These investments aim to modernize infrastructure, advance decarbonization, and promote the development and diffusion of emerging and green technologies among partner countries. Therefore, they serve as a model for promoting regional partnerships. The economic focus of the I2U2 is in the following sectors: water, energy, transportation, space, health, food security, and technology. India’s involvement in the I2U2 is a major achievement in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Look West” policy and is similar to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

The conceptualization of I2U2 came out of the introduction of the geopolitical concept of West Asia, a region encompassing the Middle East and South Asia. The I2U2 format specifically aims to establish a balance of power vis-à-vis this region’s rising Eurasian powers, such as Iran and Türkiye. (GLOSA) The I2U2 could expand to become the I2U2+ by gradually enlarging to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Gulf states in the short term, as well as potentially France, Greece, and Italy in the long term. For Washington, the Indo-Abrahamic framework and the I2U2+ format would change America’s role from a security guarantor to that of an offshore balancer in West Asia. The I2U2+ would also allow the United States to meet its long-term strategic needs in the Indo-Pacific without leaving a vacuum in West Asia for Beijing and Moscow to fill. At the same time, it would establish New Delhi as Washington’s primary strategic partner among the littoral states of Eurasia—a geostrategic portion of the globe that Yale University international relations scholar Nicholas John Spykman famously referred to as “the Rimland.”

On July 14th, 2022, Israel’s then Prime Minister Yair Lapid, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the United Arab Emirates’ President Mohammed bin Zayed, and the U.S. President Joseph Biden met for the inaugural summit of the nascent I2U2 Group. The four-member states do not share borders, much like the countries making up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD, composed of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States) or AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and the U.S.), which reflects a new global trend of minilateral alliances and formats that focus on specific regional challenges. The I2U2 inaugural summit was a success, if for no other reason than simply for the establishment of this grouping. However, going forward, the group will need to form an ambitious, multi-faceted agenda that does not provoke other regional and great powers—namely, Türkiye, Iran, Russia, and China—that are still trying to decipher the new group and its geopolitical orientation.

The I2U2 marks a turning point, representing the first and most concrete geoeconomic and geopolitical “Asianization” of the Middle East. This is achieved by expanding the region’s boundaries eastward to incorporate South Asia, thus creating a coherent “West Asia.” This explicitly manifests the ongoing trend of the Middle East’s political and economic ties becoming increasingly interwoven with Asian powers like India, China, Japan, and South Korea. Notably, even the United States, the region’s main security guarantor, is now viewing the Middle East through an “Asian-first” geopolitical and geoeconomic lens.



The Gulf states have long been geopolitically confined to the traditional boundaries of the Middle East. This confinement reflects the legacy of a series of regional wars, including the Arab-Israeli conflicts (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent Liberation of Kuwait, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the recent civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The series of wars and conflicts in their immediate region hindered the Gulf countries’ ability to capitalize on their traditional trade ties with Asia and rebuild post-British imperial relationships. The Gulf nations, chief among them the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have pivoted to a different paradigm, positioning themselves as islands of stability within a vast sea of instability. This model entails grappling with regional realities while simultaneously expanding their horizons beyond the region, aiming to establish their own networked and interconnected global presence. This is why the UAE’s initiation of the France-India-UAE trilateral format is a significant game-changer, as it positions the UAE and the broader Gulf within the wider dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, which lies at the heart of Asia.

On the sidelines of the 2022 United Nations General Assembly, the foreign ministers of France, the UAE, and India met for their first trilateral meeting and announced the launch of the France-India-UAE trilateral format in the Indo-Pacific. The new framework reflects the rise of overlapping trilateral and quadrilateral formats emerging between the littoral states of Eurasia. Collectively, they aim to deal with the global disorder and the return of great power competition through the bolstering of collective security in the Indo-Pacific. The trilateral also plans to take on solar and nuclear energy projects, fight climate change, brainstorm strategies to address global health threats, and protect biodiversity in the Indian Ocean region. In May of 2023, France, India, and the UAE issued a joint statement, outlining a roadmap for implementing trilateral cooperation initiatives. The joint statement called for the expansion of cooperation via initiatives such as the Mangrove Alliance for Climate, led by the UAE, and the Indo-Pacific Parks Partnership, led by India and France. The countries are also considering the possibility of working with the Indian Ocean Rim Association to pursue projects on clean energy, the environment, and biodiversity.

At the geostrategic level, the trilateral highlights France, the UAE, and India’s mutual recognition of the economic and connectivity centrality of the Indian Ocean. It further underlines the value of being at the front and center in the balance of power in Asia as a gateway to the Indo-Pacific in terms of energy and trade ties. This makes the Indian Ocean and, by extension, the Arabian Sea, a decisive theater in this era of great power competition. Furthermore, by looking at the Indian Ocean as a gateway, Paris, Abu Dhabi, and New Delhi are all striving to link West Asia with the Indo-Pacific, which builds an overarching Asian geopolitical order in the long term.


