The Middle East: time for the locals to step up?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

2021 was a year when the United States conveyed the impression – rightly or wrongly – that it was disengaging from the Middle East. The trigger for this was the precipitous US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in mid-August with neither a transition plan nor a viable regional security framework. After a 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, and trillions of dollars of investment in security and reconstruction efforts, the readiness of Washington to write off this investment and cut and run was alarming to many of its Middle Eastern allies. Even more unsettling was the rhetoric of the Biden administration, which suggested that the US was not only turning its back on Afghanistan but on interventions in the greater Middle East more generally. The warning of former US defence secretary, Robert Gates, back in 2011 that any official advising a US president to put US boots on the ground in a Muslim country again should have his or her head examined seemed to be the conventional wisdom in Washington at long last.

The impression of a waning US interest in the Middle East was fed by other factors. First was a troop drawdown in Iraq, although Washington chose to ignore votes in the Iraqi parliament that it should withdraw altogether. The US gave up its own military bases in Iraq and henceforth stationed its remaining forces within the perimeter of Iraqi bases. It handed over much of its mission to train local Iraqi forces to NATO. The repression of the residual ISIL cells in Iraq was subcontracted to the Iraqi forces and militias, as well as to the Kurdish Peshmerga, just as the US had come to rely on the Kurds too to fulfil this task of repression in Syria, and similarly in Turkey where the motivation lay in preventing Russian and Syrian forces from overrunning the remaining anti-Assad opposition forces in the Idlib pocket.

So far, the Biden administration has launched no new plan for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process either. It has restored some modest funding to the Palestinian Authority, previously cut by the Trump administration, but has stayed silent as the new Israeli government in Jerusalem has moved to expand settlement construction on the Golan Heights and West Bank. Biden has been happy to see Israel draw closer to some of the Gulf monarchies and Morocco under the Abraham Accords, but these were the achievement of the Trump Middle East policy.

Previous US administrations have been perpetually diverted from global foreign policy objectives by recurring crises in the Middle East

Given its focus on human rights, the Biden administration has stopped supplying lethal military equipment to Saudi Arabia, which it could use to carry out its campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Moreover, it has left the deep political and economic crisis in Lebanon, which has led to the near-paralysis of the multi-confessional government in Beirut, largely to France, the European Union and the international financial institutions. The current low priority of the Middle East in Washington seems to be reflected in the fact that after one year of the new administration, there are still no US ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Naturally, the theme of US disengagement should not be overplayed. The US maintains a significant military presence in the region, with a naval base in Bahrain and a massive air base in Qatar. Its warships have been patrolling the Strait of Hormuz to prevent Iranian attacks on commercial vessels, as well as kidnapping and hostage-taking attempts, and its commitment to the security of Israel remains as ironclad as ever. There is indeed one Middle East issue which is at the top of the foreign policy priority list in Washington and that is the Iranian nuclear file. After Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, Biden has been trying to resurrect the deal. Negotiations mediated by the EU between Iran and the five other signatory powers have dragged on in Vienna for most of last year. Yet the US and Iran are not meeting directly to negotiate. Moreover, the hard-line stance of the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, demanding the lifting of all the sanctions on Iran before Tehran makes concessions on its nuclear processing activities, alongside the rapid advances that it has made in enriching uranium since the US abandoned the deal, make it increasingly unlikely that the old deal can be revived, or that a new one acknowledging Tehran’s greater nuclear capabilities can be reached. Both Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf will probably have mixed feelings about this stalemate. On the one hand, they may find solace in the fact that, for them, an imperfect JCPOA has now lapsed, but on the other hand, they have reason to be worried as no deal at all will leave Iran free to develop its nuclear weapons programme.

The Iranian nuclear file aside, the Biden administration seems determined not to fall into the same trap as its predecessors; previous US administrations have been perpetually diverted from global foreign policy objectives by recurring crises in the Middle East. This happened all too frequently in the past: the Clinton administration staking much of its foreign policy credibility on the success of the Oslo Accords in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Bush administration committing to a Global War on Terrorism and the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attack; the Obama administration reluctantly surging its forces in Afghanistan; and the Trump administration doubling down on its support of Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies against Iran.

Although Washington is still present, its declining interest in the Middle East has opened the space for other powers to move in

This time round, however, the US seems determined to keep its focus on the challenges that China poses to security in the Indo-Pacific, as well as the need to push back against Russian bellicosity in eastern Europe. For instance, at the beginning of January, and with the continuing build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, the Pentagon did not hesitate to redeploy the US aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman, and five cruisers and guided missile destroyers to the Eastern Mediterranean, originally due to take up station in the Persian Gulf. Certainly, the reason why the US became so involved in the Middle East in the first place – the need to secure its oil supplies after the Second World War – has changed dramatically in the wake of the US becoming the world’s largest producer of non-conventional fossil fuels and a major liquefied natural gas exporter, all taking place in a market ever-shifting towards renewables and green energy.

