Politicians and pundits from Riyadh to Washington have castigated recent American foreign policy in the Middle East for being unfocused, misguided or harmful to national interests.
Contrary to these accusations however, the Obama policy is none of the above: It is a pragmatic approach that takes into account a progressive decline in the political and economic importance of the Middle East.
This policy change is currently making headlines in Syria where the United States, despite accusations of hypocrisy and strategic blundering, remains skittish about engaging in a conflict that is drawing in almost every other regional player, many of whom are long time American allies.
This policy change is also reflected in other recent developments in the region, such as Turkey’s courting of CPMIEC, a Chinese weapons manufacturer under US sanction, Saudi Arabia’s de-coupling from America’s intelligence networks and renewed dialogue with Iran. These diplomatic changes already reflect a very different Middle East than the one most politicians acknowledge.
Furthermore, there is a simple explanation for this shift: The region no longer warrants the same level of attention that it did when it was a nexus of global conflict during the Cold War and the two decades that followed, when Middle Eastern oil’s role in the global energy market allowed it to hold the world economy hostage.
The results of the shale oil revolution, which is set to make America the world’s biggest oil producer by 2015, and the United States’ shift towards oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere are not the only factors in the decline of Middle East oil fortunes.
Even China is now jumping on the shale bandwagon, with a 5-year plan that is predicted to produce 60-100 billion cubic meters of shale gas by 2020. In the Middle East, Israel’s recent natural gas discoveries amount to approximately 950 billion cubic meters of reserves.
Further complicating matters is the continued instability of the region, which drives up the price of oil and makes alternatives more attractive. The Saudi ruling coterie is clearly worried, as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal demonstrated in an open letter to the Kingdom’s government last spring. He warned that revenues from oil form over 90% of the Saudi state budget, and the consequences of producing below capacity could be devastating.
Former National Security Agency specialist Paul D. Miller noted in his 2012 article “The Fading Arab Oil Empire,” peak oil production in the Middle East is either soon approaching or already behind us. Although oil production in the Middle East has reached levels unseen in two decades, the IMF recently warned Arab oil producers that they will face deficits by 2016.
Last month, the Kingdom announced it would no longer engage in the high level of intelligence sharing with the United States that had marked the two countries combined efforts in fighting terrorism in the region. In the same vein, the Saudis rejected a position on the UN Security Council that they had campaigned relentlessly to obtain. In a recent interview, Saudi Arabia’s Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud questioned whether Obama, “gets it” while condemning a “worldwide apathy—a criminally negligent attitude toward the Syrian people.”
But the reality is much more complicated than the picture Al Saud painted. In addition to a human rights catastrophe, the situation in Syria represents perhaps the most fundamental regional contest for power in decades.
The policies of the House of Saud and its allies, as well as those of Assad and his supporters, are both fueling the carnage, with neither side backing down. With so much at stake, longtime allies like the Saudis find it surprising that America remains so uncommitted, while America has every reason to abstain.
Domestically, boots on the ground is a non-starter and other interventionist alternatives are almost as unpopular. Just as importantly, the deference showed to Russia and China reflects a more balanced approach to foreign policy.
From Obama’s perspective, any marginal gains made by saving face on the Syria issue would be sharply offset by serious diplomatic fallout with Russia and China, not to mention Iran where a groundbreaking agreement was just inked.
Without the ability to use oil as a diplomatic weapon, there is very little that Persian Gulf countries can do. The Russians and Chinese, on the other hand, wield far more economic and diplomatic influence over not only the United States but its European allies as well. For the time being, the primary belligerents in this conflict are of Middle Eastern origins and America would prefer to keep the conflagration localized.
If Saudi Arabia is so concerned about the degeneration of human rights conditions, there is little stopping them from taking a more interventionist role. Aside from arming rebels, many of whom are hardline extremists, Saudi Arabia has shown little willingness to engage Syria militarily.
This is not for wont of weapons: America has granted the Kingdom an enormous amount of military support since 1950, with the Saudi Armed Forces absorbing huge amounts of armaments to keep the Gulf free of Soviet influence. Arms sales exploded again in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. After 9/11, arms sales received another shot in the arm.
Turkey has expressed its discontent with the US and the West through a variety of moves. Announcements concerning the planned purchase of a $3.4 billion high-altitude missile defense system from China have already raised the ire of NATO’s leadership.
Erdoğan has also successfully drawn Turkey closer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), stating that the organization shares Turkey’s values and gaining observer status earlier this year. Ankara has also expressed interest in joining the Eurasian Union, an economic block being formed between former Soviet states.
In spite of its aggressive signaling however, Turkish policies seem to have had no real impact on America’s regional shift. NATO officials maintain that any Chinese missile systems will not be compatible with the organization’s defenses, leaving Turkey with very little room to negotiate.
During the Cold War, Turkey was a valuable ally and it remains a key strategic state. In the current climate, however, the former ally is no longer able to command the same attention and must make threats to go elsewhere in search of economic and military alliances.
The erosion of American support has reduced Turkey’s ability to wield influence in the region. Two of its major projects, Syria and Egypt, have both ended poorly, alienating the Erdogan regime and damaging Turkey’s ability to act as a regional leader. It is clear now that Turkey engaged in the Syrian conflict with the expectation of far more Western support that it received.
With an 822 kilometer shared border with Syria and a refugee crisis on his hands, Erdogan has everything to gain from an intervention and has repeatedly lobbied Turkey’s allies for one. Yet without Western support beyond defensive Patriot missile batteries, Turkey finds itself saddled with a humanitarian crisis and uncomfortably close to a perturbed and resilient Assad.
The unwillingness of the United States to condemn the recent coup in Egypt is another illustration of this divergence. Ever since they came to power in Egypt, Erdogan closely aligned himself with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Morsi was ousted, Erdogan saw the West’s compliance as a personal and ideological betrayal. Just as importantly, Washington’s response showed that it was more interested in maintaining the status quo than defending Erdogan’s allies.
The status quo of the last half century was predicated on American interventionism, which is dwindling. Under the new circumstances, states in the region will do well to follow a path of increased cooperation and compromise.
The current feud between Turkey and Israel over the death of Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara is dividing countries that would benefit from an improvement in relations. The Saudis, for their part, will need to either look elsewhere for allies against Iran, or opt for a peaceful resolution. And as the sectarian conflict rages on in Syria, those chances are dwindling.
In a classic 1973 Foreign Affairs article, “The Oil Crisis: This Time the Wolf is Here,” U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James E. Akins bemoaned the inability of the global economy to break itself free from Middle Eastern oil, and pined for the day when America’s shale oil reserves, alongside supplies from the emerging field of renewable energy, would allow the U.S. to reduce oil imports.
Four decades later, Akins’ dreams of an American foreign policy no longer held hostage to the international oil market is coming into focus. After a decade of heavy investment, renewable energy supplied almost 15% of U.S. demand in the first half of 2013, and the United States has pushed aside Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s top oil producer.
The first half of the 20st century demonstrated that oil has the ability to alter regional and global power balances, placing the Middle East at the center of the world stage. But the dawn of a new century has brought with it new geopolitical realities, including America’s new surge in domestic energy production, allowing Washington to begin its ‘pivot towards Asia’ while avoiding becoming mired in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable Middle East.
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