India-Middle East-Europe Corridor

If the I2U2 merged the Middle East and South Asia into West Asia and the France-India-UAE trilateral brought the Arabian Sea into the Indo-Pacific, then the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) has heralded a new transregional order, in both geopolitical and geoeconomic terms. This corridor covers the middle space between the Indo-Pacific and Europe, acknowledging that Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not only energy powers but also significant players within the Asian context in relation to Europe.

At the 2023 G20 Summit in New Delhi, U.S. President Biden, joined by the leaders of India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Germany, Italy, and the European Commission, unveiled the multimodal India-Middle East-Europe Corridor. This economic corridor comprises an eastern route, facilitating India’s connection to the Arabian Gulf via sea lanes, and a northern route, linking Saudi Arabia to Europe through Jordan and Israel. More specifically, IMEC includes plans for ship-to-rail transit networks that will supplement existing maritime and road transport routes. The project’s physical infrastructure includes railway lines connecting the UAE to Israel via Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as electric cables to enhance digital connectivity and pipes for clean hydrogen export. The combined GDP of IMEC nations (including the EU as a bloc) is roughly $47 trillion, representing about 40 percent of the world’s total GDP. IMEC embodies a collective vision for the broader Eurasian supercontinent, extending beyond trade, energy, and digital resilience. The corridor aims to forge a path towards an increasingly interwoven transoceanic system that extends from the Mediterranean region through West Asia to the expansive Indo-Pacific.

Furthermore, IMEC serves as an implicit acknowledgment, on the part of Washington and Brussels, of the palpable ramifications of the rise of non-Western powers in Asia and the undeniable shift of the economic and geopolitical center of the world further east. IMEC underscores the necessity of ceding more substantial global leadership roles to India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the actors at the forefront of reconfiguring the future of the economic and geopolitical system in Eurasia. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, New Delhi, and other emerging powers in Eurasia will wield substantial sway in recalibrating the broader power dynamics across the supercontinent.

While Washington and Brussels may be tempted to portray IMEC as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for New Delhi, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh—either existing members of (in the case of India) or newly admitted to (in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE) the BRICS group—IMEC signifies the rise of a West Asian system. Within this system, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Egypt are progressively integrating beyond energy, remittances, and ideology. An underappreciated aspect of IMEC is how its mere existence, aside from the design and operational challenges, represents another attempt to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together under a single transcontinental framework and contributes to ongoing U.S.-backed efforts to secure a normalization agreement between the two nations. IMEC embodies Washington’s Eurasian strategy in the post-American hegemony era, with the United States aiming to shape a balanced power structure across the broader Eurasian landscape. The goal is to prevent a loose coalition of states such as China, Russia, and Iran from dominating the supercontinent by strengthening the profiles of countries like India, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, enabling them to project economic and geopolitical influence and actively contribute to a balanced Eurasian power structure.



The I2U2, France-India-UAE trilateral, and the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor are three significant minilateral formats with evident Western involvement in terms of convening and participation. However, the GCC-ASEAN Summit serves as evidence that even in the absence of Western participation, the Gulf nations are willing to pivot eastward in Asia independently, either alone or in collaboration with Western allies and partners.

In October 2023, nearly 20 leaders from the GCC and ASEAN met in Riyadh to set a roadmap for their cooperation amid the backdrop of the Israel-Gaza war and an increasingly uncertain regional security environment. More specifically, the Summit aimed to strengthen multilateral ties and cooperation in trade, investment, tourism, agriculture, and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration. The summit is part of an emerging collective “Asia Minus China” strategy, which is focused on creating additional connectivity nodes and enhancing trade relations outside of China to reduce political risks associated with the Washington-Beijing standoff. In parallel, Riyadh’s role as host of the summit carries potent symbolism as Saudi Arabia continues to advance its position as a high-growth, high-potential G20 economy and ambitious global player. In the current era of deglobalization, geopolitical instability, and economic uncertainties, the GCC and ASEAN find themselves sharing more strategic commonalities. In the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are diversifying their partnerships away from the West and pivoting further to the East, where the center of the emerging world order is shifting. In ASEAN, Indonesia and Vietnam are pursuing their own pathways in this era of intense competition in the Indo-Pacific.

The combined GDP of the GCC and ASEAN is approximately $6 trillion, and it has the potential to reach almost $53 trillion if they adopt a green growth strategy, capitalize on their dynamic population, embrace rapid urbanization, and foster increased regional integration. This substantial economic strength significantly surpasses the current trade volume of $110 billion, providing strong incentives for both blocs to pursue economic integration across the Asian rimland. In a speech delivered at the beginning of the summit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman added that exports from the GCC to ASEAN make up 9 percent of total Gulf exports, while imports from ASEAN to the Gulf comprise 6 percent of total imports. The two blocs may explore trade partnerships, promising significant collaboration in the months and years to come.

