Once the undisputed hegemonic power in the Middle East, thought to be indispensable for the security and success of a range of regional leaderships, the US has been fading into the background to the benefit of its adversaries.
As armed conflict erupted between NATO-backed Ukraine and Russia in February of 2022, the Joe Biden administration in Washington decided to throw its weight behind Kiev and focus on a project to bog down Moscow, while unleashing wave after wave of sanctions. Despite spending at least $75 billion dollars on assistance to Ukraine and making Russia the most sanctioned nation on earth, the US has failed to bring Moscow to its knees. In fact, one could say that it is the US that has been cut down to size in the global arena, especially in the Middle East, an area it once considered its own backyard.
As the months pass, blow after blow has been inflicted on US power in the Middle East. In direct opposition to Washington’s agenda, the Syrian Arab Republic was readmitted to the Arab League following a 12-year hiatus, paving the way to end the crisis in Syria, which the US seeks to prolong. China has also entered Middle East politics in a dramatic way, brokering an Iranian-Saudi rapprochement back in March, and this then spurred a wider normalization wave. Although the US attempted to play off the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement as an acceptable and welcomed move, this has now clearly worked to collapse Washington’s long-term effort towards regional supremacy, which was based on feeding a proxy conflict between the two powers.
The failure of US sanctions
Western leaders publicly predicted that Russia’s economy would collapse under sanctions, a result which clearly has not materialized, with the IMF predicting the Russian economy will grow. Similarly, the US “maximum pressure” sanctions that were first introduced against Iran under the Trump administration, were expected to severely hinder the Islamic Republic’s ability to continue its developments in the defense field, but have failed to achieve those goals.
Russia is now exporting more oil than it did in 2021, as its relations with China, the primary global competitor to the US, have advanced. Gulf States have also repeatedly let the US down and refrained from yielding to pressure to cut oil production. There is also the example of Algeria, which has become Italy’s largest gas supplier and raked in over $50 billion dollars in oil and gas revenues during 2022 alone, even as it retains close relations with Moscow. And when it comes to the West’s ban on Russian gold bullion, the UAE, Türkiye and China have reportedly stepped in to fill the gap.
However, perhaps the worst blowback against Russia sanctions has been the nullification of previous limits to Moscow-Tehran economic relations. The two nations are already the most sanctioned on earth, so they need not worry about the potential consequences from their trade, which has encouraged further cooperation between them. Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi signed a deal to finance an Iranian railway line as part of a North-South Transport Corridor.
The Biden administration has employed hardline propaganda tactics in order to demonize Russia and lionize Ukraine. Although for some Western audiences the arguments set forth may have proven effective, in the global community and especially the Middle East, such rhetoric is tiresome and clearly hypocritical.
After having illegally invaded Iraq, inflicting around a million deaths, over a concoction of factually-challenged conspiracy theories about weapons of mass destruction, it comes off as laughable that the US is now claiming to oppose illegal invasions. Former Bush administration officials, such as Condolezza Rice, have even appeared on national television shows in the US to condemn illegal invasions of foreign countries. Even former US President George W. Bush seemingly condemned the “holy unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq…I mean of Ukraine” in a Freudian slip.
The US has positioned itself now as being opposed to the illegal occupation of foreign territory, in addition to claiming it stands in principle against annexation. When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked by a CNN correspondent whether his government supported the annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights by Israel, he answered: “Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” again demonstrating Washington’s double standards. Washington continues to maintain its recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, which not only defies international law, but also the majority opinion at the United Nations.
The faltering image of the US
From the perspective of Middle Eastern nations, the US is overcommitted to the conflict in Ukraine, even as they have refrained from taking a clear side and instead remained neutral for the most part. Neither the people nor the governments of these countries buy the platitudes espoused by US officials when it comes to Ukraine. The stark difference between the way Palestinians and Ukrainians are portrayed for the exact same actions are enough to make eyes roll.
Now that China is presenting opportunities for countless Middle East nations, especially in the economic sphere, the US has a real competitor. However, the US continues to operate as if the world has not undergone a dramatic shift and refuses to rein in its allies. Ukraine in some respect is getting the special treatment that Israel has enjoyed for years: unlimited aid with few or no questions asked. In the case of Israel, as its government proceeds with introducing controversial legal reforms, takes steps to change the status quo at the al-Aqsa Mosque and pursues hardline far-right policies against the Palestinian people, all coming at a cost to Washington itself, the Biden administration refuses to put it in its place. What Israel is currently doing is embarrassing its own Arab allies that recently normalized ties, even threatening to put a wedge in relations with the likes of neighboring Jordan.
It is this refusal to recalibrate that is not only costing the US its influence, but also evaporating the prize of bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia together, which has clearly been a foreign policy achievement goal dear to the Biden administration. Now that Riyadh and Tehran have restored relations, the excuse of combating Iran’s regional influence is gone for negotiating a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement. The refusal to punish Israel for its constant provocations also makes it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to normalize with an unrestrained Israeli government that continues to insult the Muslim world and invites popular Arab support for the Palestinian cause. If there is no change to the arrogant and out of touch approach of the US, which rules with an iron fist and a “my way or the highway” approach, it will be the US itself that is going to be taking a hike from the Middle East.