The End of America’s Middle East

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For more than 50 years, and especially since the Iranian revolution of 1979, U.S. policies and initiatives in the Middle East rested on a complex network of relations with four diverse regional pillars: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. At one time or another the United States worked with one or more of these states to contain the perennial fires ravaging the region (even when these same states ignited the fires in the first place, whether Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Israel in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, or Turkey in Iraq and Syria).

Over the years, the U.S. achieved some notable victories in the region, alone or with these erstwhile allies. But the world that gave rise to these relationships is undergoing changes that require a serious, even radical, reevaluation. There is no longer a Soviet threat to the Gulf region, and the U.S. has become the largest oil producer in the world. Meanwhile, the last U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis collapsed almost a decade ago, the two-state solution has long been dead, and the extremists in charge of Israel today are on a messianic mission to formally annex all the Palestinian territories under their control.

The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt have been charting their own paths, flagrantly disregarding Washington’s core interests. They believe that closer political, economic, and military relations with Russia, China, India, or each other—openly or clandestinely—will provide them with suitable alternatives to the United States. To put it bluntly, America’s four traditional pillars in the Middle East are now too brittle to be relied upon.

Much has been written recently about how the Turks, Israelis, and Arabs have been involved in dialogue with one another, exploring ways to revive regional diplomacy, cooperation, and investment. Some analysts went as far as to proclaim the dawn of a new era in the Middle East. But these de-escalations should be welcomed with much caution. The men who today sing the virtues of reconciliation were the same ones who ravaged Yemen; laid siege to Qatar; rampaged in Syria and Libya; and shunned Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s despot, after a popular uprising, only to welcome him after he committed war crimes and turned his country into a narcostate.

In reality, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt have all been pursuing various forms of aggressive nationalism. Israel has already codified religious chauvinism and exclusivism, and some of its leaders regularly incite terrorism and call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has fostered a new culture of hyper-nationalism in an attempt to diminish the influence of the religious establishment and build by coercive means a Saudi national identity revolving around his authoritarian persona.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known for stirring up a version of aggressive Turkish nationalism, laced with religious overtones and mixed with Ottoman revivalism in his frequent campaigns of grievances and intimidation against the West. Erdogan projects himself as the embodiment of these corrosive values. And in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decade-long reign has been the most autocratic and disastrous in modern Egyptian history.

Moreover, these countries have mostly stopped cooperating with the United States on its regional priorities. Sisi was planning to provide rockets and artillery rounds to Russia to use against Ukraine before he was caught by U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this year. Erdogan only barely managed to maneuver his way out of a major crisis with U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO powers at the recent Vilnius summit, when he seemed to drop his opposition to Sweden’s accession to NATO after a year of obstruction. But his blackmailing of Europe by threatening to unleash waves of Syrian refugees continues. And Erdogan’s earlier purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system should have warranted harsher sanctions than it received.

The historical factors that once cemented ties to the United States have also dissipated. The Soviet Union, which posed a threat to the countries of the region, is no more. (Ironically, Russian President Vladimir Putin today enjoys warmer personal relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Salman, and Erdogan than these leaders enjoy with Biden.) There are no longer any foreign threats to the Gulf.

The role played by oil has also changed dramatically. Oil had fueled America’s relations with Saudi Arabia dating back to World War II, with the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia coming to rely on imported oil and gas from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states in exchange for the U.S. military guaranteeing the safety of these transactions. But the United States is no longer the lone outside power with an economic stake in the Gulf region. Asian powers such as China, India, and others have established or reestablished complex economic and trade relations with the Gulf. And it is only natural that higher economic Asian activity will bring with it a higher political and military profile.

And, in truth, this marks the return of a deeper history for the region. Long before the onset of large oil revenues, Gulf port cities resembled Indian Ocean port cities. The economies of these small port cities were dominated by merchant families: Arab, Persian, African, Baluch, Indian, and others, with Sunnis and Shiites living on both sides of the Gulf. Over the centuries, these families developed a rich maritime culture that created a complex exchange of people and goods across the Gulf cities, East Africa, and the port cities of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. These renowned traders with their ubiquitous dhows traversed these waters long before Western powers controlled them. For the new Gulf states to look eastward is nothing more than to reestablish the old maritime lanes.

