As the US loses its grip on the Middle East, it is fostering new alliances between Israel and the Arab states to shore up its hegemony. Those alliances, looking to form a “Middle Eastern NATO,” could provoke Iran and spark new conflict in the region.

US president Joe Biden being welcomed by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15, 2022. (Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s diplomatic meetings in Israel and Saudi Arabia last week saw an American empire scrambling to shore up its hegemony in the region. The president’s tour came at a time when China’s economic influence encroaches on the Middle East and as Vladimir Putin prepared to visit to Iran in a rare and foreboding trip abroad.

Two days after Congress passed a bill increasing the military budget by $840 billion, the president attended the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Saudi Arabia. Surrounded by the United States’ authoritarian allies in the region, Biden declared, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

The summit comes after the president’s meeting with Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid — only months after the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh — which saw them sign a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons. On his tour, Biden appeased another Middle Eastern ally with an American journalist’s blood on its hands, meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman prior to the regional summit.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration simmered after the president vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” following Bin Salman’s order to murder Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As a result of the president’s condemnation, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) denied Biden’s request for increased oil supply following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The lives of American journalists are worth little, it seems, next to the profits and power despotic theocracies have to offer.

Resecuring renewed oil flow from Saudi Arabia and assuring Israel of continued US support were among the explicit goals of the president’s visit to the Middle East, per his op-ed for the Washington Post, “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia.” And it appears Biden succeeded. In his opening remarks at the summit, the day after his meeting with the president, Bin Salman stated that he hoped the event would “establish a new era of joint cooperation to deepen the strategic partnership between our countries and the United States of America.”

The crown prince lamented international pressure to develop “unrealistic policies to reduce emissions,” expressing that pursuing sustainable energy sources would lead to “unprecedented inflation” and that the region’s “geopolitical situation” is unable to afford such a shift. This comment was likely in reference to Iran, which has secured a number of energy deals with Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in recent years.

The summit saw the US and Saudi governments sign eighteen partnership agreements pertaining to energy, communications, space, and health care — including most notably deals with infamous defense firms Boeing and Raytheon, which are fresh off making record profits from the recently ended war in Afghanistan.

Beneath these diplomatic talks concerning economic partnerships and cooperation is a bubbling militarism that threatens to boil over.

Biden achieved his goals of opening the floodgates of Gulf oil into the global free market and securing US geopolitical interests in the region against an encroaching China. Following the summit, the White House released a statement that announced the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC+) commitment to “increas[ing] supply over the course of July and August.” Additionally, Saudi Arabia announced that it would link the electricity networks of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Iraq, which relies heavily on electricity from Iran, and would open commercial flights to and from Israel — an unprecedented move bringing the monarchical state closer to a UAE-style peace deal with the United States’ staunchest ally in the region.

Ultimately, the summit worked to shore up US hegemony in the region by assuring the stability of its autocratic governments under American patronage. But beneath these diplomatic talks concerning economic partnerships and cooperation is a bubbling militarism that threatens to boil over as these nascent alliances further strain relations with Iran and, by extension, China and Russia.

The Dangerous Potential of a Middle Eastern NATO

While Biden’s visit to Israel and attendance at the Saudi-led summit received much media attention, an undisclosed US-led military summit in March in Egypt between these same regional powers — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan — flew under the radar. The meeting concerned a potential joint military mobilization against Iran and was overseen by General Frank McKenzie, then the head of the US Central Command.

This near-explicit military cooperation between Arab states and Israel is unprecedented and signifies the growing polarization of the Middle East against Iranian influence — a polarization taking place under American guidance.

Iran has worked to upset the hegemony of US political-economic interests in the Middle East, providing Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon with security and energy alternatives to the US-backed Gulf. In recent years, this economic contention has threatened to spill over into armed conflict.

In 2019 drones struck two oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia. The attacks were claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, against whom the Saudi government is waging war. However, the United Nations found no conclusive evidence that the Houthis manned the drones, with Saudi Arabia accusing Iran of direct intervention.

Most recently, the Iran-allied Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, considered one of the most militarily powerful nonstate actors in the world, has challenged Israel’s extraction of gas from the disputed maritime boundary of Karish. In March 2020, Hezbollah sent three Iranian-manufactured drones to an offshore Israeli rig on a reconnaissance mission intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Hezbollah’s head Hasan Nasrallah warned:

A threat of war and even going to war is more respectable than leaving things as they are and Lebanon will collapse and the people will starve. I tell Israel tonight not to make wrong calculations and for the Americans do not laugh at us and lead us astray regarding the maritime border: The drones are a modest start.

