The Power Vacuum in the Middle East

Wars can clarify, and wars can confuse. The conventional wisdom about the Six-Day War in 1967 holds that Israel swiftly crushed the wave of Arab nationalism that was sweeping the Middle East and toppling monarchs. According to the tale of the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw and shattered the image of a seemingly invincible military at a time when Arab armies had long since abandoned the fight against Israel. Arab-Israeli conflicts have often seemed to be clarifying events. Days of war sweep away ideas that had prevailed for decades.

Yet the stories that emerge from these wars can verge on their own sort of mythmaking. The story of 1967, while not entirely untrue, is too pat. Regimes such as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s in Egypt were always motivated more by narrow self-interest than lofty notions of pan-Arabism, merely deploying the latter when it served the former. Such leaders burdened their states with political and economic problems that persist to this day. The catastrophe they suffered in 1967 might have hastened their demise, but they would have crumbled under their own contradictions anyway.

The same goes for the 2006 war against Hezbollah. It was not Israel’s first military defeat; witness its long occupation of south Lebanon, which ended just six years earlier with a humiliating unilateral withdrawal and the prompt collapse of Israel’s proxy force, the South Lebanon Army. Israel had only seemed invincible because its most serious foes had given up. But war was changing, at least in the Middle East, as battles between armies gave way to campaigns of attrition against nonstate actors. Israel, like the United States, was struggling to repurpose conventional tactics to meet an unconventional threat.

It is too early to draw a full list of conclusions from the latest Arab-Israeli war. But five months of fighting between Israel and Hamas have already debunked some big myths: that the Palestinian cause was dead, that an emerging Israeli-Gulf alliance would provide a counterweight against Iran, that a region exhausted by conflict was going to focus on de-escalation and economic growth, and that a truly post-American Middle East had emerged.


Until October 7, Israel’s longtime divide-and-rule strategy toward the Palestinians seemed successful. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did everything he could to undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA), even as he made deals with Hamas and facilitated the transfer of billions of dollars to its government in the Gaza Strip; then he claimed that Israel had no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side because Hamas was the stronger party. There might be an occasional weeklong round of fighting in Gaza or a spurt of lone wolf attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but the conventional wisdom was that the Palestinians were too downtrodden and fractured to muster anything more. The world had lost interest in their cause. The United States no longer wanted to play mediator. China and India had other priorities. Even some Arab states were more interested in doing deals with Israeli high-tech firms than pushing for a Palestinian state. There was no pressure on Israel to end its occupation, which seemed like it could be managed indefinitely at little cost.

This was Netanyahu’s view, but it was shared by many others. Israelis of all stripes thought they could avoid the Palestinian issue. A decade ago, when Isaac Herzog (now Israel’s president) was Netanyahu’s main center-left challenger for prime minister, he spent more time talking about solar energy than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Polls showed that a plurality of Israeli Jews preferred to maintain the status quo rather than pursue a two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s view was, of course, spectacularly wrong. It was surprising to many that the trigger for renewed conflict came from Gaza, which had seemed relatively quiet, and not the West Bank, which was (and still is) a tinderbox. Israel thought Hamas had lost interest in large-scale conflict: a year earlier, when Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian group, fired hundreds of rockets across the border, Hamas sat on the sidelines. Instead, it seemed focused on shoring up its rule in Gaza. And it was surprising—perhaps even to Hamas itself—that the terrorists who attacked Israel on October 7 were able to cause so much carnage. But no one should have been shocked that the region’s longest unresolved conflict would eventually roar back to life.

Israelis of all stripes thought they could avoid the Palestinian issue.

When it did, it exposed other fallacies. The quiet ties that emerged between Israel and Gulf states in the decade after 2010 were based on a mutual fear of Iran. A sense of shared interest led to the Abraham Accords of 2020, through which Israel established formal ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and to talk of normalization with Saudi Arabia. Desperate to escape the Middle East, Washington saw this as an opportunity: there would be less need for U.S. troops to contain Iran and its proxies if Israel and Gulf states could do the job themselves. Today, however, Israel and a U.S.-led coalition are fighting Iranian proxies in five places—Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen—and the Gulf states are nowhere to be found. They have instead doubled down on détente with Iran.

The hope for an emerging regional security alliance overlooked a key fact about the Gulf states: they are soft targets. They rely on oil exports to fill their coffers, imports to feed their populations, and vulnerable infrastructure, such as desalination plants, to survive in an inhospitable region. In 2019, Iranian missiles and drones hit oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, temporarily disrupting half of the kingdom’s oil output. The attack drove home just how vulnerable the Gulf states are. Despite the billions of dollars they spend on weapons—Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the world’s five biggest arms importers—their armies are not very capable, having little battlefield experience.

Arguably the one exception is the UAE, whose army performed relatively well fighting in southern Yemen. Yet the Western officials who admiringly call this country “little Sparta” misunderstand it. The UAE is not a battle-hardened warrior society; it is an entrepôt that thrives on its reputation as an oasis of stability. It might have the most adept Arab military—a low bar to clear—but its government is loath to use that army in a conflict that might bring missiles raining down on Dubai’s five-star resorts.

Officials in the Gulf made their own miscalculations. Until October 7, it was common to hear them talk of a multipolar Middle East. The United States was distracted by the war in Ukraine, competition with China, and messy domestic politics. It was a frustrating partner prone to erratic swings in policy. Russia, on the other hand, had proved itself a reliable and effective ally by saving the hide of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in 2015 when it intervened on behalf of the government in the Syrian civil war. China was not yet a military power in the Middle East, but it was a seemingly bottomless source of investment and, increasingly, weapons and technology. The United States was no longer so indispensable.

Russia’s intervention in Syria was the high-water mark of its regional influence.

Yet amid the region’s worst crisis in decades, Russia and China are all but invisible. They have used the conflict to highlight perceived Western hypocrisy, a charge that has found a receptive audience in the Middle East. But no one has looked to Moscow or Beijing to conduct diplomacy, supply aid, or shore up regional security. Even where their self-interest is affected, they cannot (or will not) play a significant role. China ought to care that the Houthis have attacked shipping in the Red Sea since November, which jeopardizes trade with Europe. But it has not sent warships to the region. Although China is Iran’s largest trading partner, Beijing has not used its influence to persuade the regime in Tehran to rein in the Houthis but instead has merely pleaded for them to allow Chinese ships to transit the Red Sea unmolested.

Again, this should have been apparent before October 7. In hindsight, Russia’s intervention in Syria was the high-water mark of its regional influence. Three years later, it tried to help Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan warlord, seize Tripoli, only to see his offensive snuffed out by Turkish drones. Invading Ukraine further sapped Russia’s clout. It has fewer arms to sell to Arab autocrats and less money to invest in the region. Distracted in Europe, Moscow pays less attention to even its closest allies in the Middle East. “They’re losing Syria to Iran,” an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with reporters, told me in January. China’s only notable diplomatic achievement in the region was to nudge last year’s Saudi-Iranian rapprochement across the finish line, but most of the hard work was done elsewhere.

That rapprochement was supposed to signal a new era of regional calm. Civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen had ground into stalemates. The autocrats who survived the Arab Spring, or emerged from it, knew they had to focus on pocketbook issues, lest their restive populations rise up again. Many analysts thought that after decades of turmoil, everyone would set aside their differences and try to build and integrate their economies. U.S. officials bought into this hopeful vision, and Gulf monarchs promoted it. So much for that. Even before October 7, the new era of regional comity had proved itself short-lived: Sudan plunged into a gruesome civil war just weeks after the Saudi-Iranian deal. A region littered with failed and failing states and unresolved conflicts turned out to be barren soil for growing something new.


Myths can be revealing, even if they are wrong. Some Gulf officials talked up the multipolar world because they were genuinely exasperated with the United States; others did so because they hoped it would convince the United States to stay in the Middle East. Washington put its hopes in a new security architecture because it wanted to leave. Israelis believed in an endless, low-cost occupation because the region’s biggest powers signaled it would be acceptable. The Middle East is changing, in other words, even if policymakers erred in their assessment of those changes.

The United States’ influence is undeniably on the wane, but China and Russia are not yet Middle Eastern powers. Washington cannot persuade Israel to endorse a two-state solution or the return of the PA to Gaza. It is strong enough to dispatch two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean and fly B-1 bombers halfway around the globe to strike the Houthis and Iraqi militias, but not strong enough to deter those militias from attacking commercial shipping or U.S. troops. The United States did help to head off war between Israel and Hezbollah in the days after October 7, and its strikes on the Houthis may have temporarily degraded their stockpile of antiship missiles. Beyond that, however, the United States has little to show for its diplomatic and military efforts over the past five months. Even when it is a more active power in the region, it is a feckless one, playing whack-a-mole with Iranian proxies and pleading with a recalcitrant Israeli government.

China and Russia are not yet Middle Eastern powers.

If the United States was wrong to fantasize about an anti-Iranian coalition, Iran’s own alliance is showing strain. In interviews over the past four months, perhaps the only thing American, Arab, European, Iranian, and Israeli officials agreed on is that Hamas struck Israel without consulting its sponsors in Tehran. The regime has since refused to unleash its most powerful proxy, Hezbollah—which is under pressure in Lebanon, including from its own Shiite constituency—not to drag the country into war with Israel. Iran is also nervous about the actions of its proxies in Iraq and Yemen. That “axis of resistance” was meant to keep conflicts away from Iran’s borders: now, however, to use that axis is to risk bringing them home.

Even though Gulf states are not siding with Israel against Iran, they are not lining up against Israel either. The UAE has maintained its diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, to the point of keeping regular flights to Tel Aviv from Dubai and Abu Dhabi—even in the early days of the war, when the planes were nearly empty. (“Business as usual,” one Israeli businessman put it to me in January.) When I spoke off the record with an Emirati official, his talking points could have come from a hawkish Israeli. Bahrain has seen anti-Israeli protests, and its toothless parliament passed a symbolic resolution about severing ties with Israel, but its regime has ignored all that. The Saudis are still in a hurry to do their own normalization deal with Israel before the November election. The Palestinian cause is back on the agenda, at a cost of tens of thousands of dead, but it hardly seems to have advanced.

The region finds itself in an interregnum. Forget talk of unipolarity or multipolarity: the Middle East is nonpolar. No one is in charge. The United States is an uninterested, ineffective hegemon, and its great-power rivals even more so. Fragile Gulf states cannot fill the void; Israel cannot, either; and Iran can only play spoiler and troublemaker. Everyone else is a spectator beset by economic problems and crises of legitimacy. That was the reality even before October 7. The war has merely swept away illusions.


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