One of the gains from the much talked about American “pivot” towards Asia is the genuine prospect for geopolitical recalibration. As implausible as this may sound, amongst the shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics, at least one part of the formula for engendering the much-needed regional adjustment is already underway, namely the contraction of the US presence in the region.
Do any of the historical reasons for maintaining a strong US presence still exist? Preservation of Israel’s security and its qualitative military edge over its neighbours is one of those cores pull factors, but with the signing of the so-called Abraham Accords, and Zionist state’s supremacy, exactly what need is there for the US to continue its presence at the same historical level. Likewise, the demand for steady supply of oil from the region has also vanished as a strategic pillar of US policy, as has America’s need to contain the threat of Communism. Confronting China could possibly be mentioned as a valid argument but that’s what the so called “pivot” to the East is all about.
These are the geopolitical realities of US presence in the region which have been playing out over recent years. Much like a new balance of power that takes shape in nature with the departure of a super predator, a similar process has been underway in the Middle East, which – with the arrival of the global coronavirus pandemic – has been moving swiftly. As Iran became the epicentre of the outbreak in the region nearly two years ago, bitter rivalries were set aside to confront what was seen as a common enemy. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives,” was the message from the UN. The call was headed, and hostilities were set aside.
The UAE dispatched four planes loaded with medical aid to Tehran. “Providing lifesaving assistance to those expressing distress is essential to the common good,” the UAE’s minister of state for international cooperation said at the time. Gulf states with far warmer relations with Iran also dispatched aid to their embattled neighbour. Qatar’s Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, for example, ordered the dispatch of 16 tonnes of medical equipment and supplies, while Kuwait announced it would send $10 million in humanitarian aid.
Acknowledging the gesture of truce, Iran responded saying that the spread of the coronavirus in the Middle East had brought “more reason and logic” to the country’s relationship with its Gulf rivals. By June 2020, as COVID-19 crippled economies across the region, Tehran even suggested that its relationship with the UAE had improved such that it was ready for dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, there was no reason to think that the cordial relations would continue beyond the shared interest of combatting a global pandemic.
In what must come as a surprise to many, reproachment became the region’s motto. Iran and Saudi Arabia have not only been in dialogue, the two arch-enemies are very close to reopening consulates and restoring diplomatic relations. Though at loggerheads over Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Riyadh and Tehran began talks as early as April to patch up relations. Negotiations, which took place in Baghdad, were the first significant political discussions between the two nations since 2016 when they cut relations following the execution of Shia cleric Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr.
The UAE and Egypt, on opposite sides to Turkey and Qatar on major sticking points in the region, have also been trying to mend fences. Riyadh and Cairo have led efforts to mend ties and have already appointed ambassadors to Qatar after a three-year blockade which was lifted at the beginning of the year. Keeping in tune with the moment, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed Turkey’s relations with the UAE during a telephone conversation with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. Not to mention the ongoing rehabilitation of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.
Though it may have injected “more reason and logic” and encouraged cooperation on humanitarian grounds, the mutual interest of combating a global pandemic is nonetheless not a satisfactory explanation for why the region is undergoing a geopolitical recalibration. A better explanation is the waning of the pillars of US presence in the region; uncertainty over America’s role in the world, combined with the realisation by Washington’s traditional allies that their self-interest is not completely in sync with that of the US.
President Joe Biden’s disastrous pull-out from Afghanistan, and a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US known as AUKUS, launched last month, was further confirmation, if one were needed, that Middle Eastern countries relying on the Post Second World War American security umbrella cannot take this security for granted.
Faced with the reality of a less committed US, Gulf states have been seeking to compensate for the uncertainty generated by this fear through greater self-reliance. No longer compelled to look at the region through the prism of American self-interest, they have, it seems, sought to repair bitter rivalries as well as find new friends.
This of course begs the question, has America been a help or a hindrance to the region’s search for a political formula that would ensure lasting peace and stability? One only needs to look at the number of wars the US has directly or indirectly been involved in to learn the answer to that question. With a global superpower deeply entrenched into the region’s security architecture, traditionally because of its reliance on Middle Eastern oil, and to ensure Israel’s military supremacy, no space was left for countries to assess their self-interest independently from the US. When it came to security, pleasing Washington or, if you are Iran, confronting the “great Satan”, was the only thing that mattered.
While it’s clearly wishful thinking to suggest that the US will permanently leave the Middle East in the foreseeable future to fend for itself, anything that caused the region’s leaders to question the traditional security formula with the US at the epicentre is, needless to say, going to have a dramatic impact. Biden, despite his many attempts to present himself as a clear departure from the chaos and mayhem of the Donald Trump era, has not deviated from the general direction of US foreign policy since Barack Obama nor of that of his predecessor as outlined in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report titled “Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense—Issues for Congress.”
CRS – a think tank affiliated to the US legislature – placed US rivalry with China and to a lesser degree Russia, at the centre of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS). Acknowledging the reorientation, CRS said that US national security and defence strategy had moved “toward an explicit primary focus on great power competition with China and Russia”.
In geo-political terms this means that the US is in the early phase of a dramatic shift. In policy terms for the Middle East this translates to prioritising obstructing the rise of China and Russia and more specifically, as the CRS document outlined, “a desire to reduce US military deployments to the Middle East” in order to facilitate “military deployments to Africa and South America, in part to facilitate an increase in US force deployments to the Indo-Pacific region for countering China.” While troop reduction in the MENA region to counter China elsewhere is a stated goal it’s acknowledged that developments in the region are “complicating” this plan.
What this ultimately means is that America’s traditional allies no longer feel that they can rely on Washington. Despite the uncertainty that this realisation brings, it cannot be anything but a positive change for a region that has been locked into war and conflict under the American security umbrella. A better formula for peace and stability would be for the governments of the region’s 20 countries to take advantage of this moment and realise that their self interest lies in continuing with the recalibration of the region’s geopolitics and building bridges to serve the goals and interests of their people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.