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Summary: this article is about the current socio-political landscape of the Middle East and the role of the United States, now and in the near future. It is more analytical, with ramifications in culture and history than a policy paper. However, it contains an assessment and a prognostic element: changes in the Orient are, in most cases, slow and protracted; the U.S. presence is waning but too much water will flow under the bridges until its exit will be a deal done.

Today, many ponder this crucial query: Does the current global transformational dynamic herald the beginning of a new age for the Middle East? Is the United States withdrawing and are new players, such as China and Russia, stepping in? What might a new Middle East look like?

Let’s start with the current American presence in the Middle East. It began with a fable: a meeting between the ailing first monarch and founder of the third Saudi state, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (who reigned from the establishment of the kingdom in 1932 until his death in 1953), and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The meeting took place on the USS Quincy military ship in the Suez Canal in the spring of 1945. At that moment, FDR was returning from the historical meeting in Yalta with Stalin and Churchill where they charted the future of the post-WWII world. The world was in the throes of an emerging new global order. So was the Middle East.

Many historians, such as Michael Oren, stress that the Roosevelt–Ibn Saud meeting was a landmark in America’s ascent in the Middle East that gave leeway to Pax Americana regional hegemony. The then U.S. ambassador in Jedda, William Eddy, who happened to translate at the meeting, estimated that America could secure “the friendship, the goodwill, and the resources of the three hundred million Muslims” and safeguard the “most precious pearl” of the Middle East. But this pearl, unlike the diamonds that are forever, could be lost or dropped from the crown of Uncle Sam’s empire at a certain moment in the future. Has this time come now?

From antiquity, it is known that panta rei: nothing stays perpetual in this world, and the U.S. dominance in the Middle East makes no exception. Moments of heyday are followed by moments of decline. Thus, an Arab Andalusian poet, Abu al-Baqa’ al-Randi lamented the fall of Seville to Christian Castile in the 13th century after five hundred years of being under Muslim rule:[i]

Everything declines after reaching perfection
No man must be beguiled by a sweet recollection
These are the things of the world that many states witnessed
Whoever was blissed by a single moment
Times thereafter brought him calamities to foment

Such a state of play is barely surprising. For three consecutive American presidents: Barak Obama, Donald Trump, and Joseph Biden, the pending issue of how to decrease the burden of American engagements in the Middle East, especially those in Afghanistan and Iraq, was conspicuous at the White House, on the Hill or in Foggy Bottom. F. Gregory Gause III, a leading American scholar on US-Gulf monarchies relations, gave a sober but optimistic assessment back in 2019 under the title, Should We Stay or Should We Go? The United States and the Middle East. Although in need of recalibration, the American presence in the Middle East was viewed as essential since it was yielding important benefits in terms of regional and global influence. The advice given: it should keep on going, to enable Uncle Sam to rock many fewer casbahs in the Middle East, if needed.

Alas, rocking those casbahs in the Middle East (lyrics and music by the eponymous 1982 song of The Clash, a new wave and punk band) rocked, by the end of the day, the very foundations of “The Shining City on the Hill”, but that’s another story. In the aftermath of President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, F. Gregory Gause III again reassured,

“The Saudi leadership’s fear of American ‘withdrawal’ from the Middle East is exaggerated, given the continuing U.S. military and political presence in the region, but the feelings are real.”[ii]

The reality, however, turned out to be different. On March 10 of this year, the Saudis’ reservations about the United States became apparent. Washington woke up to a new reality. Remarkably, Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to mend fences with one another. In an unusual mediation effort, China managed to bring the two bitter regional rivals under one tent. Iraq and Oman were also instrumental in this mediation effort. After years of harsh rivalry and diplomatic severance as of 2016, Riyadh and Teheran agreed to shake hands in China’s capital rather than on the lawn in front of the White House (for Iran, it would be surreal given their long-standing strained relations with the U.S.). This time it was in the capital of the Celestial Empire.

Without much fanfare, China moved swiftly to assure that the two embittered rivals could embrace each other carefully while putting most of their eggs into the Beijing basket. The message was unequivocal: have trust in us, not only as a trade partner (China happens to be the main economic partner for Saudi Arabia and Iran) but also as a political broker with a trustworthy guarantor, President Xi Jinping. In fact, Xi did the heavy lifting in person. He was the one who reached a mutual understanding through mediation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a state visit to Riyadh in December 2022 and with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing as of February 2023. So, the Chinese president deservedly obtained the stature of the “Great Helmsman” (a nickname given to Mao Zedong because he was steering the “states’ ship”).

