Historically, the United States has played a major role in shaping the Middle East’s political landscape, starting during the Cold War era and continuing through the War on Terror. However, in recent years, Washington’s active participation in, and influence over, the Middle East and the Gulf States has noticeably decreased. The past decade has seen a visible decline in what might be called the United States’ “effective presence.” In other words, while still technically present in the region, Washington has increasingly decided to stay on the sidelines of the Middle East’s complicated political ecosystem, raising questions about its future in the region and the Arab world’s perception of its influence.
The diminishing influence of the United States within the Gulf can be ascribed to various factors. One notable reason for the change in condition has been a substantial alteration in regional power dynamics, with new actors emerging to fill the security vacuum left by the United States. Turkey’s military involvement in Syria, the expansion of Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and Russia’s unwavering support for the Assad regime have shifted the balance of power—usually in a direction unfavorable to Washington’s foreign policy. Moreover, non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Kurdish forces in Syria have added further complexity to the geopolitical landscape. Critically, these changes must not be exclusively linked to a declining American influence in the region; they should also be viewed in the context of strategic choices and the political ambitions of these regional actors.
Economic transformations have also played a crucial role in America’s reduced presence. The boom of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and the accompanying surge in oil production both within the United States and from other countries outside the Middle East have lessened American dependence on the region for oil and gas. Additionally, the global shift towards renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and the global expansion in liquified natural gas has reduced the strategic importance of Middle Eastern fossil fuels.
The Arab world’s reaction to America’s diminishing role in the region has been multifaceted. Many regional states expressed relief at the perceived decline of American interventionism. However, other regional players share Washington’s foreign policy goals, and have been far more apprehensive about losing the stability and security that firm U.S. support has often provided. The Middle Eastern countries most reluctant to see the United States go have often been those connected to Iran in some way, as they regard Iran and its foreign non-state partners as the primary beneficiaries of the U.S. withdrawal. Although some of the GCC states—notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have sought to improve their relations with Iran, they remain concerned about the consequences of unchecked Iranian behavior. To address these concerns, they have also sought to deepen their involvement with other major powers, such as Russia and China—with further consequences for their already-flagging security relationship with the United States.
Gauging America’s Options
The declining influence of the United States poses several challenges to the Gulf, both political and security-related. In the past, America had unrivaled influence within the Middle East, giving it considerable sway over how it chose to approach challenges there. Today, however, the United States has visibly less sway over the region’s governments, both within the Gulf and the broader Middle East. Its influence over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been limited, and its recent withdrawal from Afghanistan—allowing the fundamentalist Taliban government to retake control after a twenty-year insurgency—has further eroded trust in its commitments.
This environment creates a significant challenge for the United States. The future of its Gulf policy is uncertain, but it is clear that it must take action to counteract perceptions of its decline if it is to maintain its status in the region. Furthermore, if it is to maintain its influence without relying on force of arms, it could refocus its efforts in the region toward elements of “soft power,” such as diplomatic engagement, fostering economic partnerships, and the promotion of regional development. Specifically, the U.S. could seek to enhance its diplomatic engagement by supporting peace initiatives, conflict resolution, and regional dialogue platforms.
Within the economic sphere, it could foster partnerships based on mutual interests such as technology transfer, investments in renewable energy, and efforts to diversify the Gulf economies away from fossil fuels. For promoting regional development, efforts could be geared toward supporting educational initiatives, developing healthcare infrastructure, and sponsoring programs that enhance social cohesion and inclusivity.
By adopting a balanced and well-informed approach, the United States may successfully maintain its influence and constructively contribute to the pursuit of peace and stability in the region. Its changing role in the Middle East does not need to equate to diminished effectiveness, but could instead herald a new era of constructive engagement and mutual growth.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.