The American withdrawal from military intervention in Afghanistan continues a broader American as well as European disengagement from the Middle East. Greater US energy independence and a shift on the part of Europe to Russian oil, fatigue among Americans over their “endless wars” in the region, and a perceived need to “pivot” to the challenge for global hegemony being mounted by China – all these have reduced the strategic importance of the Middle East in Western eyes. If the NATO partners are less willing to be directly involved in regional issues as they had in the past, that does not mean they do not have significant security and economic interests to protect, however. Six key considerations keep the West from disengaging even more.
First, NATO partners still retain their concern over terror threats emanating from the less stable areas of the region. The American reliance on Qatar to broker a deal with the Taliban and assist in permitting a (relatively) orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case in point.
Second, and related to the first, is persistent concern over Iran. In American (and Israeli) eyes at least, Iran still aspires to be a nuclear power, as well as a conventional military power able to counter the influence of the “pro-Western” states. Through its Shi’ite proxies and other allies, Iran continues to expand its presence in the region, whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (though Hezbollah) and Gaza in one direction, into Yemen in another. While there are signs of pragmatic relations developing among such former adversaries as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Taliban, Iran remains a major source of American apprehension.
Third, the “pro-Western” states (taking that description in its instrumental rather than genuinely political or cultural sense) represent some of the largest purchasers of arms. According to SIPRI, Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms buyer, mainly from the US, Canada and the UK. France’s largest customer is Egypt (together with India); Italy sells main to Egypt and Turkey; and Egypt is Germany’s third main arms importer. Overall, impoverished Egypt is the world’s third largest arms purchaser, followed in the region by Qatar (#8), the UAE (#9), Israel (#15), Oman (#24_ and Jordan (#28). Israel is also the world’s 8th largest arms exporter.
Fourth, petroleum products, though far less important for Western economies than in the past, nevertheless continue to be significant in assuring stable supplies.
Fifth, as the US and its NATO allies pivot towards China, they worry about China’s increasing influence in the Middle East. Half of China’s crude oil imports come from Middle Eastern countries, with Saudi Arabia in the lead. The Taliban recently announced that they will rely primarily on China for economic development.
And sixth, support for Israel, still seen as America’s “most reliable ally” in the Middle East. In some ways America’s commitment to Israel makes sense. It is not only a major arms purchaser, but Israel is the only Middle Eastern country truly capable of, and unhesitatingly willing to deploy sophisticated armed forces against any target in the region the US chooses – or able to muster US support for any target Israel chooses. This closeness to the US (the (reluctant) “approval” by Israel for the sale by the US of 50 F-35s and 18 drones to the UAE is a case in point), a common preoccupation with Iran and the transfer of Israeli technologies of domestic repression from their Palestinian laboratory to the region’s unpopular autocratic regimes, are also the reasons why the conservative Arab states have little problem including Israel in their community. Israel’s ability to truly integrate into the region depends on whether it is successful in marginalizing the Palestine issue, which it has been until now. Given the support the Palestinian cause carries in the Arab Street, however, linked as it is to democracy movements percolating throughout the region, given the tectonic shifts in relations rising in the region and given the American withdrawal, it remains to be seen whether Israel can maintain its position without fundamentally resolving its colonial rule over the Palestinians and their land.
For the moment, the United States continues to be the most important external power in the Middle East due to both its political and military weight, though it’s looking to proxy regional actors to represent Western interests there – a kind of US-dominated, though not US-led, regional security order. The resulting political vacuum offers greater space for pursuing regional and national agendas. Even the conservative Middle East Arab states, longstanding partners of the West, are redefining their interests and alliances in ways that often diverge from the United States and NATO. A new kind of political formation appears to be emerging. The remnants of the “Middle Eastern NATO” states – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan, together with Turkey, the region’s only member of NATO, and, of course, Israel – so called for their willingness to support Western interests in the region, are still visible. American disengagement is forcing these states – or giving them the space – to deal with their regional problems on their own. The best term for describing the pro-Western bloc is “instrumental.” It exists, it coordinates and it functions, but it does not represent anything more than a superficial alignment of short-term interests. Whether the US, in need of a bloc of reliable regional partners as it pivots to China and retreats from the world stage under domestic pressures, is able to give this instrumental alliance any meaningful political structure or content, remains to be seen.