As for the U.S., they were watching on the sidelines with a bitter taste in their mouth, reminded of the New Testament wisdom: “All have turned away; all have become useless” (Romans 3:12). Surprise, surprise, a voice whispered in their ears: panta rei is the name of the game, for the Middle East as well. After the initial shake, things turned out not to be quite as dramatic upon a second round of evaluation. America is not in peril; “Titanic” is not sinking; Uncle Sam still has the upper hand in the Middle East. The fact of the matter is that everything is transformational in this region, but the intensity of the change is also relative to a certain degree. The shifting Oriental sands—a favorite metaphor of so many occidental scholars—always preserve a twofold dimension: nothing is absolute, and no one is omnipresent.

One might reasonably ask, was this deal for Beijing a small step for man (his name is President Xi), or a giant leap for China’s rivalry with Washington? As Peter Baker with the New York Times estimates, “President Biden’s White House has publicly welcomed the re-establishment of diplomatic relations…. Privately, Mr. Biden’s aides suggested too much was being made of the breakthrough, scoffing at suggestions that it indicated any erosion in American influence in the region.” Alas, the new development was conspicuous and self-evident, so everyone started to ask about American decline in the Middle East. It was the small white elephant in the room, regardless of all conciliatory interpretations.

The main unknown here is not that the U.S. presence will literally evaporate from the Middle Eastern map. It won’t. Unlike China, America has a well-built net of military bases on the ground, such as Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Al-Dhafra Air Base in the UAE, or on the sea, such as the Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain. Many others of smaller size are dispersed in other Middle Eastern countries—even in hostile Syria, there is the Al-Tanf garrison. The military-security network is still there, intact. In spite of that, the problem is a bit different, one of vision and strategic horizon. The U.S. master plan still under consideration for the future of the Middle East concerns Israel and the Gulf monarchies, apart from Egypt and Jordan. It envisages an edifice of a political-military regional block based on intense economic cooperation. Such a block should withstand Iranian expansion and curb its hegemonic aspirations by downsizing it (not to cram it into the box, as Netanyahu repeatedly used to say) to its natural dimension of the Persian-speaking domain. Visions, alas, often turn out to be mirages in the Orient.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, President Biden urged the Saudi hosts and Gulf Cooperation members to cobble together a coalition with Israel—through the Negev Forum for regional cooperation and its working groups, as well as through the Integrated Air and Missile Defense and Maritime Security patronized by the Pentagon. This came as a common vision for deterring the most pressing air, missile, and maritime threats to regional security and stability. The strategic objective of this two-pronged approach was far-sighted: to contain and isolate Iran and to pave the way for Saudi-Israeli reconciliation with a desirable establishment of diplomatic relations. It was hoped that these instruments would provide a new tract for the Middle East to propel ahead and ensure recalibrated American presence. Hence, to guarantee a leading U.S. role again in the region. However, when Iran and Saudi Arabia buried the hatchet with Chinese midwifery, Washington woke up to a new reality. America turned out not to be the only game in town.

Meanwhile, there are other tough nuts to crack to realize these American aspirations. The mindset and stance of the Middle Eastern nations toward Russian aggression in Ukraine are yet obscure in the equation. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council essentially see the situation in Ukraine as a complicated European conflict that does not call for the Arab states to confront Vladimir Putin. “Most of the developing world in Asia and Africa, including the Middle East, has not viewed the Ukraine war as the kind of definitive, transformational moment in international relations that the West does,” states Hussein Ibish, an authoritative scholar and journalist of Lebanese origin. [iii] Furthermore, it is paradoxical that after decades of ignoring Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, Western nations are now appealing to the Arab world to support Ukraine because of its occupied lands. Behind such a zeal to ardently support Ukraine and still neglect the plight of the Palestinians, Arabs see a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” mentality.

Even so, many Arabs view Putin as the hero who rescued his nation from the chaos of the Western-planned transition. They have such, almost mythical, figures in modern history, such as the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. These narratives claim that the same Western politicians or those who took over from them tried to splinter the Arab world in 2011. Putin, in these narratives, withstood all odds and vindicated the impoverished and defenseless Russian people, as is projected in the Arab common mind.

