It’s uncanny, the way America’s declining influence across the Middle East seems to be tracking the previous, humbling retreat of the British empire from the same area. It’s as if the countries of the region, having ditched one overweening imperium, are now rejecting another.
Slowly but surely, ruling regimes and authoritarian leaders are asserting their independence and freedom of action – some democratically, most not – while courting new allies. This reflects in turn a fundamental shift towards a multipolar world, where solo superpowers no longer dominate. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, ruthless royals inculcate a homogenous national identity and project power abroad through financial clout, oil and sport. Trading on their strategic importance, they reject the status of western protectorate conferred by the US and, before that, by Britain.
In Israel, hardline Jewish nationalists and religious extremists battle to define the future character of the state in defiance of Washington’s wishes, echoing the violent end days of the British mandate. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, heir to another vanquished empire, sets west against east and vice versa, alternately playing kiss-me-quick with the US, Nato, the EU, Russia and China.
Since taking office in 2021, US president Joe Biden, mindful of recent, scarring American calamities and preoccupied by China and Ukraine, has mostly steered clear of continuing crises in the West Bank, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan. His one big Middle East pledge – to salvage the Iran nuclear pact wrecked by Donald Trump – remains unfulfilled. In 1956 the invasion of Egypt fatally undermined Britain as dominant regional power. Is an irrelevant America approaching its own Suez-like turning point? Unsurprisingly, given his lifelong belief in American pre-eminence, but perhaps unwisely given the tenor of the times, Biden’s answer is no. Instead he’s belatedly launched an ambitious push to re-establish US regional leadership. Partly, it’s to counter the influence of Beijing and Moscow, partly to remind unbiddable local allies who underwrites their security and prosperity. Making a point, Biden sent 3,000 extra troops to the Gulf this month, ostensibly to deter Iran but also to show who’s boss.
Political calculations are in play, too. Facing re-election next year, Biden hopes to score an improbable hat-trick. The prize is diplomacy’s equivalent of the triple crown: a US working “understanding” with Iran, a historic Saudi Arabia-Israel peace deal and a breakthrough on Palestinian statehood. Take Iran first. Talks in Qatar on releasing imprisoned Americans in exchange for unfreezing $6bn in Iranian assets made significant progress this month. The two sides are also reportedly discussing an end to Iranian military drone sales to Russia. It’s suggested the ultimate aim is an informal bilateral deal halting Tehran’s alleged weapons-related nuclear programmes in return for the full lifting of US sanctions – which is what Iran’s unpopular, economically embattled regime craves most. Talks continue. The second, linked part of this Middle East makeover involves Iran’s old enemy, the Saudis. The US has been rattled by Chinese mediation between Tehran and Riyadh and Saudi collaboration with Moscow. Biden wants to get the de facto Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman, back on side – and secure an Abraham accords-style normalisation of relations with Israel. To this end, he is reportedly dangling a security pact and US support for a Saudi civil nuclear power programme that could potentially match Iran’s, despite obvious proliferation concerns. Such thinking rings alarm bells in Jerusalem. No problem, says Joe. Saudi-Israeli normalisation could include US defence guarantees and advanced weaponry for both. And it would have the added benefit, for him, of sidelining an importunate China.
Why should the US help and defend a Saudi regime that scorns its democratic and human rights values? After the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Biden vowed to make the kingdom a global “pariah”. The answer is that normalisation would represent a big pre-election win for the president, especially when linked to the third leg of his plan: advancing Palestinian statehood. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s domestically besieged prime minister, badly needs a Saudi deal. The Saudis want one, too, but insist, on paper at least, on tangible progress towards a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners oppose any concessions, he’s barely on speaking terms with Biden – and in October, just to spite him, he plans to visit China. Even so, Biden seems to think he can win Israeli agreement for increased Palestinian autonomy, a halt to West Bank annexation plans and maybe a revived two-state peace process in return for delivering the Saudis, defanging Iran and providing security guarantees all round. Biden’s hat-trick hopes look slightly delusional. Myriad local negative factors aside, time is against him. Like the rest of the world, self-interested regional leaders wonder how long he will last – and will Trump replace him.
How things have changed. Time was, the US, like Britain before it, laid down the law in the Middle East. But that was before 9/11 and al-Qaida, Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China and the malignant Vladimir Putin, and the authoritarian assault on global democracy and the rule of law. Even a motley bunch of Niger coup plotters can defy Uncle Sam with impunity these days. And yet, in other respects, this shift is welcome. Why shouldn’t the world’s less powerful but nonetheless independent countries be free to let their interests dictate their allegiances, rather than be herded into permanent blocs, inflexible alliances and mutually antagonistic pacts? In these unsentimental times, why not play the field?
The era of the all-dominant superpower and the “indispensable nation” is drawing to a close. Biden may do his darnedest to sustain the old order. But like Britain’s lost “imperial age”, the “American century” in which he’s so firmly rooted is passing swiftly into history.