This article has been adapted from remarks delivered to the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.
The Middle East is where Africa, Asia, and Europe meet, where the three Abrahamic religions were born, and where their holiest places are. It’s where the planet’s hydrocarbon resources are most abundant and accessible, and where the strategic lines of communication that connect Asia to Europe can most easily be severed. Not surprisingly, the region has been a major focus of great power contention and military intervention. But that is now changing. After centuries of domination by foreigners – most recently by the United States – the Middle East is now being reshaped primarily by interactions between countries within it.
Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt marked the opening round of a traumatic Western assault on the West Asian and North African heartland of Islamic civilization. As in other proud cultures also brought low by European imperialism like China and India, much of the Middle East’s political dynamics are now driven by nationalist reactions to the indignities of a humiliating encounter with the West. But while China and India, like Japan before them, are recovering their self-confidence, the Middle East has yet to find a cure for its post-colonial hangover.
There is broad agreement in the region that such a cure lies in some sort of revamp of Islamic traditions and patterns of governance. But Islam is as schismatic as Judaism and Christianity, and there is no consensus about what Islamic governance should be. Are the values and policies of Muslim societies to be defined and enforced by the consultative practices of shura, by a virtuous emir acting in concert with an `ulama, or by a religious scholar acting under wilayat al-faqih? If parliamentary democracy is adopted, is there a role for Islamist versions of the Christian Democratic parties of Europe? If Islam is the answer, will it be the same in both Shia and Sunni societies? If Islam is not the answer, is the secular militarism of countries like Egypt a viable substitute?
The Middle East is a region divided more than most by the geopolitical calculations of assertive nation states, diverse religious traditions, discordant levels of tolerance, contrasting systems of governance, uneven endowments of natural resources and wealth, differing levels of technological competence, and distinctive historical experiences. Is such a region capable of crafting the peaceable order it needs to regain its lost civilizational pride and cultural eminence? How will the contests between religiosity and secularism, autocratic traditions and democratic aspirations, rentier and knowledge-based political economies, patriarchy and feminism, and Salafism and more relaxed forms of Islam turn out? Where will the rivalries between the Gulf Arabs and Iran, Israel, Iran, and Turkey, or Israel, the Palestinians, and other Arabs take the region? The Middle East kaleidoscope has yet to stop turning.
That kaleidoscope got a good thump in 1948 when European Jewish settlers in British-controlled Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel in previously Arab lands. Their violent takeover there catalyzed the 1952 coup d’état by the “Free Officers Movement” in Egypt. The Egyptian putsch was the first of a series of revolutionary overthrows of oligarchic Western-aligned Arab regimes by military officers backed by radicalized members of the lower middle classes. Analogous coups took place in Iraq in 1958, in Syria in 1963, and in Libya in 1969. The 1980 “Islamic Revolution” in Iran, though carried out by clerics rather than military officers, similarly overthrew a government imposed and sustained by Western powers. It replaced this with a theocratically guided democracy hostile to the United States. Despite Western misinterpretations of the Arab uprisings of 2011 as aimed at installing European forms of democracy, they too reflected aspirations for a repudiation of neo-colonialism and the reassertion of Islamic identity.
The Middle East is struggling to make Islamic civilization great again. The Muslim peoples of the region have not yet found the way forward, but it is folly to assume they will not. The new world disorder has largely freed the Middle East from the ideological intrusions and military interventions of great powers. Key actors in the region – Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – are increasingly distant from their former great-power patrons, whose interests and values often no longer accord with theirs. And they are diversifying their international relationships to hedge against and take advantage of shifts in the global balances of economic, political, and military power.
Europe, once the homeland of predatory imperial powers, now lacks ambitions beyond its borders. Phenomena like “Brexit” suggest that, far from uniting to project power, Europe will remain sidelined by preoccupation with its internal contradictions. Russia and Turkey have abandoned centuries of effort to adopt European identities. Turkey is reclaiming connections to the Middle East it repudiated more than a century ago. Russia has resumed an independent and singularly adroit diplomatic role in the region. Saudi Arabia has joined Israel and the UAE in opposing any U.S. or other rapprochement with Iran. Together, the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati triumvirate seeks to sabotage the Biden administration’s efforts to resurrect the 2015 multinational agreement that constrained Iran’s nuclear program until the Trump administration abandoned and abrogated it.
