The times they are a changing in the Middle East, but are the US and Europe keeping 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)

The Middle East is a region that has long been known more for its ancestral antagonisms and bitter geopolitical rivalries than for European-style cooperation. Virtually every news report on the Middle East is about violence, the suffering of ordinary people caught in the middle of the violent political struggles and leaders vociferously blaming others for the extremist policies and lack of compromise that bedevil Middle Eastern politics. Of course, the long enduring Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been at the centre of the region’s chronic instability; but in recent times, we have also witnessed war between Iraq and Iran, two wars of the United States and its coalition partners against Iraq, civil wars in Syria and Yemen, repeated Israeli incursions into Syria and Lebanon, and repeated Turkish incursions into Syria and Iraq to fight Kurdish militia groups. Even the few diplomatic agreements as between Israel and its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, have been more of a ‘cold peace’ than a true reconciliation along the lines of France and Germany in Europe. So, no wonder that many TV viewers – presented with images of riots on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Iranian women demonstrators being beaten and pushed into police vans or panoramas of bombed out streets in Aleppo and Palmyra – tend to switch off in despair at a Middle East that seems incapable of developing a more positive vision of its future.

Many of the semi-permanent conflicts in the Middle East have their origins in local factors. However, they have been exacerbated by the region’s major powers who have consistently interfered in these conflicts or occasionally intervened in support of either governments or oppositions. As a result, the protagonists in these conflicts have become increasingly the third columns or proxies of the major powers as they manoeuvre for advantage against each other.

Turkey has supported the anti-Assad opposition in Syria since the civil war broke out there in 2011 and Iran has become a central pillar of Assad’s survival in power. Israel has tried, albeit with limited success, to shore up a buffer zone in southern Lebanon against the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia or to disrupt Iranian activities in Syria. Turkey and Qatar have supported the transitional government in Tripoli, Libya, while the sympathies of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Saudis have sided more with its rival based in Benghazi in the east. Iran and Saudi Arabia have fought a proxy war in Yemen. Until recently, Qatar was both ostracised and largely economically boycotted by its fellow Gulf states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) after being accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist extremists across the Middle East and North Africa.

Arab leaders may pretend to maintain a semblance of diplomatic restraint in their public discourse, but in private, they are frequently scathing about each other. Back in 2010, when Wikileaks published hundreds of US diplomatic cables supplied by whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was quoted pleading with the US to “cut off the head of the snake”, referring to Riyadh’s archenemy, Iran. These major power rivalries might increase tensions in the region, but they also gave the US and those European powers with interests in the Middle East a clear sense of friend and foe. Like Cold War-Europe, the Middle East seemed to be divided into two hostile ideological and armed camps: one side firmly siding with Washington, while the other was more under the influence of Tehran and Moscow. These relationships could be an occasional embarrassment for the West, as when Israel refused to move on its peace process with the Palestinians and Saudi Arabia refused to grant its women equal rights and cracked down hard on the regime’s internal critics. Yet the tensions in the Middle East also fuelled massive arms sales by the US and the United Kingdom, France and Germany to Israel and the Gulf countries. Moreover, this security assistance could be used as leverage to ensure a plentiful supply of oil to the Western industrial countries at cheap prices. In sum, you must make do with the allies you have rather than the ones you would like to have, and the Gulf states were certainly a useful bulwark for the US in countering Russian, Islamist and jihadist influence in the Middle East while isolating revolutionary Iran. To paraphrase the celebrated phrase of Franklin Roosevelt, referring to a Central American dictator in the 1930s: ‘they may be bastards but at least they are our bastards.’

The latest developments are forcing both the US and Europe to face up to a major re-alignment of political forces in the region

Yet the persistence of many conflicts and great power rivalries has given the false impression that the situation in the Middle East has remained fixed and immutable. In reality, the region has been highly volatile and subject to periodic seismic shocks that have forced the US and Europeans to re-align and rethink their approaches to the region. However predictable some of the major changes may have looked in hindsight, they frequently took Western foreign ministries by surprise at the time. For instance, the spectacular visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian leader Anwar El Sadat in 1977 or the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran at the hands of fundamentalist Islamic clerics in 1979. We can think also of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq in August 1990 or the way in which the Arab Spring, beginning with the self-immolation of a street fruit vendor in a small town in Tunisia in 2011, swept across North Africa and the Middle East. It is true that the region has not experienced a major interstate conflict for several years now. The last Arab-Israeli war was the Yom Kippur clash between Egypt and Israel in October 1973 and the last major US military intervention was already 20 years ago against Iraq in March 2003.

