U.S. Must Maintain Strong Ties to Moderate Gulf States
Despite rumors of waning influence in the Middle East due to Trump’s protectionist doctrine, America remains as present as ever in the region. Although the media continues to push the narrative that Russia is filling a supposed power vacuum, there are still too many U.S. interests in the Middle East for the administration to ignore.
The region is showing real signs of economic and social progress despite risks of terror networks and enduring armed conflicts. In the Gulf, countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain represent significant economic, political and military potential. The Trump administration has been open about the potential it sees in the region, and rightly so. With opportunities for prosperity and security within grasp, now is the time when the U.S. must strengthen its bonds with the moderate states in the Gulf in order to fend off the more malignant and expansionist policies of other states.
Expanding the Regional Scope
For several decades, the lynchpin of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been to protect Israel—its biggest ally in the region—and Saudi interests, and only then focus on the remainder of the gulf. The resulting policies inevitably restricted U.S. economic potential in the Middle East. For a long time, the U.S. refused to sell arms to states which were superior in military might to Israel, as the small nation was expected to act as a pacifier in the region. This permitted America to remain “hands-off” and act only for larger existential threats.
Similarly, U.S. policy involved providing Saudi Arabia billions of dollars’ worth in arms, cash, and support despite Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights track record. The U.S. has repeatedly turned a blind eye towards the Kingdom’s treatment of women, its public beheadings, and multiple human rights violations (both domestically and abroad) while happily benefiting from the petrodollar relationship.
This may have been profitable, but it also alienated potentially important allies in the region like the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt. This gap opened the door for players like Iran and Russia to carve out a corner of power in the region, turning potential partners like Qatar to their cause. Even so, the UAE and Egypt have remained steadfast and have become vital partners for America. The UAE survived the Arab Spring intact and has become an important moderate ally. Egypt, despite struggling for years following its own revolution, is back on track thanks to strong U.S. support for the Sisi government, despite its human rights record and clampdown on dissent.
Even so, the U.S. failed to act in time in several countries impacted by the Arab Spring, allowing Iran to extend its reach to countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The country’s presence has destabilized the region, exacerbating existing security risks. Iran’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria has likely prolonged the conflict, while its continued ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon help tighten the terrorist organization’s grasp on the country.
Finding Key Allies in the Region
On the other hand, the rest of the Gulf is poised to take a leap forward. The UAE’s economy is in full growth mode as foreign capital flows into the country and the government continues its efforts to diversify the economy. Moreover, the country has become an outsized regional power broker in Middle East politics despite its small size.
Regardless of its spotty track record with human rights and economic development, Saudi Arabia is also on a path of modernization and moderation. The country has slowly peeled back some of its most repressive policies and has made progress in areas such as women’s rights, international relations, and modernization. Critically, both countries share a fear of powers like Iran, which has led to intriguing developments in regional relations.
One key byproduct of this modernization is that both the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s stances on long-time regional adversary Israel are slowly turning positive. There have been rumors of Saudi princes visiting Israel in an official capacity, but both nations are already engaged in diplomatic communications. This move is likely security-motivated—Iran continues to pose the greatest regional threat to most Middle East states—but it shows that the region is maturing.
A New Model of U.S. Diplomacy
These developments show that it’s time for the U.S. to reframe its strategy for the Middle East. As these once-dependent states become more autonomous and resolve many of the issues that plague the region, the U.S. can go from a schoolteacher scolding its students to an equal partner who supports its regional allies.
It’s time for the U.S. to abandon its aggressive and interventionist approach to Middle Eastern relations and focus instead on helping its most important allies grow and strengthen. By ensuring that key partners such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel remain aligned with U.S. interests and active in the fight against global terrorism while thwarting Iranian influence, the Trump administration can usher in a new era of Middle Eastern policy.