This escalating tension between Iran and the US-led bloc in the Middle East has brought Israel and its Arab neighbors closer economically in recent years, with the precedent of the Abraham Accords emblematic of the trend. This growing polarization is fueled by America’s trade war with China, which purchases oil from Iran in violation of US sanctions and has conducted joint military drills with Russia. Hezbollah and other pro-Iran factions have also welcomed Chinese influence in the region.

The warming of economic relations between the Arab states and Israel has slowly established itself as the necessary regional realpolitik over the years, beginning with the Egyptian and Jordanian peace deals of the late twentieth century and culminating in the explicit economic partnerships of the post-Accords UAE in recent years. A brazen military alliance appears likewise to be slowly normalizing itself in the discourse surrounding the geopolitics of the region, despite Israel’s continued — and expanding — illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

On June 24, King Abdullah II of Jordan, who attended the Jeddah summit, remarked in an interview with CNBC that he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” Neighboring Israel, Jordan plays an underrated role in the delicate (im)balance of US hegemony over the region, with the State Department describing the kingdom as a “vital US partner on a wide range of regional security issues.” The Jordanian monarch’s angling for a formal militaristic alliance signals a potential regional move toward a “Middle Eastern NATO.”

Second Time’s a Charm?

But this would not be the first attempt to form a self-described Middle Eastern NATO. Faced with the Cold War threat of a popular socialist pan-Arab movement in the region led by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower known for his “pactomania” in containing the global spread of left-wing politics, pushed for the formation of an anti-communist alliance in the region.

In 1955 the United States financially and militarily sponsored the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), also known as the Baghdad Pact, a military coalition comprised of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The organization was explicitly modeled after the communist containment policy of NATO.

The Baghdad Pact was immediately met with vitriol in the region. The King of Jordan was forced to decline the coalition’s invitation due to immense domestic pressure that ultimately saw the army deployed to fire on protesters in cities across the kingdom.

It was US policy to dismantle the secular, left-wing movements that challenged American foreign policy in the region in the ’50s and ’60s.

The Baghdad Pact is widely regarded as one of the least successful Cold War alliances, dissolving in 1979. “The Baghdad Pact never developed into a truly effective Middle East defense arrangement for much the same reason that MEDO failed to materialize — Egyptian opposition and American ambivalence,” wrote historian Kevin Ruane.

At that time the region’s political discourse, including in countries allied with US interests, had a strong anti-imperialist sentiment that held back brazen pro-US militarism. But that sentiment is missing today.

What changed is that the United States successfully swapped the left-leaning anti-imperialist alternative to their hegemony with that of fundamentalist militant Islam, a project aided by covert CIA-led funding and organizing. The expressions of this new alternative range from Saudi Arabia’s global brand of Wahhabism to the party politics of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Mossad-funded origin of Palestinian Hamas and, most notably, the Islamic republicanism of Iran, with the popular vacuum left by the 1953 coup against democratically elected socialist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh later filled by the theocratic rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In the wake of the Baghdad Pact’s failure, Eisenhower insisted that the CIA “should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect” in the effort to contain communism in the Middle East. While not necessarily controlled opposition, it was US policy to dismantle the secular, left-wing movements that challenged American foreign policy in the region in the ’50s and ’60s and replace them with an oppositional far right — one that would be less popular than the neoliberal autocracies the United States currently backs in the region.

A Mess of America’s Making — and the Region Pays the Price

Biden’s visit to the Middle East saw him tending to the interests of American hegemony, which are currently threatened by reactionary forces supported by Iran, China, and Russia. But those forces were spawned by the United States’ own domineering foreign policy in the twentieth century. The US is now escalating militarism against a far right that the United States itself propped up in order to stunt the momentum of left-wing movements in the region. This dynamic resulted in the rise of reactionary state dictatorships, as seen in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

This nascent regional militarism reflects the United States’ desperate, last-ditch effort to maintain its exploitative status quo and the authority of its oppressive client states in the region.

There can be no winners in this growing polarization between the US-led bloc in the Middle East and the far-right self-described anti-imperialists in Iran and its proxies, backed by Russia and China. There appears no end in sight to the postcolonial conflicts that have marked Middle Eastern geopolitics throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries — only further escalation as Western-backed capital enters a crisis with the invasion of Ukraine, a growing trade war with China, and a fading US empire being left behind by the global free market it engineered. This nascent regional militarism reflects the United States’ desperate, last-ditch effort to maintain its exploitative status quo and the authority of its oppressive client states in the region.

While there is no resolution immediately in sight, we can imagine one. A political alternative that emphasizes anti-imperialism through economic sovereignty and grassroots democracy, rather than far-right Islamic fundamentalism, could mobilize a long-apathetic yet politically conscious population in the Middle East once galvanized by the socialist movements of the twentieth century. The only question is whether such a political force can arise in a region so heavily micromanaged by imperial states bent on achieving and maintaining power at all costs.

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