Washington and a Changing Middle East: A Dramatically Shifting Narrative?

By James Durso

A new order may be emerging in the Middle East, but how it is emerging does not fit the core narrative written by Washington.

Two decades after the U.S. invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that didn’t exist, and to implement the George W. Bush “freedom agenda” the region is starting to self-organize.

Recently China mediated the beginning of normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia is reportedly trying to bring Syria and Turkey closer together, and is involved in between talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Saudi Arabia and Yemen are in normalization talks, and the warring Yemeni parties are discussing a prisoner swap. Syria and Tunisia will exchange ambassadors a decade after Tunis severed ties. Qatar and Bahrain are resuming diplomatic relations. And Syria’s neighbors are ready to invite Damascus to reenter the mainstream of the Arab Middle East, and it may soon rejoin the Arab League possibly as early as May.

Washington probably sees a downside in these diplomatic developments as they offer relief to Iran and Syria, and because the mediators, China and Russia, will emerge more influential by pursuing peace, while the U.S. is prosecuting its war against Russia in Ukraine, and is preparing for a conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait.

All four projects will take time to bear fruit and there will be starts and stops along the way. Washington was lukewarm about the Iran-Saudi Arabia talks, though the U.S. claimed credit for encouraging Tehran and Riyadh to start talking, though it was Iraq and Oman that did the work in the early days. (A State Department official made the startling admission, “…diplomacy is not a tool you use only with your friends and in happy times,” which no doubt came as news to local leaders.)

A lessening of tensions in the region may mean a smaller military and security role for the U.S., though one observer noted that all the U.S. presence produced was “dead people, refugees, and instability.” But, importantly, the Iran – Saudi Arabia deal will ensure a key U.S. objective, promoting the “free flow of oil and liquefied natural gas,” though it remains to be seen if the price of that is less influence for Washington in the affairs of the Middle East.

If tensions ease and trade increases, the nature of the U.S. relationship with the region will change, as it becomes primarily a vendor of weapons and the U.S. Navy secures the oil and natural gas export routes, relieving China of the effort of guarding the oil it buys in the Gulf.

While that is an influential role, the U.S. will be viewed as a security guard and won’t be a top-tier partner in the planning for the region’s next stages of economic development and technology adoption.

That role has passed to China, largely due to China’s lead in “5G mobile broadband and its application to industries ranging from manufacturing to health care,” while in the U.S. 5G is largely seen as a consumer product. China’s top three mobile carriers report that as of September 2022 they had over 1 billion 5G users, a sure incentive for countries that want the most modern 5G infrastructure.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that are moving their economies beyond hydrocarbons, and are keen to educate their young people, will want to team with the country that helps them increase incomes and diversify their economies. That country is no longer seen as the United States.

As a result, U.S. envoys will have fewer top-level interactions with regional leaders, who will feel they can sate the Americans by buying a handful of airliners every now and again.

For example, the U.S. used to have privileged access to Saudi leaders not just through the embassy, but via key advisory organizations such as the now-defunct United States-Saudi Arabian Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation (JECOR), and the United States Military Training Mission (USMTM) and Office of the Program Manager – Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program (OPM-SANG). JECOR expired in 1996, and the U.S. military downgraded the rank of the military advisory group commanders from general officer to colonel, limiting their access. And, most importantly, the U.S. has had no ambassador to Riyadh for over two years, an omission that China and Russia are no doubt exploiting.


 The Middle East is attempting to self-organize in the wake America’s failed state-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the calamitous attacks on Libya and Syria. One way to make a more arms-length relationship with Washington is by joining alternative fora such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

Iran’s bid for full and permanent membership in the SCO was approved at the 2021 Summit at Dushanbe and it will likely become the newest member in 2023; in March 2023 Saudi Arabia became a dialogue partner of the group.

Ali al-Shihabi observes “The Kingdom [Saudi Arabia] is pursuing a portfolio strategy of developing a number of strategic partners to complement its relations with the West,” though that will conflict with the mindset of American politicians and officials who still believe, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

And Middle East countries are looking to BRICS as another alternative forum. South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor has named Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Algeria as wanting to join BRICS, and Iran is also interested in the group.

