It’s that time of the year again, when we look back and think about all that’s happened in the past eleven months. So here’s a question: what was the most significant strategic event of 2018? Let me tell you my favorite in the Middle East. In July 2018, the management of the first part of the new port in Haifa was transferred to the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG). Despite President Trump’s ferocious anti-China stance, Israel still decided to give SIPG a 25-year strategic perch in our region. I think this is very important. Let me tell you why.
SIPG won the tender in March 2015. The Chinese consider the move as being part of President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. SIPG is the company managing the port of Shanghai, having superseded the Shanghai Port Authority in 2003. It is a publicly listed company, with the Shanghai Municipal Government owning 44.23 percent of its outstanding shares. So have no doubt that it’s effectively the government of China operating Haifa’s port.
The presidency of Donald Trump started in January 2017. Look past all the noise about porn stars and pugnacious tweets, and you will see that the gist of his presidency is about “stopping China,” by which they mean not only containing, but really preventing the rise of China. So we might assume that Trump would expect his friend and ally, Netenyahu, to do the same, right? Trump after all, moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and effectively ended UNHCR support to Gaza, all moves supported by ultra conservative Israelis. That was bad for America, and bad for the region as a whole. Trump is bending towards Israel, yet Israel hasn’t bent towards the US. Netenyahu is bringing the Chinese into the Middle East. Haifa will be the gateway.
Haifa port has always been important, but the Syrian civil war has made it the key transport and logistics hub for the region. The war disrupted the land route from Turkey to the Gulf, which was becoming increasingly important in the early 2010s. For some time, Turkish trucks were using a ro-ro agreement with Egypt to keep the goods flowing, but the Turkey-Egypt rift ended that.
Since then, the Israeli government has allowed Turkish trucks with Turkish drivers to enter Israel, opening Israeli roads to Turkish drivers despite the rising political tensions between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Why? It was a step towards making Israel the highway of the North-South corridor, connecting Europe to the Gulf.
But Haifa corridor ran into problems when Saudi border controls started asking questions. How come these Turkish trucks were coming to the Jordanian-Saudi border without any stamps in their passports? You see the Saudis, like most Arab countries, don’t allow people with Israeli stamps in their passports to enter their country. That’s why Turkey’s deal with Israel was that there wouldn’t be any stamps in the passports of Turkish drivers. The Saudis wouldn’t have that, so that put more distance between Turkey and a market of 350 million souls.
All this is to say that a few years back, Turkey was not strong enough to pry open the Haifa gate to the region. I’m guessing that things will be very different when China knocks on that door.
The Ottomans who ruled these lands for five centuries never took sides in local disputes. They always held on to their honest broker status. Unlike the Americans and Turks today, the Chinese are still seen as honest brokers in our region. They might even make my dream of a Middle Eastern ASEAN possible.
Let me end with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, the very one that then-Senator Robert Kennedy used in his 1968 presidential campaign. “Some men [let me add women here, too] see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
Originally published at www.tepav.org.tr.