The U.S. is Deprioritizing the Middle East

Amiraculous and perhaps mystifying development is happening in the Middle East currently: Diplomacy is flowering across the region. Leaders who ordinarily undercut one another are instead exploring whether more constructive arrangements can be made for the benefit of their respective nations. And states that were once mortal adversaries for regional influence are beginning to mend fences, if for any other reason than to cool the temperature in a part of the world often synonymous with conflict.

This week’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, a landmark trip if there ever was one, is only the latest example of previously hostile countries seeking to bury the hatchet. A week prior, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who helped orchestrate a multi-country boycott of neighboring Qatar in 2017 over terrorism allegations, traveled to the tiny but influential nation on Dec. 8 for a personal chit-chat with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Mohammed’s voyage to Qatar came nearly a year after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt restored air, land and sea links to the Persian Gulf nation after the boycott failed to result in the Qatari foreign policy change that Riyadh and its partners wanted.

On Nov. 24, nearly a month before greeting the Israeli prime minister, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed set foot in Turkey to sign a series of economic and financial agreements with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The signing ceremony was notable because both nations have been at loggerheads on a myriad of issues since the dawn of the Arab Spring protests, when Turkey and the UAE found themselves on the opposite side of the region’s fault-lines. Before their recent encounter, the UAE crown prince hadn’t been to Turkey in nearly a decade, viewing Erdogan’s support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat to the type of family-ruled dynastic regimes prevalent in the Gulf.

Turkey and Egypt are also working to rescue their bilateral ties, with their respective deputy foreign ministers meeting in September in an attempt to chip away at problems from conflicting claims over natural gas fields in the Mediterranean to interference in one another’s internal affairs. As a goodwill gesture, the Turks and Egyptians are both reducing their propaganda wars in the media.

The Saudis and Emiratis are also reaching out to Iran for talks, which if successful, have the potential to ameliorate many of the proxy wars that have roiled the Middle East for decades. While diplomacy between Riyadh and Tehran remains tedious and frustrating (at least according to Saudi Arabia’s U.N. envoy), the negotiations are nonetheless continuing despite the bad blood and suspicion that has accumulated since the advent of Iran’s Islamic Republic in 1979. That talks haven’t fallen apart yet is an accomplishment in its own right.

Even Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, once the region’s favorite pariah, is beginning to be drawn back into the regional fold. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq have all been increasing engagement with Damascus this year, some more than others. In October, Assad received his first phone call from Jordan’s King Abdullah II since Syria erupted into civil war in 2011—a long way from the days when Abdullah was the first Arab leader to advocate for Assad’s resignation. A few days before the call, a central crossing point on the Jordanian-Syrian border was reopened for normal commerce.

What is exactly driving all of these events?

While each stream of diplomacy is unique, there is a common theme threading them together: the sense that the United States is deprioritizing the Middle East in its grand strategy after two decades of intense involvement in the region’s internal politics. It’s no coincidence Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have grown accustomed to unconditional U.S. support, are the driving forces behind much of the diplomatic activity now underway. With the Biden administration pledging additional resources and attention to the Indo-Pacific, U.S. partners in the Middle East are now being incentivized to make their own arrangements. Uncle Sam has other priorities to attend to, and leaders are concluding they need to adapt to changing circumstances instead of depend on the U.S. to do its bidding.

Without overstating the case, U.S. military disengagement is serving the Middle East quite well. It’s also slowly extricating the U.S. from a region which, frankly put, is not as strategically important to U.S. security and prosperity interests as it was during the Cold War.

Of course, we shouldn’t overstate the case. There are still roughly 45,000-65,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East, down from a peak of 90,000 in early 2020. The U.S. possesses a sizable constellation of bases throughout the region, with one, the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, hosting approximately 10,000 U.S. servicemembers, air platforms and the regional headquarters of U.S. Central Command. A U.S. carrier strike group frequently traverses the waters of the Persian Gulf, and the U.S. has a habit of flying B-52 and B-1 bombers to demonstrate a presence.

Even so, numbers don’t lie. There has been a reduction in the U.S. force posture in the Middle East, even if it isn’t yet accompanied by a change in underlying strategy as some would like. U.S. policymakers are starting to see the aftereffects of this reduction, and it just so happens that one of the byproducts is a growing interest among Middle Eastern governments in the peaceful resolution of disputes.