US Empire Is Changing Its Strategies in the Middle East

The Abraham Accords have cemented a counterrevolutionary bloc in the Middle East of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. US intervention in the region is assuming a different form, but Washington’s support for authoritarian regimes is as brazen as ever.

US president Donald J. Trump, minister of foreign affairs of Bahrain Dr Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and minister of foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan sign the Abraham Accords on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Joyce N. Boghosian / the White House via Flickr)

Interview by
Joel Beinin

On May 24, the US Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt organized a panel on “US Empire and Autocracy in the Middle East,” cosponsored by Internationalism from Below, Democracy for the Arab World (DAWN), the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), the Freedom Initiative, and the International Committee of Democratic Socialists of America. This is an edited transcript of the presentations at the panel. The speakers were:

Jamie Allinson: Senior lecturer in politics and international Relations at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Age of Counter-revolution: States and Revolutions in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Aslı Bâli: Professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, founding faculty director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights, and former director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. She is coeditor of two volumes on institutional design and comparative constitutional law from Cambridge University Press.

Allison McManus: Research director of the Freedom Initiative, where she leads a team of researchers in documenting prison-related abuses and advocating for detainees in the Middle East and North Africa. She is a member of the steering committee of the US Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt.

The panel was introduced and moderated by Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan professor of history, emeritus, at Stanford University. He is a former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and a member of the steering committee of the US Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt.

Joel Beinin

The US empire is not monolithic. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, it relies on alliances with countries whose interests don’t always align entirely with US interests. There have always been conflicts among US allies and client states.

The tensions in maintaining US imperial hegemony were apparent at the so-called Negev Summit hosted in late March 2022 by Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and attended by the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco, along with US secretary of state Antony Blinken. The event’s single clear achievement was public Arab acknowledgement of Israel’s full partnership in an axis of reactionary powers that opposes popular demands for democracy and social justice and reinforces autocracy across the entire Middle East and North Africa. This axis of reaction is aligned with, but not fully obedient to, the United States.

This is the fruit of the 2020 Abraham Accords, in which the UAE and Bahrain, and subsequently Morocco and Sudan, normalized their relations with Israel. The Abraham Accords were supposedly a reward to Israel for halting its move to annex parts of the West Bank. In fact, Israel has continued to entrench its occupation of Palestinian territory, de facto annexing about 40 percent of the West Bank and exerting full control over another 20 percent.

The UAE had, for several years before the conclusion of the Abraham Accords, been seeking to purchase F-35 stealth fighter jets, the most advanced aircraft in the US armory. In the absence of UAE normalization of relations with Israel, Israel and its supporters in Washington would surely have opposed such sales. The Abraham Accords contained an unannounced stipulation that Israel would not object to the UAE’s acquisition of F-35s.

Another achievement of the Abraham Accords was that in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel, Morocco gained US recognition for its occupation of Western Sahara since 1975 — in defiance of numerous UN resolutions advocating a referendum of the inhabitants to determine its future.

Despite these nefarious accomplishments, the Arab ministers at the summit were unhappy that the Joe Biden administration is seeking to restore the nuclear agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — that the Barack Obama administration reached with Iran in 2015. Donald Trump abrogated that agreement after becoming president.

Israel and the Arab parties would be pleased if the United States went to war with Iran on their behalf. So would Saudi Arabia, which, while not directly present, was a moving force behind the summit. Israel has been provoking Iran to achieve this outcome by assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging its nuclear software. It also assassinated a senior member of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran this May.

Secretary of State Blinken’s agenda was to enlist the support of the summit attendees for US policy on Ukraine. But Saudi Arabia, the absent presence at the summit, has only agreed to minimally increase its oil production to make up for the shortfall of Russian oil on the global market. This will be insufficient to lower prices any time soon.

Egypt reasserted its neutrality in the Russo-Ukrainian War and is considering buying Russia’s most advanced military aircraft, the SU-35. Israel has also declined to take a strong anti-Russian position. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian oligarchs have transferred their ill-gotten offshore wealth from London and New York to the UAE’s most populous city, Dubai.

