As an old adage goes, what goes up must come down. This is also the conclusion that has been drawn by many analysts regarding the US role in the Middle East. While this is not a new line of thinking, for many years it has been confined to niche circles.
However, the recent Chinese mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has revived talk of the dwindling role of the US in the Middle East region. China’s proactive diplomacy has targeted a strategic foothold in a region traditionally known to be under US hegemony, and it coincides with Russia’s mediation in bringing Turkey and Syria together.
The US Biden administration has made it clear that its priority is to face up to China and Russia. In doing so, it hopes to create a “wider Western alliance” led by Washington. One of the leading campaign lines from US President Joe Biden before he was elected and from his Democratic Party was that then Republican president Donald Trump had damaged the US global position.
Yet, today Russia and China seem to be making good progress on ending the post-Cold War world order of a single superpower in the shape of the US. While it is far from certain that the path being taken by Moscow and Beijing, along with other rising powers, has yet born fruit, the trend that began at the turn of the century, with blocs like the group of emerging BRICS economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has been pushing for a multi-polar world.
Theories like those of US political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” scenario put forward in the 1990s have proved to represent a kind of philosophical euphoria. “The universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” has not materialised as Fukuyama then suggested.
Instead, the US embarked on vast military interventions, often in the Middle East region, in order to galvanise its world leadership. Most of these interventions ended in failure, and the New World Order that was supposed to be enforced by the US and the West was never established.
This expansionist drive was upended by the last days of former US president George W Bush’s second term in office. A disengagement policy was the theme of subsequent US president Barack Obama’s White House. His administration slowly reduced the US presence in the Middle East region. In 2012, US political scientist Fawaz Gerges wrote a book asking questions about Obama’s Middle East policy and whether it was the end of “America’s moment” in the region.
The last decade has witnessed a sort of paradigm shift in the region, with regime change in many countries and the rise of a new generation of leaders almost free of the tradition of looking up to Washington. A stumbling US foreign policy and a strong inclination from within nations in the Middle East to shift away from exclusive alliances with Washington has been a constant theme of the last decade.
National-interest based alliances have become a new trend. The oil-rich Arab Gulf States have started to forge stronger relations with China, Russia, India, South Africa and other emerging economies. The initial motive was economic, but it was inevitable that there would also be some level of overlap in political affairs.
Obama’s foreign policy set the pace for lines to be blurred and boundaries to be pushed. The US position during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 increased the scepticism among Arab leaders about the reliability of the US as an ally. Even Trump, who appeared to have close ties to the region, did not alter the course of the US disengagement and pushed for greater distance.
Apart from some rhetoric and business deals, the Trump administration was a huge disappointment to US allies in the region. The main pillar of its Middle East policy was placating Israel and promoting the normalisation of relations between it and the Arab states.
The culmination of this erosion of US credibility came in 2019 when Iran-backed Yemeni militia attacked Saudi oil facilities in the east of Saudi Arabia and halted half of their production. The Saudis expected their main ally to respond to what was seen as unprecedented aggression by Iran, but the US stood idly by. This was seen as a pivotal moment in the US standing in the region due to the magnitude of the event.
The Biden administration has gone a step further through its undiplomatic application of pressure on countries in the Middle East to side with its “Western alliance” against Russia in the Ukraine war. The US has been unable to grasp the changes in the region, and it has been under the impression that it can influence the narrative.
Most Arab capitals successfully ignored the pressure from the US over the Ukraine war, and while they did not directly show support for Russia, they refused to take part in the economic strangulation of Moscow enforced by the US and its Western allies. This was a golden opportunity for China to step in as a major player in the region and to secure a reliable energy source to support its accelerated economic development.
However, the Arab states are still not quite ready to leave Washington behind. The US is still an important ally, in part due to a web of mutual interests that go back decades. But the US no longer has a monopoly of the region, and its grip has loosened.
The words of late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat are no longer true, and the US no longer holds 99 per cent of the cards in the game. There are other powerful players sitting at the table, and the hosts can choose who to team up with in different rounds.
* The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly