As delegations from Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates gather in Washington to sign their U.S.-brokered deals, supporters of greater restraint in U.S. foreign policy should be cheering; indeed, we should hope more deals like this follow. Why? U.S. interests in the Middle East are best served by balance among the region’s competing blocs, with no side dominating. The Gulf-Israel bloc is one player in such a balance yet it has lacked the open political coherence of other blocs. Greater coherence will reduce this bloc’s need for U.S. assistance and enable a U.S. military drawdown.
Any serious discussion of U.S. policy in the Middle East today must begin by acknowledging how narrow our interests there are. There are two pathways by which events in the Middle East might cause serious harm here at home. First, radical groups nurtured in the region might conduct attacks in the United States. Second, wars and crises in the region might cause a lasting disruption in the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf, crashing the global economy and driving up prices in the United States. The latter is most likely to occur if one state dominates the Gulf — i.e. if the regional balance collapses. This is unlikely, but a UAE-Israeli friendship further reduces the danger. A strong Gulf-Israel bloc will hinder Iranian gains with little direct U.S. involvement.
The powers indigenous to today’s Middle East are arrayed with three broad blocs. The one that gets the most talk in Washington is that led by Iran, which aligns with Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and several militias in Iraq. Next, Turkey and Qatar; finally, Israel and three of the Gulf monarchies — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. The blocs compete through propaganda, political maneuvering, and in places like Yemen, Libya, and Syria, proxy warfare. For the United States, the most relevant competition is between the Iranian and Gulf-Israeli blocs, as these are the strongest players in the Persian Gulf.
Each bloc brings its own strengths and weaknesses to the competition. Traditionally, powerful states are those that combine a large, coherent population and a large, advanced economy — the building blocks of military power.
As I, along with Geoffrey Kemp and Adam Lammon, observed in 2018, the Iranian bloc has the edge in population, while the Gulf states and the Israelis are on top in economic power. The latter group also has far better military technology (though only the Israelis command a reputation for effectively wielding it).
Indeed, the Iranian threats that create the most worry in Washington — terrorism, proxy forces, and ballistic missiles — reflect Iran’s military weakness. Tehran cannot create enough conventional power to compete, and none of these tools is much use in seizing and holding territory over the objections of a capable state enemy.
Yet we should not understate Iran’s power. Unlike the Emiratis and the Saudis, Iran has thousands of years of history as a unified state in much the same territory it holds today. Iran also has a history of empire, although that empire usually pushed to the east and west, not the south. In other words, prior Iranian states have used their solid geopolitical foundation as a base for expansion. Combine this with the long-bitter relations between America and the current Iranian state, and we reasonably hope for constraints on Iranian power.
This is where the Gulf-Israeli bloc comes in. As powers indigenous to the Middle East, they have even stronger incentives than the United States for avoiding Iranian hegemony. Yet they have little history of open cooperation — their romance is a young one. The Arab side faces internal political pressure against alignment with Israel, and poor coordination is a dangerous weakness in balancing coalitions — witness, for example, the British worries about interwar France that hindered military cooperation until late in the game. A collection of relatively small states will need all the cohesion it can get, especially when the rival Iranian camp is centered on a single strong state.
The Emirates have been engaged in a slow normalization with Israel for years, emphasis on the “slow.” Consider Israel’s ties to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Germany and Abu Dhabi were contenders to host the organization’s headquarters as the site was being selected in early 2009; Israel broke with its friend Germany to back the Emirati bid on the condition that they’d be allowed to post a diplomat in Abu Dhabi. Yet the diplomatic mission didn’t actually open until late 2015, and there were still statements from both sides that it was solely a mission to IRENA, not to the UAE.
Cooperation has preceded into more sensitive areas — witness the Israeli government facilitating Gulf state partnerships with the controversial electronic surveillance firm NSO Group. But American diplomacy sped Israeli-Emirati courtship. A U.S.-initiated February 2019 meeting in Warsaw and a secret June 2019 trilateral in Washington were crucial, at least as U.S. officials tell it. The trick for Washington will be to remove the U.S. scaffolding from the UAE-Israel pairing without causing its collapse.
Critics of the deal have made several arguments against it. The Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi correctly points out that the United Arab Emirates behaves as though the Muslim Brotherhood is its main threat, not Iran, and it may be the case that the UAE wishes to use the deal to keep America in the Middle East by hyping the Iran threat. But whatever the Emiratis intend, by strengthening the Gulf-Israel bloc, they are undermining the case for U.S. presence. Capable local states that work well together do not need our help.
Quincy’s Annelle Sheline observes that some of the cheering for the deal stemmed from a misperception that UAE-Israel rapprochement is a step as big as the Egyptian-Israeli or Jordanian-Israeli deals, even though the newest of the three “merely made public a bilateral relationship that already existed behind the scenes.” Sheline further warns that an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank could yield a revolt in the UAE, and that support for the Palestinians remains high among Arab publics.
A revolt in the Emirates would be bad news for the United States. To take Sheline’s argument a step further, Arab states reconciling with Israel against the wishes of their publics could feed the extremist narrative that local governments are mere pawns of outside interests. Yet extremism seems to have little to offer Emiratis — very few joined ISIS, for example, and one of the two Emirati 9/11 hijackers appears to have been radicalized in Germany, not at home. Revolt, too, may not be popular — Arab Spring activity, for example, was minimal in the UAE. If negative public opinion toward Arab-Israeli rapprochement does not lead to anti-U.S. terror, severe internal crises in the region’s main players, or underbalancing against Iran, it need not be a central concern of U.S. Middle East policy.
The United States needs to reduce its presence in the Middle East. Partnerships among local players can help prevent regional imbalances of power and smooth the transition to a Gulf that is secure and stable without Americans doing the securing. Supporters of strategic restraint should take heart that arrangements like the UAE-Israel deal can be a step towards less U.S. entanglement in the Middle East.