If the US invasion of Afghanistan prompted intensified American intervention in the Middle East, then its exit from the country also signals an accelerated drawdown from a region that has long served as a gravitational center of political tension. The dramatic scenes from Afghanistan have sounded alarm bells throughout the Middle East, raising the specter of a hasty undoing of an economic and political order that has hinged on, or sought to counter, a large US presence in the region.
With a laser focus on China, Biden’s administration has made it crystal clear to US regional allies that they should no longer depend on the US for their security needs. States would need to fend for themselves. For the Middle East, this changes everything.
“The Gulf is on the verge of huge security and military transformations, perhaps the largest since 1971, when the US assumed responsibility for its security and turned it into an ‘American Gulf,’ in a strategic sense,” wrote the Emirati professor, who is believed to be close to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. “It may not be the same during the next five decades.”
The modern Middle East — whose state borders were carved out by Western colonial powers and where US interests in the oil-rich region long served as a centerpiece of regional geopolitics — barely has a notion of what minimal Western presence looks like.
In his first news conference after becoming Iran’s new president in June, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi returned the gesture, saying that he was keen to reopen embassies in the Saudi and Iranian capitals. The two countries have held several rounds of talks since early 2021 in attempt to ease decades of tensions.
There are also signs of other regional rivalries being tempered. The UAE has held high-level talks with Turkey and Qatar, who it long accused of supporting terrorism. Saudi Arabia has made similar overtures.
Last weekend in Baghdad, a regional summit also appeared to send complicated signals about the future of the region. A meeting between Tehran’s newly minted Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid on the sidelines of the event was the most high-level meeting between the two countries in years.
But Amir-Abdollahian has apparently not met with his Saudi counterpart, who was also present at the summit. Instead, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid him. Breaching diplomatic protocol, the Iranian top diplomat stood in a row with country leaders during a group photo. His assigned placement was next to the Saudi top diplomat, alongside other foreign ministers.
“When was the last time there was a regional hosted conference? [The Baghdad conference] really shows what’s happening in the region. There was no American there,” Iran expert and editor of Amwaj.Media Mohammad Ali Shabani told CNN. “The empire is gone. It’s gone.”
At breakneck speed, the region has seen local actors trying to fill American shoes. Sometimes this is literal. Images of Taliban fighters kitted up in US military gear inspecting aircraft hangars shocked people around the globe. What an extremist group will do with access to some of the world’s best weaponry is not yet clear. And the wider region is on the edge of its seat as those surreal scenes flash on its screens.
Already this has manifested in some parts of the Arab world, such as in Tunisia where a sweeping power grab by President Kais Saied last month, ostensibly to weed out corruption and mismanagement, met virtually no popular protest. In crisis-battered Lebanon, which is quickly descending into lawlessness, many on the country’s streets openly call for a military dictatorship.
“We’re going to turn more towards less ideology and more towards good governance,” added Shabani. “What this means is more tolerance of authoritarian rule if it is accompanied by prosperity. But if it’s not accompanied by prosperity then we’re going to see even worse ahead.”