This week, a right-wing Israeli prime minister paid a state visit to the United Arab Emirates for the first time ever. A day later, in an unrelated but also surprising move, the United Arab Emirates appeared to back away from a major arms sale with the United States, its most important benefactor.
Clearly, the Middle East is changing. As the Biden administration has made good on its promise to focus less on the historically troublesome region and more on China, Middle Eastern states are taking notice. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are forging new relationships and hedging their bets, driven by a shared concern that a Washington, D.C. hyper-focused on China and domestic travails may not be there for them when it comes to dealing with Iran’s ambitions in the region, tensions with the Palestinians or other security threats.
But although President Joe Biden wants to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East, it isn’t necessarily good news for him that the region is preparing for a future where America looms smaller. The rebalance he sought is happening — but not on his terms and not in a way he can easily control, especially given his faltering goal of inking a new nuclear deal with Iran. It’s certainly a welcome development that Middle Eastern states are casting aside their historic enmities. But the thaw between Israel and the UAE won’t make the Iran nuclear conundrum, or the Middle East in general, much more manageable. It’s a reminder that — as previous presidents have learned — the region will remain a serious headache for the United States despite its best efforts to move its priorities elsewhere.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s historic visit to the UAE, unthinkable a decade ago, is the culmination of several years of closer alignment between Israel and the Gulf states (most notably the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). The 2015 Iran nuclear accord pushed these countries together in opposition to what seemed to be growing U.S. acceptance of Iran’s role in the region and serious questions about Washington’s security commitments. The Trump administration made some moves to reverse this fear by bolting from the Iran deal and solidifying relations with Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Still, these governments remained worried about “America First” and the sense that the U.S. was retrenching, focused more on its own needs than the security worries of Middle Eastern partners and allies.
Notwithstanding Trump’s tough-on-Iran stance, his administration’s decision not to retaliate against Iran’s strikes on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 only reinforced Israeli and Arab worries that the U.S. was no longer committed to countering Iran’s influence. Perhaps ironically, the Trump administration cemented the trend it had helped to accelerate by brokering the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.
After Biden took office, there could be little doubt that America’s priorities were continuing to change. Even before becoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken spoke of a future Biden administration doing “less not more” in the Middle East. In his first major address as secretary, the Middle East wasn’t even mentioned as one of his eight priorities. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and removal of missile defense systems, aircraft and aircraft carriers from the region have reinforced these concerns.
America’s Middle East partners could be forgiven for believing that they’ve been replaced, and that Biden’s focus on all things China is affecting their relations with Washington. Earlier this week, the UAE reportedly suspended negotiations on a major F-35 deal because the Biden administration imposed too many restrictions to prevent China from penetrating UAE’s security. Similarly, Israel’s deepening relationship with China has become a source of friction in U.S.-Israeli relations. Biden wants to deprioritize the Middle East in favor of China, but it seems the Middle East is deprioritizing him out of fear of being caught in growing U.S.-China tensions.
The hedging even extends to Iran. Despite the Gulf States’ historic enmity with Tehran, the Emiratis have shown no desire to get caught up in U.S hostility toward Iran, with whom they share geographical proximity and close eocnomic relationships. It’s no coincidence that the UAE recently dispatched its national security adviser to meet with Iran’s president. For months now the Saudis, too, have engaged in talks with Iran; there has even been talk about restoring diplomatic relations. And for the first time in four years, the Gulf Cooperation Council is due to meet as the Saudi-UAE rift with Qatar is on the mend.
The new regional realities include an Israeli government not headed by Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in a decade. Naftali Bennett is the weakest prime minister in Israel’s history, presiding over an unwieldy coalition whose very weakness may well ensure its survival. None of the coalition partners want to see Netanyahu return to power, so a sort of mutually assured destruction prevails. The government avoids sensitive issues like the Palestinians, preferring to cement ties with Arab states and maintain a tough position on Iran.
It’s on the latter issue that Biden and Bennett disagree. Bennett has taken a softer approach to Iran than Netanyahu, who openly sided with Republicans to challenge the Obama administration’s Iran policy. But there’s no doubt Bennett opposes U.S. efforts to resuscitate the 2015 deal, preferring more sanctions, tougher pressure on Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon and preparation for credible military action against Iranian nuclear sites. Yet Bennett seems to understand he needs the U.S. to help counter Iran whether or not there is a deal, and doesn’t want to become Netanyahu 2.0. That’s why the new prime minister won’t risk a major breach with Washington, even if the languishing Vienna talks do produce a deal. Still, the longstanding worry about a softer U.S. policy toward Iran helps explain why Israel has slowly sowed friendlier relations with Gulf states.
The prospect of normalized Israeli relations with the UAE and Bahrain is a rare bright spot in the region. But it’s important to be clear about what it’s not: It’s not the beginning of a new Middle East where the rest of the Arab League gets in line to make peace with Israel. And it isn’t a sign that the region will become less troublesome for the United States — particularly as long as the Iran issue is still unresolved.
No other Arab states have followed the Abraham Accords; Saudi Arabia would be a big prize, but that seems virtually impossible absent serious progress on the Palestinian issue. And the prospect of another serious conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is all too real. Meanwhile, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and Syria are in various stages of state failure. And Iran and its proxies continue to exert outsize influence.
Indeed, Iran is the only issue that could still draw the U.S. back into the region in a big way. The U.S. is certainly retrenching from the Middle East. But it’s been a reality for years that the U.S. is explicitly committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; the implication is surely that it would use force if necessary. Clearly, this would pull the U.S. back into the region in a major way. In short, for the foreseeable future, Iran will remain a challenge. Biden’s current conundrum is that negotiations seem unable to address Iran’s growing nuclear program— but a military option might produce a cure much worse than the disease.
The Biden administration has relegated the Middle East to a secondary place in the hierarchy of U.S. interests. And that’s understandable. Tragic experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, growing U.S. energy independence and the limits of U.S. power to fix the region’s problems have made it a place where American diplomacy goes to die rather than one of diplomatic opportunity. But history has demonstrated that it’s also a place that can’t be ignored. America may well want to be finished with this broken, angry and dysfunctional region. The question, as always, is whether the Middle East is finished with America.