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Only the Middle East Can Fix the Middle East

The Path to a Post-American Regional Order

Illustration by Mark Harris; Photo Source: Reuters

In the early weeks of 2024, as the catastrophic war in the Gaza Strip began to inflame the broader region, the stability of the Middle East appeared to be once again at the center of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. In the initial days after Hamas’s October 7 attacks, the Biden administration moved two aircraft carrier strike groups and a nuclear-powered submarine to the Middle East, while a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, began making high-profile trips to the region. Then, as the conflict became more difficult to contain, the United States went further. In early November, in response to attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed groups, the United States conducted strikes on weapons sites in Syria used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; in early January, U.S. forces killed a senior commander of one of these groups in Baghdad. And in mid-January, after weeks of attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea by the Houthi movement, which is also supported by Iran, the United States, together with the United Kingdom, initiated a series of strikes on Houthi strongholds in Yemen.

Despite this show of force, it would be unwise to bet on the United States’ committing major diplomatic and security resources to the Middle East over the longer term. Well before Hamas’s October 7 attacks, successive U.S. administrations had signaled their intent to shift away from the region to devote more attention to a rising China. The Biden administration has also been contending with Russia’s war in Ukraine, further limiting its bandwidth for coping with the Middle East. By 2023, U.S. officials had largely given up on a revived nuclear agreement with Iran, seeking instead to reach informal de-escalation arrangements with their Iranian counterparts. At the same time, the administration was bolstering the military capacity of regional partners such as Saudi Arabia in an effort to transfer some of the security burden from Washington. Despite Biden’s early reluctance to do business with Riyadh—whose leadership U.S. intelligence believes was responsible for the 2018 killing of the Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi—the president prioritized a deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In pursuing the deal, the United States was willing to offer significant incentives to both sides while mostly ignoring the Palestinian issue.

October 7 upended this approach, underscoring the centrality of the Palestinian issue and forcing the United States into more direct military engagement. Yet remarkably, the war in Gaza has not led to significant shifts in Washington’s underlying policy orientation. The administration continues to push for Saudi normalization despite Israeli opposition to a separate state for the Palestinians, which the Saudis have made a condition of any such agreement. And U.S. officials seem unlikely to end their effort to disentangle the United States from Middle East conflicts. If anything, the war’s increasingly complicated dynamics may result in even less U.S. appetite for engagement in the region. Doubling down on commitments in the Middle East is also not likely to be a winning strategy for either American political party in a crucial election year.

Of course, the United States will continue to be involved in the Middle East. If missile strikes on U.S. forces result in American deaths or if a terrorist attack linked to the Gaza conflict kills American civilians, it could force a greater U.S. military engagement than the administration might want. But waiting for the United States to take the lead in effectively managing Gaza and delivering a lasting Middle East peace would be like waiting for Godot: current regional and global dynamics simply make it too difficult for Washington to play that dominant role. That doesn’t mean that other global powers will replace the United States. Neither European nor Chinese leaders have demonstrated much interest in or capacity for taking on the job, even as U.S. influence wanes. Given this emerging reality, regional powers—particularly Israel’s immediate Arab neighbors Egypt and Jordan, along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have been coordinating since the war began—urgently need to step up and define a collective way forward. 

Finding common ground after Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks and Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza will be exceptionally difficult. And the longer the war continues, the greater the risk of broader fractures across the Middle East. But in the years preceding the attacks, both Arab and non-Arab states showed the potential for new forms of cooperation in what amounted to a major reset of relations across the region. Even after months of war, many of these ties have remained intact. Now, before this trend reverses, these governments must come together to build lasting mechanisms for conflict prevention and, ultimately, peace. 

Most urgently, regional powers must support a meaningful political process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But they should also take decisive steps to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again. In particular, they should seek to establish new and stronger regional security arrangements that can provide stability with or without U.S. leadership. It is well past time for the Middle East to have a standing forum for regional security that establishes a permanent venue for dialogue among its own powers. Gleaning opportunity from tragedy will take hard work and a commitment at the highest political levels. But as distant as this vision may seem today, the potential exists for Middle East leaders to arrest the spiral of violence and move the region in a more positive direction.


Despite mounting frustration with the Biden administration for not taking decisive action to end the war, some Arab leaders, along with pro-interventionists in Washington, may be eager to see the United States “back” in the Middle East. The Biden administration’s swift diplomatic and military response—and its willingness to use force against Iranian-aligned groups—has suggested that the region is once more at the heart of U.S. national security concerns. In fact, in terms of military might, the United States never left: at the time of the October 7 attacks, tens of thousands of U.S. forces were already stationed in the region, and Washington continues to maintain sizable military bases in Bahrain and Qatar, as well as smaller military deployments in Syria and Iraq. 

