Frederic Wehrey and Michele Dunne
US security policy with Arab states has long needed a major overhaul. This compendium presents different arguments and proposals for how the United States can do just this.
Long before recent calls to downsize the U.S. military presence in Arab countries and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. security policy in the region needed rebalancing and a major overhaul. Recent developments such as the global rise of China, nonmilitary challenges including the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, America’s growing energy independence, and rapid advances in technology have cast into sharp relief the anachronistic nature of a military-led approach. In this evolving landscape it now seems dusty and out of date, the relic of a bygone era.
Even beyond the risk of obsolescence, the United States’ heavily securitized engagement in the Middle East—anchored in conventional arms transfers, brick-and-mortar military basing, and bilateral ties with autocratic Arab states that privileged military-to-military relations over other forms of American influence—has never fully delivered on its promise. It has not made the region more secure but rather enabled military interventions by Arab allies in Yemen and Libya that have advanced neither U.S. interests nor values—and have been catastrophes on the human as well as strategic level. Nor has it succeeded in cordoning off Iran from the region or deterring its involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Tehran has simply been playing by a different set of rules, leapfrogging what it perceives to be a web of American-led military encirclement in the Middle East with asymmetric tools including nonstate proxies, ballistic missiles, cyberwarfare, and, increasingly, drones.
Security assistance has also not succeeded in building up the militaries of regional Arab partners to levels where they can credibly defend themselves without U.S. help or can participate, in a significant way, in U.S.-led multilateral operations. With few exceptions, that assistance has not produced appreciable American leverage over the domestic and foreign behaviors of U.S. allies. Worse, it has often implicated the United States in those allies’ abuses at home and made U.S. policymakers reluctant to criticize them for fear of losing access for U.S. forces. Even the benefit of U.S. jobs creation from Middle Eastern weapons sales has been overstated.
The challenge of great power competition and in particular expanding Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East has often been advanced as a rationale for keeping America in the regional arms game. To prevent American allies from turning to Moscow and Beijing for their defense requirements, the argument goes, Washington must continue to ply them with arms. Nearly all U.S. allies in the region have turned to other foreign suppliers, including European states as well as Russia (and to a lesser extent China), and they frequently use threats to do so as a form of leverage with Washington or to communicate their displeasure with U.S. policies. Arab allies still know, however, that their other suppliers cannot provide comprehensive security guarantees, and when they go ahead with third-party purchases they are often frustrated by the materiel’s inferior quality, absence of sustained service and follow-up, and problems of integration and interoperability.
More important, though, in the case of competition with China, the United States is losing out by playing yesterday’s game. While the Chinese are certainly exporting arms (mostly drones) to the region, they are more focused on marketing themselves as a purveyor of economic progress and modernization, while letting America shoulder the security burden through expensive military adventures and a seemingly perpetual military presence.
Yet another compelling argument for why the status quo U.S. security approach is no longer tenable in the Middle East comes not from factors external to the region such as great power encroachment, technological advances, or even the pressing need for reform and renewal within the United States. Rather, it springs from the immense changes underway within Arab states themselves: the socioeconomic, political, and demographic trends that spawned the Arab uprisings of 2011 and 2019 and that have in many instances been accelerated by the aftershocks from the pandemic.
At the forefront of these challenges is the long-term decline in global demand for oil and its impact on the rentier model on which nearly every Arab state relies directly or indirectly. Simply put, Arab regimes will soon no longer be able to rely on the distribution of hydrocarbon wealth, which they either generate themselves from exports or receive indirectly via aid or investments, to keep themselves afloat. The consequences of the looming end of the oil era, coming on top of the strains imposed by the current pandemic, are likely to be profound for social stability, undercutting the current authoritarian playbook of ruling through patronage, co-option, coercion, and a bloated public sector rather than governing through inclusivity, economic productivity, and a genuine social contract. The imperative for change is all urgent given the region’s growing youthful population, who have already demonstrated their impatience with the status quo in two major waves of regime-destabilizing protests in the last decade.
