Over the past decade, the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East has insinuated itself into nearly every regional issue, fracturing international alliances and sustaining wars across the region, while raising fears of a direct conflict between the two powers that could involve the U.S. Now both sides seem to be seeking a diplomatic offramp to confrontation, having recently agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations, amid a broader shift toward lowering tensions across the region.
Saudi Arabia ramped up its regional adventurism after Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful son of King Salman known as MBS, was appointed crown prince in 2017. From the Syrian civil war to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, that has meant proxy conflicts with Iran-backed regimes and nonstate armed groups that have on several occasions veered dangerously close to direct hostilities between the two rivals. A precision missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 was widely blamed on Iran. And the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to Tehran brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war in January 2020, with direct implications for Riyadh.
President Joe Biden has now reengaged diplomatically with Iran in an effort to revive the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from. Though those talks have now stalled, they coincide with broader moves across the Middle East to mend ties that had been frayed by the region’s various arenas of conflict and competition.
Biden also promised to make respect for human rights a central pillar of his foreign policy. The potential implications for U.S. partners in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, are significant, although to date Biden has not radically changed Washington’s policies in the region. Last year he even visited the kingdom and met with MBS, despite having promised to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state, in an effort to rally Washington’s Gulf partners to the U.S. side in its standoff with Russia over the war in Ukraine. But tensions have once again spiked over Riyadh’s alignment with Moscow to keep global oil prices high, despite pressure from Washington to increase production.
With a recent cease-fire having lapsed, the ongoing civil war in Yemen is set to continue fueling one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Syria’s 12-year civil war has now entered an extended endgame that, though less bloody, remains every bit as volatile. Libya has seen a respite in its civil war since a cease-fire was implemented in October 2020 and a transitional government named in March 2021, but its political transition to elections has now hit an increasingly tense impasse. Above all, the absence of fighting in these countries by no means guarantees the establishment of lasting peace.
Meanwhile, the most recent round of fighting in early May between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza—the most intense since 2014—serves as a reminder that the conflict between Israel and Palestine cannot be simply wished away by regional powers and the United States. Like everything else in the region, this conflict has become entangled in the larger Saudi-Iran power struggle, with Saudi-allied leaders willing to remain silent on the Palestinian issue in return for Israeli support in containing Iran.
The U.S.-brokered diplomatic normalization deals Israel signed in the final months of the Trump administration with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain simply formalized a strategic realignment that had until then been an open secret in the region. The question now is whether Saudi Arabia will follow suit. But normalization with Israel without a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict no longer seems as tenable a position as it did before the return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of a government that includes far-right parties certain to alienate Israel’s newfound partners in the Gulf.
WPR has covered the Middle East in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will the Biden administration significantly reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East, and what will that mean for the region? Will the move toward diplomatic engagement succeed in tamping down the Middle East’s various conflicts? And will the composition of Israel’s new government move the Israel-Palestine conflict higher up the list of priorities in Washington and regional capitals? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
Our Most Recent Coverage
Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians Has Fallen Off the Agenda
This year’s 75th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe,” came at a time when the prospects for peace are particularly dim. Both Israel and Palestine face internal political challenges, and recurrent everyday violence continues to be punctuated by periodic outbreaks of heavier fighting, with the five days of intense clashes in May between Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza being the latest example.
Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy
The political situation in the Middle East is in flux. Mass protests in 2019 ousted a long-time ruler in Algeria and rattled governments in Lebanon and Iraq, sparking speculation about a new Arab Spring, before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to those popular movements. The pandemic also initially drove a decline in global energy prices that has further undermined the sustainability of many Gulf states’ oil-based revenue models, although the war in Ukraine has caused prices to once again rise. Meanwhile, regional powers are taking advantage of great power competition to diversify their portfolio of international partnerships.
- Why the cost of migration for Algeria is not limited to migrants losing their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, in In Algeria, Migration Is a Symptom of a Broader Social Tragedy
- Why, fairly or not, a water emergency will likely be added to the list of problems Tunisians blame their authoritarian president for, in Tunisia’s Water Crisis Is Fueling Popular Discontent With Saied
- How Lebanon’s political and economic crises have become a humanitarian crisis, in Lebanon’s Meltdown Has Become a Dystopian Nightmare
- Why the massive protests in Israel are about more than just judicial reforms, in Israel’s Protests Are a Battle Over the Meaning of a Jewish State
After a period of conflict and heightened tensions, the region’s competing powers have begun to engage diplomatically. Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations, while the UAE has engaged in talks with Tehran aimed at easing their tensions. Similarly, Turkey has begun a rapprochement with Egypt that could lead to a normalization of relations, while also thawing relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel. And the Saudi-allied Gulf states put an end to their blockade of Qatar. But the hostility between Israel and Iran has been an outlier to this trend, with the two sides engaging in covert tit-for-tat attacks that run the risk of escalating into open conflict.
- Why the Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria represents a major victory for the Assad regime, in The Arab League Just Handed Assad a Win, No Strings Attached
- How Iraq’s unstable domestic politics are undercutting its credibility as a regional mediator, in Iraq’s Regional Reintegration Is Still a Work in Progress
- Why lack of trust will likely persist despite the restoration of diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Qatar, in Bahrain and Qatar Finally Close the Book on the GCC Crisis
- How a regional climate diplomacy initiative could help manage the Middle East’s potential drivers of conflict before they become active, in The Middle East Is Ripe for Climate Change Diplomacy
The Trump administration’s Middle East policy was dominated by support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and attempts to undermine Iran. Biden has largely maintained a moderated version of that approach, while seeking to reassert U.S. leadership, particularly to rally support in its standoff with Russia. But so far Washington’s regional partners have refused to simply fall in line, and a series of recent setbacks have undermined the U.S. strategy in the region.
- Why the Biden administration’s strategy in the Middle East may be setting itself up for continued disappointment, in Biden Needs to Rethink His Middle East Agenda
- Why plans to reallocate U.S. military forces away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific should be dusted off and implemented, in It’s Time to Get the U.S. Military Out of the Middle East
- What the China-mediated Saudi-Iran deal means for Washington’s ties with Riyadh, in The Saudi-Iran Deal Is a Warning From MBS to Washington
- Why a threat to Israel’s democracy is also a threat to its relationship with the United States, in The U.S.-Israel Relationship Is Special, but Not Indestructible
Protections for human rights remain relatively fragile across the region, particularly when it comes to political dissidents, women and minority communities. Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have cracked down on civil society groups and political opponents. Most recently, several countries have used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to limit or ban political protest movements that had already brought down the government in Algeria and threatened others. Biden has said he’ll make human rights a priority of his foreign policy, potentially setting up a showdown with Washington’s regional security partners, but so far any shift in approach has been limited to rhetoric.
- What the arrest of Tunisia’s leading opposition figure means for civil liberties there, in Ghannouchi’s Arrest Could Be a Tipping Point for Tunisia’s Democracy
- How Tunisia’s authoritarian president has now criminalized dissent of any kind, in In Tunisia, Criticizing Saied Is Now a Crime
- How Tunisia’s president is using women’s rights as window dressing for his authoritarian agenda, in Saied Is Bad News for Women’s Rights in Tunisia
- Why human rights activists’ expectations for the recent World Cup tournament in Qatar may have been too high, in The World Cup Can Highlight Human Rights Issues. It Can’t Solve Them
War and Conflict
Ongoing conflicts and the threat of new clashes continue to overshadow the region, as hopes for negotiated settlements to the wars in Syria and Yemen have been repeatedly dashed. A cease-fire in Libya has been more effective at silencing the guns for now, but the country’s political transition has now been sidetracked, and lasting peace is still far from guaranteed. Meanwhile, although the battlefield defeat of ISIS fighters has reduced violence in Iraq and Syria, that has not spelled the end of the movement.
- Why Syria’s civil war, though frozen, is not over, in Assad Has Survived Syria’s Civil War. Syria Might Not
- Why it’s a mistake to assess the effectiveness of Iran’s drones by how Russia is using them in Ukraine, in Don’t Judge Iran’s Drones by How Russia Is Using Them
- What a recent Iranian cyberattack against Albania tells us about Iran’s cyber capabilities, in Iran’s Cyberattacks on Albania Highlight NATO’s Cyber Gaps
- How the Houthis used a recently expired truce to regroup and strengthen their hold on power in Yemen, in The Houthis Are Gaming Yemen’s Cease-Fire
The Israel-Palestine Conflict and Israel-Arab Relations
The long-standing flashpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict was downgraded as a priority in Washington and the Gulf during the Trump presidency. Instead, Israel’s strategic partnership with the Gulf Arab states to counter Iran became formalized with the establishment of diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain—with the potential for more normalization deals to follow. The Biden administration has been more conventional in its approach to the issue, but so far that has not had a meaningful impact. If the recent fighting between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza is any indication, however, hoping the conflict will simply remain on the backburner is no longer a viable option. And Israel’s new far-right government under Netanyahu is raising the temperature even further.
- How the last round of fighting between Israel and militants in Gaza strengthened a Hamas rival’s hand, in Islamic Jihad Could Get a Boost From the Latest Gaza Fighting
- What the unprecedented involvement of an Israeli Arab party in government means for Israel’s democracy, in Ra’am’s Stint in Power Raises Tough Questions for Israel’s Arab Voters
- Why a recent move by Israel targeting Palestinian NGOs is so destabilizing, in Israel’s ‘Terrorism’ Designation of Palestinian NGOs Is a Dangerous Escalation
- Why Palestinians shouldn’t hope for much from Israel’s new coalition government, in Israel’s New Coalition Changes Nothing for Palestinians
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.