In 2021, the Middle East witnessed several regional and international transformations that had considerable repercussions, with regional states left facing the post-US withdrawal reality. These transformations led regional countries to formulate new policy frameworks that would help ensure the security and stability of the region after a period of tensions, the cost of which was shared by all regional states. This article examines the nature of shifts in the Middle East, the motives behind them, and the major powers’ stance on the current scene.
Indicators of Regional Shifts
The Middle East is experiencing major transformations, with several indicators portending a new regional reality, amid awareness of regional countries of the need to move towards promoting dialogue and pacification, reducing escalation and tension between conflicting countries, and settling regional crises, along with the desire of these countries to proceed with internal reforms that need to be accompanied by pacification of existing conflicts. Below are some of these indicators:
1. Regional Dialogue: De-escalation, reconfiguration of the regional system, and restoration of the Arab-Arab cooperation were all topics contemplated at the Al-Ula Summit in January 2021, aimed at achieving reconciliation between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, with these countries having drivers to integrate Qatar within its Sunni Arab environment and reduce its rapprochement with Turkey. Al-Ula Summit came amid the desire of Gulf States to alleviate the burden of clash and conflict with Qatar and Qatar’s suffering as a result of years of boycott and economic pressures. Unquestionably, restoration of the Arab relations would result in reactivation of trade and investment between these countries and opening of airspace, against Qatar’s commitment to halt its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and their TV shows hostile to Egypt and the Gulf countries. Further, normalization of relations with Qatar may mean it playing a mediating role in the Iranian-Saudi and the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement, which would give rise to a more harmonized and less tense regional context.
Above that, the move of conflicting parties towards de-escalation and dialogue is driven by the fact that the cost of peacekeeping is lower than the cost of conflict. This has been demonstrated in inklings of the Egyptian-Turkish dialogue following the break between Turkey and Egypt due to Turkey’s offensive policy and its hosting of Muslim Brotherhood figures. Turkey had a desire for pacification and announced, on 12 March 2021, the resumption of talks with Egypt with the aim of restoring diplomatic representation to normal. Turkey’s endeavors towards pacification manifested themselves clearly in obliging the opposition channels to the ethical code for media and requiring them to change their rhetoric that constitutes interference in Egypt’s affairs. These efforts come amid Turkey’s suffering of an economic crisis that resulted in depletion of 55 percent of its international reserves and the deterioration of the lira’s value, amidst fears of exclusion from regional arrangements pertaining to the eastern Mediterranean gas. On the other hand, Egypt seeks reducing tension and creating a more investment-friendly environment for oil companies in the Mediterranean, which could be achieved if Turkey calms down with Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus. Reconciliation with Turkey may also lead to the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from Libya.
The region is also witnessing a new framework for cooperation through the inauguration of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, in January 2019, between Egypt, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine as a cooperation mechanism between these countries towards taking advantage of natural gas discoveries and export gas to European countries.
Furthermore, the wave of normalization with Israel in 2020 revealed signs of preparation for the post-US forces’ withdrawal. In this vein, several Arab countries signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, primarily the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan. Further, several cooperative agreements have been concluded during the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the UAE, on 13 December 2021, covering several areas including commerce, research and development, cybersecurity, health, education, and aviation.
Additionally, there is the Emirati-Turkish dialogue, which is also another development the Middle East is witnessing. Recently, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Mohammed bin Zayed, visited Turkey and met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 24 November 2021, in order to pacify tensions with Turkey, open the door for cooperation with it, and support investments in fields of electricity, energy, transportation, and agriculture. In this sense, the UAE announced sending $10 million to Turkey for reconstruction of some areas severely affected by forest fires and floods that swept the northern regions of the country in August 2021. In addition, the UAE and Turkey agreed to sign a $5 billion currency swap agreement to boost reserves of the Central Bank of Turkey.