Recently, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) about the U.S and China, declared, “We are not interested in dividing lines in Asia. Don’t make us choose. We will refuse to choose.” That sentiment is fully appreciated from the Persian Gulf to North Africa.

The U.S. is still the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power, but BRICS countries will continue to grow their share of the world economy and one analyst points out the BRICS GDP, adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, equaled the G7 in 2020. BRICS counties are considering a new reserve currency, backed by gold and other commodities, and may settle the US$162 billion of annual intra-BRICS trade settled in each other’s currencies as they back away from the U.S. dollar and the Euro. (ASEAN recently pledged to reduce the use of the US Dollar, the Euro, and the Yen.)

The ASEAN retreat from the Dollar may revive the long-discussed Asian Monetary Fund to reduce dependence on the U.S. dollar, reportedly endorsed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and may push agreement on the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Free Trade Area over the finish line.

In the SCO and BRICS, the senior partner is China, and closer relations with the region will secure closer integration with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, Algeria will coordinate its national development plans with BRI via the Five Year Plan for China Arab Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation (2022-2026).

The SCO-BRICS tie-in may also give a boost to the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC), at the center of which is Iran. The 7,200-km long multi-modal transport corridor was intended to quickly move goods between India and Russia through Iran, but it may be held back by the poor state of Iran’s rail infrastructure, though investment from China and Saudi Arabia may cure that. The corridor will also boost exports from Central Asia which has no reliable southern export route or access to Persian Gulf markets.

The U.S. will likely attack projects like INSTC with its weapon of choice, economic sanctions, but the message either isn’t getting through or is being shrugged off: South Africa has announced that Russian president Vladimir Putin is welcome to attend the next BRICS summit in September in South Africa, despite the outstanding arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court.

One analysis of the total value of the proved reserves of the most valuable natural resources determined that seven of the ten richest countries are current or prospective members of SCO, BRICS, or OPEC+. Silk Road Briefing reports “the new proposed BRICS members would create an entity with a GDP 30% larger than the United States, over 50% of the global population and in control of 60% of global gas reserves.” By 2024, according to International Monetary Fund data, the B, R, I, and C of the BRICS will be four of the world’s top ten economies.

China, which dominates the market for rare earth elements, may ban the export of rare-earths refining technology to unfriendly countries. And Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE comprise 41% of the global 5G infrastructure market. If you are a young leader who wants to develop his economy, who do you want on your side?

Despite the current bad blood between Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. president Joe Biden the relationship will continue, largely because all that U.S. weaponry will be too hard to replace and because the Washington, D.C. money culture ensures there is always a former government official ready to lobby for the kingdom’s interests. In the meantime, rulers in the Middle East will stay attuned to new relationships with other resource producers to complement their ties to Washington.

The U.S. brand is tarnished due to the failures of its state building efforts, so Middle Eastern governments are reaching out to partners who are less proscriptive and more prescriptive, such as China which champions “win-win” opportunities. Washington serially confuses politics with “God’s holy ordnance” and that, combined with a short attention span, and spiteful outbursts when it doesn’t get its way, confuses and alienates governments that want to cooperate with Washington.

National security, politics

America’s casual and chaotic abandonment of its two-decade, $2 trillion project in Afghanistan left the country in worse shape than in 2001, and resonated through the Middle East, confirming suspicions about U.S. reliability.

But America’s acts of self-harm commenced  long before the Afghanistan defeat.

The bad blood between Muhammad bin Salman and Joe Biden didn’t start with the killing of activist Jamal Khashoggi. That started  in the campaign by many U.S. political and security service officials to promote former interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef, “Washington’s favorite Saudi,” as crown prince before Muhammad bin Salman forced the bin Nayef  to resign. (Pro tip: Endorsements from foreign spy chiefs will hurt your career if you aspire to be king of Saudi Arabia.)

