A paradigm shift in the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape has emerged, driven by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and met with widespread approval from across the Arab world. The United States must redefine its term of engagement in light of this transformation. It must be emphasized that these shifts in diplomacy, including the re-admission of Syria to the Arab League and the Saudi-Iranian détente, are the fruit of longstanding efforts and a loss of American influence over the political calculus of Middle Eastern leaders. With Congress reassessing the decades-old Authorizations for Use of Military Force and the Biden administration’s preoccupation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. has been more reactive rather than proactive in responding to these changes.
The deterioration of American influence is evident in OPEC’s repeated decisions, at the direction of Saudi Arabia, to refuse President Biden’s requests to increase oil production. In each case, Saudi Arabia chose their own interests rather than subordinating their record-breaking oil profits to Western consumers, as the historical arrangement of security for cheap oil implied. This new “Saudi First” policy is partially the result of both the COVID-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, which have given Saudi Arabia outsized influence on the disrupted global energy market which they have strategically leveraged. Adopting a less cooperative stance towards the U.S. has won MBS popularity across the Arab world which is eager for American disengagement from the region.
The Biden administration has not developed a cogent response to these rebukes, as evidenced by statements made in the wake of the détente brokered by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Biden administration officials sang a chorus of “support” for the agreement, downplaying China’s role in the negotiations while emphasizing the stability it could bring to the region. These officials explained that the U.S. is too integrated into Saudi Arabia’s military infrastructure for the Saudis to abandon our bilateral relationship and demonstrated this through consistent updates on the progress of the negotiations. While senior officials from the Biden administration maintained regular contact with their Saudi counterparts in the weeks following the Saudi-Iranian deal these efforts appear to be concentrated towards normalization with Israel. While this would certainly be a coup for Israel, it is not clear if these efforts will reverse the desire for American disengagement across the Arab world.
China was in a better position to host mediation, as White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recognized. The significance of this decision is that Saudi Arabia is no longer relying on the U.S. for its security needs and recognized China as the appropriate host for mediation. Saudi Arabia is not alone in this determination, the UAE has moved more aggressively to reduce its dependence on the U.S. for security, clearly evidenced by the recent decision to withdraw from a multilateral maritime security framework led by the U.S. and reports of a secret Chinese presence at Khalifa port. China has increasingly courted Middle Eastern countries for an expanded security relationship with the PRC. While this new orientation is better left unacknowledged, Biden administration officials have been too quiet about the greatest consequence of this agreement for U.S. security interests, the Arab League’s rapprochement with Syria.
While the recent earthquake created a catalyst for rapprochement, it would not have been possible without the Saudi-Iranian détente which saw Saudi Arabia accept Iranian interference in the Levant in exchange for their withdrawal from Yemen. As the keystone of Syria’s isolation from the rest of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia always had to be the driving force of Syria’s return to the fold. Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran had sustained the blockade of another Arab Muslim majority country. Since the de-escalation of their competition, Iran has been empowered to operate more freely in the Levant. While many states had strong incentives to normalize with Assad, namely the Captagon crisis, this decision further demonstrates a growing indifference to American frustration, understanding that the consequences will be minimal while the Biden administration pursues Saudi normalization with Israel.
Whether or not an American retreat from the Middle East has occurred, the perception is widely held across the region. In light of this situation, a new proactive policy that reorients U.S. policy to pursue our broader strategic interests in the region and better incorporates our national values is necessary. The exodus of religious minorities from the Middle East has removed a stabilizing presence and accelerated radicalization in places like Syria and Lebanon. Many of these religious minorities generally hold Western values, such as religious freedom and principles of democratic governance.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is an organic and successful project of democracy and pluralism, presenting the best model yet for governance in post-civil war Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces were instrumental in the operation against ISIS and remain a critical partner on the ground to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS. The risk of an ISIS caliphate reemerging within two years of a U.S. withdrawal is very real, as General Kurilla of the U.S. Central Command recently testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Renewing pluralism in the Middle East is a core strategic interest of the U.S. and the entire international community. If action is not taken within the next decade or so, there will be few religious minorities to support. Now is the critical hour to defend and assist the extant vulnerable groups. Tackling realistic reforms to reduce discrimination against religious minorities and foster norms of democratic governance fits with the broader reorientation of American foreign policy towards human rights and democratic governance the Biden administration has sought to undertake.
The U.S. can still promote regional stability within this emerging Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape by working with our partners to build a more stable and diverse Arab world. The current course of U.S. policy will result in a gradual decline of U.S. influence while the region continues to grow more hostile to U.S. interests and engagement. Focusing on the difficult issues that matter the most could have a better pay off down the road with a more stable and diverse Arab world without having to burn down America’s already damaged moral credibility.