Yet with few exceptions, Arab rulers have been slow to make the changes needed to build productive, diversified economies let alone responsive, accountable governance. Their extraordinarily high levels of defense spending, often on high-end prestige items such as advanced fighter aircraft, underscore their continued conception of national security in narrow and outmoded terms, with an emphasis on ensuring regime survival and playing regional power games rather than building the educational, health, and governing institutions needed to support viable economies. For its part, the United States has continued to feed this appetite for arms, though recent steps by President Joe Biden’s administration in halting a proposed weapons transfer to Saudi Arabia, originally agreed during Donald Trump’s administration, indicate the possibility of a shift.
That shift needs to expand to a broader reconceptualization of U.S. security policy in the Middle East to help meet the looming challenges facing the region’s citizens, better advance U.S. interests, and more closely align with American values. The scholars in this collection present arguments and proposals for doing just this, taking into account the limits of American influence over regime behavior in Arab countries and the extraordinary range of challenges, at home and across the globe, that are claiming U.S. policymakers’ attention. The articles start with a recognition of the legitimate needs of America’s Arab allies to defend their territory and their varied levels of dependence on the United States. They also acknowledge the challenges posed by Russian and Chinese activities in the region, as well as the oft-overlooked impact of European arms sales. But collectively, they argue for a reduction, refinement, and rebalancing of the military component in America’s outreach to Arab allies to open space and free up resources for more effective and sustainable means of nonmilitary engagement.
Options for changing US policy
Reframing U.S. engagement in the Middle East to address a broader, human-centered definition of security would require a shift of financial and human resources on the U.S. side—from privileging military-to-military ties to diplomacy and development—but it almost certainly would cost far less in financial as well as human terms. To their credit, Biden administration officials appear to recognize this, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent articulation of what he calls “integrated deterrence,” in which the military plays a supporting role to diplomacy. Yet in the United States’ dealings with Arab states, much needs to change before this vision become reality.
One of the strongest arguments for this change from the status quo in U.S. security engagement with the Arab world is that it simply has not delivered on the promise of stabilizing the region or advancing U.S. interests. As Robert Springborg argues in his critique of U.S. security assistance in the Middle East, decades of massive transfers of conventional arms to American partners have not bolstered their operational capacities to meet the threats they face. Instead, reputational considerations and the symbolic security guarantees attached to American arms flows are what largely drive Arab regimes’ appetite for weapons. In offering a new framework, Springborg argues for a reduction in the volume of arms transfers along with a greater focus on improving the institutional capacity and human capital in Arab defense establishments, emphasizing civilian oversight, rule-of-law, and transparency. At the same time, he proposes the exploration of a new Middle Eastern security framework to prevent conflict and lessen the security burden on United States—an idea that has long been floated by analysts and scholars, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe commonly cited as a model. Yet moving to such an architecture has proven exceedingly difficult.
Part of the reason, as Emile Hokayem outlines in his contribution, is that America’s Gulf partners have become accustomed to blanket assurances from the United States, anchored in arms sales and basing, to offset what they perceive as the hegemonic aspirations from the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will be challenging, then, for Washington to alter long-held habits of defense-heavy diplomacy with Gulf regimes that still depend on the United States to protect themselves against external threats, despite their extensive and diverse spending on their own militaries. Hokayem argues that to lessen this dependence while still providing a measure of deterrence and support, the United States should re-focus its transfers on more discrete capabilities, like early warning systems and air and naval defense. In addition, the United States should demand strict accountability and define the conditions under which it will provide assistance—especially when it comes to interventions outside Arab allies’ borders—as well as what assistance it is prepared to deny. Taken in sum, these measures will allow Gulf states to develop a greater capability to address legitimate defense needs while allowing the United States to trim down its oversized military presence.
Reducing that presence, and in particular America’s outmoded archipelagos of “brick and mortar” bases, is the focus of Becca Wasser’s contribution. In contrast to voices calling for a complete removal of the U.S. military footprint from the region, she argues for a responsible drawdown and reallocation—of forces, capabilities, and locations—in such a way that will still preserve the needed access and overflight to deter state adversaries like Iran and conduct counterterrorism operations. This phased and gradual approach, what she calls a “rightsizing rather than retrenchment,” will have the added benefit of preserving America’s key relationships with longtime Arab partners
And yet, those relationships should not remain solely as they are. While reducing its physical basing, the United States needs to broaden outreach—beyond the Arab elites who have become deeply invested in the corruption and patronage associated with arms purchases. As Jodi Vittori points out, U.S. arms sales have become not only a source of personal enrichment for Arab elites but arrangements such as offsets (industrial compensation practices) animate entire networks of regime patronage and control, while also hindering transparency. U.S. diplomats will have to work even harder than they do now at teasing apart what the United States can reasonably do to help meet the true needs of Arab states to develop their economies and govern well, as opposed to simply giving in to what elites request to further their own wealth and power.