Political instability has remained the order of the day. The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of the Arab street to make even seemingly impregnable regimes wobble. Those in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were toppled, and Assad in Syria or the Islamic clerics in Tehran faced massive demonstrations and popular opposition that required brutal force to repress, at the price of even more sanctions and international isolation. The breakdown of state control and chaos in the security services also made it easier for jihadist groups to take root and seize territory and economic assets, as we saw with the creation of the ISIL caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq in 2014. The chronic political instability posed problems for Western foreign ministries, especially as they had to come to terms with the removal of thousands of their partners and contacts in Arab governments, militaries and intelligence services in the wake of the Arab Spring. Yet there were also opportunities. A common fear of Iran brought Israel and the Gulf monarchies closer together, first discreetly in informal talks and then later with the Abraham Accords of 2020, which established diplomatic relations and economic and travel links between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Saudi Arabia has not so far signed up to the accords but has begun a dialogue with Israel. A Negev Forum has also folded Egypt into this evolving new regional dialogue.

Today we are facing a new transformation of politics in the Middle East but one that does not advance Western security interests as smoothly as the Abraham Accords. Indeed, the latest developments are forcing both the US and Europe to face up to a major re-alignment of political forces in the region, which is resulting in less Western influence and leverage. What is noteworthy is that several of the pillars of the Western-led security system in the Middle East are crumbling at the same time. Dealing with one problem in the region at any given time is a challenge; but when all of the major actors are in flux and changing in unpredictable ways simultaneously and in reaction to each other, working out which levers of influence you still have and how to use them wisely becomes especially difficult.

The US-Saudi relationship has been a cornerstone of Middle Eastern security since February 1945 when then-president Roosevelt met the Saudi ruler, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, on the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt and forged a pact to provide security in exchange for Saudi oil. Over the decades, the US has stationed troops and constructed bases in the kingdom, safeguarded its oil production and loading facilities in the Gulf, provided air and missile defence, and sold Riyadh billions of dollars’ worth of top military technology.

This unexpected move demonstrates the new role of Chinese diplomacy in the West’s traditional sphere of influence

However, during the Biden administration in Washington and the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, the US-Saudi relationship has begun to fray. The Saudis have observed Biden’s lack of interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. While Biden’s hesitancy may be justified given his predecessors’ efforts that failed to create a Palestinian state, the Saudis anticipate that the US will produce a plan, put pressure on the Israelis, and at least attempt to resolve the issue. However, by the end of Biden’s first term, this has yet to happen. Simultaneously, the Saudis have resisted US pressure to increase oil production to alleviate inflation in the US and the nearly $5 per gallon gasoline cost to American consumers. The Saudis have supported OPEC’s production cuts of over one million barrels a day to maintain the price at a minimum of $85 per barrel and have worked closely with Russia. However, even these production cuts did not prevent Saudi Aramco from earning its highest profit ever last year at over $160bn.

Biden went to Riyadh to negotiate with Salman, but to no avail. The Crown Prince has not appreciated the Biden administration’s criticism of his alleged involvement in the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, nor the kingdom’s human rights record, including the imprisonment of students for posting critical comments on the government on social media. Furthermore, the Saudis were surprised by the sudden decision of the Biden administration to halt the delivery of lethal weapons to Riyadh following criticism in the US and Europe that they were being used by the Saudi armed forces to intervene in Yemen.

As a result, Riyadh has embarked on a significant realignment of its foreign policy. Today, it sells more oil to China than to Europe or the US and has welcomed Chinese investment as Salman pursues his vision to modernise Saudi Arabia and move to a high-tech, knowledge and services-based economy, diversifying from fossil fuels by 2030. Salman has also sought to align himself with authoritarian regimes. As part of this effort, he applied for observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and restored diplomatic relations with Iran, which had been broken off after the fall of the Shah. This rapprochement was brokered by the Chinese and sealed during a meeting of the two foreign ministers in Beijing. Subsequently, an Iranian delegation visited Riyadh to discuss the reopening of the Iranian embassy. This unexpected move demonstrates the new role of Chinese diplomacy in the West’s traditional sphere of influence.

