Middle East

Assessing the Global Operating Environment

Middle East

Nov 17, 2020 About an hour read

Environment Middle East
The Heritage Foundation

Luke Coffey and Nicole Robinson

Strategically situated at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East has long been an important focus of United States foreign policy. U.S. security relationships in the region are built on pragmatism, shared security concerns, and economic interests, including large sales of U.S. arms to countries in the region to help them defend themselves. The U.S. also has a long-term interest in the Middle East that derives from the region’s economic importance as the world’s primary source of oil and gas.

The region is home to a wide array of cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, including Arabs, Jews, Kurds, Persians, and Turks, among others. It also is home to the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as well as many smaller religions like the Bahá’í, Druze, Yazidi, and Zoroastrian faiths. The region contains many predominantly Muslim countries as well as the world’s only Jewish state.

The Middle East is deeply sectarian, and these long-standing divisions, exacerbated by the constant vying for power by religious extremists, are central to many of the challenges that the region faces today. In some cases, these sectarian divides go back centuries. Contemporary conflicts, however, have less to do with these histories than they do with modern extremist ideologies and the fact that today’s borders often do not reflect cultural, ethnic, or religious realities. Instead, they are often the results of decisions taken by the British, French, and other powers during and soon after World War I as they dismantled the Ottoman Empire.1

In a way not understood by many in the West, religion remains a prominent fact of daily life in the modern Middle East. At the heart of many of the region’s conflicts is the friction within Islam between Sunnis and Shias. This friction dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.2 Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of the world’s Muslim population, hold power in most of the Arab countries in the Middle East.

Viewing the Middle East’s current instability through the lens of a Sunni–Shia conflict, however, does not show the full picture. The cultural and historical division between Arabs and Persians has reinforced the Sunni–Shia split. The mutual distrust between many Sunni Arab powers and Iran, the Persian Shia power, compounded by clashing national and ideological interests, has fueled instability in such countries as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. The COVID-19 coronavirus exposed Sunni–Shia tensions when Sunni countries in the region blamed “Shia backwardness,” likely referencing the licking of religious shrines, as the reason for the rapid spread of the virus in Iran.3 Sunni extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) have exploited sectarian and ethnic tensions to gain support by posing as champions of Sunni Arabs against Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime and other non-Sunni governments and movements.

Regional demographic trends also are destabilizing factors. The Middle East contains one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing populations. In most of the West, this would be viewed as an advantage, but not in the Middle East. Known as “youth bulges,” these demographic tsunamis have overwhelmed many countries’ inadequate political, economic, and educational infrastructures, and the lack of access to education, jobs, and meaningful political participation fuels discontent. Because almost two-thirds of the region’s inhabitants are less than 30 years old, this demographic bulge will continue to have a substantial effect on political stability across the region.4

The Middle East contains more than half of the world’s oil reserves and is the world’s chief oil-exporting region.5 As the world’s largest producer and consumer of oil,6 the U.S., even though it actually imports relatively little of its oil from the Middle East, has a vested interest in maintaining the free flow of oil and gas from the region. Oil is a fungible commodity, and the U.S. economy remains vulnerable to sudden spikes in world oil prices. During the COVID-19 crisis, oil prices plunged to below zero in April 2020 after stay-at-home orders caused a severe imbalance between supply and demand. This unprecedented drop in demand sparked an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. U.S. oil producers were forced to cut back production, and “[i]f prices don’t regain stability, analysts’ biggest fear is that the U.S. energy sector won’t be able to bounce back.”7 In the Middle East, the plummet in oil prices will cause significant shocks. Exporters that are heavily dependent on oil revenues will experience a decline in gross domestic product (GDP), and importers will suffer from reduced foreign investment, remittances, tourism, and grants from exporters.8

Because many U.S. allies depend on Middle East oil and gas, there is also a second-order effect for the U.S. if supply from the Middle East is reduced or compromised. For example, Japan is both the world’s third-largest economy and second-largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG).9 The U.S. itself might not be dependent on Middle East oil or LNG, but the economic consequences arising from a major disruption of supplies would ripple across the globe.

Financial and logistics hubs are also growing along some of the world’s busiest transcontinental trade routes. One of the region’s economic bright spots in terms of trade and commerce is in the Persian Gulf. The emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with Qatar, are competing to become the region’s top financial center.

The economic situation in the Middle East is part of what drives the political environment. The lack of economic freedom was an important factor leading to the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in early 2011 and disrupted economic activity, depressed foreign and domestic investment, and slowed economic growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have massive repercussions for the entire region, affecting economies and possibly shaking political systems in the aftermath of the crisis.10 For example, the pandemic is likely to exacerbate Lebanon’s political instability, fuel conflict between rival political factions competing to secure scarce medical resources for their supporters, and aggravate tensions between Lebanese citizens and desperate refugees who have flooded in from neighboring Syria. Iraq faces similar challenges. Newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will have to address the crippling economic crisis and social unrest while also managing the brewing conflict between Iran and the United States.11

The political environment has a direct bearing on how easily the U.S. military can operate in a region. In many Middle Eastern countries, the political situation remains fraught with uncertainty. The Arab Spring uprisings (2010–2012) formed a sandstorm that eroded the foundations of many authoritarian regimes, erased borders, and destabilized many countries in the region.12 Yet the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen did not usher in a new era of democracy and liberal rule, as many in the West were hoping. At best, they made slow progress toward democratic reform; at worst, they added to political instability, exacerbated economic problems, and contributed to the rise of Islamist extremists.

Today, the economic and political outlooks remain bleak. In some cases, self-interested elites have prioritized regime survival over real investment in human capital, exacerbating the material deprivation of youth in the region as unresolved issues of endemic corruption, high unemployment, and the rising cost of living have worsened. Frustrated with the lack of progress, large-scale protests re-emerged in 2019 in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, and other countries.13 The protests in Lebanon and Iraq could even affect the operational environment for U.S. forces in the region.14

There is no shortage of security challenges for the U.S. and its allies in this region. Using the breathing space and funding afforded by the July 14, 2015, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),15 for example, Iran has exacerbated Shia–Sunni tensions to increase its influence on embattled regimes and has undermined adversaries in Sunni-led states. In May 2018, the Trump Administration left the JCPOA after European allies failed to address many of its serious flaws including its sunset clauses.16 A year later, in May 2019, Iran announced that it was withdrawing from certain aspects of the JCPOA.17 Since then, U.S. economic sanctions have been crippling Iran’s economy as part of the U.S. Administration’s “Maximum Pressure Campaign” meant to force changes in Iran’s behavior, particularly with regard to its support of terrorist organizations and refusal to renounce a nascent nuclear weapons program.18

While many of America’s European allies publicly denounced the Administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, most officials agree privately that the agreement is flawed and needs to be fixed. America’s allies in the Middle East, including Israel and most Gulf Arab states, supported the U.S. decision and welcomed a harder line against the Iranian regime.19

Tehran attempts to run an unconventional empire by exerting great influence on sub-state entities like Hamas (the Palestinian territories); Hezbollah (Lebanon); the Mahdi movement (Iraq); and the Houthi insurgents (Yemen). The Iranian Quds Force, the special-operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has orchestrated the formation, arming, training, and operations of these sub-state entities as well as other surrogate militias. These Iran-backed militias have carried out terrorist campaigns against U.S. forces and allies in the region for many years. On January 2, 2020, President Trump ordered an air strike that killed General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iraqi Shia paramilitary group, who were responsible for carrying out attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, Tehran’s influence on some Shiite groups is such that thousands have volunteered to fight for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.20 Iran also provided arms to the Taliban after it was ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition21 and has long considered the Afghan city of Herat, near the Afghan–Iranian border, to be within its sphere of influence.