Moreover, there is the Emirati-Iranian dialogue, which comes as another development in the Middle East. On 6 December 2021, the Emirati National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Iran and met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. Earlier to this visit, the Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani visited Dubai, on 24 November 2021. The Iranian-Gulf dialogue brings about mutual benefits for Iran and Gulf countries. For Iran, the dialogue with Gulf states offers an opportunity to alleviate the economic burdens it is facing due to the US sanctions and the challenges posed by Covid-19. As a matter of fact, the UAE is Iran’s first trading partner and despite the decline in trade volume to $3.5 billion in 2019, two-thirds of the trade volume involved re-exporting Iranian products through Dubai in compliance with exemption from sanctions issued by the United States. The UAE and Iran are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) that promotes trade and cooperation, trade partners to Eurasia, key to the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and work with the Eurasian Economic Union. In addition, the two countries are interested in expanding trade and investments in Africa through the Indian Ocean trade routes. The UAE ports will allow Iran to access global markets at the lowest cost. Iran’s last five-year macroeconomic plan prioritized trade with its Gulf neighbors and Africa. The UAE’s economic ties may enable it to play a pivotal role in facilitating communication between the Gulf States and Iran.
For their part, Gulf countries also find dialogue with Iran an opportunity to de-escalate tensions of inter-conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, particularly given the reduction of the US forces in the region and the US pivoting to the Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, the constant decades-long regional conflict with Iran and the economic sanctions imposed on it have not proven effective in weakening Iran or forcing it to change its behavior; so, dialogue and pacification may be the best solution.
Beyond this, there is the Iranian-Saudi dialogue, which started in April 2021 with Iraqi mediation. Rounds of dialogue between the two countries continued until September 2021, where four meetings were held in the presence of Adel Al-Jubeir, former Foreign Minister and Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran. Perhaps the material cost of the Yemen’s War that exhausted Saudi Arabia’s military budget, the suffering endured by Iran as a result of supporting its allies in Northern Yemen, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, the pressures posed by Covid-19, and the new regional variants including the accelerated normalization with Israel and the turn of opposing parties to pacification is what pushed Saudi Arabia and Iran to negotiation. However, a comprehensive normalization of the Iranian-Saudi relations remains governed by several restrictions, given Iran’s demands of the Saudi government signing an agreement with the Houthis to share power and make a political settlement under the aegis of the two countries, and amid uncertainty over whether Iran and its militias will actually leave Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Relatedly, the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership (BCCP) held on 28 August 2021 represented a model of regional dialogue and an initiative to adopt dialogue as a means between the conflicting parties. The conference brought together several regional powers, including Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. In conjunction with the conference, Iranian-Saudi, Egyptian-Turkish, and Qatari-Emirati-Turkish talks were held. Prominent outcomes of these talks included economic support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Iraq as well as Egypt’s support to Iraq, emphasizing the importance of preserving Iraq’s stability and national state.
Eventually, the last of these regional developments is the Arab trend of Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia towards recognizing the legitimacy of the Syrian regime and pushing for the return of Syria to the Arab League (Syria will possibly attend the Arab Summit in Algeria in March 2022) with the aim of limiting the Iranian influence in Syria, reducing the damage suffered by both Jordan and Lebanon as a result of the Syrian war, and assisting in the return of Syrian refugees and the reconstruction of Syria. However, given the US sanctions on the Syrian regime and on countries cooperating with it, there are still obstacles standing in the way of the return of Syria.
2. Arab-Arab Cooperation: The Arab countries are moving towards cooperation and integration inter se. The Arab Gas Pipeline is a case in point. It is a 1200-km long and transports more than 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually, through four sections: the first is 265 km extending from Al-Arish in Egypt to Aqaba in Jordan; the second from Aqaba to the Jordanian Rehab, located 30 km from the Jordanian-Syrian border; the third from Al-Rehab in Egypt to the Syrian city of Jabir; and the fourth runs through the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo and the Libyan capital Tripoli. This gas pipeline is expected to be linked to the Turkish Napco pipeline.
In this vein, Lebanon and Egypt reached an agreement, on 8 September 2020, by virtue of which Egypt is expected to export 65 million cubic feet of natural gas to Lebanon in 2022. In the course of the visit of the Lebanese Prime Minister to Egypt on 9 December 2021, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi emphasized Egypt’s keenness to meet the demands of Lebanon by all the ministries concerned.
Relatedly, the New Mashreq project is a further step towards strengthening Arab cooperation. The project was first introduced in the era of former Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and was later resumed by former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi under a “triangular cooperation mechanism” within the framework of the Cairo Summit and the summit held on the sidelines of the United Nations meetings in New York in September 2019. Later, Al-Kazemi developed the idea to rise to an integrative alliance between the three countries. In essence, the project is centered on economic cooperation in fields of energy and electricity. For instance, an oil pipeline is being built from the port of Basra in southern Iraq to the port of Aqaba in Jordan, extending to Egypt, Egypt and Jordan are supplying Iraq with electricity, and joint industrial areas are being developed, let alone cooperation in the field of small and medium enterprises, supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, collaboration in the health and infrastructure sectors, and increasing trade exchange.
