Coronavirus could further weaken US power in the Middle East

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye21 April 2020.

It is too early to tell how the Covid-19 crisis will impact geopolitics. That, of course, has not stopped a range of commentators debatingthe likely extent of change and continuity once the pandemic passes.

This article adds to that debate, by focusing on how the international relations of the Middle East could be affected, albeit with the considerable caveat that the pandemic could yet take an unexpected turn.

In the past, major crises have tended to catalyse pre-existing trends rather than usher in total transformations. As such, one plausible result of Covid-19 could be the acceleration of a shift that began more than a decade ago: the weakening of US power and influence in the Middle East.

Bid for regional hegemony

The post-Cold War era of the 1990s and 2000s was characterised by an expansion of Washington’s Middle Eastern footprint. It strengthened ties with allies through military contracts and base building, mobilised the international community to isolate its enemies, and, eventually, directly invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this bid for regional hegemony has been rolled back in recent years due to a combination of factors. The US failure and overstretch in Iraq; public exhaustion; the 2008 financial crisis; and the election of two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who in different ways opposed heavy involvement in the Middle East, prompted more reluctance from the White House.

Meanwhile, the rise of China, renewed military activism from Russia and greater interventionism from Middle Eastern states saw the US’s previous dominance further challenged.

The Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate this. The US, like other Western democratic governments, looks set for a post-coronavirus period of internal focus. The US public was already hostile towards adventures abroad, a contributing factor to both Obama’s and Trump’s victories, and the pandemic crisis will add further pressure for leaders to focus domestically on healthcare, the economy and democratic accountability.

Moreover, Washington’s failure to lead a global response to the crisis, with Trump instead pulling support for the World Health Organization, has further eroded whatever soft power appeal the US had left in the region.

Russia and China

This is not to suggest the US will suddenly remove itself from the Middle East. It seems unlikely it will vacate its Gulf bases, while the arms industry will continue to seek regional clients. Specific regional projects, such as Trump’s confrontation with Iran, will not disappear.

But the broader view of the Middle East as an arena in which the US should dominate or, at least, be the primary external actor will have less and less appeal. Whoever is elected in November, priorities and resources will continue to be focused elsewhere. As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former speechwriter, recently wrote: “The 9/11 era is over.”

So, what comes next? Again, one plausible scenario is a continuation of the past decade’s trends. The US’s global rivals, Russia and China, have been emboldened by Washington’s gradual retreat. Moscow has militarily intervened in Syria, backed anti-government forces in Libya, and built closer ties with Iran, Egypt, Israel and the Gulf.

China, meanwhile, has significantly increased its economic and diplomatic engagement, designating the Middle East a “neighbour” in its Belt and Road Initiative, and built a physical presence in Pakistan and Djibouti.

Though neither seems interested or has the capacity to replace the US as hegemon, both look likely to raise their stakes in the Middle East.

Regional activism

The other side of this trend has been the increased independent activism of regional powers. Middle Eastern heavyweights Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and – to a lesser extent – Israel, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, have spent the last decade intervening in contested arenas such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq.

Unlike in the 1990s and 2000s, these interventions have frequently come without prior consultation with the US, even among Washington’s allies, echoing the regional competition of the 1950s and 60s.

These states, like China and Russia, are largely authoritarian, potentially sparing them the public demand to focus internally after the crisis that democratic Western governments may face. These regimes may even opt for more regional intervention to distract their publics from internal failures during the crisis.

That said, much will depend on how badly affected Russia, China and the regional powers are by the time the pandemic ends.

The coronavirus crisis has already highlighted poor governance in many Middle Eastern autocracies, and related future economic woes may spark public unrest and even revolution. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia continue to be rocked by low oil prices, while a collapse in regional tourism will hit others, possibly deterring any foreign adventurism.

Two alternatives

This could plausibly go one of two ways. On the one hand, those players least impacted by the pandemic, whether governments or non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Yemen’s Houthis or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, could take advantage, prompting yet more regional conflict.

Alternatively, if all the potential interventionists are sufficiently stricken, there could be some respite in some of the conflict zones. A retreating US and an unwillingness from China or Russia to take its place may even lead weakened regional adversaries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to seek greater accommodation.

Critics have long called for Washington to step back from the Middle East, and it is possible that the Covid-19 crisis will accelerate this process and grant them their wish. An optimistic forecast may suggest this would help usher in an era of less intervention in the Middle East by external, regional powers or non-state actors.

Yet, it seems equally plausible that in the vacuum, states and other players, including the US, will continue to view the region as an arena for competition, subjecting it to more conflict and suffering. The post-US Middle East that Covid-19 could usher in may prove no more stable than it was under Washington’s failed bid for dominance.

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