INTERVIEW: A potential reset in US-Middle East relations

Dina Ezzat , Friday 29 Jul 2022

Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace Hesham Youssef argues that the leaders of the region want actions from Washington, not just promises.



In an interview with Ahram Online, Youssef discussed the current US administration’s foreign policy for the Middle East and the new dynamics in the relationship between individual Arab states and Washington.

Ahram Online (AO): Having heard what US President Joe Biden said about Washington’s interest to leave no vacuum in the Middle East that could be filled by Russia, China, or Iran, is it safe to argue that Biden’s recent visit to the region is the beginning of a US come-back?

Hesham Youssef (HY): Well, yes and no, because it really depends on how we want to define this “US come-back to the Middle East.” There are so many details about the US’ intentions that are not clear yet.

The reduction of the US’ footprint in the Middle East started during the Barack Obama administration and was accompanied by a pivot to Asia in order to advance relations with the continent and confront China’s growing influence.

The Donald Trump administration then saw fit to adopt the same foreign policy with the aim of preserving the US’ interests in the Middle East and at the same time minimising its presence in the region.

Right from the beginning, regional capitals told Washington that this withdrawal scheme was a bad idea and that it would not help the US’ interests or — for that matter — regional stability. Washington was told in a matter-of-fact sort of way that if it decided to put the Middle East and its issues behind its back, including the Israeli Palestinian conflict, that these issues would come back to haunt it.

The credibility of these warnings was then proven over and over again. During the Israeli offensive on Gaza last year, the Biden administration had to invest considerable diplomatic capital and, of course, work closely with key regional capitals — particularly Cairo — to put a stop to the war.

For sure, this was not the first reminder to Washington about the cost of its withdrawal. When Obama decided to walk out on Iraq, Islamic State (ISIS) expanded its influence and took control of an area the size of Great Britain. This simply meant that the US had to come back to fight ISIS.

Most recently, when the Russian-Ukrainian War started, Washington had to look towards the Middle East for answers for the energy crisis that came with the war and to see how it can contribute to facing global food security challenges.

And yes, during his visit to the region earlier this month, Biden did say that Washington is now fully aware of the need to make sure that there is no vacuum in the region that Russia, China, or Iran could try to fill. The region of course does not put these three countries in the same basket, but that is a different story.

And in his speech before the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development, Biden did say that as the challenges of the world grow more complex “it is only becoming clearer how closely interwoven America’s interests are with the successes of the Middle East.”

Clearly, what goes for successes also goes for failures. So, it is obvious that Biden’s visit to the region shows a US that is aiming to come back to the Middle East in some way. What is not clear yet is the extent and scope of this comeback.

AO: But it is not an easy decision to execute, this comeback to the Middle East. And Biden is clearly suffering from low approval ratings, even within the Democrats’ ranks. Do you think he has enough political capacity to invest in relaunching an effective US engagement with this very complex region?

HY: Obviously, the declining popularity of this administration relates first and foremost to home front issues, including inflation, the price of gasoline, and other issues.

We have to see what the mid-term elections that will be held in November will bring about. So far, speculations say that the Democrats are not in a very good place, but we will see. 

Anyway, here in Washington, some argue that if the Democrats suffer a setback in the mid-term elections, it would tie Biden’s hands in many internal issues, which might prompt him to invest more in foreign policy matters.

Again, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, we need to see how far Biden is willing to go in re-engaging in the Middle East and what kind of political bandwidth he will have.

So far, it does not seem that he has a clear grand scheme for the US’ policies in the region. This is obvious from the ultra-cautious position this administration is taking on the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. There is a lot of hesitation on getting really involved there, although the administration knows that the situation can get out of control with even minor incidents. This will also depend on whether the negotiations with Tehran will succeed or not.

Biden himself knows — particularly from his days as vice president of Obama — that the Palestinian cause is a tough issue to approach and certainly a tough war to win. He might decide that he does not wish to invest much political capital there, as he sees the complex internal situation for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

And it is very clear that in terms of his priorities in foreign relations, Biden does have a long agenda to attend to, especially with the war in Ukraine — what can be considered a new cold war with China and Russia — along with the challenges to re-establish the nuclear deal with Iran.

AO: When Obama started his withdrawal policy, the assumption was that he felt that the Middle East or — to be more specific — Arab countries are not set for major changes, especially after the desperation that came about after the Arab Spring. What do you think?