Shifting relations in the wider Middle East are evident, especially around the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism, Sunni and Shia alike, which is challenging even the most conservative religious regimes themselves. The fundamentalists themselves are settling into camps, some closer to one another, others having been in conflict with one another, all beginning to reassess their relations as their political power grows. The conservative Arab states, for example, have had deep differences with Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, much to Egypt’s consternation, as well as over Qatar’s close diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, with which it shares oil and natural gas fields. That sparked a regional boycott of Qatar in 2017, which has been resolved only this year. Qatar and now the UAE are also forging closer relations with Erdoğan’s Turkey, having its own Islam-influenced ruling party with hegemonic aspirations of its own, which is at odds with Israel over its siege on Gaza, has suspended ties with Egypt, partly over Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and which opposes the Assad regime in Syria. For all that, Qatar’s long-standing ties with the Taliban make it a useful mediator for the US.
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan raises concerns in Shia Iran, surrounded as it is by Sunni states and radical Sunni Islamic groups, as it does in Saudi Arabia which fears the Taliban may disrupt regional stability of the region, not to mention inspiring radical Islamic groups within the country who may challenge the Saudi regime itself. The Taliban’s rise to power, together with the American withdrawal, seems to be causing Iran and Saudi Arabia, still at war in Yemen and struggling over Syria, Lebanon, and Hamas-led Gaza, to seek a détente. Israel continues to polarize relations in the region as it seeks to advance its own agenda of integrating into the region through self-serving alliances with authoritarian regimes, militarizing the region, attacking neighboring countries at will and marginalizing the Palestinian issue. Add to this the fallout from the Syrian civil war, conflictual Shia-Sunni relations in Iraq, struggles with the Kurdish in Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq, Israeli-Hezbollah tensions, the collapse of Lebanon, the persistence of popular pressure for democratization and development and so much else, it is no wonder that fundamental changes must happen if the region, increasingly isolated and marginal on the global scene, is to enter into the modern world.
As long as the Middle East NATO Bloc, together with Iran, dominated our region, the political implications for what we might call the Arab Spring’s massive grassroots constituency, those struggling for genuine participation in democratic societies capable of fostering economic development and addressing the region’s underlying issues, had little if any political space to make their voices heard. Left alone by the United States and Europe to pursue whatever domestic agendas they desire, the autocratic states of the region hold out little hope for their populations’ aspirations of a better, freer life. Demands of Arab Spring go against two of the prevailing ideological and political systems, neoliberal capitalism and, though it varies from country to country, the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism.
The people are trapped not only in the authoritarian of their own governments, however, but by the transactional nature of international diplomacy for which government-to-government “deals” over massive arms purchases, foreign policy that serves the local, regional and international hegemons, and high-level economic agreements define a realpolitik that cannot be bothered with “softer” social justice issues: human and civil rights, the ability of a people to decide its own future, or a government’s assertion of the right to control its own resources for the benefit of its population. Here is where smaller peoples like the Palestinians, the Kurds (both betrayed by Trump in brutal displays of transactionalism) or Christian minorities, refugees, political dissidents, women, LGBQT populations and others find themselves ignored, marginalized, disempowered, often persecuted, at the mercy of their hostile rulers. Issues involving civil and human rights, good governance, sustainable economy accessible to all, a diverse cultural life and social services are relegated to marginal “humanitarian” concerns, dealt with, if at all, by international NGOs.
