How the role of the US is changing in the Middle East

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Photo by Shutterstock)

The leadership role of the US in the Middle East faces profound challenges says Ahmad Abdel-Rahman.

China's success in achieving rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence, poses a challenge to US diplomacy in the Middle East. Until recently, the US has been long considered a mediator and a major player in the region.

The US considered Beijing's announcement on March 10 regarding the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which had been severed since 2016, following negotiations hosted by China, as seen as a positive step.. "Anything that might help reduce tensions is a good thing," said US secretary of state, Antony Blinken.

However, US officials have tried to downplay China's role in the region, saying that Beijing is still far from outperforming the Americans in a Middle East that remains largely under the protection of the US.

However, the diplomatic breakthrough achieved by China represents a real challenge to the role of the US. Washington's is increasingly preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and, in the long term, this could impede Beijing's diplomatic and military progress in the Indo-Pacific region.

James Ryan, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Washington would welcome any move that could bring regional stability to the Middle East, even if it was from China.

"The Biden administration said clearly that when it comes to the Middle East, it supports strengthening security and stability," Ryan said in a statement to Agence France-Presse (AFP)., adding that American interference will generally recede" - a message that the Saudis clearly understand.

Complicated relationships

The shift comes as relations between the US and Saudi Arabia remain complex and as Washington grapples with issues ranging from Iran's nuclear programme to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the huge USD37 billion deal, between the Saudis and Boeing that was announced a few days ago, by the White House, relations between Washington and Riyadh have remained tense, even after President Joe Biden announced in October a review of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the historic ally of the US. The US President had talked about consequences for the country after Riyadh's decision to cut its oil production.

Likewise, the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement threatens the main goal of the Abraham Accords that the US formulated in 2020, which is Saudi Arabia's recognition of Israel, after decades of rejection. Led by Washington, these negotiations allowed the normalisation of relations between Israel and two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have reported that Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. is working behind the scenes to obtain security guarantees from Washington and help with its civilian nuclear programme in exchange for normalisation with Israel.

With regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, negotiations on reviving the 2015 agreement, from which the US withdrew during the era of Donald Trump, are stalled. Washington confirms that returning to the agreement is no longer on the table if the US still believes that this agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring atomic weapons.

Leading role

There is also an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite repeated calls for calm, including during the US secretary of state's visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah at the end of January, the violence escalated.

Day after day, US officials condemn Israel's unilateral measures of settlement expansion in particular, while reaffirming "unwavering" support for Israel and its commitment to the "two-state solution". However, this had no effect on the government of old ally Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, the project to amend the judicial system put forward by Netanyahu, who heads a government that is the most right wing in the country's history, represents an embarrassment to Washington.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Blinken praised the "vibrant democracy" in Israel, stressing, "Consensus is the best way forward."

However, the pressure is building on the Biden administration. Recently, a hundred Democratic representatives wrote to express their concerns about this amendment that Israel was making and called on the US to assume its leadership role in the region.

As the US enters the election year in 2024, "they will have very limited room for maneuver in this regard," said Ryan. He added that the Israelis are "much more confident now, especially since the Abraham Accords that they can act as they please."

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Saturday, 30 September 2023