Lower visibility and a reduced role for the US in the Middle East has created a new and perplexing situation for countries in the region. Certainly, they have complained from time to time about Washington’s political interference and heavy-handedness. Yet the US has also provided the security, economic and diplomatic framework within which they had grown used to operating. No diplomatic process or negotiation could be successfully launched unless Washington was on board and playing the role of honest broker. No conflict could be resolved without American pressure and incentives. The US, with its military bases in the Persian Gulf region and its large-scale military exercises, provided the reassurance and cover that allowed the Arab states to deter powerful rivals, such as Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Syria, while also keeping domestic protests and opposition at bay. The US established the de facto parameters of political activity and was the organising principle around which Middle Eastern affairs evolved.

Although Washington is still present, its declining interest in the Middle East has opened the space for other powers to move in. Russia has intervened in Syria and is constructing permanent naval and air bases along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. It has also sent mercenaries to both Syria and Libya, and is attempting to rebuild the defence relationship with Egypt that it enjoyed in the days of the Soviet Union. It is also negotiating port facilities with Sudan. Iran has sent proxy forces to Syria and Iraq, while supporting the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, as well as northern Iraq to fight Kurdish militias, and has established a semi-permanent presence in the Idlib pocket. Like Russia and Iran, Turkey too is employing proxy forces in Syria and Libya to do its bidding while limiting its exposure. China’s increased role is less visible but it has stepped up its investments in oil and gas production, becoming the largest importer of Middle East hydrocarbons.

As a case study in realpolitik, Turkey has reached out to Middle Eastern neighbours that it once boycotted

As a result, the locals in the Middle East now must navigate a much more complicated chessboard with more players in the mix and less predictable and shifting relationships. This is forcing all of them to rethink traditional alliances and partnerships and to recalibrate their positions and interests on the chessboard. Above all, the new Middle East reality has forced these local states to take affairs into their own hands and move quickly rather than wait for signals from Washington.

Realpolitik seems to be the guiding principle of Middle Eastern countries. Countries like the UAE that once swore that they would not talk to a notorious violator of human rights like Bashar al-Assad in Syria have re-established their embassies in Damascus. In Libya, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former dictator and indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in suppressing the Eastern uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring, is now standing in the presidential election, though it has now been postponed to 2023.

As a case study in realpolitik, Turkey has reached out to Middle Eastern neighbours that it once boycotted because of differences over the role of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara has reopened its embassy in the UAE and resumed trade ties. Turkey’s President Erdoğan has visited Egypt and opened channels to the al-Sisi regime he once excoriated because of its role in deposing the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. Just last week, Erdoğan announced plans to visit Saudi Arabia in February, thereby putting aside a long-running feud between the two countries since Saudi intelligence operatives murdered the Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul in 2018. There is even talk of Turkey burying the hatchet with Israel despite Erdoğan’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause. In Ankara, it is commonly held that Erdoğan’s sudden diplomatic flexibility is based on the hope of soft loans and quick economic wins, with no human rights strings attached. The Turkish economy is going downhill fast with the lira depreciating sharply and inflation running at 36%. So Erdoğan has turned to the Persian Gulf countries for help rather than towards his more stringent Western partners.

Others too have judged that the time is right to move against democratic institutions at minimal cost

There have been other turnarounds as well. Last December, the National Security Advisor of the UAE travelled to Tehran to discuss maritime security in the Gulf with President Raisi. The Saudis also secretly met the Iranians in Baghdad – the first of such meetings since the Saudis broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2018. Meanwhile Qatar, long ostracised by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because of its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist movements in the region, has been allowed back in to this body. The picture of Qatar’s ruling emir next to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the National Security Advisor of the UAE – all of them in beach shorts – has had a surreal effect on Middle East audiences long accustomed to fiery accusations and denunciations between Doha and its Gulf neighbours. In December, the GCC held its first united meeting in many years as the Saudis tried to build a coherent front against Iran. Mohammed bin Salman toured all the GCC countries in advance to rebuild his image after the calamity of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

It is not only authoritarians like bin Salman, Erdoğan or al-Assad who are using the new Middle East context to come in from the cold. Others too have judged that the time is right to move against democratic institutions at minimal cost. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied carried out a coup d’état last July to declare a state of emergency and take away powers from the elected parliament. His aim was clearly to neuter political Islam, including the moderate Islamists within the Ennahda Movement. In Sudan, three years after popular protests led to the ousting of former president Omar al-Bashir, the military has carried out two coups d’état to break out of their power-sharing deal with the civilian opposition parties, and civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has recently resigned for the second time.