Iran already looms large over its weak and divided Arab rivals. Iraq and Syria have been destabilized by insurgencies and civil war and may never fully recover; Egypt is distracted by its own internal problems, economic imbalances, and the Islamist extremist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula; and Jordan has been inundated by a flood of Syrian refugees and is threatened by the spillover of Islamist extremist groups from Syria.22 Meanwhile, Tehran has continued to build up its missile arsenal, now the largest in the Middle East; has intervened to prop up the Assad regime in Syria; and supports Shiite Islamist revolutionaries in Yemen and Bahrain.23

In Syria, the Assad regime’s brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations early in 2011 ignited a fierce civil war that has led to the deaths of more than half a million people in addition to displacing more than 5.6 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt and millions more people internally within Syria.24 The large refugee populations created by this civil war could become a reservoir of potential recruits for extremist groups. The Islamist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formally known as the al-Qaeda–affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and before that as the al-Nusra Front) and the self-styled Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL and before that as al-Qaeda in Iraq), for example, used the power vacuum created by the war to carve out extensive sanctuaries where they built proto-states and trained militants from a wide variety of other Arab countries, Central Asia, Russia, Europe, Australia, and the United States.25

At the height of its power, with a sophisticated Internet and social media presence and by capitalizing on the civil war in Syria and sectarian divisions in Iraq, the IS was able to recruit over 25,000 fighters from outside the region to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters included thousands from Western countries, including the United States. In 2014, the U.S. announced the formation of a broad international coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Early in 2019, the territorial “caliphate” had been destroyed by a U.S.-led coalition of international partners.

Arab–Israeli tensions are another source of instability in the region. The repeated breakdown of Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations has created an even more antagonistic situation. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that has controlled Gaza since 2007, seeks to transform the conflict from a national struggle over sovereignty and territory into a religious conflict in which compromise is denounced as blasphemy. Hamas invokes jihad in its struggle against Israel and seeks to destroy the Jewish state and replace it with an Islamic state.

Important Alliances and Bilateral Relations in the Middle East

The U.S. has strong military, security, intelligence, and diplomatic ties with several Middle Eastern nations, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).26 Because the historical and political circumstances that led to the creation of NATO have largely been absent in the Middle East, the region lacks a similarly strong collective security organization.

When it came into office, the Trump Administration proposed the idea of a multilateral Middle East Strategic Alliance with its Arab partners.27 The initial U.S. concept, which included security, economic cooperation, and conflict resolution and deconfliction, generated considerable enthusiasm, but the project was sidelined by a diplomatic dispute involving Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.28 Middle Eastern countries traditionally have preferred to maintain bilateral relationships with the U.S. and generally have shunned multilateral arrangements because of the lack of trust among Arab states.

This lack of trust manifested itself in June 2017 when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and several other Muslim-majority countries cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Qatar after Doha was accused of supporting terrorism in the region.29 All commercial land, air, and sea travel between Qatar and these nations has been severed, and Qatari diplomats and citizens have been evicted. Discussions between Qatar and GCC members to resolve the dispute began in October 2019 but broke down in February 2020. Political tensions among the Gulf States remain high.30

This is only the most recent example of how regional tensions can transcend the Arab–Iranian or Israeli–Palestinian debate. In 2014, several Arab states recalled their ambassadors to Qatar to protest Doha’s support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement.31 It took eight months for the parties involved to resolve this dispute so that relations could be fully restored. In addition, Qatar has long supported Muslim Brotherhood groups, as well as questionable Islamist factions in Syria and Libya, and has often been viewed as too close to Iran, a major adversary of Sunni Arab states in the Gulf.

Bilateral and multilateral relations in the region, especially with the U.S. and other Western countries, are often made more difficult by their secretive nature. It is not unusual for governments in this region to see value (and sometimes necessity) in pursuing a relationship with the U.S. while having to account for domestic opposition to working with America: hence the perceived need for secrecy. The opaqueness of these relationships sometimes creates problems for the U.S. when it tries to coordinate defense and security cooperation with European allies (mainly the United Kingdom and France) that are active in the region.

Military training is an important part of these relationships. The principal motivations behind these exercises are to ensure close and effective coordination with key regional partners, demonstrate an enduring U.S. security commitment to regional allies, and train Arab armed forces so that they can assume a larger share of responsibility for regional security.

Israel. America’s most important bilateral relationship in the Middle East is with Israel. Both countries are democracies, value free-market economies, and believe in human rights at a time when many Middle Eastern countries reject those values. With support from the United States, Israel has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated air and missile defense networks.32 No significant progress on peace negotiations with the Palestinians or on stabilizing Israel’s volatile neighborhood is possible without a strong and effective Israeli–American partnership.

After years of strained relations during the Obama Administration, ties between the U.S. and Israel improved significantly during the first two years of the Trump Administration. In May 2018, the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to a location in western Jerusalem.33 On January 28, 2020, President Trump unveiled his Israeli–Palestinian peace proposal.34 The plan accords a high priority to Israeli security needs, recognizes Israel’s vital interest in retaining control of the border with Jordan, and clears the way for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over many settlements and Jewish holy sites in the disputed territory of the West Bank.35

Saudi Arabia. After Israel, the U.S. military relationship is deepest with the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, which serves as de facto leader of the GCC. America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is based on pragmatism and is important for both security and economic reasons, but it has come under intense strain since the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, allegedly by Saudi security services, in Turkey in 2018.

The Saudis enjoy huge influence across the Muslim world, and roughly 2 million Muslims participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Riyadh has been a key partner in efforts to counterbalance Iran. The U.S. is also the largest provider of arms to Saudi Arabia and regularly, if not controversially, sells munitions needed to resupply stockpiles expended in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.

Gulf Cooperation Council. The countries of the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) are located close to the Arab–Persian fault line and are therefore strategically important to the U.S.36 The root of Arab–Iranian tensions in the Gulf is Tehran’s ideological drive to export its Islamist revolution and overthrow the traditional rulers of the Arab kingdoms. This ideological clash has further amplified long-standing sectarian tensions between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam. Tehran has sought to radicalize Shia Arab minority groups to undermine Sunni Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. It also sought to incite revolts by the Shia majorities in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s regime and in Bahrain against the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty. Culturally, many Iranians look down on the Gulf States, many of which they see as artificial entities carved out of the former Persian Empire and propped up by Western powers.

The GCC’s member countries often have difficulty agreeing on a common policy with respect to matters of security. This reflects both the organization’s intergovernmental nature and its members’ desire to place national interests above those of the GCC. The recent dispute regarding Qatar illustrates this difficulty.

