The Multialigned Middle East

11 months ago 47

At the time it was announced, in March 2023, the China-mediated deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia was widely seen as a sign of Beijing’s arrival in Middle East power politics. Although the Biden administration denied that China’s role in brokering the agreement—which reestablished diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran—reflected declining U.S. influence, Washington’s actions since then paint a different picture. Over the last few months, the United States has deployed additional military resources in the region, increased patrols and joint exercises around the Strait of Hormuz, and signaled that it would push forward arms deals with regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and expand training with Egypt, Kuwait, and others—all in an apparent attempt to reassure Arab partners of its commitment to Middle East security.

But these moves are unlikely to shore up U.S. influence. The pivot of Arab powers toward Beijing is not a result of Washington’s declining military presence. These states are well aware of Washington’s military investments in the Middle East—though they increasingly doubt its willingness to deploy those capabilities on their behalf. Rather, they are engaging China in areas—such as infrastructure and technology—where they perceive that the United States is less able or willing to help them. They are also seeking to acquire certain military systems, such as advanced drones, that the United States has wisely kept off-limits. Moreover, China’s foreign policy tends to be friendlier to authoritarian regimes like their own, and Beijing has managed to stay equidistant from the region’s competing powers, allowing China to portray itself as an unbiased mediator.

Given these trends, the United States needs a new approach to the region. It should accept the more positive aspects of China’s growing presence in the Middle East and encourage—rather than try to contain—Beijing’s contributions to regional development and stability. Washington will also need to adopt a more targeted response to specific Chinese actions that harm U.S. interests.

At the same time, Washington should not double down on its timeworn, security-focused strategy, rooted in efforts to create pro-U.S. defensive blocs as a counterweight to Chinese encroachment. Instead, the United States should expand its policy tools and investment in the region to areas where it enjoys a comparative advantage, such as human capital advancement, education, green technology, and digital platforms. And it should also support broader kinds of compacts with Arab partners and rising middle powers such as Brazil, India, and Japan that will allow it to diversify the region’s stakeholders, bring new investment, and reinvigorate U.S. engagement on trade, climate change, food security, and other issues.

MULTIALIGNED, UNIPOLAR

Over the past decade, the foreign policies of many Middle Eastern states have shifted toward multialignment. Even traditional U.S. partners such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are no longer satisfied with Washington’s attempts to create exclusive, U.S.-led blocs. They seek partnerships with multiple powers, including China, India, Russia, and the United States. Take the UAE. Although it remains a close security and economic partner of the United States, Abu Dhabi has deepened ties with Beijing through trade, technology sharing, and new arms deals. It has maintained its diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia despite Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. And it is also investing in bilateral trade and technology initiatives with India, entering a new Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2022. As other Middle Eastern states pursue similarly diversified partnerships, this trend toward multialignment is likely to reconfigure U.S. influence in the region.

Although the Middle East is multialigned, it is not multipolar: the United States remains by far the Middle East’s leading security patron, and that position seems unlikely to be challenged in the foreseeable future. The total number of U.S. forces has fallen from its peak but remains over 30,000—roughly what it was before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Washington continues to spend billions each year on security assistance to the region, and the U.S. share of the regional arms market has even increased from 47 percent in the 2010–14 period to 54 percent in the 2018–22 period, according to data from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, due in part to U.S. sanctions on Russia after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, the United States continues to maintain military facilities in at least a dozen countries across the region, ranging from large bases to smaller outposts, training facilities, and pre-positioned stockpiles of weapons and materiel.

But dominance does not mean exclusivity. Although China’s security presence in the region is limited, it can offer its partners defense and economic opportunities that the United States does not. For example, Beijing has just one military base, located in Djibouti, but it has invested in ports across the region that can be used for both civilian and military activities, a strategy that has helped it extend the reach of the Chinese military while boosting trade with Middle Eastern countries. According to a leaked December 2022 U.S. intelligence report, the United Arab Emirates has allowed China to resume construction on a military logistical facility at one such port—not to replace the United States’ sizable military presence in the country but to enable China to add to it.