Seen in this context, the hyperventilation in some official quarters in Washington and among the commentariat class over China’s limited role in reestablishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is both unwarranted and exaggerated. Most of the initial hard work was achieved earlier in quiet talks in Baghdad and Oman, until the Saudi leadership, with an eye on catching Washington’s attention, brought in China to produce and direct the last scene, giving Beijing credit for the whole production. The Biden administration responded as expected, which explains, in part at least, its current unseemly scramble to make peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

For the foreseeable future, no state or combination of states could seriously undermine America’s strategic, economic, and technical edge in the Gulf region, and the U.S. should make it clear to the Arab Gulf states that reckless cavorting with China at the expense of the United States will have consequences. (We should note that the Saudis made their first clandestine purchase of medium-range missile systems from China in the 1980s.) Riyadh is not about to halt its long Western orientation. American technology and expertise will continue to be essential for the Saudi energy sector, which remains the kingdom’s main source of income; we are not about to witness thousands of young Saudi students flocking to Beijing and Shanghai to study Mandarin.

The Biden administration’s seeming obsession with mediating a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel to formalize their existing de facto normalization is a Sisyphean labor—one that, even if it is partially successful, will not benefit the U.S. politically or strategically in the long run. Its primary political result will be to strengthen the authoritarian rule of Mohammed bin Salman and embolden Netanyahu in his establishment of a more fundamentalist Israel. And such a deal, regardless of any assurances given to the Palestinians, will hardly change their fundamental lived reality—that of occupation and the denial of basic rights.

The price Saudi Arabia is trying to extract from the Biden administration—including more extensive security guarantees that would elevate the kingdom to the status of other U.S. formal allies, nuclear technology for a civilian energy program, and freer access to U.S. arms—is a burden too much to bear. Saudi Arabia, given Mohammed bin Salman’s character and aggressive history, is not a partner worthy of the price. The crown prince is exploiting Washington’s exaggerated fears of an assertive China in the Gulf region to gain concessions the U.S. will live to regret. A Saudi-Israeli peace deal, if it materializes, will at best be a deal among the existing elites of both countries,  and accelerate the regional drift toward more autocracy and authoritarianism. Such a deal will not guarantee at all that Mohammed bin Salman or Netanyahu will not continue to pursue policies, such as the de facto support for Russia’s war against Ukraine, that either violate U.S. interests or negate its values.

The United States’ reassessment of relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt should take place in the context of reducing its military footprint in the region. There are U.S. troops deployed throughout the region, from Turkey and Syria, to Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman. This is in addition to the periodic flights of U.S. strategic bombers on roundtrip missions to the Persian Gulf, along with frequent deployments of aircraft carriers to the Arabian Sea.

Are large U.S. air bases really necessary in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE? The U.S. could defend its interests in the Gulf (namely, deterring Iran and terrorist groups in the region) by maintaining the crucial naval base at Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and supplementing it with more concentrated air power. This force can be further buttressed by aircraft carriers sailing in nearby waters. Before the string of recent wars in the Gulf, beginning with Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, this was the non-overbearing way that American power was felt in the region. A wise Arab Gulf leader told an American diplomat at the time, “We want you to be like the wind, we want to feel you, but we don’t want to see you.” That was sound advice then and would be mostly sound advice now.

Once upon a time, there existed a great reservoir of good will in the Middle East toward the United States. America was seen by the people of the region as the educator that built the American University of Beirut (1866) and the American University in Cairo (1919), among other educational institutions from Turkey to the Gulf. America was hailed as the promoter of self-determination after World War I. America was the refuge of choice for the first wave of immigrants beginning in the late 1880s, fleeing the harsh conditions in Ottoman Syria (today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) and seeking the promise of freedom in the United States. Most importantly, America was a major Western power with no colonial legacy in the Middle East. America did not rule over Arabs and Muslims, unlike the European powers. The caption of a picture taken in 1878 of the Syrian family of the professor Yusif Arbili says it all: “here (at last) I am with the children exulting in freedom.”

That reservoir of good will began to dwindle with the growing U.S. support for repressive autocratic regimes in the quest to check local communists and the Soviet Union. America’s embrace of Israel following its conquest of more Arab lands during the 1967 Six-Day War deepened and widened the alienation of many Arabs from the U.S. Opinion polls throughout the region today confirm the negative views of U.S. policies in the Middle East and of America itself. Lowering Washington’s military profile and elevating its defense of human rights in a consistent, explicit, and universal fashion would go a long way toward restoring its credibility with the people of the region. It would also help them fend off autocracy, repression, and aggressive nationalism at home.

At a time when America’s democratic system of governance, its liberal open society, and its cherished concepts of inclusive patriotism and political pluralism are being challenged and eroded, it is folly to further undermine those values and the institutions that undergird them by seeking closer ties with indefensible regimes in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt may be Washington’s traditional allies in the region, but they do not deserve that status today.