For 75 years, the peoples of the Middle East watched the United States exercise the kind of immense political influence that can only be undergirded by military might and economic prosperity. There were military coups to be thwarted or supported, strongmen to be courted, contained, or removed. The U.S. influenced the political trajectories and orientations of countries from Iran in the east to Libya in the west. U.S. influence shaped the outcomes of wars from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the October War of 1973. The U.S was engaged intermittently in peacemaking missions between Arabs and Israelis but also engaged periodically in war-making efforts, sending the U.S. Air Force on bombing raids over Syria and Libya in the 1980s and revisiting the two countries for major air campaigns in recent years.
In the last two decades, U.S. military power was tested severely in its two longest wars in the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan and the hostile deserts of Iraq. In 2003, a U.S. president sent a large expeditionary force to the land of Mesopotamia, not to seek treasures like previous conquerors but to search for the elusive Jeffersonian democrats on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. In its heyday, the U.S. appeared omnipresent and almost omnipotent. But that was ordained to end.
Today, we are witnessing an intense scramble for control of the Middle East among the mostly autocratic, disparate countries of the region, creating new alignments where the fabulous wealth of small states is conjugated with countries boasting large or more powerful armies, with armed proxies and mercenaries as expendable cannon fodder in tow. There are a number of factors for this scramble, but chief among them is the realization that we are at the beginning of the end of America’s grand moment in the Middle East.
The dreadfully named Abraham Accords — as if everything in the Middle East should be reduced to religion — is the latest manifestation of this scramble. For Israel and the Gulf states, deterring Iran and its proxies in the Levant, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Peninsula is the most pressing strategic challenge. These states are fearful that the U.S., which began to lower its diplomatic and military profiles in the region during the Obama administration, and accelerated this process under the administrations of both Presidents Trump and Biden, will make this a feature of its approach to the region in the future. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was recently asked if he is worried that the U.S. might leave the Middle East. “Yes, of course. I think it would be a great misfortune for us but also for the United States. For us and our newfound Arab allies,” the might of the U.S. is needed “to constrain and hold back, or roll back Iran and its proxies,” he intoned.
Morocco and Sudan joined the Abraham Accords to collect promised rewards from the U.S.; Morocco’s prize was U.S. recognition of its claim of sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. For Sudan, it was the end of its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and the promise of financial aid.
Unlike their parents, these young rulers saw Palestine as a burden and Israel as a technological and military asset that could help them keep their people in check and assist them against Iran.
The diminution of the Palestine question in the collective mind of Arabs, particularly in the Gulf, made it possible for the rulers to elevate their clandestine collaboration with Israel, mainly in the security area, to full normalization without fear of an Arab public opinion backlash. Unlike their parents, these young rulers saw Palestine as a burden and Israel as a technological and military asset that could help them keep their people in check and assist them against Iran. Their alienation from Palestinians was made easier by the recklessness of Hamas and Islamic jihad in Gaza, just as their alienation from the once-beloved Lebanon before it was betrothed to Hezbollah.
For the United Arab Emirates, the timing was linked to Israel suspending — temporarily — its move to annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank and likely receipt of the coveted F-35 fighter. Also, before the U.S elections in 2020, recognizing Israel was seen as an investment in President Donald Trump. If he lost, the thinking went, the new Democratic president could only bless the move.
However, the primary force driving the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and maybe later, Saudi Arabia, was to build an infrastructure of deterrence against their common adversaries and enemies in anticipation of the U.S. returning home.
These old friends of the U.S., along with Egypt, see themselves as a “moderate” force engaged in a region-wide struggle to blunt a Sunni “Islamist” bloc composed of Turkey, Qatar, and an assortment of radical Islamist parties antithetical to Western democracies. Simultaneously, they are engaged, along with Israel, in an epic struggle against a Shiite bloc led by Iran and its allies and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
However, the rulers of these countries understand that even though Trump, who has been shouting, “End the endless wars,” in the Middle East and South Asia, is bereft of any strategic understanding of that part of the world, his instinctive cry resonates with many Americans who have been exhausted and humbled by these wars that have exposed the limits of U.S. power. Also, the commitment of the U.S. to defend the energy resources of the Gulf region against foreign, mainly Soviet aggression articulated by the Carter Doctrine of 1980 is no longer valid. In recent years, the U.S. has become the largest producer of natural gas and petroleum in the world.
The U.S. will not end its military presence in the Arab Gulf states anytime soon, but clearly a massive presence is no longer needed, and the growing strategic challenges in East Asia are beckoning for more military resources to check a rising and irredentist China in the most important economic zone for the U.S. in the world.
