BEIRUT: The Pentagon’s decision to pull military hardware out from the Middle East may be driving headlines, but regional experts say the moves do not actually amount a major strategic shift in the region.
However, the moves could lead to local governments investing more heavily in high-end air defense systems that have previously been provided by American forces in the region.
Last month, Washington announced that it is reducing eight Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq, as well as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the Kingdom, while accelerating the withdrawal of US troops from the region.
Those moves represent more of a repositioning of American assets than a political withdrawal and “does not reflect any political orientation similar to the one to withdraw troops from Afghanistan,” according to strategic expert and political researcher Abdullah Al Jenaid.
Washington is looking to reduce its military footprint in the region, specifically in the Gulf, because “it has a lot going on already, from dealing with in-house political and economic challenges to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” said retired Kuwaiti Air Force Col. Zafer Alajmi.
The American military presence is not the only way to secure its interests in the region, but an effective diplomatic approach can yield fruitful results. “The US is shifting to soft rather than hard power when dealing with Middle Eastern conflicts,” Alajmi said “So, in fact, there is no policy shift here, but rather a preference that is couched in political terms.”
The change also reflects a shift to focus on countering China and Russia as the main threats of the future. “The US is moving away from the wars of the past in the Middle East to concentrate on its strategic objectives,” Alajmi added.
He suggested that in place of purely American forces, NATO may be willing to put a heavier presence in the region.
“The alternative is someone who has military bases and centers in the region and with whom we share security agreements and buy weapons from,” Alajmi said. “It is not a state but rather a military structure, namely the NATO, however only achievable when the Istanbul initiative is fully developed.”
The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) is a NATO initiative that was launched during the organization’s 2004 Istanbul summit. During the summit, NATO leaders decided to elevate the Alliance’s Mediterranean Dialogue to a genuine partnership and to launch the ICI with selected countries in the broader region of the Middle East.
The initiative helps to engage in practical security cooperation activities with states throughout the Greater Middle East, and offers practical cooperation in areas like counterterrorism, promoting military interoperability, counter-WDM and participation in NATO exercises.
In the meantime, China is carefully watching Washington’s gradual military withdrawal not only from Afghanistan, but from the region, Khattar Abou Diab, professor of geopolitical sciences at the Paris Centre for Geopolitics, told me.
“While China cannot envision filling the military vacuum that Washington will leave, it is likely that Beijing will activate the elements of its soft power by consolidating and intensifying economic exchanges and investments,” he said. “Thus, the so-called greater Middle East will be at the center of the conflicts of the US-Chinese-Russian trio, and the regional powers will have to position themselves accordingly.”
Hence, it has become clear that the Middle East is likely to enter a quiet transitional phase compared to the previous ones, “especially if the understandings of regulating disputes are linked to dynamics that could pave the way to stop the deterioration, and form a more stable regional map,” he added.
America’s drawdown in the region could drive local countries to be more self-sufficient when it comes to the defense sector.
Many nations “already have extensive experience in using the advanced weapons at hand, while the quantity and quality of existing weapons have doubled, especially in the Gulf area,” Alajmi explained. “Not to mention the massive growth of local defense companies and localization aspirations for the years to come.”
Recently, the General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI), a Saudi defense industry corporation, announced that it has increased the localization rate fourfold at an early stage of their nascent military industry.
“We expect to enable exponential growth in the next few years, as the industry reaches its full maturity with the support of GAMI and our partners in the sector,” H.E. Governor Ahmad A AlOhali said during a June 23 US-Saudi Business Council webinar on “Understanding Saudi Arabia’s Military Sector Strategy.” The event was organized to provide US company representatives with an understanding of the Kingdom’s defense and security sector.
“Any interested investor is most welcome to invest in Saudi Arabia with 100% foreign ownership and they will be given the same opportunities, incentives and obligations as local companies,” AlOhali concluded.
In what would have seemed impossible even 18 months ago, another source of regional defense systems may be ready to break into the Arab nations.
Back in January, Israeli outlets reported that the country agreed to let the US deploy the Iron Dome missile defense systems in its military bases in the Gulf.
“It is still not certain whether the Israeli weapons will be used in the Arab region, especially since the normalization has only taken place with the UAE and Bahrain so far,” explained retired Lebanese Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb.
Yet, the fact that the Pentagon moved Israel into Central Command to boost cooperation with Arab states, could be “a prelude to integrating Israeli air systems in the region to form a missile shield, whether against Iran or even China on the long run,” he said.
Initial indications are that Israel is at least open to the idea. In a November interview with Defense News, Moshe Patel, the head of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization, noted that “since we have the same enemies, maybe we are going to have some mutual interests. I think that there is a potential to enlarge our defense partnership in the future with countries like the UAE and Bahrain.
“I think that this could happen, of course in the future. There will be more military partnerships. But again, nothing that could happen tomorrow. It’s something that needs to be processed step by step.”
As America Moves Air Defenses From Middle East, Will Local Partners Step Up? – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Chyrine Mezher for breakingdefense.com