Attracting dirty foreign capital and blurring the lines between business, diplomacy, and security is a hallmark of UAE foreign policy. Mubadala Capital, a unit of Abu Dhabi’s $243 billion state-owned investment company, has been an investor in the notorious Israeli spyware company NSO Group since 2019. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi and principal architect of the axis of reaction, is one of Mubadala’s largest investors.

The Israeli government authorizes all exports of NSO’s Pegasus spyware. A senior Israeli cabinet minister confirmed, “We sold this technology to [the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia], so they can fight together our common enemy, Iran.”

In November 2021, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, charging that it had supplied its Pegasus spyware to governments that had used it to “maliciously target” government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers. A Washington Post investigation revealed that in the months before the October 2018 murder of its columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, UAE security officials installed Pegasus spyware on two phones belonging to his fiancée, Hanan Elatr. This made it possible for her conversations and movements to be monitored without her knowing that her phone was compromised.

The CIA concluded that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination. The United States had no interest in Khashoggi’s assassination. But it does have an interest in placating the Saudi regime, so it has dropped the matter.

Egypt maintains the largest carceral regime in the region, with at least 60,000 political prisoners. The 2020 State Department report on human rights in Egypt lamented the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regime’s extrajudicial killings, violence against LGBTQ people, and forced child labor, in addition to its massive detention of political opponents. During the presidential election campaign, candidate Biden promised that the man Trump called his “favorite dictator,” Egyptian president Sisi, would receive no more “blank checks” if he were elected. However, President Biden has reneged on this commitment.

Last fall, Congress made a weak gesture to implement Biden’s promise by withholding $300 million of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion in military aid. But Secretary of State Blinken subsequently reduced the amount of military aid withheld to a symbolic $130 million. In January, just days after the Biden administration said that Egypt had not met the conditions for releasing that withheld amount, it approved an additional $2.5 billion in arms sales to Egypt, which the State Department said “will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States.” In May, the State Department announced that it has approved the sale of twenty-three Chinook helicopters and other material to Egypt with a price tag of $2.6 billion.

In order to maintain this unruly axis of reaction, the United States acquiesces in massive violations of human rights in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. It has actively participated in the Saudi-UAE war of aggression in Yemen that has resulted in 377,000 deaths — 60 percent of them due to hunger, lack of medicine and basic health care, unsafe water, and an outbreak of cholera, while over 24 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance and 19 million face food insecurity. President Biden has also not reversed his predecessor’s legitimation of Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara, while Israel’s ever more egregious violations of Palestinian human rights merit only weak expressions of US concern.

Jamie Allinson

I would describe the “axis of reaction” — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Egyptian military regime, and Israel, in alliance with US imperialism — as a counterrevolutionary axis, or bloc, which has hardened in the decade since the uprisings of 2011. But its roots reach further back. This is not just an alliance of states assuring what they refer to as their “security” (a word that covers a multitude of sins in academic and policymaker language). It is also one of ruling classes seeking to repress and continue to exploit the populations they rule — or in the case of Israel, a settler state that seeks to maintain and extend the dispossession of the indigenous population of the land it has colonized.

During the so-called “Arab Cold War” of the 1960s, Saudi Arabia was the center of opposition to the radical Arab nationalism embodied by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The two countries fought a war in Yemen (again a battlefield today) because of that opposition. The revolutionary left in the region at the time usually identified their enemies as the tripartite forces of Zionism, imperialism, and Arab reaction.

During the late 1970s, two changes laid the groundwork for the counterrevolutionary bloc as it exists today. First was the Iranian revolution of 1979, which did not begin as an Islamist or Islamic revolution but became one. This terrified the ruling classes of the region and especially those of the Gulf petrostates, who formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to coordinate their response to the revolution.