The young rulers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, who are more assertive and reckless than their fathers, as demonstrated by the folly of blockading Qatar, the brutality visited on Yemen, and their quixotic attempts to play regional roles incommensurate with their demography and geography, understand the ramifications of these changing geostrategic conditions. To compensate for U.S. retrenchment, they are seeking new regional alignments that would give them greater freedom of action against their perceived enemies while learning how to live with a reluctant America that once battled Iran in the 1980s, then Iraq in subsequent decades, but is no longer willing to be dragged into new Middle Eastern follies.
Also, once-assumed U.S. protection of authoritarian Arab rulers has been severely tested and proven deficient. Ten years ago, some of the same rulers watched with dismay and anger the Obama administration abandon Arab despots who were supported for decades by the U.S., like Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who were swept away by the early, enthusiastic waves of Arab uprisings.
The political withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria and Libya, which began during the Obama administration, has led to more Russian military and diplomatic assertiveness in the two countries. Trump’s decision in 2019 to pull out U.S. forces from northern Syria paved the way for Turkish ground troops to occupy the area to crush the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which played a major role in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State group. The move was seen by many in the region and in Washington as an American betrayal of an ally and contributed to the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis.
In this scramble for control of the Middle East, there is a fascinating tale of two Arab city-states that, while not on par with the tragic tale of Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, is nonetheless unique in the modern history of the Arab world. Both Abu Dhabi and Doha, led by ambitious men, have been using their fabulous wealth in the well-established tradition of Phoenician, Greek, and Italian city-states, punching way above their weight. In the unequal Turkish-Qatari alliance, Qatar has been providing substantial financial assistance to Turkey’s battered economy, which Ankara uses to support its Islamist allies and mercenaries fighting in the Caucasus, Syria, and Libya. Qatar will continue its largesse toward its “strategic ally,” not only because it needs protective Turkish military muscle, which increased quickly following the economic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in 2017, but also to promote their shared Islamist agenda. For decades, Qatar has used its considerable multilingual digital and print media empire as a superspreader of toxic Islamist propaganda to tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world.
In recent years, the UAE has emerged as the Arab state most willing to project its military power from the Horn of Africa to Libya to blunt Turkish military expansion. Both Turkey and the UAE have military bases in Libya and are supporting the two main contenders for control of that country. The two countries have bases and proxies in Somalia. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. Special Forces from Somalia will heighten the conflict between the two countries and their proxies in the Horn of Africa. In a not-for-attribution conversation, a senior UAE official said that Turkey, given its NATO membership and extensive network of Sunni Islamist collaborators, “constitute a bigger threat to us than Iran,” then lamented the lukewarm Western reaction to Turkey’s depredations.
President Barack Obama, who derisively described the Arab Gulf states as “free riders” and called on them to assume more responsibilities in defending their interests, ended up supporting a devastating war in Yemen, which soon morphed into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the 21st century, with no end in sight. The war, waged mainly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, ostensibly to restore the pro-Saudi president of Yemen, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was ousted by the Iranian supported al-Houthi rebels, failed to achieve its military objectives, deepened Iran’s influence, and fractured Yemen to the point that makes its survival as a unitary state practically impossible. Obama wanted the acquiescence of the Arab Gulf states to the nuclear deal with Iran. Five years later, Trump gave the nod to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to occupy northern Syria to create new political and demographic facts on the ground. In both conflicts, the conventional armies relied on proxies and mercenaries. These two conflicts show clearly the folly of U.S. presidents relying on their local autocratic friends to take security matters into their own hands.
The harsh rulers in the region grew harsher in recent years or were replaced by claimants of warped visions of national salvation and grandeur who drove their countries ever deeper into darker provinces of repression and fear. These are the current trajectories of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt. Under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has veered irrevocably toward virulent forms of nationalism and religious chauvinism.
The Biden administration must sail carefully in the Middle East between the Scylla of crusading campaigns for democracy, like those waged by former President George W. Bush, and the Charybdis of hasty retreat, pursued by his three successors. The dilemma is easier stated than solved. But certainly, leaving the security of the Middle East in the hands of unaccountable autocrats and strongmen is not the answer. Hastily arranged, brittle constructs like the Abraham Accords, at best, bring together disparate actors bonded together by a common enemy, but the glue of that enmity may not necessarily endure. The success and longevity of the NATO alliance was mainly due to the shared political, legal, moral, and even cultural values of its members. Somehow, the descendants of Abraham in the Middle East are bereft of such a legacy.