Another source of disagreement involves the question of how best to deal with Iran. On one end of the spectrum, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE take a hawkish view of the threat from Iran. Oman and Qatar, the former of which prides itself on its regional neutrality and the latter of which shares natural gas fields with Iran, view Iran’s activities in the region as less of a threat and maintain cordial relations with Tehran. Kuwait tends to fall somewhere in the middle. Intra-GCC relations also can be problematic.

Egypt. Egypt is another important U.S. military ally. As one of only two Arab countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel (the other is Jordan), Egypt is closely enmeshed in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and remains a leading political, diplomatic, and military power in the region.

Relations between the U.S. and Egypt have been problematic since the 2011 downfall of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012 and used the Islamist-dominated parliament to pass a constitution that advanced an Islamist agenda. Morsi’s authoritarian rule, combined with rising popular dissatisfaction with falling living standards, rampant crime, and high unemployment, led to a massive wave of protests in June 2013 that prompted a military coup in July. The leader of the coup, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, pledged to restore democracy and was elected president in 2014 and again in 2018 in elections that many considered to be neither free nor fair.

Sisi’s government faces major political, economic, and security challenges. Rare anti-government protests broke out for two weeks in September 2018 despite a ban on demonstrations, and waves of arrests and detainments followed in a massive crackdown that shut down protests.37 The demonstrations exposed Egypt’s tenuous stability, and support for President Sisi appears to be waning.

Quality of Armed Forces in the Region

The quality and capabilities of the region’s armed forces are mixed. Some countries spend billions of dollars each year on advanced Western military hardware; others spend very little. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Saudi Arabia is by far the largest military spender in the region, with an estimated total of $61.9 billion in 2019.”38 If defense spending is measured as a percentage of GDP, the leader in the region is Oman, which spent 8.8 per cent of its GDP on the military in 2019, followed closely by Saudi Arabia at 8.0 percent.39

Historically, figures on defense spending for the Middle East have been very unreliable, and the lack of data has worsened. For 2019, there were no available data for Qatar, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen according to the SIPRI.40

Different security factors drive the degree to which Middle Eastern countries fund, train, and arm their militaries. For Israel, which fought and defeated Arab coalitions in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982, the chief potential threats to its existence are now posed by an Iranian regime that has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”41 States and non-state actors in the region have responded to Israel’s military dominance by investing in asymmetric and unconventional capabilities to offset its military superiority.42 For the Gulf States, the main driver of defense policy is the Iranian military threat combined with internal security challenges; for Iraq, it is the internal threat posed by insurgents and terrorists.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are considered to be one of the most capable military forces in the Middle East. Recently, Iran and other Arab countries have spent billions of dollars in an effort to catch up with Israel, and the result has been an arms race that could threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Iran is steadily improving its missile capabilities and could soon have access to the global arms trade if the U.N. conventional arms embargo is allowed to expire as scheduled in October 2020.43 In response, other Arab countries are “procuring and upgrading cutting-edge U.S., Russian and European systems in bulk, including amphibious assault ships, missile boats, submarines, multirole fighter aircraft, precision munitions, air and missile defenses as well as radar and cyber technologies.”44

Israel funds its military sector heavily and has a strong national industrial capacity supported by significant funding from the U.S. Combined, these factors give Israel a regional advantage despite limitations of manpower and size. In particular, the IDF has focused on maintaining its superiority in missile defense, intelligence collection, precision weapons, and cyber technologies.45 The Israelis regard their cyber capabilities as especially important and use cyber technologies for a number of purposes, including defending Israeli cyberspace, gathering intelligence, and carrying out attacks.46

Israel maintains its qualitative superiority in medium-range and long-range missile capabilities and fields effective missile defense systems, including Iron Dome and Arrow, both of which the U.S. helped to finance. Israel also has a nuclear weapons capability (which it does not publicly acknowledge) that increases its strength relative to other powers in the region and has helped to deter adversaries as the gap in conventional capabilities has been reduced.

After Israel, the most technologically advanced and best-equipped armed forces are found in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Previously, the export of oil and gas meant that there was no shortage of resources to devote to defense spending, but the collapse of crude oil prices has forced oil-exporting countries to adjust their defense spending patterns. At present, however, GCC nations still have the region’s best-funded (even if not necessarily the most effective) Arab armed forces. All GCC members boast advanced defense hardware that reflects a preference for U.S., U.K., and French equipment.

Saudi Arabia maintains the GCC’s most capable military force. It has an army of 75,000 soldiers and a National Guard of 100,000 personnel reporting directly to the king. The army operates 900 main battle tanks including 370 U.S.-made M1A2s. Its air force is built around American-built and British-built aircraft and consists of more than 429 combat-capable aircraft including F-15s, Tornados, and Typhoons.47

In fact, air power is the strong suit of most GCC members. Oman operates F-16s and Typhoons. In 2018, the U.S. government awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.12 billion contract to produce 16 new F-16 Block 70 aircraft (Lockheed Martin’s newest and most advanced F-16 production configuration) for the Royal Bahraini Air Force.48 Qatar operates French-made Mirage fighters and is buying 24 Typhoons from the U.K.49

Middle Eastern countries have shown a willingness to use their military capability under certain and limited circumstances. The navies of the GCC members rarely deploy beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones, but Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have participated in and in some cases have commanded Combined Task Force 152, formed in 2004 to maintain maritime security in the Persian Gulf.50 Since 2001, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE have supplied troops to the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan. The UAE and Qatar deployed fighters to participate in NATO-led operations over Libya in 2011, although they did not participate in strike operations. All six GCC members also joined the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, albeit to varying degrees, with the UAE contributing the most in terms of air power.51 Air strikes in Syria by members of the GCC ended in 2017.

With 438,500 active personnel and 479,000 reserve personnel, Egypt has the largest Arab military force in the Middle East.52 It possesses a fully operational military with an army, air force, air defense, navy, and special operations forces. Until 1979, when the U.S. began to supply Egypt with military equipment, Cairo relied primarily on less capable Soviet military technology.53 Since then, its army and air force have been significantly upgraded with U.S. military weapons, equipment, and warplanes.

Egypt has struggled with increased terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula, including attacks on Egyptian soldiers, attacks on foreign tourists, and the October 2015 bombing of a Russian airliner departing from the Sinai. The Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” terrorist group has claimed responsibility for all of these actions.54

Jordan is a close U.S. ally and has small but effective military forces. The principal threats to its security include terrorism, turbulence spilling over from Syria and Iraq, and the resulting flow of refugees. While Jordan faces few conventional threats from its neighbors, its internal security is threatened by Islamist extremists returning from fighting in the region who have been emboldened by the growing influence of al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants. As a result, Jordan’s highly professional armed forces have focused in recent years on border and internal security.

Considering Jordan’s size, its conventional capability is significant. Jordan’s ground forces total 86,000 soldiers and include 100 British-made Challenger 1 tanks. Forty-seven F-16 Fighting Falcons form the backbone if its air force,55 and its special operations forces are highly capable, having benefitted from extensive U.S. and U.K. training. Jordanian forces have served in Afghanistan and in numerous U.N.-led peacekeeping operations.

