Table of Contents

The Middle East is in once again in a state of dramatic flux. The turbulent, post-2011 era of civil wars, adventurism, and proxy rivalries appears to have peaked. Regional insurgent and terrorist groups, namely the Islamic State, have been severely degraded. The strength of transnational political Islam has faded as well and, with the consolidation of power by President Kais Saied in Tunisia, so too has the prospect of democracy taking root and spreading. Meanwhile, the region’s long-standing external hegemon, the United States, has ended its “forever wars,” abandoning its predilection for ambitious, transformative projects in favor of an approach that largely accepts the status quo as it shifts its attention to Asia and, more recently, the war in Ukraine. Previously interventionist Arab states have largely forsaken military means for backroom dealmaking, economic ties, and soft power diplomacy.

A conventional view of this dynamism, especially the trends in de-escalation, posits that developments in Washington, DC, are the underlying catalysts behind it all. The United States is disengaging from the Middle East, the argument goes, and is seen as an unreliable guarantor with a long list of deficiencies. With its unpredictable electoral cycle and its general domestic disarray, Arab partners have long viewed the United States as a fickle and demanding ally. It has imposed irritating conditions on arms sales, courted troublesome nonstate groups such as the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood, and naively negotiated with Iran while being slow to defend its Arab partners against Iranian proxy and missile attacks. It is seen as making unreasonable, with-us-or-against-us demands in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while ignoring the hypocrisy of its own interventions in the Middle East.

So, unsurprisingly, Arab partners of the United States in the region are taking matters into their own hands, pursuing their own de-escalation and peace initiatives while also diversifying their partnerships as a hedge against American unreliability. In many respects, this trend is not new: postcolonial regional powers throughout the Cold War were adept at playing great powers against one another, and the trend received new momentum with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Over the last decade, it was accelerated by the dramatic rise of China, which has surpassed the United States and Europe as the Gulf’s biggest trading partner. For its part, Russia has also been a major player in the region. While it lacks Beijing’s economic clout and has taken a battering from its ill-fated Ukraine invasion, Moscow is still seen as a major vendor of conventional arms for the region with few strings attached and, in the case of Syria and Libya, an active intervener on behalf of wobbly dictators and aspiring warlords.

Dalia Dassa Kaye
Dalia Dassa Kaye is an internationally recognized expert on global security and Middle East policy. She is currently a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations and directs its global initiative for regional security architectures. She was previously a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation where she served as director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy.

And yet, this U.S.-centric explanation of change in the Middle East is only part of the story. To begin with, Washington is not really “exiting” the region: it still retains a sizeable diplomatic and military footprint, though policymakers are revising that presence and are consumed with other priorities, not least domestic ones. More importantly, though, there is another factor at work: Arab governments’ perceptions of security, legitimacy, and stability at home. With the demise of the Arab Spring and the tumult that followed, the existential ideational, security, and political threats to Arab regime identity and survival have also diminished. Oppositionists and especially Islamists have been weakened or eliminated through Arab regimes’ brute-force suppression, sophisticated surveillance, and co-option, or due to internal fissues with these dissidents’ ranks. As a result, Arab autocrats are no longer compelled to gravitate into defensive blocs and feel more confident engaging with rivals in the region. Relatedly, Arab regimes’ growing ties with countries like China and Russia have as much to do with their similar outlooks for world order—a vision that is authoritarian, antidemocratic, and antipluralistic—as with their desires to balance their relationships with the United States.

As the essays in this collection demonstrate, this notion of an authoritarian-led consolidation in the region and a durable period of stasis is belied by continuing dynamism and deepening socioeconomic problems within Arab states. Whether and how these afflictions lead to future instability will depend on how regional governments navigate current and looming challenges, especially the transition to the post-oil era, through comprehensive and inclusive reforms. Absent such a governance overhaul, the region could face renewed unrest, especially within weaker and poorer Arab states, potentially causing embattled Arab regimes to once again project their insecurities onto their rivals and neighbors, unraveling the current trend of interstate rapprochement.

Arab Realignments and De-escalation—and Their Limits

Regardless of their drivers, recent shifts in the regional landscape are certainly significant. At the broadest level, the post-2011 ideological, intra-Sunni, interdynastic cold war between an anti-Islamist bloc of states led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt against Türkiye and Qatar has ended. This played out in a number of arenas. By mid-2020, a battlefield stalemate in Libya, effected by the intervention of Türkiye and Russia in support of warring local forces, led the UAE and Egypt to dial back and abandon their militarized meddling in favor of dialogue and backroom dealmaking. In tandem, rulers in the UAE, apparently concerned about post-pandemic development challenges and competition with Saudi Arabia, sought to engage Türkiye while recognizing that Islamists across the region were circumscribed by national boundaries and, therefore, less of a threat to the Gulf. This was accompanied by a simultaneous nationalization of the Islamist parties and their internal dissolution and weakening. For its part, by late 2020 and early 2021, Türkiye, a backer of Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, embarked on new shift in bridge-building, marked by rounds of diplomatic talks and high-level visits with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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Most significantly, though, Saudi Arabia in 2021 lifted its blockade against Qatar, which had been in place since 2017. Very quickly thereafter, Egypt began talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, reportedly brokered by Qatar, while Türkiye and Egypt began intelligence exchanges on the extradition of Islamists and the closure of Turkish pro-Brotherhood media outlets. By the fall and winter of 2022, signs of the warming had become even more pronounced. Egypt’s onetime archrival Qatar deposited $1 billion in the Egyptian central bank, and the sidelines of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar offered further glimpses of remarkable, personalized fence-mending among previously hostile rulers. For example, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi shook hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Qatar’s emir cheered the Saudi football team’s victory over Argentina. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even donned a maroon Qatari national scarf at the opening ceremony. And the famously anti-Islamist ruler of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed, engaged in a similarly high-level gesture of rapprochement by visiting Doha during the World Cup—his first visit to Qatar since the imposition of the blockade.

DOHA, QATAR NOVEMBER 20: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el Sisi as they attend reception hosted by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar on November 20, 2022. (Photo by Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Beyond the Sunni Muslim world, the historic Abraham Accords normalized ties between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, followed shortly thereafter by Morocco and Sudan. The accords led to an expansion of ties in a wide range of sectors, including trade, transportation, energy, technology, and military cooperation, particularly between the UAE and Israel.

Longtime Arab foes of Iran also began softening their antagonism, beginning with a growing inclination by smaller Gulf states to keep lines of communication open with Tehran and desist from a strictly confrontational approach. As early as 2019—following Iran’s targeting of oil facilities in the Gulf in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawl from the nuclear agreement the previous year—Emirati and Iranian officials began talks on maritime security. By the summer of 2022, the UAE had reinstated its ambassador to Tehran. Similarly, in 2019, Saudi Arabia reached out to Iran via interlocutors in the Iraqi government, and by April 2021, Saudi Arabia and Iran had begun direct talks (hosted in Baghdad with later facilitation by Oman). That paved the way for an announcement in March 2023 that Riyadh and Tehran were formally restoring diplomatic relations and reopening their embassies after a seven-year freeze—a move that surprised the world, especially since it had been secretly brokered by China, a great power that had hitherto refrained from active involvement in the region’s disputes.

The Saudi-Iran deal is certainly a major, welcome step toward resolving one of the Middle East’s most destabilizing feuds, which has left its toxic imprint on the region’s geopolitics, domestic affairs, societies, and cultures. That said, uncertainties remain about the deal’s durability and scope. To begin with, the agreement is unlikely to completely bury the rivalry between the two longtime claimants to Islamic and Middle Eastern leadership who have advanced sharply different visions of regional order. At its core, the deal is an agreement to restore normalized ties that previously existed, and it is contingent on crucial pledges being upheld, particularly a promise from Iran to cease attacks on Saudi Arabia and cut off aid to Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. Moreover, it is important to take the long view of the Saudi-Iran bilateral relationship, which has always incorporated elements of dialogue and engagement, even as the two states sought to subvert and parry each other’s influence across the region. 

Elsewhere, the limits to this de-escalation are already becoming apparent as regional dialogues have run up against old animosities. Reconciliation between Türkiye and Egypt has foundered over the fractured, conflict-wracked state of Libya, where Ankara and Cairo find themselves backing contending political constellations and presidential aspirants. Türkiye, to Sisi’s dismay, still fields thousands of military advisers and Syrian proxy forces in the environs of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. On the Abraham Accords, recognition of Israel has not helped the Palestinians, while two Gulf states that have long engaged with Israel, Qatar and Oman, have so far desisted from joining. Israel’s most prized Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, has offered some limited gestures but to date remains committed to the Arab peace initiative that requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the normalization of ties. More recently, the rise of extreme, right-wing Israeli parties and figures in the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late 2022 and the resulting crisis in early 2023 over Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary further complicated the normalization process. Israeli actions in Jersualem, particularly raids at Al-Aqsa mosque during the Ramadan holiday in 2023, inflamed regional tensions, widening the divide between Arab leaders who have embraced normalization and Arab publics who remain largely hostile to it.

China: A Challenger but not a Hegemon

Against the backdrop of these local initiatives and dialogues, a rising outside power looms, one that historically was not involved significantly in the Middle East’s affairs but is now leaving an indelible mark on its future trajectory. In many respects, it is impossible to understand the new foreign policy orientations of Arab states without an appreciation for the increasing role that China is playing in the region. China’s tech, cyber, and data activities in particular are challenging perceptions of unchecked U.S. supremacy in the region—and are also provoking U.S. moves toward decoupling and demands from U.S. officials that American partners across the world effectively need to choose sides. China’s prominent role in the Iran-Saudi normalization deal—even if it was capitalizing on the regional thawing already underway and previous mediation by Oman and Iraq—was a visible sign of its aspirations for a larger diplomatic role to augment its already robust economic relationships. But, at the same time, China’s ability to fully supplant and displace the United States’ presence, especially on security issues, is greatly exaggerated.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia co-sign in person the comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and agree to take turns to host biennial meetings between the heads of state of the two countries, at Riyadh’s al-Yamamah Palace in Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8, 2022. (Photo by Xinhua via Getty Images)

China’s launch of its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 did indeed boost the Middle East’s importance for Beijing, with the region becoming a key land and sea corridor for China’s growth. Its investments in regional infrastructure and technology subsequently skyrocketed. By 2021, China’s trade with the region had reached $284.3 billion, compared to just $15.2 billion in 2000. China is now Saudi Arabia’s top trading partner and Saudi Arabia is China’s leading oil supplier. Indeed, the Middle East provides nearly half of China’s crude oil supplies.

China is also the top foreign investor in the region. Chinese companies were contracted to construct the main stadium where Qatar hosted the World Cup in 2022, built a high-speed rail to connect Jeddah with Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and invested in and operate a port terminal in Haifa, Israel, to name just a few examples of China’s expanding reach. Huawei, China’s leading telecommunications firm, is expanding its 5G networks throughout the region, including with countries that are close American security partners, sparking concerns among U.S. officials that such technologies could jeopardize American personnel and lead to other cyber and intelligence risks for U.S. interests.

While China’s relationship with the region is primarily economic, American policymakers are increasingly concerned that commercial ties will transform over time into deeper strategic and military relationships and increase Chinese political influence in Arab states. In an August 2022 testimony to Congress, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara A. Leaf argued that China’s expanding economic relationships in the Middle East also create “conditions where [China] can coerce countries on UN votes and support for its positions on issues like Taiwan, the Uyghurs, and Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. Not to mention a host of others that go to the rules-based order that we have worked assiduously since WWII to build and maintain.”

But some China watchers question whether Beijing is interested in competing with the United States’ military positions in the region or whether high-level visits, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s December 2022 trip to Saudi Arabia for a series of Arab summits, is about the United States at all, as a number of Western accounts framed the meetings. Indeed, China analyst Jonathan Fulton noted that Xi’s visit was the fifth state visit by a Chinese head of state to Saudi Arabia and continued the pattern of deepening Chinese relations with Arab states that view China as a critical global power, energy market, and investor in its own right, not just as a hedge against the United States. It thus should come as little surprise that Saudi Arabia welcomed China’s backing for its normalization agreement with Iran, particularly given Iran’s own expanding ties with China as a buffer against increased economic pressure from the West as the nuclear agreement languishes.

Nonetheless, with continued U.S. military dominance and superior equipment and training, China is not likely to outcompete the United States anytime soon. As China lags well behind the United States in its military relationships, Arab states will thus need to balance closer ties with China with continuing dependence on U.S. security assistance. Still, Arab states’ interest in China’s drone and missile technologies is growing. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the top buyers of Chinese drones, providing another example of Arab states’ desire to leave the door open to China even as they maintain close military ties and cooperation with the United States.

But the regional welcoming of expanding Chinese engagement is not only about increasing leverage against Washington or hedging to prepare for a future where the United States is a less dependable security partner. Arab leaders are also attracted to the Chinese model of economic development without political reform and welcome an external partner that is not interested in interfering in domestic affairs or focusing on human rights abuses. This tracks with Arab leaders own repressive methods of dealing with political opposition and curtailing expression.

China is less a regional bully than a regional model for Arab leaders. Meanwhile, Arab publics maintain more favorable views of China than they do of the United States, even if support for expanded economic engagement is waning and Chinese products are viewed as inferior to those from the West. The protests across China in late 2022 against the government’s Zero COVID policy may further taint China’s image, at least among Arab publics. But Arab leaders may embrace Chinese surveillance technology as an effective means to maintain a grip on their own populations. And Arab states may start turning to China as the preferred mediator in regional disputes, as the Saudi-Iran agreement demonstrated—though whether Beijing meets with greater success than other powers remains to be seen. The uncomfortable reality for American policymakers is that Washington’s key partners in the region are increasingly illiberal states that share a natural affinity with Beijing and, for that matter, Moscow.

Russia: Battered, but Still a Player

The Soviet Union throughout the Cold War was a player in the Middle East, but in the past decade, Russia has reasserted its influence through military adventurism, diplomatic offensives, energy and trade deals, and propaganda blitzes. This activism is not driven by a deliberate, preplanned strategy but rather by the opportunistic exploitation of power vaccums and missteps by the United States and other Western powers. In addition, Moscow caters to Arab autocrats’ insecurities about the United States vacating the region and neglecting their security needs.

With relatively few commitments and costs, Russia’s investment in the region has reaped strategic gains for the Kremlin. In Syria’s civil war, for example, Russia’s military intervention bolstered the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and resulted in Russian forces obtaining a foothold across the country, particularly at air bases and ports. Arms sales are another major pillar of Russian influence: Algeria and Egypt are among the top five global purchasers of Russian weaponry. In the Gulf, U.S. security partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE have drawn closer to Russia through energy and arms deals and on a shared approach to certain regional crises and conflicts, most notably in Libya. Here, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Moscow were aligned in their political, financial, and military support to one of the warring factions in the country’s 2019–2020 civil conflict, the faction headed by militia commander Khalifa Haftar. While some of this alignment constitutes hedging against U.S. capriciousness and a genuine convergence of specific economic interests, it also stems from the fact that these Arab governments share with the Kremlin a common preference for an authoritarian-led, non-Islamist regional order. And yet, for all of their outreach to Russia and assertions of autonomy and nonalignment, the United States’ longtime Arab security partners are likely aware of the limitations of Russian support, compared to the assistance, assurances, and gurantees they’ve come to expect from Washington.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Arab states have deferred on Washington’s efforts to forge a global consensus against the war. While some of this reflects a genuine embrace of multipolarity and the aforementioned convergence of interests with Moscow, it also represents a way to convey discontent to U.S. policymakers with what Arab and especially Gulf states feel is a neglect of their security requirements. Beyond this, economic self-interest has played a role. Most famously, Saudi ties with Russia converged with hostility to U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. And, in conjunction with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Mohammed bin Salman snubbed Biden’s request to maintain its oil production, a request made in hopes of keeping global prices stable after Russia cut its production. Some Congressional critics maintained that Saudi Arabia’s move was a vote in favor of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and other analysts saw it as an effort to lead a global economic nonaligned movement. Regardless, the message from the Saudi leadership was clear: Russia is still a player in the Middle East, and the old parameters of the Arab-U.S. partnership no longer apply.

United States: Not Retreating but Reconfiguring

As both China and Russia continue to build their influence, there is no doubt that U.S. interest in the region is declining. After two decades of costly wars with unclear payoffs, Middle East fatigue set in across Washington. Incoming senior Biden administration officials proclaimed a desire to scale down America’s ambitions in the Middle East as sights shifted to a rising China and away from a nearly two-decade-long focus on counterterrorism. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was among the more dramatic markers of the shift, but the shift was long coming. The region took notice and perceived the United States to be in retreat.

The reality is, of course, somewhat different. The United States played an active role in providing arms and other military support in regional conflicts including those in Yemen and Libya, often at great costs given the high civilian death tolls inflicted by partners using American weaponry. Even as these conflicts appear to be winding down, the U.S. military footprint in the region remains extensive and far surpasses Russia’s and China’s still limited military involvement in regional affairs. The Biden administration’s global posture review has not translated into a significantly reduced U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

But America’s Arab partners are looking for more than just the stationing of U.S. forces—they want to see those forces respond more quickly and robustly to Iranian-backed attacks. They see the lack of an American response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 and subsequent missile and drone strikes from Iranian-backed militias in Yemen as an indication of a reduced U.S. commitment to their security. Less discussed are other U.S. military actions directed against Iran, including the killing of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani during U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration and a series of U.S. strikes against Iranian-backed militias during the Biden administration, such as recent counterattacks in Syria. The United States also increased military support for the UAE in early 2022 in response to Houthi missile strikes and scrambled fighter jets amid warnings of an imminent Iranian-backed attack on Saudi Arabia in late 2022.

Nonetheless, the limited nature of U.S. strikes to avoid a wider war with Iran has reinforced the narrative of a United States in retreat. This view remains the prevailing one across Arab capitals, despite active efforts by the Biden administration to double down on U.S. security ties to reassure American partners of its “ironclad” commitment to their security. This posture is embodied in what White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk called “back to the basics,” where the focus is on “building, maintaining and strengthening our partnerships and alliances,” including “strengthening the defensive capabilities of partners.”

Underpinning this approach is a buildup of military capabilities of Arab partners that can reduce the need for direct U.S. military engagement. Human rights are not at the center of the Biden administration’s policies when it comes to Middle East defense relationships, an outlier to the administration’s wider strategy to bolster democratic alliances globally. Biden administration officials appear to view these partnerships as too important to compromise by pressing accountability concerns, believing that doing so will only move Arab partners closer to China and Russia. American concerns about China or Russia selling arms to Arab partners if the United States does not has amounted to a free pass on accountability. Massive U.S. arms sales have resumed despite little to no improvement on domestic and transnational repression of opposition. The United States remains the top arms supplier to the region. The war in Ukraine has only given Arab states more leverage in the great competition game given tight global oil supply and rising energy costs.

Moreover, Arab states also recognize that normalizing relations with Israel, or leaving the door open to normalization, is another way to keep Washington engaged in the region and wary of pressing regional leaders on issues such as human rights. Indeed, the Biden administration is making investments in the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords to further expand Israel’s integration into the region. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted the Negev Summit with Arab and Israeli leaders in Israel in March 2022 to advance the normalization process and Arab-Israeli regional cooperation. Israeli integration into the region emerged as a major theme of Biden’s first trip to the region as president in July 2022.

Arab states and Israel have many reasons to cooperate for their own interests, including common concerns over Iran and growing Arab interest in Israeli technologies and missile defense capabilities. But the predominant view in Washington remains that maintaining close security relationships with even unsavory Arab leaders who may not always be aligned with U.S. interests is necessary for the sake of advancing their acceptance of Israel or keeping them out of China’s orbit. Forming an anti-Iran and pro-American alignment in the region among Israel and friendly Arab states is an overriding U.S. focus, though Saudi officials’ decision to mend ties with Tehran may have tempered such aims. With Israel now included in the U.S. Central Command, talk of a Middle East defense alliance to contain Iran is nonetheless still popular in Washington, even if regional views of such an arrangement were always far more cautious.

Arab partners no doubt recognize that American priorities on Israel, Iran, and China can play to their advantage, allowing them to reap security benefits without feeling the pressure to conform to U.S. asks, whether it be increasing oil outputs or breaking off ties with Beijing (or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, taking more than symbolic steps on normalizing ties with Israel). Arab states also continue to engage Iran, understanding that they will ultimately pay the highest price for military escalation given their proximity and vulnerabilities to Iranian attacks. Survival is the paramount concern, and in a regional environment where Arab leaders now feel more secure at home and more assured about their varied external relationships, there is little reason to see this pattern shifting anytime soon.

While it is no secret that a number of Arab leaders, particularly in the Gulf, preferred the Trump administration’s friendly and transactional approach, they understand how to leverage their influence in Washington to maintain close relationships even with an administration that has framed its wider foreign policy strategy as shoring up democracies to combat the rising tide of global authoritarianism. The Biden administration’s policies have demonstrated that there is a Middle East exception, and now that regional states have weathered an initial period of uncertainty, they are more confident that U.S. policies are not likely to reverse.

The long-standing American playbook continues—the backing of authoritarian but pro-American leaders to maintain stability, to keep the oil flowing and its competitors out. Arab states may not be counting on the United States as the predominant power as in the past, and they are certainly keeping their options open with their external relationships. But neither are they spurning American assistance. The result is that the U.S. role, even in or perhaps because of a more crowded playing field, reinforces the status quo regional order.

The Darkening Horizon Ahead

For all of the welcome news of de-escalation and rapprochement in the Middle East, the apparent consolidation of authoritarian-led stability and growing multipolarity is hardly grounds for unqualified triumphalism or long-term optimism. As this collection has demonstrated, the demands for accountability, rule of law, an end to corruption, and better social services that fueled the Arab Spring are still present, as evidenced by the fierce protests that rocked several of the region’s states in 2018–2019. To be sure, economic growth in many states has recently benefited from a Ukraine war–induced spike in oil prices, but the coming years are projected to see a sharp downturn that will worsen social and economic stratification and raise the likelihood of instability in poorer, less-endowed Arab states. These same countries are already struggling from rising interest rates and debt, and they will likely feel the ripple effects from the projected economic slowdown in China, the United States, and the European Union. Meanwhile, public services and social safety nets in many instances remain woefully inadequate. Even in the supposed islands of prosperity—such as the UAE—unemployment has reached the level of a “national crisis,” while expectations of taxation in preparation for the post-oil era have triggered new levels of foreboding.

What remains unclear is whether, how, and when these mounting grievances could be directed into activism against Arab governments. The region’s rulers have certainly learned lessons from 2011, deploying new forms of social control and technology to prevent another moment like Tahrir Square. But just as governments have learned, so too have activists and dissidents. And unlike the uprisings of 2011–2012 and 2019, Arab governments entering the post-rentier era will have less to spend to maintain citizen quiescence and build consensus among often-divided elites. Taken in sum, it is not unreasonable to expect that, despite the current lull in regional tensions, Arab regimes could once again face serious unrest, if not threats to their survival, within the coming decade.

The current moment of multipolarity, with its attendant increase in overtures from China, Russia, and even a rising India, may be welcomed by the region’s rulers. They might see this moment as an opportunity to carve out more maneuverability and extract benefits without exclusive commitments or unwelcome demands. But these outside powers, for all of their allure, cannot offer a lifeline for the Arab world’s coming socioeconomic and demographic challenges. Nor, necessarily, can the United States—though it alone among the great powers still retains the capacity to make the sort of sustainable human capital investments that will benefit the region’s citizens, not just its rulers and their favored elites, and potentially stave off instability in at-risk countries.

The question now is whether policymakers in Washington have the will and foresight to move in that direction, beyond the overly securitized approach that has defined the U.S. presence in the Middle East for decades.