PWH Undergraduate Essay Prize One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind: The US Shift Away From the Middle East

May 17, 2023
By Meheer Commuri | Perry World House Undergraduate Essay Prize 2023

Meheer Commuri is a rising junior from New York studying International Relations in the School of Arts and Sciences. When not discussing foreign policy, he writes for Punch Bowl, Penn’s satirical magazine. He is also a member of the Philomathean Society.


US foreign policy is undergoing a shift in priorities, and global power dynamics are shifting with it. After a period of prolonged preoccupation with the Middle East, the U.S. has signaled a declining interest in the region. Instead, China (and more broadly the Asia-Pacific region) has emerged as the new focus. Both China and the Middle East recognize this shift. Beijing is gearing up to confront what it views as the key threat to its ascent on the international stage while the Middle East is bewildered and “running for cover.” This essay analyzes the global implications of the US priority  shift and discusses the formal and structural changes representing the shift in focus to China;  the signaling of disinterest and disengagement in the Middle East; the consequential and resultant shifts in regional power dynamics; and how the US policy should respond.

The Shift to China

Unlike in their domestic policies, Presidents Biden and Trump bear similarities in foreign policy. Trump was quick to position China at the center of his foreign policy agenda. Under his tenure, the U.S. levied additional tariffs on Chinese goods and saw “at least 210 public actions related to China that spanned at least 10 departments” in a whole-of-government approach (WGA). Biden retained Trump’s tough-on-China strategy and signaled a continuity in the focus on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While it was former President Barak Obama who first stated his intent to pivot to Asia, the shift should be attributed mostly to Trump first, and now Biden.

Despite the similarity in direction, there are differences between the Trump and Biden strategies toward China. Critically, whereas the Trump administration made China the central focus of US foreign policy, the Biden administration formally shifted US foreign policy to China and away from the Middle East.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan has restructured the National Security staff in the Middle East and Asia directorates — downsizing the team devoted to the Middle East and bulking up the unit that coordinates US policy toward the vast region of the world stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific… The changes essentially flip the structure of the Obama-era NSC, where the Middle East directorate was much bigger than it is now and the Asia portfolio was managed by a handful of more junior staffers..

The National Security Council now operates under the pretense that China and Russia present the primary challenges to the US, the West, and the liberal international order and are America’s biggest security challenge going forward.

Signaling Disengagement with the Middle East

On the hand, Middle East policy has morphed into passive observance. Perhaps the most compelling signal regarding the US disengagement with the Middle East was the inconsistency in the policy toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; Iran Nuclear Deal) US foreign policy has engaged in alarming about turns, from championing the JCPOA, to walking away from it, to signaling renewed interest. The world used to believe that US foreign policy trajectory relies more on a set of overarching values and institutional precedents and not solely on the whims of the White House. The Middle East no longer values this inference. The hasty withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and the continued absence of a plan for the role the US will play in the region has also startled the leaders in the Middle East. They have interpreted it not only as a lack of interest in anything other than China (and now Russia), but also as an explicit disengagement and even disconnection from everything that is not China (and now Russia).

As the last US plane departed Kabul in 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked, “A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun… the military mission is over, a new, diplomatic mission has begun.” Almost two years later, the US Embassy in Kabul remains unoccupied. For leaders in the Middle East, this appears less about a new chapter and more about closing the book. The Middle East has now decided move on as well.

The Consequences

As a result of American regional disengagement, many regional powers in both the Middle East and the broader Arab World find themselves with more license to chart a new direction. Two shifts have emerged as the most salient from an American perspective: the normalization of Iran and Syria. The US reversals on the Iran nuclear deal dented the confidence of the ‘anti-Iran’ coalition that the U.S. had worked to build. Though countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel did not need the US to tell them to dislike Iran, others, like “the United Arab Emirates, for instance, [are] taking steps to de-escalate [their] own tensions with Tehran, after years of striking a harsher tone.” In the post-American Middle East, the UAE is increasing its efforts to be seen as a regional power, especially among the Gulf Countries. Part of this includes a far-reaching, rapprochement-styled foreign policy that has made it one of the first major, non-allied countries to normalize relations with both Iran and Syria following the U.S.’s disengagement.

Even Saudi Arabia appears keen to “shed its reputation as an American client state” and chart its own foreign policy, now absent of previous American pressures. Mediated by China, Saudi Arabia is now attempting to normalize relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia has reappointed an envoy to Tehran and reopened their embassy in the city while Iran’s finance minister visited Jeddah discuss possible economic cooperation. This would have been unimaginable even just a few years ago in a Saudi Arabia more supported by US, able to uphold its proxy conflicts with Iran. Without the US commitment, Saudi Arabia is forced to be less brazen and more realistic about the path forward. It is also no coincidence that Beijing was the moderator as it has been working to replace US influence in the Middle East. China has turned to the Middle East and North Africa to diversify its oil imports, speeding up an already growing investment and engagement in the region. In 2021, Chinese investment in the region increased by roughly 360%, while Chinese construction rose by 116% year-on-year. Chinese investment is going to previously reliable American allies such as Jordan, Oman, Egypt, and of course, Saudi Arabia. And this is not including the cooperation between China and the GCC and China and the Arab League. The Saudi Arabia-Iran negotiations acted as a signal of China’s undercutting of American power in the region. The US has shifted away from the Middle East to combat the rise of China. Ironically, that very shift has allowed China to elevate its standing in the Middle East.

