The post-American Middle Eastern order
8 Jun 2023|

May was a busy month for diplomats in the Middle East. Twelve years after the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was officially welcomed back into the fold. As the protracted war in Yemen shows signs of winding down, Iran and Saudi Arabia appear headed towards reconciliation. Meanwhile, Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Islamic Jihad, and Saudi Arabia has emerged as a key player in the efforts to end the civil war in Sudan.

What’s remarkable about these recent developments is the West’s near-total absence. While Western involvement in the Middle East has fluctuated over the years, the United States and its European allies have spearheaded the vast majority of diplomatic breakthroughs in the region since the end of the Cold War, including peace between Israel and Jordan, the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf states, and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Western engagement also included the invasion of Iraq in 2003, military intervention in Libya in 2011, support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria, and routing the Islamic State from its base in Syria and Iraq. The US also backed Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen. But all that remains of these efforts is 2,500 US troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria.

America’s disengagement from the Middle East is part of a calculated strategy to shift its focus to its escalating rivalry with China. As a former US official told me, this is not simply a return to America’s pre-9/11 posture; rather, the US seeks to revert to its pre-1990 approach to the region, which combined a minimal military presence with reliance on regional allies to keep the peace. President Joe Biden takes pride in his administration’s ability to resist the Middle Eastern quagmire that ensnared his immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as they tried to pivot towards Asia.

There are two ways to understand the new reality in the Middle East. The first is to lament the gulf between Western aspirations and conditions on the ground. While the US and the EU still verbally endorse the two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians have moved away from it. As Israel’s Jewish majority becomes more nationalist and ultra-orthodox, most Palestinians have come to favour armed resistance over President Mahmoud Abbas’s sclerotic Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, as the West continues to tout the importance of diplomacy in addressing Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, there has been little action on this front. American and European passivity can be attributed to Iran’s brutal repression of the massive public protests that erupted across the country in September, as well as its military assistance to Russia in the Ukraine war.

But Iran’s nuclear program is becoming a ticking time bomb. Earlier this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency found uranium particles in Iran enriched to a weapons-grade level of 83.7%. Iran’s breakout time—the time it would need to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—has gone from 12 months when the nuclear deal was implemented to around 12 days.

Other countries have rushed to fill the vacuum created by the Western withdrawal from the region. When a brief missile exchange between Israel and Islamic Jihad in Gaza threatened to escalate into a larger conflict, Egypt took charge of the mediation efforts that ultimately ended the hostilities. Similarly, it was Turkish special forces, rather than a US drone strike, that killed Islamic State leader Abu Hussein al-Qurashi in late April.

While many in the West may despair at these sobering developments, there’s another way to understand the emerging post-American Middle Eastern order. Despite initial concerns that a US withdrawal would plunge the region into chaos and disarray, many in the Middle East now view Western interventionism itself as destabilising, with the West’s hasty departure from Afghanistan a case in point. The new order, led by regional actors and external powers such as Russia and China, may not align with Western preferences, owing to the role of autocratic regimes; still, it represents a distinct form of order.

Although the West may have hoped for a different outcome, there’s no denying that the Middle East has become less violent, as reflected in the de-escalation of the conflict in Yemen, the (China-brokered) Saudi–Iranian détente, and the maturation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Likewise, the increased sense of responsibility among regional leaders to address crises such as the incipient civil war in Sudan is a positive development.

To be sure, the emerging order can be described as an authoritarian peace, and the challenges facing Middle Eastern countries remain significant. But the region is currently focused on economic integration and development, while Western policymakers always seem to focus on other problems.

Of course, the Middle East could just be experiencing an interregnum between violent eras. But it is more likely that we are witnessing a glimpse into the multipolar future. As a Chinese observer of the Middle East told me, his country has come to see the region as a ‘laboratory for a post-American world’. As the US continues to pull back, regional players assert themselves, and countries such as India, Turkey, Russia and China gain influence.

In a multipolar world, as Julien Barnes-Dacey and Hugh Lovatt note, the West must either invest significant resources in shaping global affairs or learn to adapt to others’ priorities. The latter option may not always result in outcomes that the West desires, but that is not necessarily a terrible thing.