The Saudis intervened in Yemen to prevent the Houthis, an Iranian-backed movement, from taking control in Sanaa and to restore the former pro-Saudi president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. However, they suffered multiple drone and rocket attacks on towns in their eastern province by the Houthis, who were using Iranian-supplied weapons. This included a devastating drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery at Abqaiq in 2019. The Saudis have also accused Iran of being behind several attacks on oil tankers and cargo vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. There has been much speculation that the prospect of Iran possessing nuclear weapons may prompt Riyadh to embark on its own nuclear weapons programme.

Worried by the worsening of relations, Washington has been increasing its visits to Riyadh

The Saudis now aspire to a new role as the regional peacemaker. In Yemen, they have accepted a six-month ceasefire and the release of prisoners and hostages by both sides. They have also agreed to lift sanctions on the Houthi regime and lift their blockade of ports. Negotiations on a political settlement in Yemen are due to follow. The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, says that “this is the closest that Yemen has come to peace” since the latest round of civil war broke out there in 2014. More recently, the Saudis have received praise for organising the humanitarian evacuation of over 8,000 foreigners and Sudanese fleeing the fighting in Sudan. They sent a number of warships to create a humanitarian bridge between Port Sudan and Jeddah, providing an escape route after many European countries had ended their evacuation flights from Khartoum. This past week, Riyadh hosted talks between the two military factions in Sudan, with a view to achieve a more durable ceasefire and set up safe corridors for the delivery of humanitarian aid into Sudan. Moreover, the Saudis have decided to make peace with their rival for regional influence, Qatar, and to lift border restrictions and allow Doha back into GCC meetings. Clearly, a more independent and self-confident Saudi Arabia has decided to strike out on its own.

Worried by the worsening of relations, Washington has been increasing its visits to Riyadh. The Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns, was there recently, as was National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan just last week. Unsurprisingly the US is keen to continue the traditional security and intelligence cooperation with the kingdom, but it is not yet clear what these visits have accomplished or if the Saudis, no longer trusting in the primacy of the relationship with Washington, are still listening.

The second element in the shifting sands is in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel is still a close ally of the US and the West more generally. Yet, like the Saudis, the Israelis have also begun to hedge their bets. They have refused to go along with the Western sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. They have also declined to supply Ukraine with the sophisticated air and missile defence systems, such as the Iron Dome or David’s Sling, for which Israel is famous and which Kyiv has repeatedly been calling for. Instead, Israel has limited itself to giving Ukraine an early warning public notification system for incoming missile attacks, as well as some humanitarian aid. The Israelis argue that they cannot afford to upset the Russians as they count on the latter to turn a blind eye when the Israeli air force goes after Iranian arms convoys in Syria or Syrian army units coming too close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israeli air strikes recently put the airports in Damascus and Aleppo out of operation for a short period.

What has worried US and European diplomats is not so much Israel’s interventions beyond its borders as the turbulent state of its domestic politics. Israel has held a whole series of elections, each of which has resulted in stalemate and unstable multi-party coalitions that can barely govern and do not last long. The latest, once more under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, includes a number of small right-wing, religious and pro-settler parties, some of which are extremist. They have fuelled Palestinian violence by escalating incidents rather than calming them down and shown no interest at all in resuming the peace process or bending to Western pressure to moderate Israel’s behaviour, for instance, in halting the expansion of settlements on the West Bank or abandoning plans to incorporate the settlements into Israel itself.

The rehabilitation of Assad not only marks the demise of the Arab Spring […] but also a permanent Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria

This intransigence has led to a marked uptick in violence particularly between Israelis, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and now Hezbollah in Lebanon. Recently, rockets were fired over the Lebanese border into Israel for the first time in several years. Israel will, of course, say that it is responding to Palestinian terrorist attacks, but it takes two to tango for the violence to escalate and Israel has long shown restraint towards Hezbollah in Lebanon. While seeing a worsening security situation along its borders, Israel has also witnessed the greatest internal disorder in decades. The intention of the government to weaken the powers of the Supreme Court and increase the power of the parliamentary majority in the Knesset has provoked massive demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Israelis across the country extending over months already. They fear an erosion of the checks and balances that are fundamental to Israeli democracy. The Israeli military and security services have in some instances sided with the demonstrators.