Then there was the U.S. pause in arms sales to Saudi Arabia (and the UAE) over their campaign in Yemen by the incoming Biden administration, and in 2014 Egypt was stung when the U.S. delayed the delivery of paid-for attack helicopters Egypt claimed were needed for counter-terror operations in the Sinai Peninsula – the first time the U.S. had used the “nuclear option” of withholding spare parts or denying delivery of equipment. Egypt took the lesson.

In April 2023, a Russian warship made a port call in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the first in a decade. And Riyadh is interested in a civilian nuclear program, raising proliferation fears in the U.S., as Muhammad bin Salman declared “without a doubt” the kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did so. And China is helping Saudi Arabia manufacture ballistic missiles, which will doom any efforts to get Iran to stop its ballistic missile program.

U.S.-Egyptian relations aren’t in danger of collapsing, but Egypt’s relations with the U.S. may return to that of an earlier era, not exactly Nasser’s “positive neutrality,” but more independent of Washington, demonstrated by allegations that Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ordered that 40,000 rockets, artillery, and gunpowder be supplied to Russia. And Egypt’s more independent stance will be helped by the recent discovery of significant natural gas reserves off its Mediterranean coast.

Likewise, Algeria, which is a longtime customer of Moscow, and nominally nonaligned, may also be supplying Moscow with ammunition and other war material.

Algiers may not be attentive to U.S. priorities as, in late 2022, several U.S. Representatives called on the U.S. Secretary of State to impose sanctions on Algeria,  claiming that a $7 billion arms deal with Russia violated the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The group’s action followed a similar initiative be Senator Marco Rubio.

The U.S. may have limited options as the European Union seeks a “long-term strategic partnership” for natural gas and electricity with Algeria. And France is seeking to repair relations via economic cooperation, though China is now Algeria’s biggest trade partner. If Europe expects more energy from Algeria or elsewhere in Africa, though, it may have to pay up to finance expansion of production, or participate in the 1,500-mile Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline that will send Nigerian gas to Europe via Algeria, though that may be opposed by Washington if it will dent lucrative U.S. liquified natural gas sales to Europe.

Egypt’s purported actions highlight that the Arab Middle East, long thought of as a weapons importer is becoming a potential exporter through the development of defense champions such as Saudi Arabian Military Industries, EDGE Group (UAE), and the Arab Organization for Industrialization (Egypt). The companies may complicate U.S. policy by supplying defense articles to conflict zones, such as Libya where the UAE and Egypt intervened on the side of General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan Arab Armed Forces. In the case of defense exports, Turkey showed the way by developing its defense industry in response to the U.S. arms embargo after Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus in 1975.

The U.S. been concerned about the UAE-China relationship for some time. Washington is worried about the deployment of Huawei 5G wireless technology in the emirate and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The emirate no doubt feels 5G is critical to its competitiveness as a global business hub and tourism destination; the U.S. likely thinks Chinese 5G will give Beijing access to business, military, and political information in the emirate, an operating and transit site for U.S. military forces.

The U.S. claims to be concerned about China spying via 5G networks, but U.S. national Security Agency has installed backdoors in Cisco communications products. The lesson for local governments is: every equipment supplier will help its government spy on you, so select the supplier country that won’t impede your policy preferences.

The Saudis are taking a step beyond the 5G disputes by buying Russian “lawful intercept,” surveillance, and open-source information analysis equipment from vendors sanctioned by the U.S. That is, real spy gear, not a mobile network that may or may not surveil nearby military units.

In late 2021, the UAE, after a U.S. demand, terminated a Chinese-funded $1 billion project in the Khalifa Port Free Trade Zone the U.S. said had military applications. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke about the project to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed who said he heard Biden “loud and clear,” though the emirate declared, “our position remains the same, that the facilities were not military facilities.”

This must have seemed like Groundhog Day for the UAE. In 2006, Dubai-owned DP World was forced to back out of an approved purchase of port management contracts at six major U.S. seaports after the U.S. Congress opposed the deal. Fifteen years later the UAE learned it can’t even conclude a seaport project at home without a U.S. intervention.

