US retrenchment in the Middle East was inevitable given America’s new global priorities, which centre on the Indo-Pacific and Europe. But this historic transition has brought with it strategic uncertainty and confusion, not just for Washington but also for US regional partners.
To effectively navigate this new contested environment in the Middle East, and more specifically, to address the issue of China’s encroachment into that vital part of the world, Washington needs policy clarity and shrewd management of its relations with its regional partners.
The old US Middle East policy playbook — which asked Arab partners for their undivided loyalty, and which assumed collective enmity toward Iran — does not work anymore, for good and for ill.
Economic interests compel several regional powers to increase their trade and do more business with China, while Gulf Arab partners’ new diplomatic approach to security has sought to pacify and normalise ties with Iran.
So, what is needed is a new set of US rules of the game — especially as they pertain to competition with China. And these rules must be carefully formulated and effectively communicated, both internally and externally.
There was a time when Washington was able to impose, or at least sternly communicate, its preferences to its Arab partners. But that time is gone. Washington does not have the leverage it once had in the region.
It is also less trusted by its Arab partners, who have interpreted the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and tolerance of Iranian aggression in the region to mean that it is headed for the exit.
Despite its unmatched regional military presence, whatever concerns and dispositions Washington has about the Arab partners’ ties with China, it must approach them with realism and humility, but also with transparency.
US officials very well understand that asking regional partners to downgrade their economic relations with China is a nonstarter (for example, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner).
They also recognise that encouraging these partners to limit their political relations with Beijing is not an option either. These partners are likely to increase their cooperation under the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states.
The one major area where Washington has enough room to shape the policy agenda with its Arab partners moving forward is defence and security.
The challenge for Washington – and it is a big one – will be to incentivise Arab partners to eschew military cooperation with China while not promising them things it cannot deliver, including, most notably, a formal defence pact or official security guarantees.