This situation can be interpreted in two ways: either as a worrying indication that Israel is veering towards the far right and becoming a more authoritarian and less tolerant country, or as an indication that Israeli civil society is alive and well and determined to preserve the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of the state. Yet, in terms of the regional geopolitics, it has made Israel a less predictable and reliable partner for the West. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seemed for a while to be easing with the creation of the Palestinian Authority and greater political participation by Israel’s Arab minority, is now back at the top of the agenda and as intractable as ever. If Israel becomes a less liberal and more repressive state, the ability of many Western governments, particularly of the left, to cooperate with it will be constrained. Again, the problem here is the classic one of the chicken and the egg: is Israel responding to a perception that the West is less engaged and that it must go it alone, or is the West disengaging because of its perception of a less sympathetic, Western-leaning Israel?

The third shift is the rehabilitation of the Assad regime in Syria. Its brutal repression of the 2011 uprising led to the death of over half a million Syrians and drove nearly 15mn into homelessness. Whole cities and swathes of Syria have been destroyed. This led Turkey and the US, among others, to actively support the anti-Assad opposition with finance, weapons and training, albeit with limited success. Yet, over a decade later and after numerous attempts by the UN to bring the Syrian political forces around the table, write a new constitution for the country and organise free elections, Assad and his policy of regime survival through a military solution have prevailed. Helped by Russian and Iranian forces and weapons, as well as by Hezbollah militia fighters crossing from Lebanon, Assad has succeeded in reconquering his country except for a remnant of opposition fighters holed up in the Idlib pocket along the Turkish border and some Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeast. Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria has proved to be more successful, in terms of pursued objectives, than that of the US, Turkey or France. The US rapidly shifted its attention from toppling Assad to defeating ISIL – seen as the greater threat – after the ISIL caliphate emerged in northern Syria in 2014.

So, the Arab countries and Turkey have now decided to recognise reality and resume contacts with the Assad regime. These were helped by the recent earthquakes in southern Turkey and northern Syria, which led to the reopening of border crossings for the supply of humanitarian assistance and the first humanitarian relief flights into Syria for over a decade by the Saudis and the UAE. The Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers have met. Ankara has an interest in Syria allowing back into the country some of the three million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey after 2011 and who have put an additional strain on a weak and deteriorating Turkish economy. Ankara hopes too that an Assad firmly back in the saddle in Damascus will rein in the Kurdish groups that have benefited from the Syrian war to carve out territorial enclaves for themselves in the north of the country from which they could encourage and facilitate Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Just this past week the Arab League, brought together by the Saudis, agreed to readmit Syria into its ranks. The rehabilitation of Assad not only marks the demise of the Arab Spring, along with the triumph of authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, but also a permanent Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria with Russian air and naval bases threatening the West in the eastern Mediterranean.

This region is also an epicentre of the struggle between the democracies and the authoritarians

Finally, there is the emergence of Iran. Just a few months ago, the mullahs in Tehran seemed to be on the backfoot. The death of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, accused of not wearing the obligatory head covering or hijab in public, while in police custody led to major demonstrations first by Iranian women and then by civil society at large. A debate within the regime between hardliners and reformers over the possibility of more social and individual freedoms seemed to be underway. Would this new wave of people power and political dissent finally bring the clerical regime to its knees and bring in a more moderate government more attuned to Iranian society? As with similar popular protest movements in the past, the answer is no. The regime has used massive repression, including the execution of several demonstrators accused of attacking the police, to intimidate the protesters and stifle the demonstrations. With the home front now quietened, the regime has been able to turn back to foreign policy. Like Assad in Syria, its Houthi ally looks likely to keep control in Yemen as will Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza. Iran has drawn closer to Russia by supplying Putin with Shahab drones, which have become the principal strike force in Moscow’s attacks against Ukraine. The Iranians are to build a drone production plant in Russia and there is talk that they will supply Moscow with rockets and missiles too. China has become another strategic partner, concluding contracts to develop Iranian gas fields and purchase Iranian oil, despite international and UN sanctions against Tehran.