The rise of China and the resurgence of Russia have coincided with socioeconomic decay in a politically paralyzed, fiscally weakened, but more assertively nationalist America. The United States has responded to the unmistakable decline in its power and appeal by proclaiming a dedication to “great power rivalry” and acting on this premise by adopting confrontational policies toward both China and Russia. Military tensions between the United States and China have risen to levels last seen in the 1950s, while those with Russia are greater than at any time since the early 1980s. But the focus of the new “great power rivalry” is, notably, not the Middle East but elsewhere – in Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait.
This shift in focus – particularly that to Asia – has lessened American attention to the Middle East. So has aversion to greater involvement in the region born of failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Syria. But there are objective reasons as well. Persian Gulf energy supplies remain essential to global prosperity, but the American economy no longer directly depends on them. Fracking has made the United States the de facto swing producer in the global oil and gas market. Americans now show little interest in any prosperity other than their own. As a result, few abroad still see the United States as a reliable guardian of global access to Middle Eastern energy supplies or a dependable guarantor of the region’s political stability.
The primary mission of the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf and Arabian Sea was once to protect global access to the region’s energy supplies. Now it is to target Iran. The failure of American military intervention in Afghanistan to overpower Islamist resistance and the catastrophic results of U.S. intervention in Iraq have devalued American military protection for the countries of the region. The Biden administration’s decision to call it a day in Afghanistan is taken as confirmation of an ongoing American retreat.
The fate of the late Egyptian strongman, Hosni Mubarak, and the inability of the United States to protect the Sunni rulers of Shiite-majority Bahrain had earlier convinced rulers who once saw the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of their hold on power that they could no longer count on Washington to back them. In response, they began to dilute their dependence on America and have set about forging new political, economic, and military relationships with other great powers, including China, the disunited states of Europe, India, Russia, and Turkey.
The United States is the only external power capable of projecting decisive military power to the Middle East. Nevertheless, the main security partners of the United States in the Middle East have ceased to follow the U.S. lead on a widening list of issues. Iran has no relations with the United States other than antagonism. Many Americans are outraged by highly visible violations of human rights by both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Relations with Egypt are troubled by similar issues. The United States and Turkey are geopolitically estranged.
As Washington steps back from the Middle East mentally, politically, economically, and militarily, the countries of the region are belatedly stepping forward to settle their disputes on their own, including trying to set aside confrontations that American policies had long enabled them to dismiss as intractable. As American backing recedes, they recognize that they must take political risks to protect their interests. They are increasingly doing so without coordinating with the United States or any other great power outside their region.
So, we are seeing a significant reconfiguration of relationships in the region. The so-called “Abraham accords” are one example. These were touted by the Trump administration as a demonstration of American diplomatic clout but were facilitated by the perceived ebb of U.S. power and influence. Rather than affirming a role for the United States as middleman between Arab states and Israel, they dispensed with it.. Then, there is the example of Saudi Arabia’s reconciliation with Qatar, with the UAE trailing behind. Egypt may be waking from the diplomatic coma its internal convulsions threw it into over the past decade. Cairo now seems to be trying to forge ties with Iraq to provide it with an alternative to dependence on Iran. Iraq is involved in brokering talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Jordan is looking to Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia for support against an Israel no longer held in check by the United States. Turkey now has military presences in Qatar flanking Saudi Arabia, and in Sudan, flanking Egypt as well as the Kingdom. There is a lot going on in the Middle East.
Countries in the region take the long-anticipated U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as confirmation that they need to wean themselves from reliance on the United States or other external great powers for their security. Most now appear to use their ties to external patrons as a temporary aid to their transition to independent foreign policies grounded in self-interested Realpolitik.
For its part, the United States remains entangled in the stratagems of regional powers with only tangential or expedient connections to great power rivalries. The willingness of the UAE and Bahrain to establish overt relations with Israel reflected their recognition that Israel commands the allegiance of all but a few American politicians and can provide an effective hedge against reduced backing by the U.S. against Iran. Some Israeli military equipment is state of-the art and can provide an alternative to purchases from the United States. Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians has led to its development of the world’s most advanced tools and techniques for operating a police state. For all these reasons, Israel’s political protection and equipment have now found a ready market among the Gulf Arabs.
