Huda al-Husseini

The Post-American Regional Order 

While they may have been minimal, US President Joe Biden’s visit last year did yield some positive results. In October, the United States brokered a landmark agreement that settled the longstanding maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon. The Biden administration has also sought to enhance regional integration through the establishment of the Negev Forum, which includes Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. It has also launched initiatives to encourage defense cooperation between Israel and Washington’s other Middle Eastern partners.

These steps point to Washington’s priorities in the region: Israel’s integration into the broader Middle East, de-escalation of regional conflicts, and containment of Iran.

The first thing Biden thought of was Iran. Despite the ongoing women-led protest movement in Iran, Tehran has managed to break free of its regional and international isolation, normalizing relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors - first the UAE and then, more significantly, with Saudi Arabia.

While Iraq and the Sultanate of Oman have been working to facilitate this rapprochement for years, hosting several pivotal and profound talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the prominent role played by the Chinese in pushing their reconciliation over the line surprised many last March.

China’s role has fueled the already prevalent narrative that US influence in the Middle East is waning. Meanwhile, Iran continues to develop its nuclear program as hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal - a top priority of the Biden administration - have been all but dashed. Making matters worse, Moscow Russia’s deepening ties to Tehran amid the Ukraine war have undermined its role in the negotiations for a nuclear deal.

Perhaps more worryingly for the US, Russian oil exports continue to reach Washington’s closest regional partners, including some Gulf states. These Gulf partners have put discounted Russian oil to domestic use, leaving them with more of their own to export as prices rise. Although their aim is to maximize profit, these purchases undercut the impact of Western sanctions against Moscow.

Other Arab partners of the US also do business with Russia despite Western objections. Indeed, leaked US intelligence reports indicate that Russia has been trying to purchase ammunition and equipment from some Arab countries.

All of this undoubtedly raises concerns for policymakers in Washington.

In turn, the Israeli government’s policies have triggered one of the most tumultuous periods in Israeli history, raising doubts about the viability of its future as a democracy.

As the country continues to suffer from unrest at home, what looks like a revolution has broken out in the West Bank and along Israel’s northern and southern borders. Notably, we recently saw one of the largest rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon since its 2006 war with Hezbollah. The provocative measures that the Israeli government has taken in Jerusalem could further inflame regional tensions, potentially undermining Israel’s ties to the Arab countries that have normalized relations with it.

After everything, the Biden administration has voiced its support for efforts to de-escalate military tensions in the Middle East. It has publicly spoken positively about the ongoing talks between Riyadh and Tehran, which could end the conflicts wreaking havoc on countries like Yemen. In fact, while China has to account for the burden of ensuring that the two sides respect the commitments they have made as part of the agreement, the United States has little to lose. As a matter of fact, it could perhaps have much to gain, as Middle Eastern stability could allow Washington to channel its energy and resources to top-priority theaters, particularly the Indo-Pacific region and the war in Ukraine.

Washington’s regional partnerships - the cornerstone of the Biden administration’s strategy - are under great strain. Relations with Saudi Arabia remain particularly rigid, as the latter’s interests dictate policies that have impacted OPEC - an international organization of oil-producing countries that includes Russia - outputs, to say nothing about the Kingdom’s overtures to Tehran.

Last weekend, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Prime Minister; UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan; and India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Jeddah. They discussed ways to fortify their shared vision for a more secure and prosperous Middle East that has stronger ties with India and the world. In his press statement, Sullivan thanked the Saudi Crown Prince for the Kingdom’s help in evacuating US citizens from Sudan.

Finally, Syria is another point of contention, as Washington opposes the recent regional initiatives taken with regard to Syria.

As for Israel, Washington’s most crucial partner in the region, Biden has warned that it “cannot continue on this path,” referring to the anti-democratic legislation proposed by the Netanyahu government, as well as its inflammatory anti-Arab rhetoric and policies. Moreover, the White House has yet to invite Netanyahu to make a state visit to Washington since his return to power.

For its part, Abu Dhabi has also voiced its frustration with the current Israeli government, and it too has refused to invite Netanyahu to the UAE since he won elections last year.

Israel’s actions have also been an impediment to great regional integration, including at the Negev Forum, and the Biden administration’s attempt to reinforce the Abraham Accords by expanding the scope of cooperation among Washington’s regional partners in critical areas, like economic development, climate change, food and water security, education, and health care. However, a ministerial meeting that had been scheduled to be held in Morocco in March fell through amid escalating violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

Although working-level meetings are still being held at the Negev Forum, meetings among the top brass are becoming increasingly rare.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has stressed that it remains committed to the Arab Peace Initiative it had put forward in 2002, which stipulates that resolving the Palestinian conflict is a prerequisite for regional peace.

The United States has maintained a strong military presence in the region, and its partners are keen on cooperating with Washington to enhance their missile defense systems and maritime security. Nonetheless, these regional partners simply do not believe they have to choose from competing global power centers, as they are reaping the rewards of exploiting these international rivalries to further their interests.

Thus, it might be wiser for US policymakers to look into the new approaches being taken in the region, as well as reassess Washington’s current regional priorities and partnerships. Indeed, for many observers, China hosting the normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran was only the latest indication that a “post-American regional order” has emerged.