Scenario #1: Multi-Level Chess
The swift development of a COVID-19 vaccine and international efforts to produce and distribute it leads to a quick recovery of the global economy along with renewed demand for oil and gas. Russia works together with Saudi Arabia to expand and strengthen OPEC+ in order to maintain high energy prices. The petrostates in the Middle East continue to provide financial support for the poorer states in the region.
The U.S. administration is committed to tackling Middle Eastern challenges through proactive diplomacy. One of Washington’s key aims in the Middle East is limiting Chinese and (secondarily) Russian influence. U.S. efforts to repel the expansion of its great power rivals lead it to resume close cooperation with Turkey, which returned its S-400 surface-to-air (SAM) batteries to Moscow, and stopped the flow of Russian gas (having good substitutes from Azerbaijan, liquefied natural gas, and newly discovered internal resources). It has also cancelled the contract for Russia to build it nuclear reactors. Sophisticated offensive arms are sold to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries by Washington in order to discourage the purchase of Chinese alternatives and deter Iran.
In return for drifting away from Russia, Turkey receives Washington’s help in realizing its aim of becoming a Mediterranean energy hub. Due to U.S. pressure, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, and Egypt are pushed into starting construction on a network of gas pipelines to Turkey, from where the gas will then be transported to Europe. Within the context of this arrangement, a peace agreement is signed on the division of Cyprus, as well as the territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean (Greece holds onto its islands, while Turkey significantly expands its exclusive economic zone).
Moscow’s standing in the region is severely undermined when the U.S. convinces President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to cancel the lease of military bases to Russia and send uniformed Iranian forces home. In return, Damascus receives recognition of its control over Syrian Kurdish territories (albeit granting local bodies some autonomy), an invitation to return to the Arab League, and some Gulf funding for Syrian reconstruction efforts. Turkey is pressured to evacuate northwest Syria in exchange for security guarantees that the regime will rein in Kurdish separatist activity. Israel is a staunch supporter of this process, but as a condition for its implementation had to agree to end its airstrikes in Syria. Although the Iranian presence in Syria is initially reduced, it is gradually reconstituted in the years that followed and Israel found itself unable to militarily intervene in order to prevent that.
Following King Salman’s passing in 2021, there is an attempted palace coup d’état in Saudi Arabia in which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is assassinated and the Iranians seize the opportunity to foment large-scale protests in the predominantly Shi’a eastern regions of the country. However, MbS’s “camp” emerges victorious fairly quickly from the power struggle that ensued, and his younger brother, Deputy Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman (KbS), assumes the throne.
The newly crowned King Khaled seeks to change the kingdom’s priorities by reducing its regional involvement and focusing the bulk of its resources on domestic modernization. The change in leadership also allows for an extended cease-fire in Yemen and ultimately a Saudi withdrawal from that costly conflict. At the insistence of the U.S., simmering tensions within the GCC are diminished when Saudi Arabia and the UAE take public and substantial steps to boost economic and political ties with Qatar in exchange for Doha cutting back its ties to the regional Islamist camp led by Turkey.
A broader Saudi-Iranian détente is then mediated by the sultan of Oman. As part of this process, Iran agrees to the full integration of Shi’a militias into Iraq’s armed forces, though Tehran retains considerable indirect levers of influence in the country.
Following the escalation of a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan regarding a number of core issues for both countries, including the status of Kashmir, Riyadh reduces the number of Pakistani workers allowed into the kingdom. Laborers from poorer countries in the Arab world are then offered work visas to Saudi Arabia to supplement the foreign workforce and the volume of remittances to countries such as Egypt and Yemen increases.
The relative prosperity in the region due to continued high oil prices and remittances from the Gulf leads Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to invest in more advanced and intrusive surveillance technology. In addition to jihadists, the primary targets of the surveillance by the security forces are Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and liberal human rights activists. The U.S. government continues to speak publicly about the ideals of human rights and democracy, including in ways that pertain to the Middle East, but in practice applies minimal pressure on Arab rulers to adopt those principles.
In 2022, the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his unexpected succession by Hassan Rouhani allow for a new interim agreement: the U.S. is to lift some sanctions, while Iran freezes its nuclear program and reduces its malign activity in the region. At Iran’s urging, Hezbollah agrees to Lebanon’s settling of the maritime boundary dispute with Israel in order to develop the Lebanese gas fields — though the group maintains its hold on political power and arms.
Iran’s reformists then win a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections of 2024, which facilitates the signing of a new and more comprehensive nuclear agreement the following year. The new deal requires Iran to relinquish all enrichment capabilities indefinitely and restrict its missiles’ range to 500 kilometers. These concessions are granted in exchange for broadening Iran’s civilian nuclear program (construction of five reactors paid for by an international consortium) and the lifting of all sanctions.
Due to U.S. and UAE pressure, Israel assents to Mohammed Dahlan’s assumption of control over the Palestinian Authority (PA) after Mahmoud Abbas’s death in 2023. Dahlan’s efforts to regain control of Gaza lead to several rounds of fighting between the PA and Hamas, and with the help of Israel and Egypt, by 2024 Dahlan pressures the Hamas leadership to flee to Turkey.
Israel’s involvement in the intra-Palestinian struggle arouses negative sentiments toward Israel in the Arab world in general, and in Saudi Arabia in particular, where the political and religious establishments were already at odds regarding modernization. The Saudi government tries to appease the internal opposition by supporting the Palestinians against Israel and pushing the Gulf states to reduce their public displays of normalization with Israel. By 2025, Dahlan brings U.S. and Emirati pressure to bear on Israel to promote a peace agreement. When the talks falter and then implode, the result is a major escalation of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians that then leads to the cutting of diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states, including longstanding partners Egypt and Jordan.
Throughout the years 2026-27, Turkey and the Gulf states take steps to undermine the success of the new nuclear deal due to Iran’s continued meddling in the region. During this time, Iran gravitates away from Europe and toward the orbits of Russia and China. In 2028, the reformists lose the elections in Iran as their diplomatic endeavors failed to significantly improve the country’s economic situation. In 2030, Iran declares that the treachery of the West and the relentless pressure on the regime have left Tehran with no choice but to develop nuclear weapons — and it carries out a successful underground test in the country’s eastern desert region.
This scenario shows that strong American involvement in the region alone might not guarantee that Israel’s security interests are protected. In addition, greater internal stability could make key actors in the Middle East more assertive toward Israel. Also, Russia’s regional standing is largely guaranteed by the Assad regime, limiting its room to maneuver in Syria. Finally, hard-won negotiated assets such as the Abraham Accords or a “better deal” with Iran might disintegrate quickly because of the complexity and inter-connectivity of regional security problems.
Scenario #2: The “Pressure Cooker”
Washington slightly reduces its military presence in the region but still maintains significant forces in the Gulf, and to a lesser extent in Iraq and Syria. In parallel, the U.S. encourages the regional actors to resolve their security challenges on their own, which has the added economic benefit of increasing weapons sales to regional states. The key U.S. objectives in the Middle East are to prevent the emergence of a power vacuum that will be filled by Russia or China and to make sure that regional problems don’t “spill over.” Also, there is a strong demand from Washington for Middle Eastern allies to demonstrate progress toward democratization.
The global economic recovery lags because of setbacks in bringing an end to the COVID-19 health crisis. It only begins to recover slowly in early 2023, and energy prices are expected to remain lower than 2019 levels for the foreseeable future.
The decline in energy revenues forces the Gulf states to reduce their economic support to the poorer Arab states, in particular Egypt. As a result, several of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s megaprojects are cancelled and Egypt’s connection to the other members of the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain) erodes. China and Russia step in to increase their support for Egypt in various ways: the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for free or on favorable terms, replacement of the UAE as the primary funder of infrastructure projects, and assistance to President el-Sisi by enhancing his digital repression capabilities. Russia, through its security services and military contractors, cooperates with Egypt in Libya and other areas of interest. China signs an agreement with Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter to operate the Benghazi port. Russia completes construction of a naval and air bases in Sudan and gradually increases its permanent Red Sea flotilla.
Through the reduction of security cooperation and freezing of military aid, Washington (unsuccessfully) seeks to pressure Cairo to roll back relations with its great power rivals. However, the U.S. avoids a major break in ties due to their strategic importance. Rising Russian and Chinese influence in Egypt pushes Israel to maintain limited coordination with both on key national security issues such as Gaza and the Red Sea.
Economic distress as a result of low oil prices leads to public unrest and violent repression of opposition voices throughout the region, especially in Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq. Already poor state services decline further due to budget cuts and growing populations. Cairo is also facing intensifying water scarcity, and then, as a result, a food shortage ensues in Egypt and causes the price of basic foodstuffs to rise in nearby countries. Radical Islamic terror groups abound throughout the region, taking advantage of protracted conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Lebanon devolves into a renewed civil war, which is exacerbated by external interference. Hezbollah is momentarily distracted from Israel but retains its missile capabilities as a deterrent.
The Shi‘a minority in the Gulf states are incited by Iranian propaganda directed at them, and Yemen’s Houthis conduct frequent strikes targeting Gulf states’ infrastructure with advanced missiles and UAVs. Despite Iran’s provocative activities in the conventional realm, it puts its nuclear ambitions on hold temporarily to avoid unintentionally inviting an airstrike by the U.S. or Israel.
The U.S. refrains from directly confronting Iran out of concern that it will be drawn into another decades-long quagmire. The Gulf monarchies’ increasing repression of their minority and dissident populations remains a major point of contention between Washington and its Arab allies.
Over the course of the decade, between 2020 and 2030, the U.S. places sporadic but severe pressure on Israel to respond affirmatively to new peace proposals regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, requiring Jerusalem to make considerable concessions. Washington’s peace efforts are meant to improve its relations (and Israel’s) with the Arab and Muslim world but do not amount to much due to the evasive maneuvers of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Israel and Hamas are engaged in frequent violent and intensive clashes that fail to result in any sort of strategic change that would prevent the next round of fighting. Israel reoccupies Gaza in one of those incidents and then withdraws after a year as part of a negotiated agreement that allows the PA to manage Gaza — only to see Hamas retake control of the enclave after several months.
The U.S. bipartisan consensus regarding Israel continues to erode, as hardline Democrats and Republicans grow disillusioned with traditional alliances. Israel is “asked” by Washington to cut its commercial and security ties with China and Russia, and the partial nature of its acquiescence creates a great deal of friction in the U.S.-Israel relationship, exacts economic costs vis-à-vis China, and complicates Israel’s ongoing air campaign in Syria.
The residual U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf are meant to blunt Iranian, Chinese, and Russian influence. Iraq and Syria remain theaters of low intensity conflict between Israel and the U.S. on one side and Iran-backed forces on the other; these confrontations are characterized by recurring crises and increasing lethality.
This scenario depicts how making great power competition the primary prism of the U.S. policy in the region could destabilize its traditional alliances and put it in a position of disadvantage in that very competition. It also shows how the erosion of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and the emergence of a new regional security architecture could result in additional security challenges for Israel.