For more than 50 years, and especially since the Iranian revolution of 1979, U.S. policies and initiatives in the Middle East rested on a complex network of relations with four diverse regional pillars: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt.
At one time or another the United States worked with one or more of these states to contain the perennial fires ravaging the region (even when these same states ignited the fires in the first place, whether Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Israel in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, or Turkey in Iraq and Syria).
Over the years, the U.S. achieved some notable victories in the region, alone or with these erstwhile allies. But the world that gave rise to these relationships is undergoing changes that require a serious, even radical, reevaluation. There is no longer a Soviet threat to the Gulf region, and the U.S. has become the largest oil producer in the world.
Meanwhile, the last U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis collapsed almost a decade ago, the two-state solution has long been dead, and the extremists in charge of Israel today are on a messianic mission to formally annex all the Palestinian territories under their control.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt have been charting their own paths, flagrantly disregarding Washington’s core interests. They believe that closer political, economic, and military relations with Russia, China, India, or each other—openly or clandestinely—will provide them with suitable alternatives to the United States.
To put it bluntly, America’s four traditional pillars in the Middle East are now too brittle to be relied upon.
Much has been written recently about how the Turks, Israelis, and Arabs have been involved in dialogue with one another, exploring ways to revive regional diplomacy, cooperation, and investment. Some analysts went as far as to proclaim the dawn of a new era in the Middle East.
But these de-escalations should be welcomed with much caution. The men who today sing the virtues of reconciliation were the same ones who ravaged Yemen; laid siege to Qatar; rampaged in Syria and Libya; and shunned Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s despot, after a popular uprising, only to welcome him after he committed war crimes and turned his country into a narcostate.
In reality, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt have all been pursuing various forms of aggressive nationalism. Israel has already codified religious chauvinism and exclusivism, and some of its leaders regularly incite terrorism and call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has fostered a new culture of hyper-nationalism in an attempt to diminish the influence of the religious establishment and build by coercive means a Saudi national identity revolving around his authoritarian persona.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is known for stirring up a version of aggressive Turkish nationalism, laced with religious overtones and mixed with Ottoman revivalism in his frequent campaigns of grievances and intimidation against the West. Erdoğan projects himself as the embodiment of these corrosive values.
Moreover, these countries have mostly stopped cooperating with the United States on its regional priorities. Sisi was planning to provide rockets and artillery rounds to Russia to use against Ukraine before he was caught by U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this year.
Erdoğan only barely managed to maneuver his way out of a major crisis with U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO powers at the recent Vilnius summit, when he seemed to drop his opposition to Sweden’s accession to NATO after a year of obstruction. But his blackmailing of Europe by threatening to unleash waves of Syrian refugees continues. And Erdoğan’s earlier purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system should have warranted harsher sanctions than it received.
The historical factors that once cemented ties to the United States have also dissipated. The Soviet Union, which posed a threat to the countries of the region, is no more. (Ironically, Russian President Vladimir Putin today enjoys warmer personal relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Salman, and Erdoğan than these leaders enjoy with Biden.) There are no longer any foreign threats to the Gulf.
The role played by oil has also changed dramatically. Oil had fueled America’s relations with Saudi Arabia dating back to World War II, with the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia coming to rely on imported oil and gas from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states in exchange for the U.S. military guaranteeing the safety of these transactions.
But the United States is no longer the lone outside power with an economic stake in the Gulf region. Asian powers such as China, India, and others have established or reestablished complex economic and trade relations with the Gulf. And it is only natural that higher economic Asian activity will bring with it a higher political and military profile.
And, in truth, this marks the return of a deeper history for the region. Long before the onset of large oil revenues, Gulf port cities resembled Indian Ocean port cities. The economies of these small port cities were dominated by merchant families: Arab, Persian, African, Baluch, Indian, and others, with Sunnis and Shiites living on both sides of the Gulf.
Over the centuries, these families developed a rich maritime culture that created a complex exchange of people and goods across the Gulf cities, East Africa, and the port cities of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. These renowned traders with their ubiquitous dhows traversed these waters long before Western powers controlled them. For the new Gulf states to look eastward is nothing more than to reestablish the old maritime lanes.
This article was originally published by Foreign Policy. This is a shorter version.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.