The second huge change was that Egypt under Anwar Sadat turned away from the more economically redistributive policies of his predecessor and a geopolitical stance that was anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist (or at least displayed a rhetorical willingness to confront Israel). Sadat shifted instead toward an alliance with the United States and attracting private sector investment from the Gulf. Egypt recognized Israel and signed a peace treaty with it, which was among the reasons Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The upshot of this change was that Egypt and Iran flipped over, if you like, with the former going from opponent of Israel and the United States to ally, and the latter making the reverse journey.

In other words, relations among Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have been forged by shared counterrevolutionary interests in the region for decades. This doesn’t mean that the Iranian Islamic republic is a particularly preferable regime. However, it did derive from a revolutionary movement ­— although I would argue that today, it plays a counterrevolutionary role in its own way.

The ideological aspects of this counterrevolutionary bloc are important, particularly the fact that these are majority Sunni countries — with the exceptions of Israel and Bahrain, where the ruling dynasty is Sunni while the majority of the population is Shi’i. These regimes are also very hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). At its core, however, this is a project to preserve undemocratic ruling classes or fractions of them.

The MB, for all its flaws, is actually a mass organization whose strategy depends on the idea that citizens should have some say in their government. That is anathema to the ruling families of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and to the Egyptian military hierarchy. The fact that the MB offers an Islamic but at least partially democratic alternative model drives the Saudi regime to oppose it as a contender for ideological hegemony in the Islamic world.

A similar dynamic lay behind the sectarianization of the Saudi regime in the early 1980s in response to Iran’s Islamic revolution, which it has doubled down on since 2011. That doesn’t stop the Saudis from collaborating with the MB where the local sections of the latter are against greater democracy or opposed to Iran on sectarian grounds. This is the case in Bahrain, for example, and Yemen, where Saudi cooperation with MB affiliates has caused a split with the UAE.

The most important moment in the formation of this bloc was the revolutionary uprisings of 2011 that spread across the region. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, these uprisings eventually led either to change of the head of the regime, or to state collapse and civil war, or to both. In Bahrain, the protests nearly toppled the Khalifa monarchy. I refer to this as a revolutionary moment because these uprisings mounted fundamental challenges to the autocratic political regimes that dominate the region, to their geopolitical hierarchies, and to the structures of class inequality and exploitation upon which those regimes rest.

This challenge forced the ruling classes of the region to respond by mounting counterrevolutions that fall into one of three camps, forming the three competing axes that have torn the region apart since 2011. First were those that rhetorically supported the uprisings because they opposed their enemies and the United States, only then to repress such uprisings when they reached their own populations or borders. I’m thinking here of Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and Hezbollah.

In the second category were those that supported political forms of revolution, from which they thought they would benefit, but opposed social revolution or economic transformation: the MB, Qatar, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party. Third, you had the out-and-out counterrevolutionaries of the bloc we are discussing: the UAE, Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Egyptian military (plus Israel). The United States itself vacillated at first between supporting the second and third camp, before settling definitively on the third.

This counterrevolutionary bloc is intertwined politically, militarily, and economically. The most important example is the counterrevolutionary coup in Egypt in 2013. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 resulted in partial democratization and the election of a MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi (who was heavily backed by Qatar), to the presidency in 2012. It was a complicated dynamic. But the upshot was that Morsi was overthrown in 2013 by an alliance led and shaped by the Egyptian military, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by then defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

There is now a recording available of a remarkable exchange between Sisi’s chief of staff, Abbas Kamel, and Deputy Defense Minister Sidqi Subhi in June 2013. The former was heard to say that he would need 200,000 Egyptian pounds “tomorrow” from the account of Tamarrod, the movement launched to push for Morsi’s resignation: “you know, the part from the UAE that they transferred.”

A later recording, apparently dating from Sisi’s 2014 presidential campaign, features Sisi demanding another ten million Egyptian pounds from the UAE, with an additional 2 percent to be put in the Central Bank. He expressed astonishment at the total sum of $30 billion said to have been received from the GCC up to that date. The GCC countries, the man identified on the tape as Sisi declares, have “money like rice.”

