Can the US Reestablish Itself in The Middle East?
Washington vies with China and Russia to return as indispensable nation
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
The Biden administration’s response to the drone attack by the purportedly Iran-backed militias in Jordon that killed three U.S. soldiers is as much about bringing the US back in the Middle East militarily and otherwise as it is the fallout from the ongoing Israel war on Gaza – which has already killed about 28,000 Palestinians, vast numbers of them women and children and other noncombatants.
Thus far, US and British forces have hit dozens of targets in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The Biden administration has announced further strikes in the coming days as well, targeting anti-Israeli forces. While these attacks are aimed at opponents of US units, the strikes are also directly aiding Israel’s war and potentially weakening the military capacity of its enemies, which in the final analysis are related to Iran. But besides extending this support, the Biden administration is also seeking to revive its dominant military position in order to minimize the space for China and Russia to exploit to their advantage.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations had considerably reduced the US military presence in the Middle East even as competition grew with China in Southeast Asia and later with Russia in Eastern Europe given Moscow’s attack on Ukraine. When the Biden administration assumed power, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that this administration would do “less, not more” in the region. In many ways, the now moribund Abraham Accords that the Trump administration initiated, and the Biden administration enthusiastically followed, was a means to reshape the Middle East in a way that would leave Israel in a dominant position as Washington’s replacement and to create conditions for Washington to do less. Israel was to develop a ring of alliances with Arab states against Iran.
But that didn’t materialize for many reasons. First, the waning US involvement in the region pushed many states to reconfigure their defense and foreign policies accordingly, including in ways that expanded ties with China and Russia. Second, Hamas’s October 7 attack proved that the Middle East cannot be arbitrarily reconfigured without effectively resolving the Palestine question. In fact, Israel’s genocidal response has massively mobilized both political and public opinion in the Arab world against normalization with Israel. This series of events has practically put Washington’s plans for a ‘new’ Middle East in cold storage for now, making it imperative for Washington to revive its position to continue the dominant role it played for many decades.
China and Russia have capitalized on the failure of US plans. First, both, supporting a permanent ceasefire, have consciously reinforced Arab opinion against Israel and the US. Both are now criticizing Washington’s strikes. China’s ambassador to the UN, for instance, said “the US military actions are undoubtedly stoking new turmoil in this region and further intensifying tensions.”
In reality, however, the US is using the crisis for a much more important purpose, to re-establish its military usefulness to the wider Arab world and its continuing ability to provide a security umbrella, an ambition greeted with considerable wariness by the region’s leaders considering the possible return to power in November of Donald Trump, whose chaotic foreign policy makes future overseas commitments uncertain. This was one of the key purposes of Blinken’s recent visit, where he met the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While the official purpose was to rally support for a US-backed ceasefire plan, and Blinken did discuss progress towards a deal to secure the release of hostages, this visit, much like the previous ones, was underwritten by the desire to revamp bilateral ties.
For instance, after Blinken visited Saudi Arabia in early January, the US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said in a readout of the meeting that both leaders “affirmed their shared commitment to advance stability, security, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond, including through a comprehensive political agreement to achieve peace, prosperity, and security in Yemen.”
The quest for reinforcing shared positions is tied to the ways Saudi Arabia, for instance, has behaved ever since President Biden assumed power in the wake of campaign promises to make Saudi Arabia and its leader Prince Muhammad bin Sultan a “pariah” over the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents. MBS, as the prince is known, is still smarting over the insults. On more than one occasion, including during Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has refused to increase the production of oil and break itself out of the OPEC+ agreement with Russia that limits oil production to a certain level to maintain price levels.
Ever since February 2021 when the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, Washington has been trying to convince Saudi to increase its production to bring oil prices down and thus help control inflation in the US and Europe caused by the soaring oil and gas prices. The Saudis have not submitted. One key reason for their refusal is that they were quick to diversify their foreign policy in response to Biden’s claims. This was most clearly evident in Riyadh’s preference for normalization with Iran rather than with Israel, a China-brokered deal that shattered the illusion of US regional dominance.
The consequent US inability to make Saudi Arabia behave in certain ways i.e., increase oil production and sign the Abraham Accords without seeking serious concessions from the US has convinced Washington that it still needs the Middle East for various strategic purposes, at least until it can actually reconfigure the region in a way that Israel can become the hegemon.
Is this doable? Can Washington reverse China’s and Russia’s influence to create space for itself? With more than US$330 billion in investment, China became the largest investor in the Gulf in 2021. China’s role is in alignment with the Gulf state’s own economic modernization program – something that Washington has yet to offer. On top of it, Washington’s failure to prevent the genocide of the Palestinians may very well have put off the ambitious India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor for now, crippling Washington’s ability to present itself as a credible alternative to China.
Still, Washington has not abandoned its quest for dominance. Policymakers continue to believe that the Middle East still needs Washington’s security umbrella and that any further space lost to China (and Russia) might marginalize Washington even further, killing possibilities of revival. Losing the Middle East in this way to China (and Russia) would also give a major boost to these states’ agenda of a new, multipolar world order. Preventing this from happening is a major foreign policy issue for this – and future – administrations.