But the United States’ military and diplomatic activity since October 7 has not instilled confidence. For one thing, the administration’s effort to prevent a wider regional conflict has been decidedly mixed. At one of the most concerning flash points, Israel’s simmering conflict with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, Washington has been unable to prevent growing violence on both sides. Along with significant military and civilian casualties, tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to evacuate towns in northern Israel and southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has thus far refused to withdraw its forces from the border in exchange for economic incentives, and Israel—which has already assassinated a top Hamas official in Beirut—has signaled that time is running out for diplomacy. 

Meanwhile, the United States has struggled to contain military pressure from Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Since the start of the war, U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have faced more than 150 attacks from these groups. And despite a series of retaliatory strikes by the United States and the United Kingdom, Washington has been unable to put an end to the Houthis’ relentless missile and drone attacks in the Red Sea. Already, the Houthis have been able to cause significant disruptions to international trade, forcing major shipping companies to avoid the Suez Canal. Notably, U.S. attempts to corral a multinational maritime force to counter the threat have been unable to attract regional partners such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, which remain wary of the administration’s Gaza policies. 

American military and diplomatic activity has not instilled confidence.

As Washington’s military leverage diminishes, its diplomatic muscle has also weakened. Rather than showing resolve, the continual visits of senior administration officials to the region have demonstrated how little sway the United States retains—or in the case of Israel, the administration’s unwillingness to use it. During the initial months of the war, one of the administration’s few apparent accomplishments was a one-week pause in fighting in late November, which led to the release of over 100 Israeli and foreign hostages and a modest delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. But even in that case, Qatari and Egyptian mediation was crucial. Otherwise, the United States has been unwilling (at least as of this writing) to call for a cease-fire, and the administration’s public diplomacy has mostly been limited to rhetorical efforts to restrain the worst impulses of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government.

The administration has been more vocal in promoting “day after” peace ideas focused on what it calls a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank and Gaza and regional support for rebuilding Gaza. But regional powers, particularly the wealthy Gulf Arab states, have made clear that they will not endorse such plans without irreversible steps toward Palestinian statehood. After U.S. officials began speaking more publicly about the need for a two-state solution as part of a larger normalization pact with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu flatly rejected the possibility and insisted that Israel must remain in full security control of Palestinian areas. But even centrist Israeli officials expressed astonishment that the United States was pressing peace initiatives while the all-out war against Hamas was continuing. Meanwhile, the administration’s backing of Israel in the fighting and its perceived lack of empathy for Palestinian suffering have created significant obstacles to attracting regional support, let alone Palestinian buy-in, for any American-led plan.

The United States will continue to be a major player in the region because of its military assets and its unparalleled relationship with Israel. But any expectation that Washington will be able to achieve a grand bargain that could definitively end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is detached from the realities of today’s Middle East. In the end, major diplomatic breakthroughs are most likely to come from, and depend on, the region itself.


The consequences of Washington’s diminishing influence in the Middle East have not been limited to the current conflict. As U.S. engagement in the region declined in the years leading up to October 7, major regional powers steadily increased their efforts to shape and set security arrangements. Indeed, beginning in 2019, governments across the region began to mend previously fraught relations. This unusual regional reset was driven not only by economic priorities—overcoming frictions that had previously disrupted or held back trade and growth—but also by the perception that Washington’s interest in managing Middle East conflicts was waning.

Take the rapprochement between the Gulf states and Iran. In 2019, the UAE began restoring bilateral ties with Iran after a three-year rupture, seeing an opportunity to directly manage relations and protect its interests from Iranian-backed groups that had been disrupting Gulf shipping and threatening Emirati tourism and trade. Abu Dhabi formally resumed diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2022, paving the way for Riyadh to follow suit. In March 2023, the longtime rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that they were resuming relations in an accord brokered by China after months of back-channel talks moderated by Oman and Iraq. The United States had no part in these deals.

Meanwhile, in 2021, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE ended a three-and-a-half-year blockade of Qatar that had been motivated principally by Qatar’s backing of Muslim Brotherhood groups, its close ties with Iran and Turkey, and its activist Al Jazeera television channel. Around the same time, the UAE and Saudi Arabia reconciled with Turkey, which they had previously shunned in response to Turkish support for Qatar and for groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. (Saudi-Turkish ties had also been strained because of a Turkish judicial investigation into the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.) By resuming ties, the Saudis and Emiratis opened the door to crucial Gulf investment in the struggling Turkish economy. And in May 2023, Arab leaders invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab League, marking the end of more than a decade of isolation during Syria’s brutal civil war.

Arab leaders discussing the Gaza war in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 2023 ]Ahmed Yosri / Reuters]

As part of this broader reset, governments across the Middle East also began to participate in a variety of regional forums. The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which met for the first time in Baghdad in 2021 and again in Amman in 2022 to discuss Iraq’s stability, convened a wide array of previous rivals—including Iran and Turkey, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Jordan and Egypt. The East Mediterranean Gas Forum, established in 2020, brought together Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, and Jordan, along with representatives from the Palestinian Authority, in what is designed to be a regular dialogue built around gas security and decarbonization. And the so-called I2U2, a group that includes India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States, was set up in 2021 to foster cross-regional partnerships focusing on health, infrastructure, and energy. 

Another aspect of this regional reset was Israel’s normalization with several Arab governments. In the 2020 Abraham Accords, Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE agreed to establish formal ties with Israel, creating opportunities for new economic relations and trade. Notably, one goal of the accords was to pave the way for new direct security relationships between Israel and the Arab world. Before the October 7 attacks, the Biden administration had high hopes that Saudi Arabia, as a leading member of the Arab world, would also join this group. Building on those accords, the March 2022 Negev Summit brought together Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and the United States to encourage economic and security cooperation in what was intended to be a regular meeting. 

Glaringly absent from the normalization deals, however, was the Palestinian issue, which was largely set aside. As a result, Jordan refused to participate in the Negev Summit, and as tensions over Israel’s settlements in the West Bank flared in early 2023, a further meeting of the group was repeatedly postponed. Now, with the devastation of Gaza, any further progress will be contingent on not just ending the war but also building a viable plan for a Palestinian state. 


In theory, the catastrophic war in Gaza would seem to pose a grave threat to the Middle East reset. In most cases, newly established regional relations are still fragile and have yet to address thorny issues such as weapons proliferation, the continued backing of militant groups in Libya and Sudan by the UAE, Iran’s support for armed nonstate militia groups across the region, and Syria’s export of the drug Captagon. Along with endangering Israel’s fledging normalization of relations with Arab governments, the intensifying involvement of Iranian-backed groups—from Hezbollah and the Houthis to various militias in Syria and Iraq—has the potential to create new fissures between Iran and the Gulf states. Yet so far, the emerging realignments have proved surprisingly durable.

Rather than derailing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Gaza war seems to have strengthened them. In November 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attended a rare joint meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, and the following month, Iranian and Saudi leaders met again in Beijing to discuss the Gaza war. The two countries have also planned an exchange of state visits by Raisi and Mohammed in the coming months—meetings that are supposed to formalize new economic and security ties. And despite simmering tensions over the Houthis in particular, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers met at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2024, as well.

So far, the war seems to have strengthened ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, diplomatic ties between Israel and its Abraham Accord partners have so far held. The UAE has made clear that it views dialogue with the Israeli government, even in the current crisis, as an important way to make progress on an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement. And although Bahrain’s parliament has condemned the sustained assault on Gaza, the country has not formally severed ties with Israel. For both Arab states, normalization is not just about strengthening economic bonds with Israel but also reinforcing strategic ties with the United States. For despite Washington’s perceived shift away from the region in recent years, Gulf Arab states still seek U.S. security guarantees and protection: in January 2022, Biden designated Qatar as a “major non-NATO ally,” and in September 2023, Bahrain and the United States signed an agreement to strengthen their strategic partnership.

Certainly, the war has created new obstacles to regional cooperation, particularly when it comes to Israel and neighboring states. Both Turkey and Jordan have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel, and direct flights between Israel and Morocco stopped in October. By late January, with more than 26,000 killed in Gaza and no cease-fire in sight, Arab public opinion was more strongly opposed to normalization than ever. Many also fear that the U.S. and British military strikes on the Houthis could embolden the group in Yemen and set back efforts to formalize a long-sought cease-fire in the Houthis’ nearly decadelong war in Yemen with Saudi Arabia. And although Gulf Arab states have made a commitment to continue reaching out diplomatically to Tehran, few officials in the region are hopeful that Iran will alter its approach of “forward defense,” in which it relies on militant groups to build strategic leverage and maintain deterrence. In mid-January, Tehran’s direct missile strikes on Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria in response to Israeli strikes and an attack by the Islamic State in the Iranian city of Kerman increased tensions further.

For now, there are indications that Middle East leaders seek to transcend these disputes. For example, to manage growing economic pressure and unrest at home, Iran has given new priority to regional business and trade relations not only with Gulf Arab states but also with Iraq, Turkey, and Central Asian countries, as well as China and Russia. This points to the pragmatic impulses driving Tehran’s message that it seeks to avoid direct engagement in the Gaza conflict despite its backing of various proxy groups. But as tit-for-tat attacks mount across the region in the absence of a Gaza cease-fire, Iran’s calculations could very well shift.


Paradoxically, one of the strongest forces holding the region together may be the plight of Gaza itself and the Palestinian issue, which the war has so starkly brought to world attention. Facing overwhelming popular anger and the long-term potential for radicalization and the return of extremist groups, regional leaders have largely aligned their policy responses to the war. Despite divergent strategies toward Israel and the Palestinians before October 7, governments around the Middle East are broadly united on demanding an immediate cease-fire, opposing any transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza, calling for humanitarian access to Gaza and for the urgent provision of aid, and supporting negotiations for the release of Israeli hostages in return for an end to the war. The question now is whether this unity can be steered toward building a legitimate peace process. 

For many regional Arab and Muslim countries, the highest priority has been defining a clear plan for Gaza and, ultimately, Palestinian statehood. Israeli leaders have suggested that Gulf states with substantial resources, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, might share the cost of rebuilding Gaza. But Israel’s current government has said it opposes a Palestinian state, and with the war continuing, no Arab governments are willing to make such a commitment or be seen to be underwriting Israel’s war effort. Instead, they have unveiled their own proposals for a postwar peace. 

In December 2023, Egypt and Qatar put forward a plan that began with a cease-fire contingent on phased hostage releases and prisoner exchanges. After a transition period, these confidence-building steps would, in theory, lead to the creation of a Palestinian unity government. Composed of members of both Fatah, the nationalist party that has long controlled the PA, and Hamas, the new leadership would jointly run the West Bank and Gaza, in view of a critical regional demand that the different Palestinian territories no longer be politically separated. This last phase would require Palestinian elections and the creation of a Palestinian state. Although Israel dismissed the plan itself, both for the inclusion of Hamas and over the issue of statehood, it provided a starting point for further discussion. 

Smoke rising from northern Gaza, January 2024 [Amir Cohen / Reuters]

In turn, Turkey has floated the concept of a multicountry guarantor system, with states in the region protecting and bolstering Palestinian security and governance and the United States and European countries providing security guarantees for Israel. Others have proposed that the United Nations run a transitional authority in the West Bank and Gaza, an approach that would allow time to overhaul the Palestinian governance structure and ultimately lay the groundwork for Palestinian elections. For its part, Iran has repeatedly stated that it will reinforce any outcome that is supported by the Palestinians themselves—suggesting that there is a renewed opportunity to persuade Tehran to support a deal and forestall its usual spoiler role.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been developing a peace plan with other Arab states that would condition normalizing ties with Israel on the creation of an irrevocable path to a Palestinian state. Riyadh’s approach is underpinned by the 2002 Arab peace initiative that committed to Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. The current Saudi plan aligns with Washington’s push for Israeli-Saudi normalization. It remains unclear, however, whether the Saudis would agree with their American counterparts on what constitutes credible and irreversible steps toward a Palestinian state, particularly given strong Israeli resistance.

Under Netanyahu, the Israeli government continues to reject all these proposals. But as of late January, Israel remained far from accomplishing its war aim of eradicating Hamas, and it had yet to secure the release of more than 100 remaining hostages. There were also rising tensions in both the war cabinet and the Israeli public about the future course of the military campaign. Moreover, the country has deferred any serious public or political debate on its future security until the war is over. When that happens, Israel will need to have open diplomatic channels with, and secure funding and security guarantees from, Arab governments, as well as retain Washington’s engagement through the process.

It may take years to establish the necessary political conditions for a serious peace process after such a terrible war. Nonetheless, the conflict and its regional spillover are a stark reminder that although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the only cause, regional stability will be at constant risk as long as it continues. And regional governments are increasingly aware that they cannot rely on the United States alone to provide a viable peace process for them.


Even as it has thrust the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of the international agenda, the war in Gaza has underscored the important new political dynamics in play across the Middle East. On the one hand, the United States appears to have less influence. But at the same time, regional powers, including those previously at odds, are taking the initiative, involving themselves in mediation, and coordinating their policy responses. Whereas before October 7, regional powers—in particular, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE—were less aligned on the Palestinian issue, they are now acting with impressive unity, coordination, and planning. To turn this shared resolve into a lasting source of collective leadership, however, these powers must embrace more permanent regional institutions and arrangements. 

Most critically, these should include a standing dialogue forum for the entire region. Episodic summits for cabinet ministers and ad hoc “minilateral” groupings such as the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and I2U2 will no doubt continue to define the regional landscape in the years ahead. But a permanent forum for regional security is lacking. In other parts of the world, cooperative security forums, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have been able to develop alongside bilateral and regional security alliances, enhancing communication even among adversaries and helping prevent conflict. There is no reason for the Middle East to remain the global exception. And given the region’s pressing need to coordinate and de-escalate, the current crisis provides a crucial opportunity to begin such an initiative.

Although leaders have been skeptical about the idea of a forum embracing the entire region, there are several ways that new cooperative security mechanisms could be built. For example, ever since the Madrid peace process was launched in the early 1990s to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such arrangements have been informally proposed in dialogues among experts. Over the past few years, numerous policymakers and others have made clear that this approach is ripe for implementation at an official level. Although such a forum should ultimately aim to include the entire region—all Arab states, Iran, Israel, and Turkey—that won’t immediately be feasible. But a smaller number of key states could start an official process, holding open the prospect of wider participation down the road. Since several Arab states and Turkey have relationships with both Israel and Iran, their participation will be especially valuable at the outset.

The Middle East lacks a permanent forum for regional security.

The new organization, which could be called the MENA Forum, to encompass the broadest understanding of the Middle East and North Africa region, should initially focus on cross-cutting issues on which there is broad consensus, such as climate, energy, and emergency responses to crises. Although the resolution of the Gaza war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely need to be led through a separate Arab initiative, the forum could coordinate positions on postwar Gaza through its emergency response agenda, including humanitarian support and reconstruction aid for Palestinians. The forum would not directly mediate conflicts itself: cooperative security dialogues have proved most effective when focused on improving communication and coordination to defuse tensions and on providing mutual security and socioeconomic benefits to members. But through regular contacts and a gradual building of trust, such a process could support conflict resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and beyond. 

Indeed, standing regional meetings can provide important opportunities, not to mention political cover, for dialogues on contentious disputes among rivals and adversaries who otherwise lack direct channels of communication. These could include not only Israelis and Palestinians but eventually also Israelis and Iranians, who could meet in technical working groups on noncontroversial issues of mutual concern. Such interactions have already quietly unfolded on the sidelines of other multilateral forums focused on climate and water, suggesting that more inclusive regional cooperation is ultimately possible. 

Establishing a Middle East security forum will require political will at the highest levels, as well as a strong regional champion that is considered a neutral party. One possibility is to announce the new organization at a meeting of foreign ministers, possibly on the margins of another regional gathering, like one of the economic sessions that have been held at the Dead Sea in Jordan. The initiative will be more likely to succeed if it is both created and led from the region. Middle powers in Asia and Europe could provide political and technical support in areas where they may have valuable expertise, for example. At least at the outset, China, Russia, and the United States should have limited roles to prevent the forum from turning into another platform for great-power competition. Nonetheless, support from both Washington and Beijing will be critical to ensure that the forum becomes a useful supplement, rather than a threat, to their own diplomacy in the region. 


Among the difficult realities that the war in Gaza has exposed, one of the starkest may be the limits of American power. As much as it may be wished for, the United States is unlikely to provide the decisive leadership or the leverage needed to push through a lasting Israeli-Palestinian settlement. It will be up to the Middle East’s own leaders and diplomats to take charge. By capturing the region’s attention and diplomatic energy, the war has provided a rare opportunity for new forms of cooperative leadership.

A regional security forum cannot by itself deliver Middle East peace—no single initiative can do that. And without accountable governance, genuine long-term stability will remain elusive. Nor is an organization like this going to replace all the competitive power balancing that has long been a hallmark of Middle East statecraft. Even in Asia and Europe, cooperative arrangements have not supplanted national strategic rivalries or been able to foreclose military confrontation, as the war in Ukraine has so painfully demonstrated. Nonetheless, a regular forum would add a crucial layer of stability to the conflict-prone Middle East. Such a project is also increasingly urgent. 

Although October 7 has not yet reversed all the regional currents favoring de-escalation and accommodation, time may be running out to capitalize on this reset. Leading Arab states, together with regional powers such as Turkey, must seize the moment to lock in some of the rapprochement that preceded Gaza and the coordination that has arisen since. The Middle East is facing a moment of reckoning. If it becomes paralyzed by the horrific bloodshed in Gaza, it could further descend into crisis and conflict. Or it can start building a different future.


(c) 2024, Foreign Affairs


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