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Who Is Hot and Who Is Not in the Middle East

The Biden administration wants to downgrade the region. Here are the countries he can ignore—and the ones he can’t.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon’s Maronite Christian patriarch in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 14, 2017.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon’s Maronite Christian patriarch in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 14, 2017. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

This week, Politico ran a story revealing the Biden administration is deprioritizing the Middle East. It was an interesting read. Yet even without the reporting from Natasha Bertrand and Lara Seligman—two of the best journalists anywhere covering national security and foreign policy—the signs were clear that team Biden was going to try to do what it could not to get wrapped around the axles of Arabs, Israelis, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians. It took four weeks for U.S. President Joe Biden to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then another week or so for him to phone the Iraqi prime minister and the Saudi king. The White House likewise does not seem in a hurry to make calls to the Egyptians, Turks, Emiratis, Qataris, and others.

The National Security Council has adjusted accordingly, downsizing the Near East directorate, and U.S. executive agencies are not hiring as many Middle East hands as in previous administrations. These changes are happening against the backdrop of nonstop, foreign-policy discussions about “great-power competition” and China. If 2001 to 2020 was the golden age of the Middle East analyst, it is clear that Washington is now entering the era of the China expert (and public health specialist). This is a good thing. The Middle East has sucked up a lot—too much—time, attention, and resources of decision-makers who were often chasing unrealistic goals and pursuing poorly thought-out policies. This came at a cost, deflecting attention from other important issues like the implications of China’s ambitions, Russia’s return to the world stage, Europe’s stability, and the impacts of climate change.

At the same time, it is easy to exaggerate. It took a little more than a month before President Biden ordered up airstrikes in the region, hitting Iranian proxies in Syria after Iran’s allies hit a base in Iraqi Kurdistan, where American forces are located. Also, the folks who advocate for the United States’ withdrawal, reduction, or retrenchment from the Middle East tend to downplay the risks of these approaches. There is no doubt that the United States’ Middle East policy needs to evolve; there are issues in the region that no longer seem as urgent as they once did and countries that are not as important as they once were. Part of the challenge of crafting a new approach to the region is determining who and what is important to the United States.

So, in the spirit of helping clarify these issues—and aping “The List,” the annual Washington Post feature—here is an entirely subjective ranking of the Middle East. Countries that are IN need the Biden administration’s attention. OUT countries would like to think they matter, but they should prepare for a future of being ignored.

Saudi Arabia is IN—but mostly because it’s on the outs. During the presidential campaign, then candidate Joe Biden had tough words for the Saudis. A good deal of Washington has been up in arms about the Saudis since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. (It was only then that Saudi Arabia’s disastrous intervention in Yemen received sustained attention in Washington.) There was also, of course, the blockade of Qatar and the mistreatment of Saudi activists. It is all coming home to roost now for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The White House announced it will not talk to him, has docked the Saudi military weapons that could be used to prosecute the war in Yemen, and released a report detailing what the U.S. intelligence community knows about Khashoggi’s murder. Human rights campaigners, Saudi dissidents, analysts, and members of Congress have all welcomed these moves, but…but…Saudi Arabia remains the United States’ primary interlocutor in the Arab world. If Biden wants to get a new deal with Iran and hopes to relieve the suffering in Yemen with an eye toward ending the conflict, he is going to need to elicit Saudi cooperation.

Iran is IN. It’s been in since 1979, at least. The Biden administration believes the best way to arrest Iran’s nuclear development is through diplomacy. It is certainly the case that “maximum pressure” did not work. The general view in Washington is Iran’s nuclear program has progressed further than it might have had if former President Donald Trump stayed in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is also a lot of discussion about extending the deal to cover Iran’s malevolent behavior in the region—an issue that is often underplayed in Washington—as well as Tehran’s arsenal of missiles. It seems that Iran will not be willing to give up its proxies or its rockets. Whether it does or does not, Iran is going to occupy lots of attention in the coming years. It already begun with the strikes in Syria aimed at the Iranians.

