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America’s Middle East Friendships Are Dying a Natural Death

It’s time to recognize they were living on borrowed time.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
President Joe Biden waves as he walks to Marine One for a departure from the Ellipse near the White House on May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden waves as he walks to Marine One for a departure from the Ellipse near the White House on May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden waves as he walks to Marine One for a departure from the Ellipse near the White House on May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

About 50 years ago, the United States flipped Egypt. It was a big win in the zero-sum diplomacy of the Cold War, during which the two superpowers went about collecting regional clients. The Egyptians joined a club that included the Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, and small Persian Gulf states that were looking for protection after the British abandoned their positions east of the Suez Canal in 1971.

In the ensuing decades as the United States became more directly involved in the Middle East, those countries would form the core of a group of U.S.-friendly states that made it easier for Washington to pursue its goals in the region, including protecting the free flow of oil from the region, helping to ensure Israeli security, countering terrorists, and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as a series of other overly ambitious policies like the invasion of Iraq.

I have been thinking about these relationships since articles began appearing detailing the crises in Washington’s relations with its partners in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There is something to this, of course. Neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis have been receptive to the Biden administration’s entreaties to pump more oil as global prices spiked with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not long after Russian forces moved west, the Emirati government abstained from a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion in the United Nations Security Council. And while U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to unite the world against Russia, neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates support sanctions on Russia, their partner in OPEC+. In mid-March, the Emiratis hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Dubai. It is hard to imagine what message Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was sending from the visit of someone responsible for crimes against humanity on a massive scale, but it clearly reflected a fissure with the United States.

About 50 years ago, the United States flipped Egypt. It was a big win in the zero-sum diplomacy of the Cold War, during which the two superpowers went about collecting regional clients. The Egyptians joined a club that included the Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, and small Persian Gulf states that were looking for protection after the British abandoned their positions east of the Suez Canal in 1971.

In the ensuing decades as the United States became more directly involved in the Middle East, those countries would form the core of a group of U.S.-friendly states that made it easier for Washington to pursue its goals in the region, including protecting the free flow of oil from the region, helping to ensure Israeli security, countering terrorists, and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as a series of other overly ambitious policies like the invasion of Iraq.

I have been thinking about these relationships since articles began appearing detailing the crises in Washington’s relations with its partners in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There is something to this, of course. Neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis have been receptive to the Biden administration’s entreaties to pump more oil as global prices spiked with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not long after Russian forces moved west, the Emirati government abstained from a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion in the United Nations Security Council. And while U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to unite the world against Russia, neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates support sanctions on Russia, their partner in OPEC+. In mid-March, the Emiratis hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Dubai. It is hard to imagine what message Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was sending from the visit of someone responsible for crimes against humanity on a massive scale, but it clearly reflected a fissure with the United States.

Problems in the United States’ relations with the Saudis have been slowly building, but a combination of regional, global, and political factors collided in the last eight months, contributing to the very public deterioration of ties. When was the last time a Middle Eastern leader refused to get on the phone with the president of the United States? We now have recent examples of two. It is not just personal pique, however. Saudis and Emiratis no longer seem to have any faith in U.S. declarations that Washington is committed to their security. Going back to the Trump administration, when the Iranians attacked Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, Saudi Arabia, in September 2019, the U.S. president chose—with the support of the foreign-policy community—not to respond to the attacks. This upended four decades of U.S. policy geared toward defending the oil fields of the Persian Gulf from threats emanating inside and outside the region. More recently, there was the shambolic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s determination to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran. The Gulf states actually support an agreement, but they fear that the administration will negotiate a deal that will provide Tehran with billions of dollars that could be used to destabilize the region further. This, combined with Washington’s unwillingness to designate Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist group while, at the same time, U.S. officials are contemplating removing the terrorist designation from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is, to Saudis and Emiratis, the most telling indicator of the United States’ empty commitment to their security.

It is not just the Saudis and Emiratis though. Although Israel has been quieter in its criticism of the United States under Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, he and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have been clear that the Israelis will not be bound to any new nuclear deal with Iran. They have also lobbied the administration to re-list the Houthis and share Emirati and Saudi concerns regarding the IRGC. For their part, the Egyptians have acquired advanced Russian weaponry in recent years and continue to hedge with China, refusing to make a choice between Washington and Beijing. It was all smiles at the recent, first-ever Negev Summit that brought together Israeli, Egyptian, Bahraini, Emirati, and Moroccan foreign ministers with the U.S. secretary of state, but there was also the reality that after years during which U.S. official worked to forge a regional consensus, the one that now exists does not include the United States.

Taken together, all these issues have folks in Washington asking whether the United States’ partners in the Middle East are actually partners. At the same time, officials in Middle Eastern capitals are left wondering the same about the United States, a situation made worse by all the Beltway chatter about “leaving” or “pivoting from” the region.

The raw feelings on all sides are understandable, of course, but throwing one’s hands up and declaring that the U.S. partners suck does not offer any insight into why there is this drift and what, if anything, can be done about it. It is tempting to blame it on the various personalities currently involved, but this process of drifting apart has actually been going on long enough to span the tenures of three U.S. presidents (13 years and counting).

That is because these relationships are anachronisms—discovered, developed, and built for a time now long gone. Then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, popularly known as Ibn Saud, forged the U.S.-Saudi relationship 77 years ago. It has been a long time since former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat told former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Egypt could be a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Washington’s relationship with the UAE was nurtured throughout the 1990s when the United States’ presence in the Gulf took an air of permanence. Those ties grew closer with the global war on terror, but Americans are now coming to terms with the consequences of the securitization of their foreign policy over the last two decades and want a change.

More broadly, the core interests that drove the United States in the Middle East—the free flow of oil and helping to ensure Israeli security—no longer seem so urgent. Yes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underlined the importance of Middle Eastern oil for the moment, and the energy transition was never going to be as smooth as some imagined. But as the process of adapting alternatives to oil starts picking up speed (the U.S. intelligence community estimates this will begin after 2030), the oil fields of the region will be less important to the United States. Already, U.S. policymakers have signaled that they no longer want to defend and sacrifice for Middle Eastern energy security. One of the least controversial things former U.S. President Donald Trump did in office was not respond to the 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia. Israel is a fully industrialized country with a GDP on par with U.S. allies in Europe and a proven track record of defending itself. It is also slowly being integrated into its neighborhood. The Israelis have excellent relations with one-time antagonists Greece and Cyprus, and the Turkish government is seeking a new relationship with Jerusalem. Of course, there are its new partners in the Arab world—Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco—to go along with Jordan and Egypt.

It seems that the United States and its friends in the region have come to a juncture where their interests no longer align. Officials in Washington and across Middle Eastern capitals could reconfigure relationships that are getting old based on a new set of goals, but the ones the United States may have in mind—countering China and Russia or perhaps integrating Iran into the region to stabilize it—have no takers. In the breach, you have weird developments like the United States’ Middle Eastern partners passively supporting Russia and deepening their ties with China. Perhaps the more accurate term for these developments is “morbid symptoms” marking the death of the U.S. order built after World War II and the uncertainty over what comes next.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and 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. Twitter: @stevenacook

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