US Influence in the Middle East on the Decline
Young rulers in Riyadh and the Abu Dhabi are speaking up against American policies that may endanger their rule and looking elsewhere for strategic partnerships
By most assessments, President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East failed to achieve its stated goals, and exposed cracks in Washington’s decades’ long hegemony in the region.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, told The Media Line the foreign policy establishment in Washington is quite disappointed with the trip, “largely due to the fact that Biden returned to the US without any huge deliverables.
“The progressive elements of the Democratic Party believe that Biden’s trip essentially whitewashed the [2018 Jamal] Khashoggi murder and other human rights violations committed by the Saudi government,” Cafiero says.
Debate over the US withdrawing from the Middle East has been a persistent topic in political saloons in both the American capital and the region for more than a decade.
Some point to the invasions of Iraq, and Afghanistan, as the start of the decline. Other critics argue the real loss of faith in America began under former President Barack Obama when he failed to intervene to protect allied Arab regimes, like in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, for example, and to effectively demonstrate leadership in the case of Syria. They add to that the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and pulling of its troops from Iraq and Syria.
To many of these doubters, the doubts about American reliability became evident after the signing of the landmark Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, which was seen by key US allies as a sign of weakness, as they accused the White House of not listening to their concerns.
“I would argue that doubts about the US effectiveness and reliability as a security guarantor really began with the failure of the US-Israel-Palestinian summit in the summer of 2000 at Camp David, where Washington failed to reach an agreement along obvious and well-established lines to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – immediately following the very height of US success, the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Kuwait,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line.
All these factors, observers say, contributed to the decline of Washington’s influence in the region, especially among its strategic allies.
Cafiero explains that the focus of July 15 President Biden’s visit to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Jeddah was to “assert Washington’s influence in the Gulf and greater Middle East at a time when some Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have been losing confidence in the US as a regional security guarantor.”
For a long time, US allies stayed away from criticizing Washington’s policies in the region publicly, keeping their assessments veiled and behind closed doors. But times have changed and young rulers in the case of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are speaking up against US policies that may jeopardize the stability of their authority and looking elsewhere for strategic partnerships.
“Russia and China don’t question their human rights record and don’t make selling military weapons to them conditional to their records,” says Hasan Awwad, a US-based Middle East expert.
US prestige around the region has been weakened as a result of its policies, adding that there’s an emerging perception in many Arab capitals that America is no longer a reliable ally, he adds.
“We may be witnessing a historic steep decline of US absolute, unconditional leadership in the Middle East,” says Awwad.
Pundits and mouthpieces loyal to these regimes appearing on news channels sponsored by these same allies are now openly describing Washington as an “untrustworthy ally” that cannot be counted on if these governments are threatened.
“Allowing a close ally like Hosni Mubarak to fall [in 2011] was a shock to leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere around the region,” Awwad says.
Ibish says news of Washington’s demise in the Middle East is greatly exaggerated.
“I think [the president’s trip] went about as well as it could have under the circumstances. The bilateral issues with Israel were pro forma, and there was not much he could have done with the Palestinians given that the Israeli election is coming up,” says Ibish.
He doesn’t dismiss the idea that US influence has fallen in the Middle East.
“For sure over the past decade all of these, especially the Gulf Arab countries, have begun to emphasize strategic diversification and increasing their own options and diplomatic, military, and political toolkits over tending the bilateral partnership with Washington,” Ibish says.
But he downplays the news, saying it’s “definitely not the end of US domination in the region.”
“Biden is trying to build a loose but potent coalition – with different groupings that can do different things within this big US-led umbrella – to counter Iran and reassert American influence in the region to offset Chinese encroachment,” says Ibish.
He says repairing trust requires effort from both sides, and it’s “going to be deeds and not words, all the way.”
The war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia led to a sharp spike in energy prices around the world, forcing President Biden to travel to Jeddah and meet with Gulf leaders in an effort to persuade them to increase their oil and gas production.
“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran,” the American leader said. “We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”
He assured Arab leaders during the Jeddah summit that the US is here to stay, and “will not walk away” from a volatile Middle East, trying hard to ensure the stability of the region as the world faces questions about how to increase the flow of oil to reverse amid rising fuel prices.
“I think one of the most effective plausible short-term wins would be for Washington to demonstrate that it can serve as the linchpin of a new and much more effective air and missile defense system in the region,” says Ibish, “or at least bolster the air and missile defenses of its various partners individually and working very loosely together.”
According to the public statements from leaders attending the summit, such a security pact is at best far away from becoming a reality, as are any clear signs of the US regaining their trust.