The Middle East is not the same region the US defined it as several decades ago. In the 1980s and 1990s, both the Republican and Democratic parties dimensioned the region by religious sect. In the 1990s and 2000s, Middle Eastern people were categorized either as extremists and militants or law-abiding citizens. During the so-called Arab Spring, the US adopted an understanding, through theory, that the people of the Middle East wanted more, so Washington started to move to support them carte blanche, without realizing who they were supporting. Many turned out to be hijackers of religion.
Until just after the 2010s, the international community — mostly led by the US — interacted with the region under the theme of resistance and retaliation.
It is important to understand that the time of resistance and retaliation is now decreasing. Let me explain my view of this theme’s rise and why it existed at a previous time — and why, for the foreseeable future, it will change to resilience.
With the oil boom of the 1930s, the Arabian Gulf received great wealth and power and, with that, the currency to move forward. Such progress requires new policies to be introduced, systems tried and narratives detailed. This blessing has led to a heightened global diplomatic capability for the region, but at the same time one should understand that it caused a sort of trauma for its societies. Societies that were traditional were thrust into a modern world, with governments’ new ideas and alliances expanding globally, away from the village or the tribe. This led to neighborly and domestic resistance in terms of both ideology and loyalty. This resistance took on different forms, from sectarian strife to militancy.
The traumatic experience of the fast pace of change is no longer spontaneous, as the older generation had it, but is innate in the rising generations, due to them growing up on their smartphones, with the world in the palm of their hand. Resistance is less prevalent today due to this understanding.
For that reason, resistance and retaliation have dimmed consequentially. I would say the new way forward in the US-Middle East relationship is resilience and reliance. Resilience is regenerative development, localization and the advancement of a nation’s human capital and sustainability. Governments are putting their capital into that. The beautiful thing is that the grassroots are doing the same — in fact, they started the push for accountability, sustainability and future planning. The landscape of the Middle East has changed, which in turn changes the way the US interacts with it.
The general direction of the US has remained constant throughout the recent administrations. Washington began a slow withdrawal from the region under Barack Obama when it walked back on the red line it set in Syria. The Trump administration initiated the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in order to focus on domestic security. Yes, one can argue that the competing political parties have different views on the region, but overall America’s relationship with the Middle East is no longer seated in the camp of both embracing resistance and countering with retaliation.
I believe America’s focus is on building resilience and reliance on regional partners, while pivoting east and becoming concerned with new perceived threats.
One example is President Joe Biden’s authorization of more than $1 billion in security assistance for Egypt. Another is America’s support for King Abdullah of Jordan’s plan for rapprochement with Syria. Then there was America’s reliance on Qatar to look out for its interests in Afghanistan. These are reflections of how Washington is warming to nations it used to resist; its focus on security and stability; the prioritization of resilience; and, lastly, burden-sharing or reliance. This has been constant since the final years of the Obama administration, through Donald Trump and until today — the only differences are tactical, not strategic.
A key component in the US-Middle East relationship, during the Biden administration and beyond, is climate change.
US climate envoy John Kerry noted in Marrakech in 2016 that the global renewable energy market had expanded more than sixfold in the previous decade. Last year, investment in renewable energy reached nearly $350 billion — the first time it had outpaced what was put into fossil fuels. It is truly incredible.
Biden choosing Kerry to lead on climate action was because he can build global coalitions, which requires diplomacy. This theme remains a pillar in the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts. On top of that, it is a common issue that is very well supported at the grassroots level, meaning the current of accountability and sustainability has never been higher. Climate action looks first at the planet and at us as humans in an ecosystem, rather than as societies with different political systems. Climate diplomacy, by its nature, transcends politics.
What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is reflect that we are part of a global community and are greater than the sum of our parts. This sense of global community was experienced by a majority of the world for the first time. We were all at a global camp, sharing stories late at night around the fire, splitting up during the day to find solutions, and revising our systems to adapt to the new normal — we were all working together. This sense of global citizenship only enhances the power of climate action.
Let us look at three cases of climate change being used as a tool of diplomacy and development.
First is the Middle East Green Initiative, which aims to drive climate action in the region and with global partners. Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia in October to take part in the Middle East Green Initiative Summit.
Kerry was also in the UAE after Thanksgiving to witness the launch of Project Prosperity, an initiative that will help Jordan, Israel and the UAE to adhere to the goals of the Paris Agreement and secure cooperation on water issues.
And, thirdly, there is Biden’s infrastructure bill. The US president has made combating the climate crisis a central priority of his administration, including throughout his legislative agenda. Congress last month passed his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes the largest confrontation to climate change in US history. This is also a new avenue for global business in the space of green energy and sustainability — and commercial ties enhance diplomacy further.
Climate action cannot be undone. As major financial centers support forward-looking projects and as companies like General Motors promise to make only electric cars by 2035, it is clear that capital, companies and policy are moving forward in a way that cannot be undone. Thus, we find and will continue to find mega-initiatives in the diplomatic sphere to enhance bilateral relationships socially, environmentally and, the most crucial pillar that seals it all, commercially. The redirection of more than $1 trillion in investment toward regenerative development, green technology and sustainability is a reflection of global resilience.
To sum it all up, the US’ relationship with the Middle East, as well as ties within the region, have shifted from resistance and retaliation to resilience and reliance.
• Sarah Elzeini is a founder and CEO of SMZ International Group, a boutique strategic advisory and activities firm. Her clientele includes law firms, nonprofits, the private sector and sovereign states.