Israel is IN because it is Israel. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has long been based in significant part on ensuring Israeli security. There are political, historical, moral, and strategic reasons for the close relationship between the two countries. Although analysts, activists, and some politicians are asking more critical questions about the “special relationship”––not to mention Biden’s somewhat cool approach to Netanyahu, which may portend changes to future ties—Israel nevertheless remains an important player in which the United States is deeply invested in. And just like Saudi Arabia, if Biden wants to cinch a new deal with Iran, he is going to have to elicit Israeli cooperation. The U.S.-Israel relationship is institutionalized, so even if Biden runs into trouble with the Israeli prime minister, as former President Barack Obama did, the relationship is likely to remain “robust” as they say. Even when Israel seems out, it is still in.

The United Arab Emirates is IN, but mostly because it is not Saudi Arabia. The Emiratis have studiously backed away from the Saudis and Mohammed bin Salman in a variety of ways. Recognizing the Yemeni war was a losing proposition. Abu Dhabi withdrew its military from Yemen and has not been so visible in defending the Saudis inside Washington or anywhere else. This has not exactly garnered the Emirates goodwill, but it is no longer in the direct line of fire among the folks in Washington who want to punish the Saudis. Of far greater significance is the Abraham Accords, which did garner the Emiratis good favor. Biden praised the normalization deal as a candidate and has indicated he will work toward expanding normal relations among Israel and its neighbors. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party does not much like the Emiratis—citing its jailing of critics, its intervention in Yemen, and how it sells out the Palestinians—but the fact is the Emiratis remain important security partners to the United States whose interests are also affected when Biden’s team sits down to talk to the Iranians.

Egypt is OUT. Despite some unhappiness in Cairo that the president has not called Trump’s favorite dictator, the Egyptians are probably okay with being out. It will allow some among the Egyptian elite, intelligentsia, and officialdom the freedom to indulge their fantasy that the United States is out to undermine Egypt. More serious Egyptians want to stay under Washington’s radar screen; outmaneuver the Turks in Libya; focus on economic development; figure out how to manage the challenge of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; and balance relations among Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. Of course, the Egyptians have demonstrated that they sometimes cannot help themselves when it comes to the United States. The harassment of the families of Egyptian activists who reside in the United States or who are U.S. citizens has drawn the ire of members of Congress, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointedly informed his Egyptian counterpart that human rights will be part of the relationship.

Turkey is also OUT. The Turkish government used to have a lot of friends in Washington, but now it only has a few––plus a bunch of highly paid lobbyists. The Biden administration’s early moves suggest Ankara is not going to get a pass from the Oval Office. The U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, Ned Price, has already called out the Turks on a number of issues, including their mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community as well as the detention of businessman-philanthropist Osman Kavala and the indictment of professor Henri Barkey on similarly ridiculous accusations concerning the failed 2016 coup. So far, the administration has spurned Ankara’s offer to have a working group on its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Still, as much as Turkey is out, it is also a NATO ally, so it is unclear whether Turkey’s recent record will keep it out for long.

As for the others, despite Biden’s phone call to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqis are mostly OUT. No one in Washington wants to invest in trying to fix Iraq’s politics, so Iraqis are going to be left with State Department bromides about elections and corruption. And Iraqis want to avoid being a battleground between the United States and Iran so even they would prefer to be more OUT than IN. Syria is OUT because no one can figure out what to do about it, and maybe the quagmire there will consume the Russians. The Palestinian National Authority is sort of IN but only because it is always OUT. The Biden administration has reestablished relations with the body, and its diplomats will continue to go through endless discussions with Israelis and Palestinians about a two-state solution that will never occur. Qatar is IN because it isn’t Saudi Arabia and, of course, Al Udeid Air Base is there, though questions about Doha’s relations with various Islamist groups around the region will, at times, dog its ties with Washington.

Of course, things will change and surprises will happen. The best laid plans often go awry, so it may prove impossible for the United States to downgrade its role in the Middle East. If and when some crisis occurs, Washington will be confronted with the same group of difficult partners, rendering even those countries that the United States would like to be OUT most definitely IN.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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