The steep rise in food costs makes the recovery of some of the faltering Middle Eastern economies (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and others) even more difficult. This may be the toughest issue for some Arab countries in the region. Still, the bread riots in countries like Egypt and Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s are a public reality susceptible to repetition.

The fact of the matter is that the American administration failed to adequately address all of these concerns (and could hardly do that). Unable to create authentic communication narratives, Washington left them to fester and morph into conspiratorial narratives.

It is worth mentioning that the Biden doctrine (revealed in the October 2022 National Security Strategy) in its part on the Middle East appears as an ambiguous conglomerate more akin to a mishmash wish list than a deliberate effort to accomplish strategic goals. The five so-called “declaratory principles” — partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values — impress as an attempt to embrace the four schools of American foreign policy: “Hamiltonian,” “Jeffersonian,” “Jacksonian,” and “Wilsonian” that Walter Russell Mead once elaborated. However, if you want to have everything, you’ll end up with nothing. People in the Middle East are tired of never-ending hardships, particularly in the wake of the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Apart from the chaos and public violence that abruptly entered their lives, their standard of living substantially declined. They do not necessarily see anything wrong with China’s authoritarian model, which has helped hundreds of millions of people improve their economic situation. They wish such a model was theirs, as well.

So, welcome to the brave new (multipolar) world, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley. Yet, do we have a new regional security framework with the agreement signed in Beijing? It’s too early to be clear-cut. We don’t so far know if this rapprochement is purely transactional, as it seems to be, or if it will be transformational for the Middle East. Moreover, we wonder if it could become transcendental, i.e. to transcend the Middle East and affect the world. We can only speculate that this is the beginning of a process. But we could take into consideration, meanwhile, that the standing problematic issues between the two newly reconciled countries are so numerous and complicated, each with its history and sui generis profile.  It would be naïve to think that a stroke of a pen while signing an agreement may evaporate them as a magic wand would do.

America will be needed at random to stabilize this fragile and windswept region. The Saudis will continue to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as its web of proxies and militias in the neighboring Arab countries. The militant Houthi movement will endure in Yemen. Preserving its current belligerent condition, with smart striking drones and missiles, the Houthi movement will remain like an unremoved thorn in the heel of both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. For its part, Iran will continue to suspect Saudi Arabia for its (self-inflicted) domestic unrest.

The Economist gave a canny assessment in this regard,

“[the] underlying issues remain. This deal is more about perception than reality.”[iv]

As for the U.S., the news of the American retreat from the Middle East would continue to be “greatly exaggerated”, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Even at the moments when Americans tried to run out of the Middle East, they could run but couldn’t hide. As a boomerang, the Middle Eastern problems were hitting them back.

Some time ago the late now Secretary of State and never-to-be-president Colin Powel used the Pottery Barn rule, attaching it to the U.S. role in the Middle East and Iraq, especially: If you break it, you fix it (you own it, according to another version). The validity of this maxim still holds water.

The most egregious example in this regard is how Obama encouraged and enhanced the emergence of the terrorist Islamic State in 2014 after he started to massively reduce the American military presence in Iraq two years earlier. He was warned not to do that, but he didn’t heed.

By the end of our journey, we could only contemplate that changes in the Middle East will occur but at a slower and more protracted rate. Uncle Sam is not ousted, but he no longer is the prima donna at the opera. We have nothing to add to this story, save to remind the insightful poetry of Abu al-Baqa’ al-Randi, whose words fall into place:

Whoever was blissed by a single moment
Times thereafter brought him calamities to foment

A final notable truth is that Saudi-Iranian tensions are rooted in the enormous historical chasm between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. It goes back to the outset of Islamic history, such as the Battle of Siffin (657 CE), which undermined the authority of the founder of the Shia branch, Al ibn Abi Talib, and set the stage for the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty. Sunni and Shia, the competing branches of Islam, are now brought together under Confucian patronage rather than Western tutelage. Instead of a Christian assurance, they trust a Chinese guarantee. We obviously don’t pay enough attention to such a remarkable cultural shift, probably because we don’t see the forest for the trees.

[i] Author’s translation from the Arabic language

[ii] F. Gregory Gause III, America’s New Realism in the Middle East, Foreign Affairs, July 6, 2022

[iii] Hussein Ibish, Why the U.S.-Saudi Crisis is So Bad and So Unnecessary, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, October 14, 2022

[iv] The Economist, China brokers an Iran-Saudi rapprochement, March 10, 2023

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