The transactional nature of diplomacy was most recently on display in the recent meetings between Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and President Joe Biden in Washington. Bennett left the Palestinian issue completely off the agenda (except for Gaza, defined as a “security matter”), focusing instead on Iran. For his part, Biden played his role predicably. In their Oval Office meeting, he only briefly mentioned the Palestinians, submitting to the fact that Bennett is the head of an Israeli government on the record for rejecting the two-state solution, code for rejecting any political resolution that falls short of apartheid. “None! None!,” shouted one of Bennett’s aids. “Nothing close to any negotiations with the Palestinians.”
So where does this leave us, the peoples of the region and beyond striving for some control over our lives, individually and collectively? If, indeed, a shift is occurring from an American-dominated Middle East to one in which regional governments, admittedly not our friends, have more space in which to manoeuvre, what opportunities for progressives then arise? In particular, what opportunities present themselves to Palestinians, the only people in the region still living under a colonial regime, one that has regional and not merely local implications since Israeli policies and actions disrupt any effort to bring stability, a democratic opening and economic development to the Middle East so as to maintain its colonial possessions? And how can we present progressive political alternatives to religious fundamentalism?
Our first task is to disconnect from the power relations defined by our governments. We may be nationals of our countries, but we should not replicate the self-serving narratives of enmity and conflict promoted by our governments and different political interests. We must understand that the rivalries among peoples, classes, ethnic and religious groups, ideologies and states, although having their roots in history, are being fanned and exploited by cynical governments, political leaders and a domesticated media in order to divide us. Instead, we must reach out to one another across those politically constructed divisions, within our countries as well as regionally, in order to resolve them, thus laying a shared foundation for moving together collectively. This, in fact, was the experience of the democracy movements that rose up in almost every corner of the Middle East in recent times. While every state in the Middle East stood – and stands – in the way of a free society, democratic and transparent government, economic development that genuinely benefits the people, demilitarization and the rechannelling of the billion spent on arms to local social needs, every popular movement in the region that promotes these demands express solidarity with one another’s struggles.
Progressives that enjoy at least a modicum of political space should reach out to isolated progressives facing suppression and persecution in their own countries. Educated Arabs, especially those in the rich Gulf States well as middle-class people elsewhere in our region, should reach out to those struggling for their basic rights and subsistence. We should all be reaching out to the many refugee populations of our region, ensuring that they are not excluded from our societies or struggles. And we must reach out beyond political conflicts, connections between anti-colonial Israelis and Arab progressives, mediated by Palestinians, being perhaps the ultimate expression.
We then need a grassroots politics that links our local, regional and global agendas. Face-to-face meetings may be difficult except for occasional participation in venues like the World Social Forum abroad, but we should be cultivating our internet contacts so as to host meetings on-line. As we begin to communicate, common political themes will emerge, laying the foundation for a region-wide political agenda, as well as garnering regional support for more local issues of importance and urgency.
Finally, we need to develop a new kind of diplomacy “from below,” one that links us locally, nationally and regionally to the progressive international civil society. The rise of social movements throughout the world, including militant trade unions and action research institutes, offer a promising source of new global power. Committed to social justice, they represent the antithesis of transactional politics. The problem, then, is how to effectively counter the power and self-serving policies of the governments of our region, autocratic and ruthless as they are, carving out alternative political spaces in which can begin to further our own agendas. In this struggle against our authoritarian governments, our ability to mobilize the support of our international comrades will help us establish that space – but we will need to articulate a coherent and comprehensive political program so that that mobilization can be organized and focused effectively. This also means that we must link up to the struggles of others, as well as to the global struggle against the neo-colonial conditions neoliberalism that spawns such disastrous global crises of economic, political, cultural and environmental unsustainability.
The century-long Palestinian struggle for liberation, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, the Yemeni Revolution of Dignity, the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, spreading to Libya, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere, even to Saudi Arabia, continue to inspire us. Together they demonstrate popular aspirations than span national and sectarian differences. Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām! was a common slogan: “The people want to bring down the regime!”
This article was first published in CounterPunch on 9 September 2021