China has applied a similar strategy to sharing its military technology in the region. Beijing does not provide much direct military aid to countries in the Middle East, and Chinese arms sales account for less than five percent of the region’s total. But it does offer cheap, condition-free access to some of its advanced technology, primarily drones and precision-guided missiles, for clients who cannot get these systems from the United States. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE value these Chinese offerings as supplements to, rather than replacements for, U.S. weapons systems, which they continue to purchase—and prefer—for their higher quality and prestige. China has also provided support to Arab governments on internal security, including law enforcement training and access to sophisticated surveillance technologies.

Washington should not double down on its timeworn, security-focused strategy.

Since 2021, six Arab countries—Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—have become dialogue partners with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-led political, economic, and security group that also includes Russia. They join Turkey, which has been a SCO dialogue partner since 2013, and Iran, which was granted full SCO membership this year. For Washington’s Arab partners, participation in the SCO can strengthen ties with China, Russia, and countries in Central Asia without replacing their deeper, more comprehensive relationships with the United States.

In the economic domain, China now plays a bigger role in the Middle East than the United States but has not entirely displaced it. China’s trade has long exceeded that of the United States, and by 2019, China passed the European Union to become the region’s leading trade partner. Over the past 10 years, data from the International Monetary Fund suggest that while U.S. imports and exports with the region fell, China’s trade with the Middle East increased by roughly 40 percent, driven by Beijing’s growing exports to the region and insatiable demand for oil products. China’s rising trade volumes have brought regional influence, but the continued dominance of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency gives Washington continued economic leverage, tying regional powers and their trade and financial markets to the United States.

China has also rapidly increased its investments in the Middle East. Although the United States still accounts for a greater share of the region’s foreign direct investment, most U.S. direct investment is concentrated in just three countries—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—and in a narrow set of industries. By contrast, Beijing’s investments are more diversified, involving countries such as Oman that do not receive as much U.S. support and covering a larger number of sectors, including energy, physical and digital infrastructure, and real estate. For many Arab governments, China’s willingness to invest broadly without the conditions that are often set by U.S. donors—which may link investments to meeting criteria on human rights, democracy, or economic reform—makes the country an appealing additional partner in the region.

Finally, the results of a 2022 survey from Arab Barometer, an opinion research firm, show public support across the region for a multialigned approach to foreign policy. Specifically, respondents in many countries report that they favor more and deeper economic engagement with both the United States and China even as they harbor concerns about the influence of each.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

Despite the region’s growing preference for multialignment, U.S. policymakers expect that the Arab states that have long enjoyed U.S. support and protection will continue to regard Washington as their sole and preeminent partner. This is illustrated most explicitly by the Biden administration’s push to expand the 2020 Abraham Accords—a set of agreements that normalized relations between Israel and four Arab countries: Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the UAE. The administration now hopes to negotiate a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia and to have the accords encompass a wider portfolio of security and economic issues. In pursuing these goals, Washington hopes to lay the groundwork for greater military coordination against Iran and to create a pro-U.S. bulwark against Chinese influence. But decades of regional rivalries and conflicts and anemic economic development in many parts of the Middle East make clear that this security-focused, bloc-based approach has worked poorly in practice—even during periods when Washington lacked major competitors. Now that countries in the region see alternatives to U.S. dominance, the flawed logic of this strategy is even more apparent.

Billions of dollars of U.S. arms sales, training, and other forms of security assistance have failed to build the military capabilities that Washington’s regional partners need to credibly defend themselves or participate in coalition operations. This security assistance has, however, emboldened Arab partners to launch disastrous campaigns using U.S. weapons, in Libya and Yemen, for example. These conflicts have triggered new threats to U.S. interests, fed regional instability, and created new opportunities for malign actors such as Iran or Russia’s Wagner mercenary group to exert influence. In some states, such as Iraq and Egypt, U.S. security assistance has also enriched kleptocratic elites and exacerbated corruption. Nor have these investments engendered loyalty from U.S. partners. For example, not only the UAE but also Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have continued to engage diplomatically and economically with Russia since its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