Furthermore, there is also a trend towards strengthening coordination between Egypt and the Gulf countries. This was made evident in the meeting of GCC foreign ministers attended by Sameh Shoukry on 13 December 2021 where emphasis has been placed on the importance of consultation and coordination between Gulf countries and Egypt on regional and international issues and translating the close strategic relations between Egypt and the Gulf into an institutional framework, towards producing political solutions to existing crises and conflicts, thereby supporting security and stability in the region.
On another level, there is the coordination between Gulf states one another, which was embodied in the last Gulf summit on 14 December 2021, and reflected in the words of the final statement of Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Nayef Al-Hajraf, stressing “consensus among members of the Council on the importance of concerted efforts towards ensuring coordination and integration of the foreign policies of the member states, to establish a unified foreign policy that serves the aspirations and ambitions of the Gulf people and preserves their interests.”
During the meeting of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan on 16 December 2021, in Cairo, it was agreed that the two countries hold consultations on regional issues, including the Iranian nuclear file, Iran’s destabilizing role through its support of armed militias in a number of Arab countries, settlement of the Yemeni crisis through a political resolution, the Libyan elections and the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libyan lands, and Saudi Arabia’s support for Egypt when it comes to its water security.
Whither De-Escalation? Notwithstanding the aforementioned regional transformations and the desire of regional countries for de-escalation, there are still internal tensions that threaten stability of the region, primarily the Iran-Israel tension, which takes several forms, ranging from the Israeli targeting of Iran in Syria to the mutual attacks on oil tankers, as well as the destabilizing role of Iran’s militias, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. Indeed, these militias will continue to destabilize the region unless an agreement on them is reached.
The future of de-escalation efforts in the region will be determined by their effectiveness in dismantling obstacles faced, foremost of which is Iran’s destabilizing role and how far Iran is willing to abandon its extensions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. The continued role of Iran’s militias, whether Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, could mean no radical change will be possible in the region. Additionally, the future of pacification in the region will be dependent on how far Turkey honors its commitment and stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups in Syria. The question remains as whether Turkey is maneuvering to achieve some of its interests and may revert to its hostile behavior, or it is really committed to de-escalation and abandonment of its previous practices. Other determinants of the future of de-escalation in the region include the extent to which Israeli interests are safeguarded, the outcomes of the Iranian nuclear talks, and the future of the Turkish-Iranian tension arising from Turkey’s occupation of northeastern Syria, its support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, its military drills with Pakistan and Azerbaijan near the Iranian borders on 12 September, and its military intervention in northern Iraq. These are all factors that, if continue to exist, would mean continuation of the conflict in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, unless pacification between Iran, Turkey, and Israel is achieved.
Overall, the failure or relative success of the regional dialogue will not reflect equally on all parties. While the dialogue between Turkey, Egypt, UAE, and the KSA may succeed, the Iranian-Gulf dialogue will not necessarily succeed being linked to the Iranian internal environment and Iran’s conflict with the United States and the European countries.
Numerous Drivers for De-Escalation
The region is witnessing a new trend towards de-escalation and adoption of a conciliatory approach based on pragmatic grounds stemming from regional and international drivers at the internal and external levels, prompting regional actors to maximize their gains through partnerships and alliances based on common interests and threats instead of ideological conflicts and quarrels. These drivers can be detailed as follows:
1- Reducing the US Presence in the Region: The rise of the Democrats in the recent US elections and the entry of Biden into the White House in early 2021, marked a pivotal change that provided early indications of inevitable transformations in the map of the Middle East. Regional leaders were quick to realize these possible transformations that the course of action confirmed at an accelerated pace, speaking volumes of the total difference in the priorities of the Biden administration in the Middle East compared to his predecessor, Donald Trump. This has been revealed in several manifestations, including, first of all, a new strategic approach that entails reducing the US commitments to the Middle East in view of the US need to end the “eternal wars” and reduce its military presence in areas of military hegemony towards reducing the costs of protecting global security and reallocating of its resources to developing its infrastructure which would help ensure its survival as a superpower, while reorienting its capabilities towards the Indo-Pacific with the aim of containing the growing Sino-Russian risks. Perhaps the rapid fall of Afghanistan in the grip of the Taliban following the chaotic US withdrawal, the US strategic repositioning decisions, including redefining the role of the US mission in Iraq restricting it to training and advisory roles rather than combat ones, and the removal of the air defense batteries from Saudi Arabia, are all revealing indicators of the decline of direct US involvement in region.