The spectacle of strongman political leaders asserting their authoritarian rule at home and manoeuvring tactically to shore up their positions vis-à-vis their neighbours is perhaps not one that many observers hoped for the post-American Middle East. Although the barriers to dialogue and even practical cooperation between Arabs, Persians and Turks are coming down, there is no sign, as of yet, that the new spirit of pragmatism is helping to resolve any of the region’s fundamental problems.

Middle Eastern countries have not yet responded to the mounting humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan nor decided how, and under what circumstances, they will work with the new Taliban regime in Kabul. They also have not moved closer to recognising that regime either. Moreover, the fighting in Yemen is as protracted and bitter as ever with the Houthis firing armed drones and rockets into Saudi Arabia and hijacking UAE cargo ships off the Gulf of Aden. With fighting ongoing around key ports such as Al Hudaydah, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is severe and no peace talks are on the horizon.

The Arab states are likely to be played off against each other

In Lebanon, the crisis deepens as the government has not met for months and Hezbollah calls for the removal of the judge responsible for investigating the catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut. In Libya, the momentum towards national elections on 24 December last year has been lost due to the failure of the different parties to agree on the modalities for those elections, who should be allowed to stand, and even on whether the caretaker government of national accord should be allowed to carry on until the postponed elections take place. Finally, the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah of President Mahmoud Abbas has remained in office illegally years after its electoral mandate expired.

The test of Arab and regional responsibility will be to solve these burning issues at the heart of the Middle East’s stability. For the time being, the spirit of cooperation appears to be driven more by image building, the desire to hedge bets at a time of drift and the relief of immediate domestic pressures, than by any grand vision or specific ideas about a future Middle East security architecture. As with the Dubai Expo now underway in the UAE or Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup football tournament and of US talks with the Taliban, the wealthier states can always promote themselves; but to be an island of stability in a sea of conflict and human misery is hardly proof of a successful foreign policy.

Some observers will experience a certain Schadenfreude that the Arab states that relied for years on the US, Soviet Union or indeed European colonial powers for their security are now exposed to the harsh realities of self-reliance. As the US knows only too well, with responsibility comes scrutiny and blame. Moreover, up to now, the locals stepping up have not produced good results. Turkey’s intervention in Syria has hardly helped its reconciliation with the Kurds, outside or inside its frontiers. The interference of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen has only worsened the humanitarian situation, and the arrest and detention of the Lebanese prime minister in 2020 by the Saudis hardly helped to stabilise that badly divided country, overwhelmed as it was by refugees from neighbouring Syria.

As Russia, China, Iran and Turkey all rush to exploit the vacuum in the Middle East left by departing Americans and absent Europeans, the Arab states are likely to be played off against each other, left only to find their room for independent manoeuvre and influence in their own backyard narrowing rather than widening.

Cooperation and dialogue must become ingrained as permanent modes of behaviour rather than as temporary ceasefires

So Schadenfreude would be misplaced. In truth, the US and EU cannot drop the Middle East from their ‘to-do’ lists just because the region is complicated, the conflicts intractable and the locals ungrateful. These locals may have the wealth and be able to buy the military hardware for Arab or Turkish strategic autonomy, but that does not mean that they have the political bandwidth to link short-term reactions to longer-term development strategies, nor ceasefires to peace building, nor crisis management to conflict resolution. Other powers, seeking to exploit the region rather than help it, are not going to play the stabilising role that the US and EU alone can play.

Washington and Brussels cannot only provide the reconstruction and humanitarian aid but also help the Arab states to strengthen their own multilateral institutions, such as the GCC or Arab League, that can improve the quality of governance, rule of law and respect of human and minority rights over time. Cooperation and dialogue must become ingrained as permanent modes of behaviour rather than as temporary ceasefires in an ongoing saga of rivalry and mistrust.

In conclusion, the US and EU need a strategy for the new Middle East that goes beyond phases of starry-eyed interventions and disillusioned disengagements. A strategy that recognises the hard realities of the region and the need to deal with some unsavoury characters but also supports the democratic forces in the region and fosters economic and social integration. In the film, The Godfather Part II, the character played by Al Pacino complains that every time he tries to escape from the mafia it grabs him and sucks him back in. As the Middle East punishes those who try to ignore it, it is ultimately more useful to engage it.

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