With the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, some subtle shifts are underway in a Middle East where countries are exploring new regional partnerships – and reckoning with a world where the leading superpower appears to have lost some of its sparkle.
These regional realignments are helping “depressurize” an area that has been dangerously stressed in recent years. Countries increasingly are trying to solve their own problems, through regional economic links, rather than depending on U.S. military might. The danger is that some countries may turn to China as a new security partner, to replace what they see as an unreliable United States.
The most notable diplomatic initiatives include Iranian talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and a UAE rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar. In each case, the shared agenda is trade and economic prosperity. U.S. diplomacy has encouraged this “deconfliction,” but its momentum is outside Washington’s control.
The new tone was evident during a tour of the region last week by Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser. Sullivan stopped in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo. In each capital, officials expressed their desire for U.S. diplomatic and military support, but voiced frustration with erratic U.S. policy, according to officials from all sides.
The region’s thorniest conflict is in Yemen. The United States is working with U.N. Special Envoy Hans Grundberg on a new peace plan in which the Saudis would allow the United Nations to monitor the port in Hodeida and the airport in Sanaa. In exchange, the Saudis want the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to accept a cease-fire, a demand the Houthis haven’t yet met.
Yemen has partly been a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, so the diplomatic Riyadh-Tehran opening may aid the fledgling peace effort. Already, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have ceased missile attacks against the Saudis, though the Houthis continue to launch missiles and drones from the south. U.S. officials hope that this month’s Group of 20 meeting, which Saudi Arabia will attend, may offer a forum for ending the catastrophic conflict.
Saudi contacts with Iran have been led by Khalid al-Humaidan, the head of Saudi intelligence, working through Iraqi mediators. The Iranians are said to have expanded these contacts under the new hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi. For both sides, it appears to be a pragmatic maneuver: The Saudis have concluded that the United States isn’t going to topple the mullahs, and that future stability will be enhanced by mutual investment – and eventually, a resumption of diplomatic relations. The Iranians are said to be ready to reopen an embassy in Riyadh immediately.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman remains the stress point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Sullivan repeated warnings from previous U.S. visitors that MBS, as the crown prince is known, must accept responsibility for the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA believes he authorized. MBS repeated his past denials of personal involvement but said he has taken steps to make sure that such an incident won’t happen again.
MBS complained to Sullivan that he gets no credit for modernizing the kingdom and expanding women’s rights. U.S. officials responded that there’s a bipartisan demand in Congress that Riyadh do more on human rights. In this stalemate, Saudi Arabia is likely to hedge its options, expanding ties with China and Russia without breaking links with Washington.
The new Middle East catechism of “no enemies, no problems” was formulated in the UAE. Sullivan heard an explanation from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the country’s de facto ruler, who’s known as MBZ. The United States withdrawal from Afghanistan has hit the UAE hard, in part because several sons of MBZ fought in the U.S.-led coalition there.
The UAE leader, troubled by what he sees as the unpredictable zigs and zags in U.S. policy, floated a provocative remedy. He suggested that the UAE’s future relationship with the United States might be more stable if it were anchored by a formal security pact – not a treaty alliance like NATO, necessarily, but a pact that had a congressional stamp of approval. U.S. officials are mulling this idea.
The UAE has a budding relationship with China, too. The Chinese have even talked of a port in the UAE as a key node in their Belt and Road Initiative for Chinese-led global economic development, according to media reports. Anwar Gargash, a top UAE diplomat, said last weekend his country was worried by “a looming Cold War” between the United States and China. “The idea of choosing is problematic,” he said.
For the Middle East, which has been buffeted by the United States’ 20 years of war in the region, the withdrawal from Afghanistan marked an inflection point. The United States’ traditional partners are still in the game with us, but the deck has been reshuffled.
Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost