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SINGAPORE — Certain Middle East nations are repositioning themselves diplomatically, a move that holds great significance in the international arena.

The decision by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to visit “the East” — China, India, Malaysia and Pakistan — before going to Washington is noteworthy because the United States still considers the Saudi kingdom its foremost Mideast ally and the linchpin of U.S. strategic policy in the region.

The king’s visit to Beijing was focused on Chinese energy needs. The two countries signed an agreement to expand cooperation in the oil, natural gas and minerals industries, laying the groundwork for Beijing to secure vital energy supplies from the world’s largest oil exporter. In New Delhi, the Saudi monarch assured India of a stable and increased volume of crude supplies made available under a “strategic energy partnership.”

Meanwhile, the latest Palestinian elections dealt a heavy blow to American diplomacy in the region, and especially to U.S. President George W. Bush’s vision of “open markets and democracy in the Middle East.” Hamas’ victory was not only a setback for the more mainstream Fatah, but also a rebuke of U.S. influence in volatile Israeli-Palestinian politics.

Washington’s threat to eliminate or reduce aid to the Palestinian government if Hamas does not denounce the destruction of Israel, disarm or end sponsorship of terrorism was ridiculed as a “double standard” by those Muslims who believe Washington supports corrupt Middle East governments, including Fatah. A political crisis now looms between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the new Hamas government.

The U.S. must conduct a major public-relations exercise to reconquer lost ground within Muslim public opinion worldwide. Only then will Bush be able to “fight tyranny in the world” as he promised in his State of the Union address.

The new strategic focus of some Middle East governments is significant, as is China and Russia’s active intervention in the Iranian imbroglio to convince Tehran to abandon the nuclear option. Russia has asked to let diplomacy work without the threat of sanctions against Tehran even if Iran is referred to the U.N. Security Council this month for not complying with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

India is in a diplomatic bind over whether to take a hard line on Tehran (and satisfy Washington’s demands on nuclear cooperation) or a more “balanced approach.” Tehran has threatened to halt an oil pipeline project that could satisfy India’s growing energy needs.

Moscow and Beijing have been roped into convincing Tehran not to confront the West openly at a time when relations between Iran and Syria grow closer for strategic reasons. Damascus, which sees itself under threat of an American attack owing to the lingering Lebanon crisis, remains defiant. The Syria-Iran axis may endanger the West as well as Arab governments that are perceived as too closely aligned to Washington. This is probably an important factor in the reorientation of Saudi foreign policy.

To ensure that the West does not lose out in the Middle East, Washington needs the cooperation of Moscow and Beijing to keep Tehran in line on its nuclear option and to restrain Damascus. Arab governments in the region are keeping an eye on how the West will resolve the Iranian and Syrian problems, just as they wait out the full ramifications of the latest fracas involving the insulting Muhammad cartoons. Many moderate Muslims see the cartoon episode as evidence of a further radicalization of anti-Muslim sentiments in the West.

Thus the Saudi monarch’s visit may symbolize the beginning of a reorientation of Mideast foreign policies as Asia not only becomes a major market and economic influence in the world but also packs more strategic clout.

No doubt Mideast governments have also noted Bush’s desire, as stated in his State of the Union address, to reduce U.S. dependency on Mideast oil.

Intensifying rivalry between the U.S. (including Japan and the West in general) on one hand and China, India, Russia and the majority of Asian nations, on the other, will dominate international relations in coming years.

The key question is where Japan will fit in with these new Middle Eastern and Sino-U.S. maneuvers, and how Tokyo can gain from these fundamental shifts in the emerging world order.

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