HY: No; I think it is wrong to relate the decision that Obama made strictly to the outcome of the Arab Spring. Obama felt that his mandate from the American people that brought him to the White house was to end America’s involvement in wars in the Middle East. This is why he also took a step back after drawing a red line for Bashar Al-Assad the minute he found an opportunity to do so.

Obviously, some of Obama’s positions in dealing with the uprisings in the Arab Spring were not to the liking of some leaders in the region. However, things are a lot more complex. There has been a breach of confidence between key capitals in the region and Washington.

It is true that, in part, this breach came as a result of the positions Obama took regarding some Arab leaders, but there is much more to it.

The perception in the region is that the successive US administrations of Obama, Trump, and Biden failed to live up to the security expectations of the region. Even Trump, who had very good relations with many leaders in the region — particularly in the Gulf — failed to be there for no other than Riyadh when significant interests were hit by the Houthis in 2019, halting almost half of its oil exports.

This is why today, Abu Dhabi for example, officially presented a proposal requesting that future security relations with Washington be clearly defined and agreed in a legally binding agreement. This is unprecedented and difficult to achieve, but we will see how this particular situation develops.

AO: So, we are actually talking about a new phase rather than just a come-back?

HY: A new phase of sorts. We will have to see how US policy evolves on both sides. One thing is certain, the capitals of the region are not interested to go back to the old parameters of the relationship with Washington. There is a new approach that is more based on give-and-take.

The capitals of the region want a more balanced alliance with Washington. They have made it very clear that they are willing to carry their share of the burden and that, at the same time, they will not hand blank checks to the US.

The key oil producing countries in the region did not immediately respond to the US’ request to increase oil production in the early phase of the war in Ukraine, insisting that they would work within the parameters of OPEC+.

A few weeks down the road, they agreed to a very limited increase. Then after the Biden visit, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs said that his country is willing to consider a further increase that is still within the parameters of OPEC+.

But relations with the US, even in the case of the Gulf’s countries, is not just about oil. There is the very crucial issue of Iran, which is a major security concern in the gulf, especially for Saudi Arabia.

In this context, the US and Saudi Arabia agree on the need to ensure that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons. However, how they want to deal with its policies in the region and its missile programme is not clear. Iran was a top agenda issue for the talks Biden held with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries during his visit.

AO: So, it is a new partnership in the remaking?

HY: The capitals of the nine countries whose leaders were present with Biden in the Jeddah Summit earlier this month are Washington’s partners and have strategic ties with the US.

I don’t think that any of these capitals would want to drop this strategic partnership or replace it with other powers. I just think that the mood now is anchored towards an effort to rebuild confidence and have clarity, particularly on security issues.

These countries also do not want to be forced to take sides in what is virtually a new Cold War with China and Russia. They argue that the alliance with the US should not come at the expense of their relations with other international powers. 

At the end of the day, it is a partnership that none of the US’ allies in the region could abandon. At the same time, we all saw how Israel had to change plans on having China manage one of its ports upon the US’ demand. We also saw how the UAE took steps when they were told that there were Chinese military personnel in the country, again upon US intervention.

Having said that, it is also important to take into consideration that in the eyes of the Middle East, the US of today is certainly not the US that led the charge for the liberation of Kuwait in the early 1990s. That was a moment when a major part of the region had a very positive take on the US.

This changed with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and again with the successive failures to find a fair resolution to the plight of the Palestinians. It picked up somewhat with the US war on ISIS but is now on the decline.

AO: So, what should we expect in the short-term?

HY: Well, we will have to see how the US will work its way around the confidence and reliability deficiency it has in the region, because it would be totally wrong to assume that the visit fixed the lack of confidence that is there in several Gulf capitals regarding the intentions of Washington. Promises were given, but the test will be in the implementation. 

The statements that Biden made ahead of the visit for internal purposes when he said that his visit to Saudi Arabia is upon the request of Israel and that he was not going to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince, and that Jeddah was just a venue for a wider meeting were not at all to the liking of Riyadh. 

But we are now beyond the statements and beyond the visit itself, and we will see what kinds of steps will be undertaken. Americans will be assessing how their allies in the region will be acting on three key files: Oil production, and relations with Russia and China.

Meanwhile, the countries whose leaders were present in Jeddah will, for their part, be looking for the US’ political posture on issues of regional security — especially concerning Iran — with or without the return to the nuclear deal, and also on the Palestinian cause, which continues to be a critical matter for the peoples of the region.

One could not have missed the fact that Palestine was present in the statements of all Arab leaders who addressed the Jeddah summit. This is not just lip service; this is the unavoidable reality of public sentiment in Arab countries and beyond.

Short link: