That is why the Middle East is so important to the United States

Last Updated on July 8, 2024 9:50 am

The United States, known as the ‘world leader’, has been active in the Middle East for the past few decades. From the invasion of Iraq to the fight against the Islamic State (IS) or sending weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia, they have been involved in various issues. Analysts see issues such as energy resources, trade routes, geopolitical stability, combating terrorism and the country’s permanent alliance with Israel as reasons for the US interest in the region. However, the number of US troops stationed in the Middle East has decreased dramatically.
In 2007, there were 160,000 troops in Iraq alone, while the total from Egypt to Afghanistan is less than 40,000 today. It is all under the Central Command of the US military.

Whether to further reduce US presence in the region has become an important strategic question for Washington. Let’s look at a few things here.

Fuel

Large reserves of oil and natural gas in Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have been a major factor in US policy-making for decades.

However, the production of oil and gas in the country has increased in the last 15 years due to the increase of shale gas (also known as shale gas) in its own land. As a result, the country is less dependent on the import of such energy than before. In both petroleum and natural gas, the United States is a net exporter, meaning the country exports more than it imports.

Global oil markets are interconnected; A supply disruption from the Middle East could affect oil prices as well as economic stability.

While the US is reducing its dependence on Middle Eastern energy, China remains heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil, said Gilbert Askar, professor of international relations at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

This, he said, means that control over the Middle East gives the United States several strategic advantages over China.

Economic interests and transportation of goods

The Middle East is an important market for American goods and services, especially military hardware. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the region accounted for the largest number of US arms exports between 2019 and 2023.

38 percent of total US arms exports went to the Middle East. Among them, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Israel have bought the most weapons.

In addition, Hugh Lovatt said that the Middle East is important in terms of global trade by sea. He is an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on the region.

Every year, more than 17 thousand ships transport food, medicine, fuel and other essential goods through the Red Sea, which is about 12 percent of world trade.

Hugh Lovatt also said that Egypt’s Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz near Iran are also very important. This global seaway is still important to the US economy.

Geopolitical stability

The strategic location in the Middle East, linking Europe, Asia and Africa, is critical to US trade and military operations. There are also US military bases in Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.

Marisa Khurma, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington DC, said the United States maintains a strong presence to ensure that no single power dominates and threatens the stability of the region.

While oil demand and countering the influence of communism have historically been central to US interests in the Middle East, today the country is seeking to maintain its influence and superpower beyond these. Because the region is the main theater of power competition with China and Russia.

Khurma also said the region was a reminder of how destabilizing the Gaza war has become. In particular, when the United States remains isolated and politically withdrawn from resolving long-standing conflicts such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iran’s military expansionism in the region.

Counter Terrorism

Khaled Elgindi of the Middle East Institute (MEI) said the US military presence in recent decades has been in response to growing terrorist threats in the region.

However, the extremist Islamic group al-Qaeda cited the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia as the reason for the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001. As a result, he mentioned that it is a main driver of violent extremism.

Although much of the US war to destroy al-Qaeda has been concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has continued its operations and coalition activities in the Middle East.

And more recently, a US-backed global coalition has backed local forces to drive IS from areas it controls in Syria and Iraq. The region is also home to several other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other countries, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

Israel

For most of the past 60 years, Israel’s security has been a top-level priority for the United States. In addition to ideological similarities, strong domestic political pressure on US leaders also contributed to support for Israel.

Gilbert Aksar of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) said Washington’s continued support for Israel is also a “very efficient” investment. This gives the US an important military ally in the region.

More recently, however, the United States has brokered important peace agreements between Israel’s Arab neighbors, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, before that, Egypt.

According to Elgindi, the current Israel-Hamas conflict involves the United States more directly. For example, sending warships to the Eastern Mediterranean in the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7 last year, or countering Iran’s missile attack on Israel in April.

He added that US President Joe Biden’s personal and ideological commitment to Israel arguably exceeds that of any US president in history, which explains his policy contradictions.

Despite serious and growing differences between the United States and Israel over the conduct and goals of the current Gaza war, the Biden administration has provided almost unlimited military, political, and diplomatic support for Israel’s military operations at virtually every stage.

Meanwhile, many believe that even if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House, the current US support is unlikely to change. But its current support for Israel will pay a steep geopolitical price for the United States in the years and decades to come.

What next?

Opinions differ on how much priority the United States should give to the Middle East. Elgindi says he doesn’t see the U.S. withdrawing from the region anytime soon.

Meanwhile, according to Aksar, China and Russia can fill the void created by the departure of the United States. However, keeping in mind the limited interest among US citizens regarding the deployment of troops in the Middle East, the US is focusing on increasing its capabilities for remote warfare such as drones and missiles in the region, according to this analyst.

According to some, such as Kelly A. Greco of the Washington DC think tank Stimson Center, the US should withdraw US forces from the Middle East.

He also believes that the US intervention has created an anti-US sentiment in the Middle East. US support for Israel, especially in recent months, has given a further blow to US image in the region.

Source: BBC

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