Beirut, Lebanon, January, 2020 (Photo: Hiba Al Kallas via
The fallacy of great-power rivalry in the Middle East

The US can avoid its past mistakes by focusing on human rights, rather than countering Russia or China.

A little more than a month into the Biden administration, and it appears the specter of great-power rivalry will be the latest one-size-fits-all explainer to justify and direct U.S. policy across the Middle East. Whether it’s raising concern over Egypt’s potential procurement of fighter aircraft from Russia or the worry that Russia and China are vying for regional influence at the expense of U.S. interests, government officials appear primed to embark on a new Great Game. But Washington must beware the great-power rivalry trap. 

Washington’s Middle East policy has long been shaped by grand narratives. The Global War on Terror characterized religious observance and anti-Western sentiments as inherently dangerous. The hyperfocus on sectarian identity viewed all regional dynamics through the lens of Sunni versus Shiite and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The great-game narrative is just the latest iteration of these earlier grand policy visions, erasing the region’s internal dynamics and reducing its people to walking stereotypes or pawns of more powerful actors and trends. 

In 2021, the Middle East faces another crucial inflection point as flagging economies, the coronavirus pandemic, and lack of good governance have inspired calls for structural changes across the region. Protests from Algeria and Sudan to Lebanon and Iraq have been steadily building over the last two years, in what some have dubbed Arab Spring 2.0, but the shocks of COVID-19 have laid societal inequalities and government ineptness unusually bare. With the devastation of the pandemic and rising authoritarianism around the globe, the stakes are higher, and the costs of failing greater. 

The United States missed crucial opportunities during the last few administrations to offer a coherent policy break from its decades-long alliance with negligent, corrupt, and autocratic governments, many of which Washington continues to support. The United States must dispense with the ideological baggage that has led to a misreading of regional dynamics. 

Local actors challenging governments in Iraq and across the Gulf are not simply Iranian lackeys because of their Shiite affiliation; nor are those forces with actual ties to Iran (either financially or militarily) simply following Iranian marching orders. Islamist political organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are not predisposed to violently overthrow the state or innately unwilling to work within the framework of democracy. Washington’s subscription to such grand narratives of the “Iranian bogeyman” and “bad Muslim” facilitated, among other things, acceptance of Saudi military intervention during Bahrain’s Arab Spring, logistical and intelligence support for the unconscionable bombing of Yemen, and a shrug of the shoulders when Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Morsi, was removed from office by a military coup. 

Rather than formulating a Middle East strategy around countering Russia or neutralizing China, the administration could avoid past mistakes by crafting policies focused on the rights, struggles, and well-being of the people who actually live in the region. 

The United States must consistently call out human rights abuses by its regional partners and move beyond its transactional “arms for security” formula, which has been the bedrock of U.S. regional security of the last half-century, not just during the Trump administration. The United States needs to reassess its “special” relationship with Saudi Arabia, re-evaluate its arms sales to Egypt, and the UAE, and reprimand all three countries for their repression at home and destabilizing activities abroad, whether backing military forces in Sudan and Libya or attempting to undermine democratic movements in North Africa. Instead of underwriting the autocratic activities of these countries and others, Washington should invest its energy in forging partnerships with civic groups and people. It must not allow its concerns that Russia or China would step in to supply arms as a justification to continue its own arms deals to known human rights violators. Rather than let global rivals and regional partners embroiled in proxy conflicts divide the region into teams, the United States must utilize the linguistic and cultural knowledge of its diplomats and country experts to understand the complexity and uniqueness of each conflict across the region.

This also means taking the aspirations and civic movements seriously on their own terms. Washington must listen to justified complaints about corruption, bad governance, and repression, and recognize that demands for representational government are universal. It also means not reducing grassroots movements to the international backers that might finance or support them. Conflicts like Yemen and Syria are not simply opportunities for the region’s most militarized regimes to fight out their rivalry with U.S. backing, but they are also the  outgrowth of citizens demanding, often at great personal risk, the removal of incredibly corrupt and oppressive rulers. Protracted wars fueled by outside actors only further punish their aspirations and struggles for a more equitable future. 

The Middle East is more than just a battleground where great powers vie for global domination. It’s a dynamic region whose people warrant the consideration and respect of global powers and deserve the rights and freedoms enjoyed elsewhere.  The United States must not fall prey to the trap of a great-power rivalry at the expense of supporting peoples’ aspirations for greater stability and freedoms.

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