Between July 2013 and the beginning of 2015, Egypt received $23 billion from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The UAE also funded the lobbying efforts of the postcoup regime in Washington, to the tune of $2.7 million.

This pattern of investment is in fact reprising and recharging the pre-2011 relationship and now overcoming the previous division into different counterrevolutionary axes across the region, forging a shared class interest. The UAE in March of this year announced a further $2 billion of investment in Egypt, while Saudi Arabia transferred $5 billion to the Egyptian Central Bank, and even Qatar, now back in the fold, has pledged to match that amount.

The ostensible purpose of this investment in Egypt is to offset the economic and food crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it also forms part of a broader regional realignment. For example, the UAE has now welcomed a visit from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who met with Mohamed bin Zayed.

This was a case of two of the region’s most bloodstained counterrevolutionaries enjoying a tête-à-tête  with one another, reminiscent of the old cartoon by David Low of Adolf Hitler meeting Joseph Stalin. At one level, this is part of an effort to put a wedge between Assad, Russia, and Iran. But it’s also — and perhaps more centrally — about getting UAE building contractors in on the Syria reconstruction deals that are now being proposed.

How does this bring this bloc together with Israel and the United States? Normalization and alliance formalize preexisting relationships and also place the Palestinian cause beyond the pale, reversing the previous norm of Arab politics. The new dispensation establishes aid interdependency and allows the acquisition of advanced military equipment that pro-Israel US congressional representatives — the majority, in other words — would previously have blocked. Moreover, it is a significant statement on the part of these regimes that popular legitimacy is no longer something they think they need to worry about.

This is not to say that these are US proxies. They’re not: you can see evidence of that in the way Saudi Arabia resisted US entreaties to increase oil production to pressure Russia over the war in Ukraine. We are no longer in an era of unchallenged US hegemony, where these states perceive US interests as their own; rather, sometimes they align. Imperialism is competitive. The bloc’s interests are fundamentally counterrevolutionary rather than just pro-American.

Nor is the bloc monolithic. There are divisions among it: for example, over the UAE’s cooperation or alliance with Russia in Libya. The Saudis are opposed to the UAE’s recognition of Assad. They are also in conflict with the UAE over Saudi backing of the MB-aligned militias in Yemen.

Finally, there have also been new waves of revolutionary upsurge since 2019 to which these counterrevolutionaries are not sure how to respond. The response of the Saudis to the Sudanese uprising has been complex. They didn’t always favor the regime of ousted president Omar al-Bashir because of its association with the MB. However, since the military coup in October 2021, they have moved closer to the post-Bashir regime, as has Egypt.

Aslı Bâli

The Abraham Accords reflect both an entrenchment and a realignment of US power. They represent something deeply troubling for the region and at the same time are a continuation and acceleration of earlier dynamics.

Fundamentally, the Abraham Accords reflect the US propensity to present war as peace, doubling down on a project of stability for the region predicated on authoritarianism and violent repression. The purported diplomacy to advance peace between Israel and Arab states instead serves as a vehicle for arms sales, financial support for authoritarian regimes, and political favors between the United States and its regional clients. Each of these elements reinforces America’s preferred regional architecture, supporting its current military footprint in the Middle East while establishing a framework that might in the future sustain the region’s balance of power even in the absence of direct US support.

What is the US military footprint? It is comprised of military bases and weapons sales that secure a regional pro-American political economy centered on Gulf energy security and support for Israel’s growing technology and military industries. Let’s begin with US bases, arms sales, and the economy of the region before returning to a broader understanding of how the Abraham Accords serve not only the purpose of entrenchment but also regional realignment in preparation for an American pivot.