Second, the United States continued to take steps backward while ignoring the interests and concerns of its regional allies. The US resumption of indirect diplomatic talks to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement is a case in point. Indeed, the approach of the current US administration is not but an extension of Obama’s policies aimed at achieving regional balance of power between Gulf States and Iran. Countries of the region are aware that the Badin administration will not initiate any military response in the face of regional threats –or else Trump’s administration, which had a hardline stance on Iran, would have taken such response following the drone attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. This made it clear that the United States is no longer interested in the Middle East and is willing to make regional parties realize the need not to be entirely dependent on the US security umbrella, prompting them to take the initiative towards pacification and creating conciliatory environment through which controversial issues can be addressed while avoiding direct confrontation, thus encouraging regional solutions to regional challenges.
2- The Exorbitant Cost of Conflicts: Violent interventionist policies adopted by some countries established costly rivalries and competitions that ravaged the Arab security system, destabilized the regional order, and gave rise to growing manifestations of disintegration and tensions, resulting in fueling civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, impeding opportunities for development and reform in the Arab world, and draining of the economic and military capabilities of Arab countries. As such, the influence of traditional Arab powers declined, a situation that played in the hands of Iran, which took advantage of Arab polarization and absence of a unified Arab position to expand its regional hegemony at the expense of Arab interests. On the other side, the militarization of Turkey’s foreign policy contributed to increasing its regional isolation and straining its relations with its traditional allies in the United States and Europe, which led it to be excluded from emerging regional alliances that establish new realities on the ground (e.g. the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Organization), let alone its involvement in multi-front conflicts with Libya in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Somalia, among others, and the negative internal impacts related to weakening the popularity of the ruling party. This forced active powers in the Middle East to take accelerated steps towards cooling the regional environment, avoiding aggressive policies, encouraging accepting differences in interests on some issues, and focusing on common interests and fears to build conciliatory climates that contribute to achieving economic development instead of competition and conflict.
3- Ideological Interventionist Policies Proven a Failure: Rapprochement between some Arab countries and the three regional powers, i.e. Iran, Turkey, and Israel, helped set aside the ideological differences that have dominated the interactions taking place on all regional theaters over the past decade, after they proved their failure to achieve the strategic ambitions of rivalries. For instance, the Turkish wager on political Islam to change the existing regimes in most Arab countries (e.g. Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia) failed with Islamist parties showing inability to manage the political process and receiving successive and severe defeats, starting with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013 and the regime of former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, to the Tunisian President Kais Saied’s suspension of the parliament controlled by the Ennahda Party after massive protests against the performance of the government, ending with the Moroccan Justice and Development Party receiving a crushing electoral defeat causing it to lose power for the first time since 2011 after winning 13 seats down from 125 seats. This eventually pushed Ankara to stop television programs attacking Egypt as a manifestation of goodwill to ameliorate tensions with Cairo.
4- Change in the Balance of Power: The US redeployment in the Middle East was accompanied by resumption of diplomatic work to save the nuclear agreement, which raised fears as it may pave the way for Iran’s reintegration into the international community and help it gain a greater political prominence and release its seized economic assets, without addressing its aggressive regional policy. On the other hand, Ankara and Tehran felt that the new regional arrangements in which the Arab countries were involved, especially the agreements to normalize relations between Israel and four Arab countries (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan) would indirectly undermine their position in the region due to the weakness of their relations with the signatory countries.
5- Setting Political Differences Aside in Favor of Building Economic Partnerships: Economic interests were the biggest catalyst for these regional transformations, particularly since repercussions of Covid-19 have affected almost all economies in the region. Turkey, for instance, was already suffering a pressing economic crisis manifested in the lira depreciation, high rates of inflation, unemployment, poverty, and the shrinking of many sectors which exacerbated the internal political crisis in a way that threatened the political fate of the ruling elite. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are interested in diversifying their economies away from oil towards becoming a source of attraction for foreign investments. Since 2002, Turkey has been on the Gulf investment agenda but the recent crises between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE made Qatar a more important player in the Turkish economy. For example, the conflict between Abu Dhabi and Ankara has resulted in a drop in the trade volume, decreasing to $2.1 billion in 2018, down from $9.2 billion in 2017. Likewise, Iran is plagued by a deep economic crisis against the backdrop of US sanctions imposed on it by the former US administration of Donald Trump since 2018. Accordingly, regional leaders realized the need to separate economic relations from geopolitical tensions, particularly economic success is usually achieved by establishing large economic blocs that ensure extensive trade exchange.
