The accelerating erosion of Western influence in the Middle East

The West’s Middle East Pillars of Sand by Daniel Korski and Ben Judah – Project Syndicate

American and Soviet influence was not confined to the battlefield, as both countries made their presence felt high up the military chain of command. More recently, military installations in the Persian Gulf protected the oil supplies of the Cold War alliance and deterred both Ba’athist Iraq and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran from grabbing the prized oil wells or choking off export routes.

But this military pillar has been steadily eroded. An early sign was the failure of “Operation Eagle Claw” to rescue US hostages in Iran in 1980. Another crack appeared with the 1983 Hezbollah attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut, which triggered an abrupt US withdrawal from Lebanon. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US forces have withdrawn from Saudi Arabia and discovered that their conventional military potency does not necessarily translate into impact on the ground.

The second pillar of the West’s Middle East role – commercial ties – has also been weakened. America used to be the essential trade partner for the Gulf countries, but this has now changed. In 2009, Saudi Arabia exported 57% of its 2009 crude oil to the Far East, and just 14% to the US. Responding to this underlying shift, King Abdullah has been pursuing a “look East” policy since 2005, resulting in trade worth more than $60 billion.

This eastward shift has made China a bigger trading partner than the US for both Qatar and the UAE. And almost a quarter of Qatar’s trade is with China, compared to just over 5% with the US. Likewise, 37% of the UAE’s trade is with China, India, and South Korea. To many Middle East states, what China wants is now just as important as US interests.

Finally, the US no longer has a string of relatively stable clients in the region. The US believed that the massive amounts of aid that it doled out to Egypt, Israel, and Jordan guaranteed both stability and cooperation on issues of American interest. This worked for three decades, but now the link is weakening.

The pace of the decline of Western influence seems to have accelerated over the past decade. The Saudis made it clear in 2003 that they could no longer host US military installations. In both his first and second terms as Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu refused to follow the US script on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And, despite hosting a huge US military base, Qatar maintains close links to Syria and Iran.

To this must now be added the revolt in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak was the lynchpin of the West’s policy: he was uncompromising with potential US enemies; he could be relied upon to appear at peace talks with the Israelis; and he could be used to add weight to the American position on Iran. Now the US-Egyptian alliance is under threat, and with it American policy for the entire Middle East.

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