The normalization of Syria is even more interesting as Syria returned to the ‘Arab fold’ almost as rapidly as it was shunned. Though Western sanctions against Syria began during the country’s occupation of Lebanon and the alleged state-sponsoring of Hezbollah, the brunt of Western-led efforts to isolate and undermine the country would occur 30 years later at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Prodded by the US, 18 of the 22 Arab League member states present during an emergency meeting supported Syria’s suspension. Yet, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is the only target of the Arab Spring to have survived the movement. The region is now waking up to the fact that, having come out on top from Arab Spring and then the Syrian Civil War, Assad is not going anywhere. More than a decade after its suspension from the Arab League, the 13 attending members voted unanimously to readmit Syria. With Washington looking elsewhere, the region is rebuilding relationships with Assad. This marks a startling and a “significant shift in US policy, as represented by the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.”

On March 18, 2023, Assad visited the UAE. The visit was the culmination of the careful, regional rapprochement and renormalization. The UAE, Bahrain, and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all deepened their relations with Syria since 2018. Oman, a country that enjoys a strong diplomatic and defense relationship with the US, is now boosting its engagement with Syria, as is Egypt. American allies in the Middle East feel comfortable meeting with the government that was for so long the central American enemy in the region, clearly signaling the loss of US importance to the Arab fold. In response to Western finger-pointing, leaders like the UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed respond that they are merely looking pragmatically for internal solutions to regional stability. The situation in Syria bears similarity to that of Iran. In both cases, the US worked tremendously hard at the regional and international levels to build coalitions of opposition against the two countries. Then, the US, in their rather sudden reorientation, decided to cut its losses with these coalitions, look the other way, and watch them unravel as a new regional fold emerged in their place.

How U.S. Policy Should Respond

The U.S. must seek to reengage the Middle East and give regional leaders a genuine sense of U.S. commitment. This starts with pragmatism. China is currently courting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran with investments for access to oil. It is also looking to expand the Belt and Road Initiative into the Middle East though significant increasing its infrastructure and construction projects in GCC countries and other parts of the region. China’s interest in the Middle East now rivals its interest in Sub-Saharan Africa. China has $300 billon in current investments in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to $273 billion in the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. should not look away idly as the region welcomes Beijing. China has signed deals with “Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman—all places where the U.S. has strong political, military, and economic ties.”. China and the Middle East are not natural friends, the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang does not escape regional leaders. Therefore, it is possible for the U.S., even now, to compete against China in the region. The U.S. can capitalize on China’s treatment of their Muslim populations, highlight previous failures of countries who opted to join the BRI, and offer comparable alternatives to Chinese technology.

The first thing that the U.S. should do is engage with the Middle East on the region’s terms. US In the past, US foreign policy has adopted a binary stance on the Middle East of “all-in or all-out.” Instead, the US must engage with the Middle East as the Middle East would like to be engaged. This does not mean pandering or appeasing to regional demands. Instead, the US should choose a third position and pursue serious diplomatic engagement and investment that commitment the US to the region long-term This can be done through resuming military cooperation or through economic cooperation. This leads to the second policy recommendation for the US, expand investment and economic cooperation with the region. China is investing heavily in the GCC with Chinese firms providing technology, infrastructure development, nuclear and renewable energy, finance, logistics, arms production, and telecommunications. To avoid the region becoming wrapped in a Chinese “surveillance blanket,” the West should provide the GCC with credible technological and energy alternatives and Free Trade Agreements(FTAs).  FTAs are perhaps the best alternative the US could present the GCC for their ever-increasing trade and investment with China. FTAs would enable American firms to complete against Chinese ones in a wide range of industries, the most important being technology.

FTAs would promote and encourage trade partnerships and investment in Gulf ventures. Furthermore, they would also serve as a good model in assisting GCC countries in building bureaucratic and institutional capacity to engage in these negotiations and partnerships, which they can later use with other countries, including China, especially regarding regulatory issues.

Washington must realize that it is difficult to rank regions of the world in terms of their value to the US Headlines in magazines lamenting the irrelevance of the Middle East are not only trite but grossly misleading. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan wrote in Foreign Affairs that diplomacy in the Middle East can succeed where America’s past military interventions have failed. Sullivan advised that America ought to use regional diplomacy in place of military involvement to advance carefully selected interests. What Sullivan does not realize is that regional diplomacy has begun to move on without the US. So far, the US. has only signaled its disinterest and desire to disengage. Now, the US must focus on catching up in its involvement. The US gave up the Middle East in a self-proclaimed desire to commit to China. In doing so, however, has allowed China and the Middle East to commit to each other. As the US searches for growing Chinese power to counter, it need not look further than the place it is leaving.