To understand the magnitude of US imperial reach, there are 750 acknowledged bases in eighty countries worldwide. The United States spends more on its military than the next ten countries put together. In the Middle East — and especially in the smaller Gulf kingdoms — it has one of its heaviest military footprints in the world outside of the Korean peninsula. The US has established a durable military presence, whose elements include 13,000 troops in Qatar, the base of the US Navy’s fifth fleet in Bahrain, and five air bases and 2,500 troops in Saudi Arabia.

This footprint combines a direct presence in the Gulf with an indirect presence in Israel. Indirect presence is the second prong of America’s military strategy for the region. This is most visible in the form of extensive military aid for Israel.

When it comes to arms sales, the United States sold $200 billion worth of major conventional weapons and related forms of technical support to nearly 170 countries in the last decade. During the four years of the Trump administration, the US approved sales of another $175 billion. One of the arms deals concluded by Trump was tied directly to the Abraham Accords, which cleared the way — with Israeli consent — for massive arms transfers to the Gulf states.

This framework will allow the United States to transition from reliance on a literal military footprint on the ground in the Gulf to more indirect forms of military support that are akin to the military weaponry and sophisticated technologies made available to Israel. As the US turns its own attention to adversaries in other regions, these arms flows and the tightening of relations between the Gulf and Israel may facilitate a reduction in personnel — limited to technical advising and support functions — as Washington becomes more focused on overseeing the creation of a dense military network among its regional allies.

The fact that US arms sales to the Gulf states increased more than threefold in the year after the Abraham Accords attests to the true character of this “peace” agreement. Today, the UAE accounts for about 8 percent of all US arms sales. This includes a $23 billion deal — five times larger than any set of sales prior to the Abraham Accords — for the sale of some of the most sophisticated US weaponry, such as F-35 fighter jets, despite earlier congressional efforts to limit such sales due to the targeting of civilians in Yemen.

In practice, such congressional objections have proven to be little more than smoke and mirrors. Small amounts of military aid are suspended to great fanfare when Congress raises objections, but these suspensions are later quietly lifted as humanitarian objections are trumped by the purported shared security goals of regional allies like Egypt and the Gulf states.

To recap, then, the traditional military footprint the US has maintained in the region is now buttressed by the massive expansion in arms sales, which constitute the second prong of America’s military presence in the region. Beyond these two elements, there is also a political-economic dimension to the Abraham Accords, which have produced or accelerated the formation of an interlinked regional economy drawing the Gulf and Israel ever closer together.

As one example, the Abraham Accords established the Abraham Fund between the United States, Israel, and the UAE. This is a $3 billion fund for development led by the private sector to promote prosperity in the region. What kind of projects are being funded? As the International Crisis Group has documented, the first declared objective of the fund was the modernization of 700 Israeli-operated checkpoints in the West Bank, thus entrenching Israeli occupation practices with Gulf funding.

The military networks, weapons sales, and new forms of pro-authoritarian economic ties facilitated by the Abraham Accords may not serve to advance peace. However, they do provide an important reputation-laundering function for US clients in the region.

The states participating in the accords have all been accused of repression at home and gross human rights abuses in their actions against civilian populations, from Palestine to Yemen to Western Sahara. Yet these grave violations are all obscured under the cover of “security.” Abusive regimes are presented as partners in peace who have extended an olive branch to Israel. This adds a new legitimating dimension to the traditional American strategy of presenting authoritarians and war criminals as necessary allies because of purported shared security interests essential to regional stability.

Moreover, the Abraham Accords also provide a framework through which Gulf rulers can normalize the long-standing, preexisting set of relations between their governments and Israel in the eyes of skeptical domestic audiences. Until recently, these ties had mostly been managed through back channels. But changes in the regional power balance have made them increasingly public, giving rise to a potential public-relations difficulty.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 created a perceived imperative for the Gulf countries to deepen their ties to Israel, as they sought to stave off challenges to their domestic rule and manage their anxiety that Iran would benefit from turmoil. They needed to offer a credible explanation for this rapprochement to their publics. The initial reason proffered was the containment of Iran.