6- Supporting Internal Reforms: Several Arab and Gulf countries have engaged in comprehensive fast-paced social and economic reforms pertaining to the liberalization of some aspects of social life and moving away from religious extremism towards creating more modern and liberal societies. At the economic level, these reforms included launching reform programs geared towards creating environments capable of attracting foreign investment and businesses, which requires creating a favorable regional reality that is based on common interests and deviates from sectarian polarization, which incentivized Arab countries to work with regional powers towards settling the outstanding issues, giving reforms an impetus to pay off.
Major Powers’ Response to the Current Middle East Scene
The transformations the region has been experiencing could be partially attributed to the change in the US strategy and the US’ pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, a situation that prompted countries of the region to look for new frameworks commensurate with their political and economic interests, and led the major powers to consider the necessity of engaging –each in its own way– in these transformations.
1- Persistence of Russian Presence: The Russian presence in the Middle East is centered on two main goals, namely strengthening Russia’s political and economic relations with regional countries and affirming its position as a major and indispensable actor in the Syrian crisis –Russia’s gateway to re-engage in and re-influence the region’s crises. What’s more, Russia’s increased involvement in Syria enabled it to secure access to the Mediterranean and gave it the chance to compromise the United States. Additionally, Russia has managed to consolidate its relationship with other regional actors such as Turkey, Israel, and Iran, in addition to developing its bilateral relations with the Gulf States, particularly the UAE, simultaneously with the latter’s move towards bringing Syria to the Arab fold. Further, this Russian presence allowed Russia to play a role in other regional crises, specifically in the Libyan crisis.
In addition to Syria, energy comes among Russia’s priorities of engagement in the Middle East, as Russia attaches great attention to the energy file and developments in the global energy market, given the direct impact of any fluctuations in the energy market on the Russian economy. Through its presence in the region, Russia seeks to ensure stability of the energy markets in alignment with its economic policy and objectives.
At large, it can be argued that Russia’s strategy in the Middle East in 2021 did not diverge much from its strategy over the previous years, as it continued to assert its presence and authority over the Syrian crisis, in addition to investing in its bilateral relations with all countries in the region with regard to their position on the Syrian crisis, even those with differing views such Turkey and Israel. For instance, during his visit to Russia in October 2021, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confirmed that he had reached understandings with the Russian President regarding the return of inter-coordination on the Israeli targeting of Iranian sites in Syria.
2- The Growing Chinese Presence: To meet the requirements of its global leadership, China’s presence is aimed at achieving a number of goals, namely 1) securing China’s energy needs, with the Middle East covering about 40 percent of the Chinese imports of oil and natural gas; 2) serving the Maritime Silk Route by establishing partnerships with countries of the Middle East and North Africa to build a strategic network of ports and industrial complexes that allow China to have access to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean; and 3) capitalizing on the Middle East being a promising market for Chinese products, given the rapid growth in the region’s population. Overall, it can be said that China, through the stages of development of its involvement in the Middle East, has opted to follow a policy –different from that of the US– that is based on participation, mutual gain, respect for sovereignty, and separation of politics from the economy.
China realizes that the persistence of the US military presence in the Middle East helps it guarantee the stability of its economic and security interests serving its development projects and goals. However, with the US withdrawal from the Middle East towards repositioning in the Indo-Pacific, China seems to have headed towards promoting its presence in the Middle East, in 2021, with the aim of pulling the United States back to the region, away from China’s sphere of influence.
In late March 2021, China and Iran reached a 25-year strategic partnership agreement that states that China will invest nearly $400 billion in Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Additionally, the agreement also gives China priority in bidding for any new project inside Iran associated with these industries.
According to press reports, the agreement potentially gives China potential new roles in the Middle East. The agreement goes beyond being economic. Reports indicate that there is a secret clause stipulating that China could deploy 5,000 of its security forces on the ground in Iran. Consolidation of the Sino-Iranian relations extended beyond this. In September 2021, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization –which China, along with Russia leads– accepted Iran’s full membership in the organization.