As a result of U.S. arm twisting, the UAE may have to make an offsetting accommodation to China the U.S. will like even less, a prime example of “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Also in late 2021, the emirate announced it was suspending discussions with the U.S. for the purchase of the F-35 Lightning II fighter, MQ-9B Reaper drones, and air-to-air and air-to-ground projectiles due to “technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions, and cost/benefit analysis.” It then announced it would buy the French-made Rafale fighter jet, its weapons, and a dozen Airbus H225M Caracal helicopters for combat search and rescue and anti-ship missions.

Despite the Dear John letter, the emirate told the Washington we can still be friends: “The U.S. remains the UAE’s preferred provider for advanced defense requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be re-opened in the future.”

But after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022, the UAE welcomed Russians seeking a safe haven for their wealth, and may have increased security cooperation with Russia is one of the recent leaks of Pentagon classified material is accurate.

Russia and China don’t have the Americans’ military assets so they won’t be replacing U.S. forces in the region, which will hang around partly out of habit but also to block the flow of oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf to China if China and Taiwan go to war.

With all that as prologue, Washington was “blindsided” by China’s mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency Bill Burns, “expressed frustration” over Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria. (What the director did not address to the American taxpayers was how, with a budget of almost $94 billion, the spies were surprised by this.)

Israel isn’t necessarily a loser in light of these developments, but its definitely a not-winner. The Saudis won’t be interested in being part of an anti-Iran coalition, which may never have had a chance anyway as a former Egyptian minister recently admitted that Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia never took the idea seriously. Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue discreet cooperation for now as Riyadh-Tehran relations are a long way from “normal,” but Arab governments will be attentive to popular sentiment inflamed by the recent jump in Israeli killings of Palestinians, and Israel won’t be able to use the Abraham Accords as a detour around a peace deal with the Palestinians.

If the U.S. finally does “pivot to Asia” it will find that China has filled the vacuum in the Middle East by partnering with nominal allies of Washington that are comfortable with state-directed development.

Those governments may not be “democratic” by the U.S. administration’s standards but, if they are attentive to the needs and aspirations of their citizens, they will demonstrate staying power no matter how many “civil society” groups the U.S. embassies sponsor.

And Middle East governments may take note of the French president Emmanuel Macron’s push for “strategic autonomy” from the United States, coming after his recent visit to China. Macron was criticized by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) who said, “We need to find out if @EmmanuelMacron speaks for Europe.” Well, he just might, as European Council president Charles Michel replied, “I think quite a few [European leaders] really think like Emmanuel Macron.”

The 2022 Arab Youth Survey (you can be sure it was read in all the local palaces) reported:

– 64% of youth say democracy in the region will never work, despite two-thirds of youth saying they have more freedoms because of the Arab Spring;

– a majority support the disengagement of the U.S. from the Middle East;

– China, Turkey, and Russia are seen as stronger allies of their countries than the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France;

– a third of Arab youth hold the U.S. and NATO primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine compared with 18% who say Russia is to blame; and

82% say that promoting stability is more important than promoting democracy.

And a recent Gallup poll reports the results of the expensive, two-decade U.S. “freedom agenda”: “Iraqis and residents of 12 other Muslim-majority nations do not view the U.S. as serious about encouraging the development of democracy in the region, nor allowing people to fashion their own political future as they see fit.”

Many Saudi youth say they want to live in a “normal country,” that is, one with more personal freedoms but that still respects and upholds their culture. The attitudes of Saudi and other Arab youth may be a reaction to U.S. armed “democracy promotion,” and if you are a twenty-something Arab you can’t remember a time when the U.S. and its allies have not been in combat in or near your homeland. With popular sentiment like that, local leaders now can get closer to China which can deliver the high technology goods the hydrocarbon economies need to diversify and grow, providing economic opportunity and stability.

In the Middle East, China is pushing on an open door.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Featured Credit: Photo 1498525 / Middle East © Yong Hian Lim | Dreamstime.com