Iraq has fielded one of the region’s most dysfunctional military forces. After the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iraq’s government selected and promoted military leaders according to political criteria.56 Shiite army officers were favored over their Sunni, Christian, and Kurdish counterparts, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chose top officers according to their political loyalties. Politicization of the armed forces also exacerbated corruption within many units, with some commanders siphoning off funds allocated for “ghost soldiers” who never existed or had been separated from the army for various reasons.57 It is unclear whether new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will follow the same model, but both the Iranian foreign minister and the United States have welcomed the appointment.58

The promotion of incompetent military leaders, poor logistical support due to corruption and other problems, limited operational mobility, and weaknesses in intelligence, reconnaissance, medical support, and air force capabilities have combined to weaken the effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces. In June 2014, for example, the collapse of up to four divisions that were routed by vastly smaller numbers of Islamic State fighters led to the fall of Mosul.59 The U.S. and its allies responded with a massive training program for the Iraqi military that led to the liberation of Mosul on July 9, 2017.60

Current U.S. Military Presence in the Middle East

Before 1980, the limited U.S. military presence in the Middle East consisted chiefly of a small naval force that had been based at Bahrain since 1958. The U.S. “twin pillar” strategy relied on prerevolutionary Iran and Saudi Arabia to take the lead in defending the Persian Gulf from the Soviet Union and its client regimes in Iraq, Syria, and South Yemen,61 but the 1979 Iranian revolution demolished one pillar, and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan increased the Soviet threat to the Gulf.

In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed in a commitment known as the Carter Doctrine that the United States would take military action to defend oil-rich Persian Gulf States from external aggression. In 1980, he ordered the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), the precursor to U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), which was established in January 1983.62

Up until the late 1980s, America’s “regional strategy still largely focused on the potential threat of a massive Soviet invasion of Iran.”63 After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime became the chief threat to regional stability. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and the United States responded in January 1991 by leading an international coalition of more than 30 nations to expel Saddam’s forces from Kuwait. CENTCOM commanded the U.S. contribution of more than 532,000 military personnel to the coalition’s armed forces, which totaled at least 737,000.64 This marked the peak U.S. force deployment in the Middle East.

Confrontations with Iraq continued throughout the 1990s as Iraq continued to violate the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire. Baghdad’s failure to cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors to verify the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction and its links to terrorism led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. During the initial invasion, U.S. forces reached nearly 192,000,65 joined by military personnel from coalition forces. Apart from the “surge” in 2007, when President George W. Bush deployed an additional 30,000 personnel, the number of American combat forces in Iraq fluctuated between 100,000 and 150,000.66

In December 2011, the U.S. officially completed its withdrawal of troops, leaving only 150 personnel attached to the U.S. embassy in Iraq.67 In the aftermath of IS territorial gains in Iraq, however, the U.S. redeployed thousands of troops to the country to assist Iraqi forces against IS and help build Iraqi capabilities. Despite calls from the Iraqi parliament to expel U.S. troops after the January 2020 air strike that killed General Qassem Suleimani, U.S. forces remain in Iraq and have “consolidated their basing” and “deployed new missile defenses.”68 Today, approximately 5,200 U.S. troops are based in Iraq. Escalating attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. forces in 2020 could influence future troop deployment.69

In addition, the U.S. continues to maintain a limited number of forces in other locations in the Middle East, primarily in GCC countries. Rising naval tensions in the Persian Gulf prompted additional deployments of troops, Patriot missile batteries, and combat aircraft to the Gulf in late 2019 to deter Iran, although reductions in U.S. forces were subsequently announced in May 2020.70 The move might indicate a shifting strategy to counter Iran or an assessment by U.S. officials of a reduced risk as Iran continues to mitigate the economic and political effects of COVID-19.

Currently, tens of thousands of U.S. troops are serving in the region. “Due to the fluctuating nature of U.S. military operations in the region,” according to one study, “it is not possible to put together a complete picture of the entirety of U.S. forces’ deployment.”71 Nevertheless, information gleaned from open sources reveals the following:

  • Kuwait. Over 16,000 U.S. personnel are based in Kuwait and are spread among Camp Arifjan, Ahmad al-Jabir Air Base, and Ali al-Salem Air Base. A large depot of prepositioned equipment and a squadron of fighters and Patriot missile systems are also deployed to Kuwait.72
  • UAE. About 4,000 U.S. personnel are deployed at Jebel Ali port, Al Dhafra Air Base, and naval facilities at Fujairah. Jebel Ali port is the U.S. Navy’s busiest port of call for aircraft carriers. U.S. Air Force personnel who are stationed in the UAE use Al Dhafra Air Base to operate fighters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), refueler aircraft, and surveillance aircraft. The United States also has regularly deployed F-22 Raptor combat aircraft to Al Dhafra and recently deployed the F-35 combat aircraft because of escalating tensions with Iran. Patriot missile systems are deployed for air and missile defense.73
  • Oman. In 1980, Oman became the first Gulf State to welcome a U.S. military base. Today, it provides important access in the form of over 5,000 aircraft overflights, 600 aircraft landings, and 80 port calls annually. The number of U.S. military personnel in Oman has fallen to about 200, mostly from the U.S. Air Force. According to the Congressional Research Service, “the United States reportedly can use—with advance notice and for specified purposes—Oman’s military airfields in Muscat (the capital), Thumrait, Masirah Island, and Musnanah,” as well as (pursuant to a March 2019 Strategic framework Agreement) the ports of Al Duqm and Salalah.74
  • Bahrain. Approximately 5,000 U.S. military personnel are based in Bahrain. Bahrain is home to Naval Support Activity Bahrain and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, so most U.S. military personnel there belong to the U.S. Navy. A significant number of U.S. Air Force personnel operate out of Shaykh Isa Air Base, where F-16s, F/A-18s, and P-8 surveillance aircraft are stationed. U.S. Patriot missile systems also are deployed to Bahrain. The deep-water port of Khalifa bin Salman is one of the few facilities in the Gulf that can accommodate U.S. aircraft carriers.75
  • Saudi Arabia. The U.S. withdrew the bulk of its forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003. After the October 2019 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil and natural gas facilities, the U.S. Defense Department deployed 3,000 additional troops and sent radar and missile systems to improve air defenses, an air expeditionary wing to support fighter aircraft, and two fighter squadrons in an effort to deter future attacks.76 This large-scale military buildup to counter Iran was reduced in May 2020 after the U.S. removed two Patriot missile batteries and dozens of troops that were deployed during the troop buildup.77 The six-decade-old United States Military Training Mission to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the four-decade-old Office of the Program Manager of the Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program, and the Office of the Program Manager–Facilities Security Force are based in Eskan Village Air Base approximately 13 miles south of the capital city of Riyadh.78
  • Qatar. Approximately 10,000 U.S. personnel, mainly from the U.S. Air Force, are deployed in Qatar.79 The U.S. operates its Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, which is one of the world’s most important U.S. air bases. It is also the base from which the anti-ISIS campaign was headquartered. Heavy bombers, tankers, transports, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) aircraft operate from Al Udeid Air Base, which also serves as the forward headquarters of CENTCOM. The base houses prepositioned U.S. military equipment and is defended by U.S. Patriot missile systems. So far, the recent diplomatic moves by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states against Doha have not affected the United States’ relationship with Qatar.
  • Jordan. According to CENTCOM, Jordan “is one of [America’s] strongest and most reliable partners in the Levant sub-region.”80 Although there are no U.S. military bases in Jordan, the U.S. has a long history of conducting training exercises in the country. Due to recent events in neighboring Syria, in addition to other military assets like fighter jets and air defense systems, “approximately 2,910 U.S. military personnel are deployed to Jordan.”81

CENTCOM “directs and enables military operations and activities with allies and partners to increase regional security and stability in support of enduring U.S. interests.”82 Execution of this mission is supported by four service component commands (U.S. Naval Forces Middle East [USNAVCENT]; U.S. Army Forces Middle East [USARCENT]; U.S. Air Forces Middle East [USAFCENT]; and U.S. Marine Forces Middle East [MARCENT]) and one subordinate unified command (U.S. Special Operations Command Middle East [SOCCENT]).

  • U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. USNAVCENT is the maritime component of USCENTCOM. With its forward headquarters in Bahrain, it is responsible for commanding the afloat units that rotationally deploy or surge from the United States in addition to other ships that are based in the Gulf for longer periods. USNAVCENT conducts persistent maritime operations to advance U.S. interests, deter and counter disruptive countries, defeat violent extremism, and strengthen partner nations’ maritime capabilities in order to promote a secure maritime environment in an area encompassing about 2.5 million square miles of water.
  • U.S. Army Forces Central Command. USARCENT is the land component of USCENTCOM. Based in Kuwait, USARCENT is responsible for land operations in an area that totals 4.6 million square miles (1.5 times larger than the continental United States).
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Command. USAFCENT is the air component of USCENTCOM. Based in Qatar, USAFCENT is responsible for air operations and for working with the air forces of partner countries in the region. It also manages an extensive supply and equipment prepositioning program at several regional sites.
  • U.S. Marine Forces Central Command. MARCENT is the designated Marine Corps service component for USCENTCOM. Based in Bahrain, MARCENT is responsible for all Marine Corps forces in the region.
  • U.S. Special Operations Command Central. SOCCENT is a subordinate unified command under USCENTCOM. Based in Qatar, SOCCENT is responsible for planning special operations throughout the USCENTCOM region, planning and conducting peacetime joint/combined special operations training exercises, and orchestrating command and control of peacetime and wartime special operations.

In addition to the American military presence in the region, two U.S. allies—the United Kingdom and France—play an important role that should not be overlooked.

The U.K.’s presence in the Middle East is a legacy of British imperial rule. The U.K. has maintained close ties with many countries that it once ruled and has conducted military operations in the region for decades. Approximately 1,350 British service personnel are based throughout the region. This number fluctuates with the arrival of visiting warships.83

The British presence in the region is dominated by the Royal Navy. Permanently based naval assets include four mine hunters and one Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship. Generally, there also are frigates or destroyers in the Gulf or Arabian Sea performing maritime security duties.84 In addition (although such matters are not the subject of public discussion), U.K. attack submarines operate in the area. In April 2018, as a sign of its long-term maritime presence in the region, the U.K. opened a base in Bahrain—its first overseas military base in the Middle East in more than four decades.85 The U.K. has made a multimillion-dollar investment in modernization of the Duqm Port complex in Oman to accommodate its new Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers.86

The U.K. has a sizeable Royal Air Force (RAF) presence in the region as well, mainly in the UAE and Oman. A short drive from Dubai, Al-Minhad Air Base is home to a small contingent of U.K. personnel, and small RAF detachments in Oman support U.K. and coalition operations in the region. Although considered to be in Europe, the U.K.’s Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus have supported U.S. military and intelligence operations in the past and will continue to do so.

The British presence in the region extends beyond soldiers, ships, and planes. A British-run staff college operates in Qatar, and Kuwait chose the U.K. to help run its own equivalent of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.87 The U.K. also plays a very active role in training the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian militaries.

The French presence in the Gulf is smaller than the U.K.’s but still significant. France opened its first military base in the Gulf in 2009. Located in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, it was the first foreign military installation built by the French in 50 years.88 The French have 650 personnel based in the UAE, along with six Rafale fighter jets, as well as military operations in Kuwait and Qatar.89 French ships have access to the Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi, which is big enough to handle every ship in the French Navy except the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.

Military support from the U.K. and France has been particularly important in Operation Inherent Resolve, a U.S.-led joint task force formed to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In March 2020, France and the U.K. announced that they would be reducing their footprint in Iraq. France is suspending its anti-terrorism training operations and bringing home troops to support the government’s effort to combat COVID-19. The U.K. temporarily redeployed troops back to the U.K. as a result of COVID-19 but will resume its training of Iraqi forces once the situation permits.90 There have been concerns that the IS might exploit COVID-19 to gain strength if Iraqi security forces do not remain vigilant, particularly along the Iraqi–Syria border.91 The situation will be a test to measure Iraq’s effectiveness in managing its own security challenges without the support of coalition forces.

Another important actor in Middle East security is the small East African country of Djibouti. Djibouti sits on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which an estimated 6.2 million barrels of oil a day transited in 2018 (the most recent year for which U.S. Energy Administration data are available) and which is a choke point on the route to the Suez Canal.92 An increasing number of countries recognize Djibouti’s value as a base from which to project maritime power and launch counterterrorism operations. The country is home to Camp Lemonnier, which can hold up to 4,000 personnel and is the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa.93

China is also involved in Djibouti and has its first permanent overseas base there, which can house 10,000 troops and which Chinese marines have used to stage live-fire exercises featuring armored combat vehicles and artillery. France, Italy, and Japan also have presences of varying strength in Djibouti.94

Key Infrastructure and Warfighting Capabilities

The Middle East is critically situated geographically. Two-thirds of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight from the Gulf region, making it accessible from most other regions of the globe. The Middle East also contains some of the world’s most critical maritime choke points, such as the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.

Although infrastructure is not as developed in the Middle East as it is in North America or Europe, during a decades-long presence, the U.S. has developed systems that enable it to move large numbers of matériel and personnel into and out of the region. According to the Department of Defense, at the height of U.S. combat operations in Iraq during the Second Gulf War, the U.S. presence included 165,000 servicemembers and 505 bases. Moving personnel and equipment out of the country was “the largest logistical drawdown since World War II” and included redeployment of “the 60,000 troops who remained in Iraq at the time and more than 1 million pieces of equipment ahead of their deadline.”95

The condition of the region’s roads varies from country to country. For example, 100 percent of the roads in Israel, Jordan, and the UAE are paved. Other nations such as Oman (49.3 percent); Saudi Arabia (21.5 percent); and Yemen (8.7 percent) have poor paved road coverage according to the most recent information available.96 Rail coverage is also poor.

The U.S. has access to several airfields in the region. The primary air hub for U.S. forces is Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Other airfields include Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait; Al Dhafra, UAE; Al Minhad, UAE; Isa, Bahrain; Eskan Village Air Base, Saudi Arabia; Muscat, Oman; Thumrait, Oman; and Masirah Island, Oman, in addition to the commercial airport at Seeb, Oman. In the past, the U.S. has used major airfields in Iraq, including Baghdad International Airport and Balad Air Base, as well as Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.

The fact that the U.S. has access to a particular air base today, however, does not mean that it will be made available for a particular operation in the future. For example, because of their more cordial relations with Iran, it is highly unlikely that Qatar and Oman would allow the U.S. to use air bases in their territory for strikes against Iran unless they were first attacked themselves.

The U.S. has access to ports in the region, perhaps most importantly in Bahrain, as well as a deep-water port, Khalifa bin Salman, in Bahrain and naval facilities at Fujairah, UAE.97 The UAE’s commercial port of Jebel Ali is open for visits from U.S. warships and prepositioning of equipment for operations in theater.98 In March 2019, “Oman and the United States signed a ‘Strategic Framework Agreement’ that expands the U.S.–Oman facilities access agreements by allowing U.S. forces to use the ports of Al Duqm…and Salalah.”99 The location of these ports outside the Strait of Hormuz makes them particularly useful. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s trade travels by sea, and some of the busiest and most important shipping lanes are located in the Middle East. Tens of thousands of cargo ships travel through the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait each year.

Given the high volume of maritime traffic in the region, no U.S. military operation can be undertaken without consideration of how these shipping lanes offer opportunity and risk to America and her allies. The major shipping routes include:

  • The Suez Canal. In 2019, more than 1.2 billion tons of cargo transited the canal, averaging 51 ships each day.100 Considering that the canal itself is 120 miles long but only 670 feet wide, this is an impressive amount of traffic. The Suez Canal is important to Europe because it provides a means of access to oil from the Middle East. It also serves as an important strategic asset, as it is used routinely by the U.S. Navy to move surface combatants between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Thanks to a bilateral arrangement between Egypt and the United States, the U.S. Navy enjoys priority access to the canal.101 However, the journey through the narrow waterway is no easy task for large surface combatants. The canal was not constructed with the aim of accommodating 100,000-ton aircraft carriers and therefore exposes a larger ship to attack. For this reason, different types of security protocols are followed, including the provision of air support by the Egyptian military.102
  • Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is a critical oil-supply bottleneck and the world’s busiest passageway for oil tankers. The strait links the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. “The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important chokepoint, with an oil flow of 18 million b/d [barrels per day] in 2016,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.103 Most of these crude oil exports go to Asian markets, particularly Japan, India, South Korea, and China.104 Given the extreme narrowness of the passage and its proximity to Iran, shipping routes through the Strait of Hormuz are particularly vulnerable to disruption. Tehran repeatedly attacked oil tankers in May and June 2019 and continues to harass U.S. naval ships.105
  • Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic waterway located between the Horn of Africa and Yemen that links the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Exports from the Persian Gulf and Asia destined for Western markets must pass through the strait en route to the Suez Canal. Because the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, passage is limited to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments.106

Maritime Prepositioning of Equipment and Supplies. The U.S. military has deployed noncombatant maritime prepositioning ships (MPS) containing large amounts of military equipment and supplies in strategic locations from which they can reach areas of conflict relatively quickly as associated U.S. Army or Marine Corps units located elsewhere arrive in the area. The British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia, an island atoll, hosts the U.S. Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, which supports prepositioning ships that can supply Army or Marine Corps units deployed for contingency operations in the Middle East.

Conclusion

For the foreseeable future, the Middle East region will remain a key focus for U.S. military planners. Once considered relatively stable, mainly because of the ironfisted rule of authoritarian regimes, the area is now highly unstable and a breeding ground for terrorism.

Overall, regional security has deteriorated in recent years. Even though the Islamic State (or at least its physical presence) appears to have been defeated, the nature of its successor is unclear. Iraq has restored its territorial integrity after the defeat of ISIS, but the political situation and future relations between Baghdad and the U.S. will remain difficult as long as a government that is sympathetic to Iran is in power.107 The regional dispute with Qatar has made U.S. relations in the region even more complex and difficult to manage, although it has not stopped the U.S. military from operating.

Many of the borders created after World War I are under significant stress. In countries like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the supremacy of the nation-state is being challenged by non-state actors that wield influence, power, and resources comparable to those of small states. The region’s principal security and political challenges are linked to the unrealized aspirations of the Arab Spring, surging transnational terrorism, and meddling by Iran, which seeks to extend its influence in the Islamic world. These challenges are made more difficult by the Arab–Israeli conflict, Sunni–Shia sectarian divides, the rise of Iran’s Islamist revolutionary nationalism, and the proliferation of Sunni Islamist revolutionary groups. COVID-19 will likely exacerbate these economic, political, and regional crises, which may destabilize the post-pandemic operational environment for U.S. forces.

Thanks to its decades of military operations in the Middle East, the U.S. has tried-and-tested procedures for operating in the region. Bases and infrastructure are well established, and the logistical processes for maintaining a large force forward deployed thousands of miles away from the homeland are well in place. Moreover, unlike in Europe, all of these processes have been tested recently in combat. The personal links between allied armed forces are also present. Joint training exercises improve interoperability, and U.S. military educational courses regularly attended by officers (and often royals) from the Middle East allow the U.S. to influence some of the region’s future leaders.

America’s relationships in the region are based pragmatically on shared security and economic concerns. As long as these issues remain relevant to both sides, the U.S. is likely to have an open door to operate in the Middle East when its national interests require that it do so.

Scoring the Middle East Operating Environment

As noted at the beginning of this section, various aspects of the region facilitate or inhibit the ability of the U.S. to conduct military operations to defend its vital national interests against threats. Our assessment of the operating environment uses a five-point scale that ranges from “very poor” to “excellent” conditions and covers four regional characteristics of greatest relevance to the conduct of military operations:

  1. Very Poor. Significant hurdles exist for military operations. Physical infrastructure is insufficient or nonexistent, and the region is politically unstable. In addition, the U.S. military is poorly placed or absent, and alliances are nonexistent or diffuse.
  2. Unfavorable. A challenging operating environment for military operations is marked by inadequate infrastructure, weak alliances, and recurring political instability. The U.S. military is inadequately placed in the region.
  3. Moderate. A neutral to moderately favorable operating environment is characterized by adequate infrastructure, a moderate alliance structure, and acceptable levels of regional political stability. The U.S. military is adequately placed.
  4. Favorable. A favorable operating environment includes good infrastructure, strong alliances, and a stable political environment. The U.S. military is well placed for future operations.
  5. Excellent. An extremely favorable operating environment includes well-established and well-maintained infrastructure, strong and capable allies, and a stable political environment. The U.S. military is exceptionally well placed to defend U.S. interests.

The key regional characteristics consist of:

  1. Alliances. Alliances are important for interoperability and collective defense, as allies are more likely to lend support to U.S. military operations. Indicators that provide insight into the strength or health of an alliance include whether the U.S. trains regularly with countries in the region, has good interoperability with the forces of an ally, and shares intelligence with nations in the region.
  2. Political Stability. Political stability brings predictability for military planners when considering such things as transit, basing, and overflight rights for U.S. military operations. The overall degree of political stability indicates whether U.S. military actions would be hindered or enabled and reflects, for example, whether transfers of power are generally peaceful and whether there have been any recent instances of political instability in the region.
  3. U.S. Military Positioning. Having military forces based or equipment and supplies staged in a region greatly facilitates the ability of the United States to respond to crises and, presumably, achieve success in critical “first battles” more quickly. Being routinely present in a region also assists in maintaining familiarity with its characteristics and the various actors that might assist or thwart U.S. actions. With this in mind, we assessed whether or not the U.S. military was well positioned in the region. Again, indicators included bases, troop presence, prepositioned equipment, and recent examples of military operations (including training and humanitarian) launched from the region.
  4. Infrastructure. Modern, reliable, and suitable infrastructure is essential to military operations. Airfields, ports, rail lines, canals, and paved roads enable the U.S. to stage, launch, and logistically sustain combat operations. We combined expert knowledge of regions with publicly available information on critical infrastructure to arrive at our overall assessment of this metric.108

The U.S. has developed an extensive network of bases in the Middle East region and has acquired substantial operational experience in combatting regional threats. At the same time, however, many of its allies are hobbled by political instability, economic problems, internal security threats, and mushrooming transnational threats. Although the region’s overall score remains “moderate,” as it was last year, it is in danger of falling to “poor” because of political instability and growing bilateral tensions with allies over the security implications of the nuclear agreement with Iran and how best to fight the Islamic State.

With this in mind, we arrived at these average scores for the Middle East (rounded to the nearest whole number):

  • Alliances: 3—Moderate
  • Political Stability: 2—Unfavorable
  • U.S. Military Positioning: 3—Moderate
  • Infrastructure: 3—Moderate

Leading to a regional score of: Moderate

2021_IndexOfUSMilitaryStrength_ASSESSMENTS_Environment_MIDDLE-EAST_0.jpgDownload Assessment

Endnotes

  1. For example, during a 1916 meeting in Downing Street, Sir Mark Sykes, Britain’s lead negotiator with the French on carving up the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, pointed to the map and told the Prime Minister that for Britain’s sphere of influence in the Middle East, “I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre [modern-day Israel] to the last k in Kirkuk [modern-day Iraq].” See James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France, and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East (London: Simon & Schuster U.K., 2011), pp. 7–20. See also Margaret McMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2003).
  2. S.B., “What Is the Difference Between Sunni and Shia Muslims?” The Economist, May 29, 2013, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-19/ (accessed May 18, 2020).
  3. Tzvi Joffre, “Iranian Shias Lick, Kiss Shrines in Defiance of Coronavirus Outbreak,” The Jerusalem Post, March 2, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iranian-shias-lick-kiss-shrines-in-defiance-of-coronavirus-outbreak-619428 (accessed May 20, 2020), and Nicole Robinson, “Middle East Coronavirus Data Sketchy, Leaving Populaces to Suffer,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, April 7, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/commentary/middle-east-coronavirus-data-sketchy-leaving-populaces-suffer (accessed May 18, 2020).
  4. Sabahat Khan, “MENA’s Youth Bulge Is a Regional Security Challenge,” The Arab Weekly, April 2, 2018, https://thearabweekly.com/menas-youth-bulge-regional-security-challenge (accessed May 18, 2020).
  5. Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, “OPEC Share of World Crude Oil Reserves, 2018,” https://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm (accessed May 18, 2020).
  6. Table, “The 10 Largest Oil Producers and Share of Total World Oil Production in 2019,” and table, “The 10 Largest Oil Consumers and Share of Total World Oil Consumption in 2017,” in U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “What Countries Are the Top Producers and Consumers of Oil?” last updated April 1, 2020, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=709&t=6 (accessed May 18, 2020).
  7. Martha C. White, “Will Oil’s Price Slump Be Worse for the Economy than the Effects of Coronavirus?” NBC News, updated April 22, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/business/energy/will-oil-s-price-slump-be-worse-economy-effects-coronavirus-n1189001 (accessed May 18, 2020).
  8. Rabah Arezki and Ha Nguyen, “Coping with a Dual Shock: COVID-19 and Oil Prices,” World Bank Brief, April 14, 2020, https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/mena/brief/coping-with-a-dual-shock-coronavirus-covid-19-and-oil-prices (accessed May 18, 2020).
  9. Focus Economics, “The World’s Top 10 Largest Economies,” updated January 2020, https://www.focus-economics.com/blog/the-largest-economies-in-the-world (accessed May 18, 2020), and Jessica Jaganathan, “China Overtakes Japan as World’s Top Natural Gas Importer,” Reuters, November 12, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/china-japan-lng/china-overtakes-japan-as-worlds-top-natural-gas-importer-idUSL4N1XN3LO (accessed May 18, 2020).
  10. Robinson, “Middle East Coronavirus Data Sketchy, Leaving Populace to Suffer.”
  11. Alissa J. Rubin, “Iraq Chooses New Prime Minister, an Ex-Intelligence Chief Backed by U.S.,” The New York Times, May 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/world/middleeast/iraq-prime-minister-mustafa-khadimi.html (accessed May 19, 2020).
  12. See, for example, The Heritage Foundation, “The ‘Arab Spring’: Heritage Foundation Recommendations,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3222, April 13, 2011, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/report/the-arab-spring-heritage-foundation-recommendations.
  13. Marwan Muasher, “Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, October 30, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220 (accessed May 19, 2020).
  14. James Phillips and Nicole Robinson, “Protesters in Iraq Have Legitimate Grievances,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, October 9, 2019, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/commentary/protesters-iraq-have-legitimate-grievances, and James Phillips and Nicole Robinson, “Why Protests Rocking Lebanon Forced the Prime Minister,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, October 30, 2019, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/commentary/why-protests-rocking-lebanon-forced-out-the-prime-minister.
  15. See U.S. Department of the Treasury, Resource Center, “Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) Archive and Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Archive,” last updated October 30, 2018, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/jpoa_archive.aspx (accessed May 19, 2020).
  16. James Phillips, “U.S. Iran Policy After the Demise of the Nuclear Deal,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3335, August 6, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/report/us-iran-policy-after-the-demise-the-nuclear-deal, and John Irish and Robin Emmot, “Europeans Push Last Bid to Salvage Iran Deal, but Work on Plan B,” Reuters, May 3, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-europe/europeans-push-last-bid-to-salvage-iran-deal-but-work-on-plan-b-idUSKBN1I42ES (May 19, 2020).
  17. James Griffiths, Joshua Berlinger, and Sheena McKenzie, “Iranian Leader Announces Partial Withdrawal from Nuclear Deal,” CNN, updated May 8, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/08/middleeast/iran-nuclear-deal-intl/index.html (accessed May 19, 2020).
  18. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Resource Center: Iran Sanctions,” last updated February 2, 2020, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/programs/pages/iran.aspx (accessed May 19, 2020), and Peter Brooks, Brett D. Schaefer, and James Phillips, “Iran Nuclear Deal: Next Steps,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 5030, January 29, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/report/iran-nuclear-deal-next-steps.
  19. Robert Berger, “Israel Welcomes Trump’s ‘Bold’ Decision to Leave Iran Deal,” Voice of America, May 9, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/israel-welcomes-trumps-bold-decision-leave-iran-deal (accessed May 19, 2020), and “Saudi Arabia Welcomes US Withdrawal from Iran Nuclear Deal,” Arab News, updated May 9, 2018, http://www.arabnews.com/node/1299156/saudi-arabia (accessed May 19, 2020).
  20. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Zahra Nader, “Iran Covertly Recruits Afghan Shias to Fight in Syria,” The Guardian, June 30, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/30/iran-covertly-recruits-afghan-soldiers-to-fight-in-syria (accessed May 19, 2020).
  21. BBC News, “Hague Fury as ‘Iranian Arms’ Bound for Taliban Seized,” March 9, 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-12694266 (accessed May 10, 2020).
  22. Chris Massaro, “US Has the Military Might, but Iran Will Lean on Proxies and Militias If They Get Dragged into the Conflict,” Fox News, May 20, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/world/us-military-might-iran-proxies-militias-conflict (accessed May 19, 2020); Bruce Clingan, “Commentary: The U.S. Is Right to Restore Aid to Egypt,” Reuters, July 30, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-clingan-egypt-commentary/commentary-the-u-s-is-right-to-restore-aid-to-egypt-idUSKBN1KK1YE (accessed May 19, 2020); and Fact Sheet, “Jordan,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, October 2019, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/72076 (accessed May 19, 2020).
  23. Fact Sheet, “Jordan.”
  24. Bethan McKernan, “Past Month ‘Deadliest on Record’ for Syrian Civilians Killed in US-Led Air Strikes,” Independent, May 23, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-war-us-air-strikes-civilian-death-toll-deadliest-on-record-isis-donald-trump-a7751911.html (accessed May 19, 2020), and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Syria Emergency,” updated April 19, 2018, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/syria-emergency.html (accessed May 19, 2020).
  25. Les Picker, “Where Are ISIS’s Foreign Fighters Coming From?” National Bureau of Economic Research Digest, June 2016, p. 6, https://www.nber.org/digest/jun16/jun16.pdf (accessed May 19, 2020).
  26. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
  27. Luke Coffey and James Phillips, “The Middle East Strategic Alliance: An Uphill Struggle,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief, No. 5056, April 7, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/report/the-middle-east-strategic-alliance-uphill-struggle.
  28. Joshua Meservey, “The Saudi–Qatari Dispute: Why the U.S. Must Prevent Spillover into East Africa,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3268, November 29, 2017, https://www.heritage.org/africa/report/the-saudi-qatari-dispute-why-the-us-must-prevent-spillover-east-africa.
  29. Tamara Qiblawi, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Elizabeth Roberts, and Hamdi Alkhshali, “Qatar Rift: Saudi, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt Cut Diplomatic Ties,” CNN, updated July 27, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/05/middleeast/saudi-bahrain-egypt-uae-qatar-terror/index.html (accessed May 19, 2020).
  30. Alexander Cornwell, “Saudi-Qatar Talks to End Lengthy Gulf Dispute Falter: Sources,” Reuters, February 11, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gulf-qatar/saudi-qatar-talks-to-end-lengthy-gulf-dispute-falter-sources-idUSKBN2050Z8 (accessed May 19, 2020).
  31. Frank Gardner, “Gulf Ambassadors Pulled from Qatar over ‘Interference’,” BBC News, March 5, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26447914 (accessed May 19, 2020).
  32. Pieter D. Wezeman, “Conventional Strategic Military Capabilities in the Middle East,” EU Non-Proliferation Consortium Background Paper, July 2011, p. 8, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2016-03/Conventional-strategic-military-capabilities-in-the-Middle-East.pdf (accessed May 19, 2020).
  33. Isabel Kershner, “9 Things to Know About Jerusalem as U.S. Embassy Opens,” The New York Times, May 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/13/world/middleeast/israel-jerusalem-us-embassy.html (accessed May 19, 2020).
  34. Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People, The White House January 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Peace-to-Prosperity-0120.pdf (accessed May 19, 2020).
  35. James Phillips, “Palestinians Miss Opportunity by Rejecting Trump Peace Plan,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, January 31, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/commentary/palestinians-miss-opportunity-rejecting-trump-peace-plan.
  36. The GCC was founded in 1981 to offset the threat from Iran, which became hostile to Sunni-led Arab states after its 1979 revolution.
  37. Declan Walsh, “Rare Protests Against Egypt’s Leader Erupt in Cairo and Elsewhere,” The New York Times, September 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/world/middleeast/anti-government-protests-egypt.html (accessed May 19, 2020), and Vivian Yee and Nada Rashwan, “Egypt’s Harsh Crackdown Quashes Protest Movement,” The New York Times, October 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/04/world/middleeast/egypt-protest-sisi-arrests.html (accessed May 19, 2020).
  38. Nan Tian, Alexandra Kuimova, Diego Lopes da Silva, Pieter D. Wezeman, and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2019,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Fact Sheet, April 2020, p. 9, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/fs_2020_04_milex_0.pdf (accessed June 26, 2020).
  39. Figure 4, “Military Spending as a Share of Gross Domestic Product, by Country, 2019,” in ibid., p. 10.
  40. Ibid., p. 9.
  41. Nazila Fathi, “Wipe Israel ‘Off the Map’ Iranian Says,” The New York Times, October 27, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/26/world/africa/26iht-iran.html?_r=0 (accessed May 19, 2020).
  42. Ibid.
  43. “The embargo limits all U.N. member states from selling weaponry—including battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems and spare parts—to the Islamic Republic.” U.S. Institute of Peace, The Iran Primer, “Part 1: U.S. on U.N. Arms Embargo on Iran,” updated June 24, 2020, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/may/11/part-1-us-arms-embargo (accessed June 26, 2020).
  44. Jewish Institute for National Security of America, Gemunder Center U.S.–Israel Security Policy Project, Arming Israel to Defeat Iranian Aggression: Frontloading Weapons Delivery, November 2019, pp. 14–16, esp. p. 15, https://jinsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Arming-Israel-to-Defeat-Iranian-Aggression-1.pdf (accessed June 26, 2020).
  45. T. S. Allen, “Here Is How Israel’s Military Dominates the Battlefield,” The National Interest, February 27, 2018, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/here-how-israels-military-dominates-the-battlefield-24679 (accessed May 19, 2020).
  46. See, for example, Gil Press, “6 Reasons Israel Became a Cybersecurity Powerhouse Leading the $82 Billion Industry,” Forbes, July 18, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/gilpress/2017/07/18/6-reasons-israel-became-a-cybersecurity-powerhouse-leading-the-82-billion-industry/#d458614420aa (accessed June 26, 2020), and “Israel Is a Small Country, but a Cyber Superpower, Says Ex-CIA Director at CyberTech 2018,” NoCamels, January 20, 2018, http://nocamels.com/2018/01/israel-cyber-superpower-cia-cybertech-2018/ (accessed May 19, 2020).
  47. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2020: The Annual Assessment of Global Military Capabilities and Defence Economics (London: Routledge, 2020), pp. 373–374.
  48. News release, “Lockheed Martin Awarded Contract to Build F-16 Block 70 Aircraft for Bahrain,” Lockheed Martin, June 25, 2018, https://news.lockheedmartin.com/2018-06-25-Lockheed-Martin-Awarded-Contract-to-Build-F-16-Block-70-Aircraft-for-Bahrain?_ga=2.3223408.1543096780.1588692655-1467716092.1546629521 (accessed May 19, 2020).
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  61. During 1967 and 1990, South Yemen, officially known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, was a socialist state in the southeastern provinces of the present-day Republic of Yemen.
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