A second, more recent explanation for enhanced ties to Israel is an economic rationale, putting a new twist on the traditional authoritarian social contract. Where oil rents once assured restive publics that their quiescence would be handsomely compensated, that promise has frayed in recent decades. Ties to Israel offer a new model of stability and prosperity through deepening neoliberal trade and investment that furnishes economic growth for upwardly mobile Arab publics in the Gulf. At a time when the democratic demands of the 2011 uprisings have been met with Gulf-funded counterrevolution across the region, the GCC governments are under pressure to demonstrate that authoritarian governance can deliver economic growth.

The ability to sustain this narrative of prosperity is especially important in the rebranding campaign launched by Saudi Arabia under its current crown prince, who has promised a post-oil economy that hinges on attracting investment and tourism to the kingdom. While Saudi Arabia is technically not a signatory to the Abraham Accords, it is widely perceived as their chief backer and architect, perhaps as much to advance an alternative regional economy as to backstop the kingdom’s security needs.

For the public partners in the Abraham Accords, the economic dividends are increasingly visible: for example, with the accelerating pace of Israelis traveling to, and investing in, the UAE. Similarly, there is new investment from the Gulf in Israel as part of a diversification and broadening of economic portfolios. Of course, this also creates plenty of scope to produce new havens for gray money in these burgeoning economic partnerships.

The Abraham Accords go beyond the earlier repertoire of prioritizing counterterrorism or shared security to justify support for authoritarian clients despite their repressive records. Following the Abraham Accords, alignment with US interests encompasses deepening political and economic linkages, tying Israel to the various Gulf Cooperation Council countries in ways that are designed to transform the region’s flows of investment and trade.

In this context, one might wonder whether the Abraham Accords entrench the earlier American security arrangement for the region or whether they introduce a realignment. Certainly, they offer the possibility of a framework for indirect rule, one that empowers leading authoritarian actors in military and economic terms to sustain the preferred American order even in the wake of hegemonic retreat.

As the United States pivots to Asia, tying the Gulf regional security architecture to the fate of its central local client, Israel, produces a powerful new bloc to stabilize a pro-American order. Of course, for the moment the United States has yet to reduce its presence in the Middle East. But there is every reason to believe such a reduction will occur and that the Abraham Accords have accelerated the alignment of interests between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the GCC in ways that serve American interests.

Interestingly, however, this regional bloc refuses to be pulled entirely into the US orbit. The Ukraine conflict reflects in many ways the fruits of a strategy that has now grown beyond the bounds of the control that the United States once successfully exerted over its security architecture. All the signatories of the Abraham Accords have declined the US invitation to vote against Russian aggression at the United Nations and have failed to impose sanctions against Russia despite Western pleas. Some have even engaged in direct outreach to Moscow, attempting to serve as purportedly neutral interlocutors.

The refusal of key American client states to increase energy supplies and bring down skyrocketing fuel prices further attests to diminishing US control — although Saudi Arabia has apparently agreed to some symbolic increase in advance of, or in exchange for, a visit by President Biden to the kingdom, should that take place. In this sense, the UAE and Gulf countries may be seen as using the Abraham Accords to diversify their security strategy away from the United States.

For the GCC, anchoring their strategy around Israel indirectly preserves a partnership with the United States, because each of the Arab countries understands that US dedication to Israeli security will continue after a pivot to Asia. But it also affords them room for maneuver and new degrees of freedom. Relations with Israel provide a measure of independent strategic capacity to repress movements at home through purchases of Israeli spyware, drones, and technology. Gulf purchases from the Israeli security sector along these lines have already taken a heavy toll on critical journalists, human rights advocates, and civil society movements.

In short, the political economy of the Abraham Accords may serve as the new anchor of a regional security arrangement that is US-stamped, but no longer necessarily directly backed militarily by a US presence on the ground. They facilitate a region-wide, Israeli-produced surveillance architecture; new flows of weaponry to repressive states known to target civilians; and trade and investment patterns that promise an authoritarian model of prosperity at the expense of the most vulnerable communities of the region. This is, of course, in addition to the violation of the most basic rights of Palestinian and Sahrawi communities.