On the nuclear front, Iran has shown little interest in resuscitating the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) reached with the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia in 2015 but unilaterally abrogated by Donald Trump in 2018. Tehran kept demanding concession after concession from the US, particularly when it came to lifting all the sanctions against it, including the non-nuclear related sanctions, which were clearly a stalling tactic that allowed Iran to talk and resume its nuclear programmes at the same time. Leaked intelligence reports and the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna show that Iran is now enriching nuclear fuel close to the 90% level needed to make a nuclear weapon. Iran has also stepped up its attacks against Israeli-owned ships in the Gulf and last week took two cargo ships hostage. So, a newly unrestrained Iran, having made peace – at least for now – with its arch-rivals on the other side of the Gulf and planting itself firmly in the camp of the authoritarians, has successfully escaped decades of hard work by the US and Europeans to contain it, deny it nuclear weapons and induce it to moderate its behaviour. The only option for the US and the EU for the time being is to see what new sanctions they can place on Tehran that they haven’t placed on it already and to try to come up with ways of interdicting Iranian arms shipments to Russia.

Of course, not all these developments are negative. The end of fighting in Yemen, up to now the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, is obviously to be welcomed if it can be achieved, as clearly are the efforts of the Saudis to evacuate people from Sudan and to bring about a ceasefire and a dialogue between the warring parties. No one will quibble with the delivery of vital humanitarian aid to the destitute made homeless by the earthquake in the Idlib pocket. The Middle East is a complicated place, and it rarely does black and white but rather infinite shades of grey. As Winston Churchill put it: “Jaw, jaw is always better than war, war”. Yet the larger geopolitical trends in the region spell trouble for the West. Even US ally Egypt, itself the second largest recipient of US military aid before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was recently discovered to be secretly preparing to supply Russia with 40,000 Egyptian made rockets, according to leaked Pentagon documents.

Undoubtedly the US, the EU and their allies have been preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The Middle East, for so long on the diplomatic front burner, has slipped down the agenda in both Washington and Brussels. Yet this region is also an epicentre of the struggle between the democracies and the authoritarians, and it cannot be good news for the West in the larger global context that its opponents are getting stronger and its traditional allies are increasingly becoming swing states, hedging their bets and making their cooperation with the US or the EU increasing transactional.

The US and EU need to establish a coordination mechanism for policy and engagement vis-à-vis the Middle East

Despite the imminence of a spring offensive in Ukraine or plans to shore up security in the Indo-Pacific or rebuild relations with Africa, the US and EU need to establish a coordination mechanism for policy and engagement vis-à-vis the Middle East. The big questions for their first meeting are clear: how should they help Israel through its current political crisis and to keep its democracy on track? How should they relaunch and re-energise the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, hold elections for a new, legitimate Palestinian Authority and recommit the Israelis to a two-state solution? How should they deal with the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran in terms of ongoing sanctions and deterrence; or if a nuclear-armed Iran is simply unacceptable, how can it be prevented at this late stage and at what cost?

How should they re-engage with the Gulf monarchies to re-establish trust while nudging them towards domestic reforms and more democracy? The willingness of these states to take diplomatic initiatives and to take responsibility is something to be encouraged and to build upon: not only the Saudis in Yemen and Sudan, but the UAE in hosting the COP28 in Dubai this November or Qatar in hosting meetings to address the dire humanitarian and human rights situation in Afghanistan. A dialogue on how to balance the reliance on fossil fuel extraction and exports of these Gulf monarchies with their increasing awareness of the impact of climate change and the need to green their economies would be a good place to start.

Finally, how should the EU and US restart a productive dialogue with its ally Turkey on stability in the Middle East once this weekend’s elections are over and the shape of the future government in Ankara is known?

In the Godfather 2, the mafia boss played by Al Pacino laments that every time he tries to leave the mafia, it grabs him by the arm and sucks him back in. The Middle East tends to do the same for Western diplomats. Its problems are complex and intractable and its leaders notoriously difficult to deal with. So, it is always tempting to shelve the Middle East and take a break from its many challenges. But nature abhors a vacuum. Where the US and its European allies may fear to tread, Russia, China, Iran and a plethora of murky extremist groups and their militias assuredly will not.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo