Has the US really withdrawn from the Middle East?

The short answer is that it hasn't, and Washington must do more to correct this misconception

USS Jason Dunham and ENS Alexandria conduct exercises during the International Maritime Exercise in Red Sea in February. Reuters
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One of the more enduring narratives over the past few years has been America's supposed withdrawal from the Middle East and North Africa. It's a recurring theme in media reports and analyses, and often seeps into debates and discussions. But there appears to be plenty of daylight between perception and reality. And the fact of the matter is, the US's business, academic, cultural, military and diplomatic partners in the region understand all too well that America has stayed. They also know how important it is for America to remain.

Let's first examine the evidence.

There are more than 1,200 American companies in Egypt alone, in energy, IT, agriculture, health care, consumer products, tourism and transport. Corporations are also thriving, most notably, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where the likes of Amoco, Halliburton and Exxon and AES are well known. There are literally hundreds of companies spread across the region. Much like Americans helped develop companies such as Saudi Aramco, for example, they continue working with their Arab partners to develop jobs, businesses and the region’s economies.

US institutions of higher learning educate and train the present and future leaders of the region, as they have in the past, including Johns Hopkins, Yale, Georgetown, Harvard, Stanford, Yale and several more. Many of the region's top business and political leaders are graduates of US educational institutions. All of those I have met have got many a positive out of their time in the country and from its institutions.

Many of my former students at the American University in Cairo, another significant US-Arab joint venture, are top businesspeople, diplomats, senior government officials, including one minister, and in other leadership posts. Georgetown, where I taught for years, has a thriving campus in Qatar. Other US colleges and universities in the area include Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell-Weill Medical College, and NYU Abu Dhabi.

It is important for US administrations to remind themselves, and the rest of the world, of America's deep integration with the Mena region

Several US medical research institutes collaborate with their counterparts in the region, such as Cedar-Sinai Medical Institutes and the Dubai Harvard Centre for Medical Research. Branches of some of the top American hospitals can be found in the Arab world, such as the Cleveland Clinic. MIT collaborates with Masdar in energy and environment. This is important to point out because scientific and intellectual collaborations between US universities and scholars with those in the Middle East are essential bridges, many of which have been around for a long time. And they will remain. More will be developed.

The US also has training programmes that the region’s militaries take advantage of. And they are always welcome.

The "American withdrawal" narrative is most potent around two issues: security and energy.

The US's commitment to a secure Mena has been a source of concern ever since Washington began promoting a "Pivot to East Asia" policy more than a decade ago, in the face of a rising China. Yet, it is sometimes forgotten that the US conducts joint military exercises with several Arab militaries, such as “Eagle Resolve", “Nautical Defender", “Native Fury", “Hercules 2”. The International Maritime Exercise, it's worth pointing out, included 60 countries. There will be many more such exercises in the future.

The US is engaged and will remain committed to engaging in protecting, with its Arab partners and others, the vital sea lanes of the region, including – but not limited to – the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, Bab Al Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Arabian Gulf, as well as the connecting trade and communications routes in the Indian Ocean. Americans and Arabs have strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea, too.

When it comes to energy, the argument has firmer legs to stand on. After all, the US is importing less oil and gas from the region primarily due to its success in shale oil and shale gas, which is about 70 per cent of its production. However, many of America's allies and trading partners rely increasingly on regional energy. Washington's efforts, along with its Arab partners, to keep the trade routes safe and open are geared towards global trade and investment, not just US trade and investment.

It is important for US administrations, irrespective of which party is in power, to remind themselves, and the rest of the world, of America's deep integration with the Mena region, for two reasons: one, to dispel a notion that is riddled with inaccuracies; and two, to foster healthy competition with a Beijing that is increasingly interested in the region.

Relationships need renewal from time to time, and increasing competition from China and others should prompt the US and US companies, hospitals, educational institutions, and more to think about future strategies. The Covid-19 pandemic got in the way of some joint ventures and collaborations. The 2011 Arab uprisings also disrupted parts of some US-Arab partnerships and joint ventures.

Moreover, it is true that far fewer US students are going to the Middle East than before 2011. They were never near the number of Arab students who came to the US. And Arab students are, and should always be, welcome to the US to study. But more effort must be made to develop a greater two-way flow of students. This could develop further relations, investment, understandings, and actions between the US and the Arab world in the future. To create better future relations, younger people – and not just the senior leaders – need to be involved.

A number of changes have occurred in the region over the past decades. American companies and other institutions, including the government, must understand and be sensitive to these events if they hope to prosper.

Many Arab views of America have changed drastically since the early days of then US president Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with the King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on February 14, 1945. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the sloppy exit from Afghanistan last year, and the perception of a supposed withdrawal from the region have undermined its otherwise positive relations with the region and its peoples.

Americans and the Arabs can undoubtedly benefit from continuing relations at many levels and in many fields. Washington is still in the region and will remain in the region. And whether they realise it or not, America and the Arab world are natural allies and partners, and long may their alliances and partnerships continue.

Published: December 29, 2022, 4:00 AM