Allison McManus

A few weeks ago, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan made an unexpected trip to Egypt. Egypt is a country that my colleagues and I follow closely, and we were somewhat mystified as to the reason for his trip. It was a day or two after Shireen Abu Akleh — a US citizen — was killed, so we thought perhaps there were concerns to be raised over that. We also guessed that the visit might be related to concerns around Russian aggression in Ukraine.

However, we discovered through some strategically timed leaks that Sullivan had traveled to Egypt to negotiate between Israel and Saudi Arabia over the final handover of two islands in the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea. Egypt ceded these islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in 2017, sparking some of the biggest protests in the country since 2011. The protests revolved around the undemocratic nature of the decision and a perception that President Sisi was auctioning off sovereign land to the Gulf. By some estimates, thousands of people were detained in the wake of the demonstrations.

The transfer is being touted as potentially significant in efforts to bring Saudi Arabia closer to normalization in exchange. What does the United States get? A feather in the cap, which they are already presenting as the biggest political success in the region for the Biden administration, and for the US since the Abraham Accords. The United States is probably interested in some concessions on increased oil production from Saudi Arabia as well.

For its part, what does Egypt receive? Beyond the financial investments in 2017, Sisi will certainly expect that the US may now look the other way when it comes the human rights abuses that Biden had previously been wagging his finger about.

This development neatly encapsulates the complexity of interests that have emerged in the wake of the “war on terror” era and the waning of US hegemony. In addition to the factors that have already been discussed, Chinese investments surpassed all others in the region in 2016 through the country’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been transforming some of the landscapes and architecture in cities like Cairo.

Politically, across the passage from Obama to Trump to Biden, we have seen a lack of coherence in articulating any cogent US foreign policy doctrine. Meanwhile Russia, Iran, and the UAE have built up their influence, while the US is still dominant militarily, of course. We end up with a one-legged stool, where the US projects its imperial reach in the region primarily through military dependence (or interdependence).

In Washington, the signs of this possible realignment are palpable in several ways. One is a loss of confidence in any kind of US diplomatic leverage, despite the massive foreign military financing packages, weapons sales, and the economic benefits that come from security relationships. Second, there is a sense of panic over the rising role of Russia and China. US officials feel that their only real tool of influence is the transfer of weapons, but they also feel that they have to continue selling those weapons to states in the region because if they don’t, someone else will.

I have a distinct sense that the United States has made the bed of empire, and now we are lying in it. We have failed to reduce dependence on oil. Against a backdrop of rising gas prices, President Biden will now be traveling to Saudi Arabia and meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, ending what Biden had promised would be Saudi Arabia’s “pariah” status. We are beholden to the dictatorial regimes that we long supported to maintain a facade of stability and “strategic partnerships,” even when they brutally repress the most embryonic democratic and pluralistic movements.

Who suffers from this? Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have all been responsible for the deaths of American residents and citizens in the last five years. Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered in the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Turkey. No justice has been served, and we now see a warming of US relations with Saudi Arabia.

Moustafa Kassem died as a result of medical neglect in an Egyptian prison, with no accountability and not even an interruption in security assistance to Cairo. Most recently, Shireen Abu Akleh was killed, likely by an Israeli soldier. If the United States cannot protect or seek justice for its own nationals, what hope is there for the millions of others who do not have even this privilege? These are the casualties of this axis of reaction.

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Jamie Allinson is senior lecturer in politics and international Relations at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Age of Counter-revolution: States and Revolutions in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Aslı Bâli is a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, founding faculty director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights, and former director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. She is coeditor of two volumes on institutional design and comparative constitutional law from Cambridge University Press.

Allison McManus is Research Director of the Freedom Initiative and a member of the US Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt.

Joel Beinin is a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and a member of the US Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt. His latest book is Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2016).

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