A question that has captured the minds of many is why the West shows so much interest in the Middle East. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, two reasons for this interest stand out.
First, the fact that the industrial prosperity in the West depended on Middle Eastern oil renders, favorable political arrangements, and geopolitics in the region – a matter of prime concern for Western strategists since a misappropriation of the oil resources or political turmoil – could send devastating shock waves across Western economies.
The second interest for Western countries has been to safeguard the security of Israel. Israel plays an important role in preserving the post-war liberal order in the West. For a prosperous Israel and integrated liberal Jewish communities in the West provide bulwarks against the rise of anti-Semitism in West. Rising anti-Semitism has always been the harbinger of a slide into virulent nationalism. Two world wars that brought misery and destruction of unprecedented scales are strident warnings against the tragic consequences that would ensue when nationalism holds sway.
In our present time, those two reasons are increasingly losing their traction, if they haven’t already been completely lost. In addition to the shale boom, technological breakthroughs in drilling and scanning technologies are tapping into huge reservoirs of oil in unconventional locations. Meanwhile, energy efficiency and renewable energy are progressing at a steady pace.
Also, the uncompetitive economies of oil-producing countries, including Russia, makes them more and more keen on ensuring a continuity of supply and are less likely to tamper with production rates in order to control prices. It is thus unlikely that the oil-producing region will continue to be pivotal for preserving prosperity in the West, even in case of a Saudi or Israeli war with Iran.
As to the second reason, Israel has been independent of Western countries for guaranteeing its security. The developments in the region over the past decades have reinforced that trend.
That being said, it is still unlikely that the West would be disentangled from the Middle East. A new demographic reality in the twenty-first century is that Muslims are developing into sizable portions of the populations both in Russia and Europe. Europe’s Muslims have not fully assimilated into the prevalent liberal milieu of the continent, which in turn renders Europe vulnerable to political, cultural and intellectual trends and development in the Middle East.
Also, although oil is constantly losing strategic significance, North Africa is poised to play a significant role in the long-term energy map of Europe through its solar resources and its developing production of solar energy.
The strategic and geopolitical facts are compounded by a peculiar history of two civilizations. Historically, the Middle East region has always been both intertwined yet distinct from the West. Much of the ancient pre-Islamic civilizations that populated the region and modern Islamic empires have been intertwined with the history of the Greco-Romans and the modern West. However, Arabs and Westerners still perceive themselves as irredeemably distinct. Western civilization has always defined itself against both Islamic and other Eastern civilizations. However, some political circles, especially in Britain and France, think of the Middle East as an integral part of the West.
In light of the argument for continued interaction between the West and the Middle East, three scenarios are available for the future of the region.
First, a large-scale project on par with the Marshall plan could radically transform the institutional and cultural realities in the region, which would eventually lead to a more balanced relationship between the East and the West, competitive though it may be.
The second is a revival of the colonialism of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries to subvert the region’s demographic pressures and tap its solar resources.
The third is the Middle East becoming subverted by the emergence of a world dominated by artificial intelligence, which would make the region less relevant to the West.
In any case, there are clear signs that the West is losing interest in the Middle East. Yet, if it continues to develop its solar energy production, the West may again turn its gaze towards tapping the energy resources of the region.