The Gulf states and ASEAN are also reevaluating their strategic positioning on China due to challenges related to the American decoupling or the EU’s de-risking and geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific, making broader Asia less certain about its own future. The Asia Minus China Strategy, aimed at fostering broader integration between the Gulf and ASEAN to establish additional connectivity nodes outside China and reduce the political risk associated with Beijing, is gradually taking shape. Asia Minus China Strategy seeks to build a cohort system of trade and commercial relations as well as pursue a third way in the ongoing U.S.-China Cold War that is shaping Asia and the broader international system. One of the most significant elements of the GCC-ASEAN Summit was its timing. The fact that the two blocs still met despite the ongoing Israel-Gaza war indicates that the Gulf states are insistent on not being sidetracked by the events and want to continue pursuing their strategic trajectory amid rising regional tensions. Amid their efforts to become transcontinental economic powers, GCC nations have prioritized expanding trade and diplomatic ties with Asian countries and, therefore, see a summit with ASEAN as an invaluable opportunity to set such goals in motion and further validate the Asianness of the Gulf states.



Much has changed since the birth of BRICS in 2009, a loose coalition that aligned emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China, and later South Africa. The coalition’s unofficial founding purpose was to unite the world’s foremost developing countries with the aim of countering the Western-dominated international political and economic order. Russia and China were the main warriors of this goal, while India, Brazil, and South Africa viewed their respective roles in the group more along economic lines. China’s economic and political emergence thrust Beijing well past the label of an emerging economy, as the Chinese have pursued active competition with the world’s foremost global power, the United States. New Delhi gradually followed suit, distancing itself from a cooled BRICS coalition but towards a position of political ambiguity.

In the years since its founding, BRICS has struggled to achieve its lofty geopolitical and geoeconomic ambitions. It has, however, succeeded in sparking concern among the United States and its Western allies due to the coalition initiatives aimed at challenging the Bretton Woods System—which underpins the U.S. dollar’s dominance in the global economy—as well as China’s apparent use of BRICS’ New Development Bank (NDB) to expand its influence in areas such as Africa. The NDB was formed to challenge the World Bank, IMF, and other elements of the Western-constructed international development finance regime. Despite this rhetoric, a considerable number of both new and existing BRICS members do not genuinely believe that there exists a viable alternative to the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. Nonetheless, the message itself holds political and domestic appeal. Separately, American officials have warned that Russia could be using BRICS’ financial apparatuses to dodge Western sanctions connected to its invasion of Ukraine. 

BRICS was once again thrust into the limelight in August of 2023, when it invited six nations to join the coalition: Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. By adding these six new members, BRICS significantly enhanced its global standing. In particular, the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, and Egypt in BRICS holds significant geopolitical and economic implications. This shift towards the Middle East is noteworthy as China takes on an increased security and diplomatic role in the region, including mediation efforts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, traditionally handled by the United States.

However, with the exception of Iran, the addition of these nations to the bloc may serve to further dilute China and Russia’s original intent of using BRICS to challenge the U.S.-dominated world order. India, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have no desire to marry themselves to one side in the ongoing great power competition between the Russia-China camp and the United States. Rather, they seek to pursue balanced foreign policies through which they can maximize the benefits of cooperative relations with both sides, including both Western-dominated power structures as well as those that are Eastern-and-Asian-dominated. Their focus, therefore, on joining BRICS is much more inwardly focused, as they intend to use the bloc to further integrate their economies and maximize growth opportunities within the non-Western World.


Seismic Shift

The ongoing Asianization of the Middle East signifies a seismic shift in global power dynamics, where economic and geopolitical influences are steadily gravitating towards the East. This transformation, characterized by the expanding focus of Gulf nations beyond the West towards Asia, reflects not only the rise of China but the broader ascent of the Asian continent. While Europe’s role as a major player diminishes, the Middle East, particularly the Gulf region, is repositioning itself within the broader Asian supercontinent. The emergence of minilateral formats such as the I2U2, France-India-UAE trilateral, and IMEC exemplify this pivot towards Asia. These initiatives, driven by economic and strategic imperatives, underline the growing interconnectedness between the Middle East and Asia, transcending traditional bilateral relations. Furthermore, the GCC-ASEAN Summit demonstrates the Gulf nations’ willingness to engage with Asia independently, signaling a strategic reorientation towards the East. Moreover, the expansion of BRICS to include nations from the Middle East and Africa reflects the evolving geopolitical landscape, where emerging powers seek to assert themselves on the global stage while maintaining balanced foreign policies. This shift towards Asia reshapes not only economic ties but also geopolitical alliances, laying the groundwork for a multipolar world order. In this new era of global realignment, the Middle East’s integration with Asia heralds a future where Asia assumes a central role in shaping the geopolitical and geoeconomic landscapes. As the balance of power shifts, the Asianization of the Middle East emerges as a defining trend that will shape the region’s trajectory in the years to come.

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