Large majorities of the public in both the UAE and Bahrain are still deeply wounded by Israel’s maltreatment of its captive Arab populations. But both governments saw the potential benefits of securing support from the U.S. Israel Lobby and judged these benefits to outweigh the domestic political risks of dealing openly with the Zionist state. By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have for now reached a contrary conclusion.
The Trump administration sweetened the UAE opening to Israel with F-35 fighter jets and other arms sales. It paid Morocco for more visible ties to Israel by breaking with the international community and unilaterally recognizing Moroccan sovereignty in the disputed Western Sahara. It purchased Sudanese diplomatic recognition of Israel with a combination of sanctions relief and development aid.
The Arab states who agreed to détente with Israel did so cynically in response to momentary rather than long-lasting political concerns. The durability of the “Abraham accords” is far from assured. They give Israel an opening to come to be seen as a natural part of the region, rather than as a neo-colonial European implant in it. But – as recent events illustrate – Israel’s continuing highly visible abuse of the Arabs over whom it rules makes it morally repugnant even to those who have no fondness for Palestinians. Some of this taint has spilled over onto the United States, ending any possibility of American mediation between Israel and its enemies.
Unconditional American support has long relieved Israelis of any pressure to make choices about how to secure their future. But U.S. and Israeli policies on regional issues are no longer congruent. Approval of Israel among both Jews and previously sympathetic gentiles in the United States and Europe is rapidly waning, as is the ability of the United States to exempt Israel from international law and the judgments of those offended by its behavior.
Judaism is a religion of universal human ethics with a particular emphasis on the pursuit of justice. In the view of an increasing number of American and European Jews, Zionism has become Judaism’s nationalist negation – an overtly racist ideology whose unconscionable injustices offend rather than affirm the values of Jewish tradition. Some religious Jews condemn allegiance to the state of Israel and its symbols as a form of idolatry and, as such, as an offense against the uncompromising monotheism that is the central tenet of Judaism.
Zionism has now succeeded in making a two-state solution impossible. Under it, Israel rules over four categories of subjects:
. Jewish citizens who are full participants in Israel’s fractious democracy.
· Arab citizens who are politically marginalized and discriminated against.
· Arabs whom Israeli policies have made stateless and disenfranchised and who live under the tyranny of democratically directed military occupation; and
· the inhabitants of Gaza, mostly refugees from the rest of Palestine, whom Israel besieges and subjects to brutal military campaigns intended to terrorize and cull opponents.
This Israeli system is often compared to apartheid. It is in many ways crueler. Like apartheid, it is gradually generating an internationally supported struggle for the human and civil rights of those it oppresses. In this connection, it is not irrelevant that “people of color” are finally beginning to play a role in American politics commensurate with their numbers and turnout at the polls. They know racism when they see it. And what they see in Israel is an endless series of appalling examples of it.
Today’s Israel can no longer credibly claim to share the values or moral aspirations of Americans or Europeans. If Israel does not return to Western norms, it will, in time, find itself as estranged from the West as it already is from most of the rest of the world. Having been created by Zionism, Israel is now faced with the need to transcend it.
Perhaps, as has been the case in some Arab states, growing uncertainty about continued American backing will encourage Israel to recognize that its long-term survival depends on taking risks for peace. Anyone who cares about the future of Israel should hope so. In the meantime, few countries seem inclined to follow the example of the United States in rewarding Israeli diplomatic deceit, intransigence, and militarism by moving their embassies to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli territorial annexations that have long been judged to violate international law, or continuing to turn a blind eye to either Palestinian suffering or Israel’s violations of its neighbors’ sovereignty.
Saudi Arabia faces even greater challenges than Israel. After the 1980 Islamic revolution in Iran, US-Saudi Arabian relations became as central to the U.S. role in the Middle East as those with Israel. But the 21st century has taken a huge toll on Saudi Arabia’s relationships with both the United States and its neighbors. The basic bargain on which Saudi-American relations were built was the Saudi offer of preferential access to oil in return for protection of the Kingdom’s security. This contract has now been overtaken by events and changes in attitudes on both sides. The once mutually supportive US-Saudi relationship has been reduced to transactionalism.