Another remarkable Chinese move, in 2021, was the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Syria, which came as the first visit of a high-ranking Chinese official to Syria since the beginning of the war. This visit was followed, in November 2021, with a phone conversation between the Chinese President and his Syrian counterpart. Whether moving towards Iran or Syria, China seems to have upped the ante in its challenge with the United States, contesting the latter’s traditional sphere of influence by establishing partnerships and cooperative relations with political regimes against wishes of the United States.
However, since China adheres to the principle of friendship with all, the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Iran was not his only visit to the Middle East, as Yi’s tour included visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain, underscoring China’s desire to develop its ongoing partnership with these countries and that the agreement with Iran does not contradict with these partnerships.
3- British and French Search for a Role in the Middle East: Seeking to reinforce its global status after leaving the European Union, Britain tried to engage in crises of the Middle East, particularly after the announcement of the US withdrawal from the region. Britain’s moves are aimed at better protecting its interests, taking advantage of the huge investment opportunities in the region, and demonstrating Britain’s ability to work jointly with allies and partners, particularly the United States. This raises questions about the possibility of the United Kingdom replacing the United States presence in the Middle East in the next period. On 24 November 2021, The Telegraph revealed that the British Defense Minister Ben Wallace will possibly announce the transfer of Britain’s largest military training base from Canada to Duqm in the east of Oman. This base is projected to be the largest training field for tanks.
On the other hand, France plays a more active role in the Middle East, ranging from strengthening the political, economic, and military relations with countries of the region, to the influential political and diplomatic involvement in some crises of the region, including the Libyan and Lebanese crises, the Iranian nuclear file, and the military participation in Global Coalition to Defeat IS in Syria. Furthermore, France is also striving to present itself as a mediator in the Middle East. In this vein, French President Emmanuel Macron was the only Western president to attend the Iraq Neighboring Countries summit. In addition, Macron endeavored to calm the tension between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. During his visit to Saudi Arabia on 4 December, a joint phone call brought together the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, under which it was agreed that Saudi Arabia and France work jointly to support the necessary comprehensive reforms in Lebanon, underlining the KSA’s and France’s support of Lebanon’s security and stability.
4- The US Redeployment in the Middle East: In view of the political transformations in the region and the strive of major powers to strengthen their roles in the Middle East to replace the United States, the United States seems to have chosen not to update its policy in keeping with these developments. As such, “redeployment” becomes the most appropriate word to characterize the US presence in the Middle East.
During his speech at the Manama Dialogue, in November 2021, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stressed the United States’ commitment to the security of the Middle East, underscoring that the United States still has large military forces in the region and may mobilize more forces if necessary and that the mission of the US army in the Middle East aims at supporting diplomacy, deterring aggression, and defending the interests of the United States and its allies.
The United States is aware of the change in the priorities of its allies in the region following its withdrawal and how this will negatively affect US interests in the region. For its part, the United States still needs to maintain its presence in the Middle East to confront the security threats posed by its opponents (whether from state or non-state actors), ensure the security of shipping lanes in the region, prevent volatility of oil prices, and consolidate its relations with allies in the region to prevent China and Russia from strengthening their relations with any of the regional countries in a way that contradicts with or threatens the US interests in the region.
Accordingly, the United States is expected to continue to have the same priorities that have long shaped its approach to the Middle East, given the persistence of interests and threats. Yet it may be inclined to re-evaluate its involvement due to the risks and costs of its involvement.
As part of the US reassessment process, the US Fifth Fleet launched Task Force 59 in early September 2021, under which drones and non-human controlled tools will be relied upon, with the aim of strengthening “deterrence” in the Fifth Fleet’s area of operations. According to Mark Kimmitt, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, the Task Force 59 will give the US Central Command and its partners the ability to conduct naval battles and have a deterrent force with lower risk to elements. Thus, it becomes clear that the United States may have resorted to a new method of work in the Middle East that is based on continued presence while mitigating the threat and risks facing the US forces in the region.
In short, 2022 is not expected to be any different from 2021 when it comes to the Middle East. Regional reconciliations will continue to be undertaken, major powers will continue to move towards increased political and economic involvement in the region, and the US will look for new frameworks that ensure continued presence at the lowest material, logistical or human cost.