As Uncle Sam retreats, sons of Abraham unite?

October 29, 2020 1:05 PM

Conflicts continue to plague the Middle East, but new alliances suggest things can change if a collective security paradigm replaces the vacuum left behind by the US withdrawal from the region

Experts addressing a recent symposium,organized by TRENDS Research & Advisory, looked at the various dimensions of the shifting US policy toward the Middle East. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Ehtesham Shahid

No other generation in the Middle East has perhaps encountered a reality so detached from an election taking place thousands of miles away. While Trump and Biden slog it out to capture the United States presidency, the Middle East seems to be getting somewhat comfortable in its skin, making peace with neighbours, battling a pandemic on its own, and charting an economic revival that promises a long haul.

This may look like a far-fetched story, but for a region torn apart by age-old and relatively new conflicts, an outlook based on a semblance of hope is better than a sweet dream in a poisoned chalice. Does being hopeful mean the myriad of problems and conflicts in the region stand resolved? Far from it. But at least the policy paralysis pending a four-year direction from Washington DC seems to be easing up.

Of course, regimes and leaders are hoping for their favourite presidential nominee to emerge victoriously, but a backup plan may well be in place even for them. More importantly, the backup plan would probably be a more enduring option, away from the somewhat destabilizing influence a hegemon across the seas could represent.

Retreating Hegemon

For good or bad, Obama years recognized that a US administration should not determine a regime’s survival in the Middle East. When the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring unfolded, Washington was not seen firmly on any side. Then came the much-maligned Pivot to Asia, which was another way of showing little interest in Middle East skirmishes. The long-winding American presence in Afghanistan took its toll, and there was no appetite for war back home.

In a way, Trump furthered the Obama legacy by not getting embroiled in Syria, Iraq, and even Iran. It chose to use transactional, sometimes overt, diplomacy to remain engaged in the Israel-Palestine conflict and some would argue even forced them into submission. Whichever way one looks at it, the US indifference toward the Middle East’s internal affairs was the need of the hour.

For the Middle East, such a scenario means autocracies are coexisting with meritocracies, the resource-rich with the impoverished, and the incorrigibles rubbing shoulders with those willing to change. When the world’s sole superpower looks for ways to retreat, it makes even more sense for the cradle of civilization to finally act like one.

The Abraham Accords

Besides being the latest outcome of the rapidly-evolving geopolitics, what has unfolded in the form of Abraham Accords is a realization that if you cannot beat your neighbours, join them. Call it a coming together of already friendly countries to counter the threat posed by Iran; this is also an expression of fatigue that years of fighting can set in, especially when the economic downturn weighs heavily on the shoulders and a young population awaiting job opportunities.

By normalizing ties, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Bahrain, and now Sudan have stitched together a syncretic mix the region hasn’t seen in ages. It is the coming together of diverse faiths, the region’s mightiest military power, and the most innovative economy. Even in pure business terms, this opens up the value proposition and sends a message to countries in the region that continue to underachieve due to legacy issues.

In the words of Yossi Halevi, a Senior Fellow at Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute, the US should use Abraham Accords as “a new basis for regional security.” According to Halevi, the new security vision should have a moral component to wield influence with a new US administration and adopt a creative approach toward the Palestinian issue. “The Abraham Accords could be the first step to a regional settlement,” he said.

Whichever way one interprets the Gulf-Israel camaraderie, it is evident that as long as there is regional harmony, external powers, even superpowers, would be more than willing to work for peace and security.

Energy driving geopolitics

Experts addressing a recent symposium,organized by TRENDS Research & Advisory, looked at the various dimensions of the shifting US policy toward the Middle East. Despite having differing perspectives on the subject, they somehow agreed on one basic premise that the way the US does business in the Middle East has fundamentally changed during the Trump presidency.

“Trump has, in so many ways, changed the way the American foreign policy addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict and the process of trying to make peace,” said Jonathan Ferziger, a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Pundits frequently argue that shale-driven energy resurgence in the United States is behind its withdrawal from the Middle East. Simplistic as it may seem, it fitted well with Trump’s transactional approach to the region.

The rapidly shifting energy interdependence indeed furthered this process. With shale in its backyard, the century-old need to keep the oil flowing was losing its relevance. Here is how it works on the ground. As soon as you take the hegemon out of the equation, the countries that thrive on foreign military powers to ensure their security start seeking diplomatic options to resolve regional issues.

In a nutshell, what has happened in the Middle East could be a blessing in disguise. Now is the time for the region to gain control and confidence. The governments must use their human and natural resources to shape the future of their people. The Middle East must build on this newly-developed and formalized harmony, evolve a mechanism to resolve regional conflicts, even the ever-enduring ones, and not allow outsiders to make decisions for them.

In other words, if Uncle Sam has chosen to retreat, it is time for the sons of Abraham to get their act together, move away from the power balance paradigm to a collective security paradigm, and, more importantly, take control of their destiny. Easier said than done, this is at least an objective worth striving for, far beyond the four-year election cycles.

(The author is Editor at TRENDS Research & Advisory. He tweets @2sham Views are personal.)

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