Yet proponents of changing the arms-centric status quo have frequently run up against a timeworn argument: even if transfers have negligible or adverse effects on the region, they are still essential for domestic reasons related to opportunities for U.S. jobs in the defense industry. Drawing from rich and varied sources of data, Jonathan Caverley demonstrates that this reported benefit has been vastly overstated.
The sophisticated aircraft and missiles most desired by Arab states are much in demand from other clients, meaning that few American jobs would be lost should those sales be canceled. Outdated weapons and ammunition purchases generate more jobs—but also lead to horrifying humanitarian outcomes such as in Yemen. And the increasing demand from Arab states for offsets used to build their own defense industries means that the margin of benefit to American laborers is ever diminishing.
Responding to International players
Efforts to enact all of the above proposals will require shifts in long-standing mindsets, habits, and resources. They also need to account for changes underway in the Middle Eastern security environment related to the growing profile of extra-regional players, besides the United States. The United States is facing and will continue to face more competition in the Middle East, from China and Russia, to be sure, as well as from European powers, who are establishing themselves as arms providers and security partners. But to paint this challenge as a simple rivalry for weapons—if Arab states do not get the weapons from the United States, they will get them from China, Europe, or Russia—is to misunderstand the nature of the problem as well as the opportunities.
In their piece on managing arms competition with European powers, Hassan Maged and Jalel Harchaoui describe in detail how ambitious and assertive Arab powers have long exploited competition for arms sales among European powers. Increasingly, they note, this rivalry is expanding to the United States and Europe, with the latter turning a blind eye to end usage to obtain an advantage over Washington, which is known for imposing tighter controls. Rather than trying to outbid Europe in this game, the United States needs to stick to its values and expand U.S. end-user agreement frameworks so that it encompasses weapons that partner nations buy from non-U.S. suppliers—like the Europeans. The United States also should invite European allies to join a new diplomatic forum to align arms sales standards and reduce any gaps in end-use scrutiny and human rights norms.
Meanwhile, Russia, as Andrew Weiss points out, has skillfully reasserted itself in the region militarily but remains “barely visible as an economic partner.” While the United States faces some difficult decisions about when and where to counter Russia’s increased military presence and arms sales, it can also outflank Moscow by remaining alert to “the Kremlin’s propensity for overreach and ham-handedness.”
China, on the other hand, seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East primarily through economic rather than military domination, as Patricia Kim argues.
Although Beijing’s strategy springs from its self-interested Belt and Road Initiative, China has in some ways positioned itself better than the United States to be a major partner to Arab states in economic development and technology as the scramble to build productive post-oil economies begins.
The United States should seize the opportunity to broaden its economic and technological, as opposed to military, engagement with Arab states while pushing back on the potentially destabilizing aspects of China’s engagement. Not only would a more diversified strategy be much less expensive, but it also would address the Middle East region’s most important challenge—generating prosperity built on human capital and technology, with governing systems capable of sustaining it—instead of fueling the conflicts that arise from the failure to face that challenge.
A new, less military-focused U.S. approach to Arab countries would contribute to stability by helping to address the intense needs of the region while also serving U.S. national security interests. While the United States is not obligated to help Arab countries find their way to productive post-oil economies, doing so would serve U.S. interests by diminishing the region’s propensity for generating armed conflict, militant groups, and waves of migration. Shifting U.S. resources toward addressing some of the worst effects of climate change, for example, such as water shortages and diminishing arable land, might well pay greater dividends than yet another offensive weapons system that Arab states will either not use or, worse, sometimes use for ill.
Tackling these challenges does not imply that the United States should expend greater effort and more funds on defense in the region. Echoing its predecessors, the Biden administration is arguing that the Middle East has long been consuming a disproportionate share of U.S. attention and resources. But the trend of stripping back U.S. economic and diplomatic engagement until military-to-military contacts and weapons sales remain the primary forms of contact with the region is counterproductive, outmoded, and should be reversed. Doing so will serve U.S. interests as well as those of the region’s people.