US leadership in Middle East at a crossroads - GulfToday

US leadership in Middle East at a crossroads

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Syrian soldiers take part in a training session to remove and neutralise unexploded weapons, in the countryside of the capital Damascus. File/Agence France-Presse

By visiting the region at this time, US President Joe Biden has reversed his policy of ignoring its geographic, economic, and political importance while shifting his focus to China, which Washington considers its chief global rival. While Biden has declared he would not allow China and Russia to fill the vacuum left by the US pivot to the East, his attempt to regain relevance is too little, too late. There is no vacuum.

He cannot restore US hegemony. That era has passed. In recent years, the region has moved beyond relying almost exclusively on the US as the major external actor. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, the leading powers in the Gulf Cooperation Council, have led this transformation.

The chief reason for this change is US political instability and unpredictability. This has accelerated over the past two decades and climaxed with the presidency of Donald Trump who relegated to the sidelines the Palestine-Israeli conflict and failed to take into consideration changing relations among regional and international actors. Instead of formulating policies to deal with current trends, he has stuck to old norms.

While the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have normalised relations with Israel, Biden has not taken into account that normalisation has taken place among regional actors often at odds with one another.

In 2018 the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan reopened Damascus embassies which had been closed due to the Syrian government’s crackdown on unrest. Oman has reinstated its ambassador. Officials from Saudi Arabia and Syria have met in each other’s capitals. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid to Syria and UAE firms are ready to participate in reconstruction of the war-ravaged country but have been dissuaded by the threat of US and European sanctions.

There is, reportedly, a split in the Biden administration between those who want to continue the US policy of isolating and sanctioning Syria and those who seek to end this policy. So, far, a hesitant and timorous Biden has failed to adopt the latter option, which is strongly opposed by Israel and its US acolytes.

Instead, his administration’s efforts have been focused on maintaining deliveries to Syria’s north-western Idlib province of humanitarian supplies via Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border and preventing Turkey from attacking US Syrian Kurdish allies in Syria’s northeast.

On one hand, this policy strengthens al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which rules Idlib and is seen as a threat across the region and further afield. On the other hand, by protecting Syrian Kurds the US alienates the Arab majority inhabiting a large stretch of Syrian territory. By jeopardising the unity of Syria and preventing the country from rebuilding its war-ravaged infrastructure and wounded economy, the US punishes Syria’s neighbours Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan which were pre-war Syria’s main commercial partners.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have begun efforts to recalibrate relations with Iran, regarded by the US as its regional rival. While the UAE adopted this policy several years ago, Saudi and Iranian officials have, since April 2021, held five meetings in Baghdad under the auspices of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi. Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi has welcomed the contacts and called for the restoration of relations, cut since 2016 after Iranian rioters attacked the Saudi embassy and consulates in Iran. Jordan has also said it seeks good bilateral relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also want to see Iran’s nuclear programme contained once again and call for diplomatic means to achieve this end. This should give impetus to ongoing negotiations over the programme. But, under pressure from US anti-Iran lobbies, Biden has shied away from re-entering the deal from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. This prompted Tehran to respond by exceeding limits placed by the deal on its programme. Instead of encouraging Iran to return to full compliance by re-joining the deal, Biden has piled fresh sanctions on the 1,500 imposed by Trump.

In early 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE. Egypt and Bahrain agreed to end their blockade of Qatar and restore ties, cut in 2017 due to disputes over regional issues.

On the international level, Arab relations with China and Russia have expanded and deepened. This process has drawn in US-allied Arab countries as well Arab countries once tied to the defunct Soviet Union. The UAE opened relations with China in 1984 and political, economic and trade cooperation have flourished since then. Saudi Arabia and China established diplomatic ties in 1990 although Beijing had been selling Riyadh weaponry from 1980.

Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Egypt along with Iran have signed comprehensive strategic partnerships (China’s highest level of diplomatic relations) while another eight regional countries have strategic partnerships with China. The aim of this initiative is to promote investment, trade, financial integration, political coordination, and connections among populations.

The UAE established relations with Russia in 1971, when the federation was founded, and embassies were opened in each other’s capitals in the 1980s. Their relations have been dubbed a “strategic partnership” and have prompted the Emirates to distance itself from the Western camp over the war in Ukraine.

Saudi-Russian relations were established in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and did not progress until 2016 when then deputy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman met Russian President Vladimir Putin who agreed to cooperate with OPEC to control the volume of oil exports and pricing. This arrangement has held firm despite Western pressure on Riyadh to increase oil exports to meet demand and lower the price of oil in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia buys discounted Russian fuel oil and in recent years has cooperated with Russia on political issues.

Many Arabs see this conflict as a war that did not need to happen if NATO and the Western powers had heeded Moscow’s warnings about expanding the alliance to the borders of Russia which sees this as an existential threat. People in this region, in particular, resent the soaring costs of fuel and food which flow from the conflict and sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Biden — along with Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson — became the prime motivator of the war camp and cannot excape blame for its consequences, unintended or simply not considered, which could lead to a global recession.

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