Al Qaeda’s 9/11/2001 attacks on the United States were part of its effort to overthrow the Saudi monarchy by forcing an end to American support for it. To this end, the attacks’ planners made sure that Saudi nationals outnumbered the other fanatics taking part in them. Their assaults on New York and Washington succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
9/11 entrenched Islamophobia in American politics and produced an unendingly counterproductive “global war on terrorism” that has added immeasurably to the ranks of anti-American Muslim terrorists with global reach. Such terrorists continue to try to finish off the US-Saudi partnership. The only programs of cooperation with any current public support in either the United States or Saudi Arabia are those aimed at thwarting further terrorist attacks on either or both.
In 2003. American regime-change operations insouciantly removed Iraq as a balancer of Iran, destroying the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and enabling the Islamic Republic of Iran to entrench its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen. Iranian inroads have put Saudi Arabia on the defensive against what it sees as an effort to encircle it. When Iranian-encouraged unrest broke out in Bahrain, Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces felt they had no alternative but to garrison it.
The Saudi attempt to overthrow the Iranian-supported Asad government in Syria – like the parallel attempts of Israel, Turkey, the United States, and others – helped destroy Syria as an organized society but failed to oust Asad. The main result to date of the futile but devastating Saudi war on Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen has been to further tarnish the Kingdom’s international reputation.
The Emirati and Saudi effort to force Qatar to align with them against Iran weakened the GCC without altering Qatar’s warily cooperative relationship with Iran. Saudi efforts to counter Iran in Lebanon and Iraq have so far come to naught.
Saudi officials acting on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) carried out the despicable murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, making “MBS” persona non grata in America and the rest of the West. Saudi Arabia now looks to China, India, and Russia to offset declining American support as it engages in self-strengthening.
The irony is that the very ruthlessness that got “MBS” and the Kingdom into trouble abroad has enabled long overdue reforms at home. These reforms have made “MBS” popular among Saudi youth. Many of them have rightly earned Western applause. The freedoms of the Kingdom’s women have rapidly expanded, though admittedly less speedily than feminism has consolidated its dominance of contemporary Western norms. Movies and musical performances are no longer banned. The more recalcitrant elements of the Saudi religious establishment have been silenced, facilitating still further reform and opening as well as increased efforts to combat political Islam.
The economy is being restructured to expand Saudi employment and industry. Relatively low-yielding state-owned assets are being privatized. Saudi Aramco’s value is being leveraged to promote the further modernization of the Kingdom. The long-heralded transition to a knowledge- rather than oil-based economy is now finally underway.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is responding to its foreign policy setbacks by striking out on its own. Some of its initiatives coincide with American and Israeli policies, but others don’t. The Kingdom has begun a barely concealed dialogue with both Israel and Iran. It now appears to be seeking rapprochement with Asad and renewed cooperation with Syria to balance Iranian influence in Lebanon. And, while Saudi Arabia remains opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and at odds with Turkey on the desirability of democratic Islamism, there too it appears to be seeking a measure of détente.
With belated diplomatic support from the United States, Saudi Arabia is striving to extricate itself from its failed intervention in Yemen. But its withdrawal from that war is hostage to the Houthi determination to see the Kingdom humiliated.
Saudi Arabia has undeniably lost its centrality in U.S. Persian Gulf policy and has in many ways been replaced in that role by the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has an openness and dynamism that the Kingdom cannot match. It is a notably pious but remarkably tolerant Muslim society whose federal structure institutionalizes social and economic diversity. The UAE has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the largest U.S. export market in West Asia and North Africa. Emirati forces embody the Arab warrior spirit. This has made them a preferred companion to U.S. troops on the battlefield and consequential, autonomous actors in places as far away from the Emirates as Libya.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s pragmatic step back from the wars in Syria and Yemen and its willingness to reveal its longstanding clandestine ties to Israel have earned it a reputation for the astute, independent management of its foreign affairs. Although it has grown closer to the United States, the UAE’s relations with China, India, and Russia have also improved. Like its GCC rival, Qatar, the UAE seeks to buttress its independence by cultivating cordial relations with the widest possible range of great powers. Unlike Qatar, however, it does not seek to position itself diplomatically between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE came together over concerns about Iran. But their anxieties are not the same. Israel fears losing its regional nuclear weapons monopoly. Saudi Arabia feels threatened by Iran’s political paramountcy in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, its encouragement of Shiite agitation for power in Bahrain, and its support of the Houthi challenge to Saudi dominance of Yemen. The UAE shares some Saudi concerns but also disputes Iranian possession of islands that sit astride the strategic passage from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea: Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb.