To its credit, the Biden administration has begun to shift away from ambitious nation-building projects in the Middle East, especially those conducted by force. That strategy was epitomized by the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. But Washington’s growing aversion to direct military intervention has not ended its overly security-focused approach to the region or its efforts to force local partners into exclusive partnerships. Thus, the Biden administration continues to advocate for a regional security architecture centered on U.S. guarantees and additional contributions from regional partners, all backed by more combined military exercises and increased U.S. arms sales. Accompanying these initiatives is Washington’s explicit expectation that Middle Eastern partners choose between the United States and its major rivals. As a senior U.S. defense official, Mara Karlin, noted in May, “We want our partners purchasing U.S. and allied systems. . . . Not doing so undermines our partnerships as well as elements of our strategic approach to the region.”

In addition to maintaining an unrealistic demand for exclusivity, these policies fail to prioritize economic engagement. Unlike China, which seeks new free trade agreements across the region, the United States has signaled little interest in extending market access to regional partners. The Middle East is included in the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the G-7’s answer to China’s Belt and Road, but new investment in the initiative is too limited for it to serve as the core of renewed U.S. economic involvement in the region.

THE MORE THE MERRIER

To revitalize its presence in the region, the United States must start by recognizing that the era of exclusive partnerships and security blocs in the Middle East is over. Washington will need to accept that its partners’ diversification in areas such as arms purchases and security dialogues does not mean that they will fall into the orbit of U.S. rivals. But it does herald a new reality characterized by multialignment.

To adapt, Washington will need to avoid reactive policies that seek to shut out Chinese influence. Not only are such policies destined to fail but they may also force the United States to make unappealing compromises on economic reforms, human rights, and other critical issues. The Biden administration should not offer new security guarantees to Arab states—such as those requested by Saudi Arabia—or waive the normal oversight and scrutiny that it attaches to its arms transfers, simply to deny China. Out of both preference and necessity, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries in the region are unlikely to turn their backs on the United States—particularly on defense and security matters.

At the same time, the administration needs to embrace an economic and political strategy that offers tangible benefits to the region. Capitalizing on Arab states’ interest in multialignment, Washington can broker new “minilateral” partnerships—usually groups of three to seven states—between the United States, Arab partners, and leading powers in other regions to address critical issues such as economic diversification, governance, and climate change. Through a network of such overlapping but nonexclusive partnerships, Washington could help draw investment from new players, reenergize U.S. economic participation, and strengthen its own political influence while also building resilience in the Middle East.

Chinese arms sales account for less than five percent of the region’s total.

One promising example of this strategy is the I2U2 group, formed in 2022 by India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States to jointly address issues such as food security, energy, and public health. The I2U2 is still new, but it has already made progress on technology sharing and investments in agricultural innovation and sustainability. As Washington builds out this and similar groupings, however, it should avoid framing them as explicit counterweights to China. For some partnerships, the United States can act as a catalyst rather than engaging directly, and where there are converging interests—for example, on climate change or food security— China should be included in new groups.

Finally, the United States should not neglect the mounting domestic pressures facing its Middle East partners. In particular, it needs make the promotion of better governance and socioeconomic inclusion more of a priority in its regional strategy. The absence of these reforms in the Middle East has long been a driver of social unrest and violent upheaval and is likely to become more so, especially as already fragile states grapple with global economic uncertainties, the fallout from the war in Ukraine, climate change, and other transnational challenges. Of course, any effort by Washington to push for meaningful changes will be difficult, given resistance from its autocratic allies. Focusing on increasing government transparency and improving local access to social services would be one place to start. Another would be to prioritize direct engagement with citizens across the region, for example, by expanding digital access and increasing funding for education and job-based training.

The deficiencies of Washington’s bloc-based, security-centric approach in the Middle East have long been apparent. With the rise of China and the region’s growing search for multiple partners, the need to revise this strategy has become urgent. To avoid being sidelined, the United States will have to recognize that socioeconomic and governance problems within states, and not great-power encroachment, are likely to be the Middle East’s defining threats over the next decade.

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