Is the US having an ‘East of Suez’ moment?
Many in the West were stunned at the spectacle last week in Beijing as Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they had agreed to reestablish relations and exchange ambassadors — and that the détente had been brokered by China. Beijing showcasing its ambitions and growing influence in the region may be a harbinger of a U.S. version of the British withdrawal “East of Suez” in 1971.
The deal is a signpost of a changing regional order. Riyadh and Tehran are the chief drivers of the Sunni-Shia Islam conflicts in the Middle East. The rivalry has featured proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon in a broader contest for regional pre-eminence. It has also featured Iranian drones and missiles attacking Saudi oil facilities.
Perhaps they tired of slugging it out since they severed ties six years ago. If implemented (both sides’ foreign ministers will hash out details over the next two months), it sets the stage for ending a proxy war in Yemen, a costly humanitarian tragedy that has left some 377,000 people dead, according to United Nations estimates. Tehran reportedly pledged to stop arming Houthi rebels there who have been fighting Saudi-backed forces and lobbing missiles into Saudi Arabia.
Taken together with the Abraham Accords, a U.S.-brokered rapprochement between Sunni Arab states and Israel, it reflects an exhaustion in the region and a quest for stability. It also reflects a perception across the region that the U.S., steeped in a war in Ukraine and countering China in the Asia-Pacific, is retrenching and is less of a reliable security guarantor than it used to be.
For the Saudis, the deal had multiple motivations. It reflected a view that the future world (and the direction of 75 percent of their oil exports) will be more Asian and more multipolar. It was a slap at President Biden and U.S. human rights groups. It also reflected doubts about U.S. reliability and a desire for more diverse partners and a hope that the region can solve its own problems.
It was probably no coincidence that at about the same time as the Saudi-Iran deal, Riyadh issued outsized demands to the U.S. as a condition for their normalizing ties to Israel. The Saudis asked for stronger U.S. security guarantees, support for a civil nuclear program and more robust arms sales, all of which are problematic. By dangling such a foreign policy coup for Biden, the Saudis appeared to show off their perceived leverage — and build pressure on Biden from Israel and its U.S. supporters.
For China, the Riyadh-Tehran deal was an opportunity to flaunt its growing prominence in the Middle East, and its role as a peace broker in line with President Xi Jinping’s still vague 2022 Global Security Initiative, Beijing’s response to the U.S. alliance network.
The U.S. remains the predominant military power in the region, with a ring of bases in the Gulf, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar. But China is fast becoming the region’s major economic player. It was no accident that Riyadh was one of Xi’s first destinations after the post-COVID-19 opening last December, nor that it was followed by hosting Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing, setting the stage for China’s diplomatic coup.
For Iran, facing U.S. and UN sanctions, a failing economy and waves of massive popular protests, normalizing relations (restoring trade, investment and security accords with Riyadh) offers a path toward integration in the region and Chinese economic help. That the Saudis went forward despite Iran’s continued uranium enrichment activities moving it closer to a nuclear bomb and confrontation with Israel and the West poses new challenges for the U.S.
For Washington, the Riyadh-Tehran deal cuts in different directions. Officially, the Biden administration welcomed the deal as reducing tensions. White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters: “If this deal can be sustained – regardless of what the interest was or who sat down at the table – if it can be sustained, and the war in Yemen can end, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to continually try to defend itself against attacks from the Houthis who are funded and supported by Iran, in the end we welcome that.”
While the prospect of stability is in U.S. interests, the deal diminishes U.S. leverage with Iran, though China’s constructive diplomacy can be seen as a plus. Yet the episode fuels the perception in the Middle East of a diminishing U.S. role and a buoyant Chinese one. The deal projects a deft Beijing using its economic leverage while avoiding getting sucked into the region’s geopolitical morass, and managing good relations with all sides.
The reality is that the U.S. remains a major actor in the region, but one among other contenders seeking influence, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and Egypt. That bodes well for avoiding a new hegemon, but not for U.S. primacy in a multipolar world.
It may be premature to compare the U.S. predicament in the region to the United Kingdom’s “East of Suez” exit from its south and east Asian empire. But this development should serve to spark a rethink of where the region fits in U.S. strategy.
Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs, as a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.
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