Arab apprehensions about Iran derive as much from history as from developments since the 1980 Islamic Revolution. A succession of Persian empires has from time to time dominated the Arab side as well as the Iranian side of the Gulf. Iran is Shiite and hence labeled as heterodox as well as non-Arab.
The countries of the region have no fond memories of the Shah as America’s anointed regional “gendarme” or of Israel’s collaboration with Iran against Arab interests during the Cold War. The GCC was formed to counter the export of both Shiism and the theocratically guided democracy that followed the Shah’s overthrow. The end of the Cold War eliminated strategic opposition to the Soviet Union as a justification for US-Israel as well as US-Saudi cooperation. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a credible enemy of Israel, but Iraq’s attempted annexation of Kuwait led to its devastation by U.S. and Saudi-led coalitions in 1991, as the Cold War ended. In this unique context, the newly belligerent Islamic Republic was a handy cure for Israel’s “enemy deprivation syndrome.” Shared hostility to Iran had the added advantage of providing a plausible rationale for continued American strategic support of Israel.
For its part, Iran saw the US-dominated order in the Middle East, including America’s unwavering support for an aggressive Israel, as anti-Muslim and unjust. Iran resents the past interventions of the United States in its politics. It finds the Palestinian cause both a compelling and useful means of making common cause with Israel’s and America’s enemies. Pride in Iranian culture and resentment of victimization by a succession of great powers motivate fierce Iranian resistance to foreign dictation, domination, or apparent challenges to national identity. Iran is a very prickly antagonist. Given respect, Tehran has a millennial tradition of prudent statecraft on which to draw. But American policies of maximum pressure and minimal respect have left no opening for non-military solutions to security problems.
Iran has shown remarkable forbearance in the face of frequent Israeli and American threats to bomb it, the assassination of its senior officials, and blatant foreign support for the regime change aspirations of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian fascist movement. Bellicose challenges to the Iranian revolution would seem amply to justify its development of a nuclear deterrent. Iran does have a nuclear program, which it inherited from the Shah. But the Islamic Republic has repeatedly condemned nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction as immoral. So far there is no proof that it is following Israel in clandestinely building such a deterrent.
Iran has aggressively expanded its regional influence by filling the political vacuums created by botched American efforts at regime change in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. expansion of the “Global War on Terrorism” to nearly every corner of the Muslim world has also benefitted Iran, though not as much as Sunni extremists. Iran’s clients have come to include the government in Syria, militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, sympathizers in Bahrain, and the beleaguered Sunni Islamist democrats of Hamas in Gaza. Iranian inroads menace Israel and challenge its Sunni Arab neighbors. But, like other regional actors, Iran is no longer focused so much on great power rivalries for hegemony in the Middle East as it is on interactions with other states and peoples in its own region, including its traditional rival, Turkey.
During the uniquely bipolar world order of the Cold War, it was possible to analyze the Middle East in terms of the alignment of its constituent states with one or the other superpower. No analytical construct this overarching or simple now works. Every nation in the region is transparently out for itself, rather than an external patron. This has provided an opening for Moscow to play a renewed role in the region, this time as a skilled diplomatic convenor and facilitator of regional efforts to lower tensions and resolve disputes. Beijing too has begun to offer its services as a conciliator, though so far without notable results.
The reappearance of Russia and increased Chinese engagement in regional diplomacy does not make the Middle East an arena of the “great power rivalry” that American militarists insist should define current affairs. The Middle East’s bilateral contests and diplomatic dynamics are now generated in the region itself. The Pax Americana is receding into history, along with the era when any external great power could supervise interactions between Arabs, Iranians, Israelis, Kurds, and Turks. The Middle East is now nobody’s sphere of influence but its own.