RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — “Your final destination is Tel Aviv?”
I’ve been a reporter in the Middle East since 1979, and those are six words I’d never heard in the place where I was standing about the place where I was going.
I was checking in to fly from Doha, Qatar, to Tel Aviv, via Dubai. It was a once inconceivable connection, and now it tripped off the tongue of the FlyDubai agent at Doha International Airport with the same nonchalance as if she were asking if I was flying to Cairo via Riyadh.
My first instinct was to ask her: Could you please keep your voice down?
After all, many of us based in Beirut as reporters in the late 1970s didn’t even use the word “Israel.” We referred to it only as “Dixie” — the region south of Lebanon. Now the airport codes DIA, DXB and TLV were fused together on my luggage for all to see.
A few days later, I hopscotched to three more cities that suddenly seemed closer than ever: early breakfast in Tel Aviv; lunch in Amman, Jordan; and late dinner in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh.
This journey was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a region that has long been my second home, and it allowed me to grasp something quite remarkable: how onetime enemies and rivals across the Middle East are on the cusp of becoming so much more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. It’s creating previously unthinkable partnerships, as well as huge internal stresses, as people in the neighborhood are trying to figure out just how modern, secular, open, entwined — and democratic — they want to be.
No two countries exemplify this moment better than America’s two most important Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both are simultaneously undergoing fundamental internal struggles over their identities. The relationship between religious authorities and the state — as well as the very legal, social and economic rules of the game — in both Saudi Arabia and Israel has never been more up for grabs since each country’s founding.
In Saudi Arabia, the societal transformations being imposed from the top down by the iron-fisted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (M.B.S.) are now so profound that if you have not been to Saudi Arabia in the past five years, you may as well have not been there at all. When I last visited Riyadh, at the end of 2017, Saudi women were not permitted to drive. Today, not only are women behind the wheel, but the first Saudi female and first Arab female astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi, just helped drive a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center up to the International Space Station.
Meanwhile, the threat to Israel’s original aspiration to be both a Jewish state and a democratic one is now so profound, posed by an extremist government trying to crush the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court, that it has produced an unprecedented 22 straight weeks of massive street protests from democracy-devoted Israelis. If you have not been to Israel in the past five months, you may as well have not been there at all.
In other words, America is now, in effect, present at the re-creation of two nations vital to our interests. Two nations who are at the same time secretly discussing making peace with each other. And two nations that are also figuring out how close to be with America’s increasingly Middle East-focused great-power rival, China.
When I was The New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem between 1984 and 1988, there were no diplomatic relations between Israel and China, and we were just thrilled when the first kosher Chinese restaurant opened near our office, even though there was no pork in the wonton soup. Today, as Israel is bursting with defense- and cyber-related technology start-ups, Beijing has rapidly increased its efforts to buy into or partner with Israeli companies and universities, so much so that Israeli security services now have to keep a close eye on Chinese visitors and diplomats. China also recently brokered a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is now China’s biggest supplier of oil and China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil customer, to boot.
For all of these reasons, America needs to toss away any inhibitions and play as active a role as possible with Israel and Saudi Arabia. This is no time for America to pick up stakes from the Middle East. This is a time to lean in with our values and soft-power tools like never before.
President Biden should only invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Oval Office, like all previous Israeli prime ministers, if he will answer two questions: One, are you occupying the West Bank and committed to resolving its permanent status through negotiations with the Palestinians, or do you see Israel’s current control of the Palestinians as the permanent status, never to be changed? We need to know once and for all. And two, are you committed to ensuring that any major changes to Israel’s court system will be implemented with broad public support to ensure political stability, because the United States has a huge interest in its most important military ally in the region not descending into civil war over judicial reform?
For the last 75 years Israel has been a trusted and vital strategic partner of the United States, but that was always based on shared interests and shared values. If those values aren’t shared any longer, we need to know that. We need to get behind those Israelis who want to preserve Israel as a democracy — and keep locking the White House gates to anyone who doesn’t.
As for Saudi Arabia, at a time when its Aramco oil company rivals Apple and Microsoft as the world’s most valuable company, its youth bulge is just coming of age and Riyadh has replaced Cairo as the most important power in the Arab world, we need to engage with Saudi leaders and society regularly — to ensure that Riyadh exercises power responsibly and to encourage the people and leaders in Saudi Arabia who are trying to make it more religiously moderate, more respectful of women, more tolerant of all faiths, more economically diversified and more welcoming of dissenting opinions. Saudi Arabia is also the home of Islam’s most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, so how it modernizes and pluralizes will influence mosques and Muslim communities across the globe.
Biden has steadily become more confident dealing with both Netanyahu’s Israel and M.B.S.’s Saudi Arabia — twisting arms and drawing red lines where necessary and looking to foster bridge-building within and between their societies (and with America) where possible. But much engagement still lies ahead to help keep this region, and these two countries in particular, tilted toward more pluralism, integration and tolerance.
Let me show you why in detail with a few postcards from my trip.
My first morning in Tel Aviv, I got up at 7 a.m. and walked along the beachfront promenade to get my 10,000 steps. At one point two barefoot young Israeli women dressed in black wet suits passed me by, balancing surfboards on their heads. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself: I wonder if Theodor Herzl, when he conceived the idea of a modern Jewish state back in Europe in the 19th century, ever imagined a sight like this?
Some minutes later, two other young women approached. They appeared to be Israeli Arab Muslims, wearing black scarves on their heads and tennis shoes under their long dresses.
They triggered a different thought: This country — this whole region — will only thrive if these four women can share the same beachfront promenade with dignity, in a society and culture that values live-and-let-live. Everyone is just too intertwined now for anything else. But live-and-let-live takes work and the right leadership, whether it comes from heads of state or next-door neighbors.
An old friend of mine, Uri Dromi, a former Israeli Air Force pilot, told me about an experience he had as he personally grappled with the necessity of live-and-let-live in modern Israel. A couple weeks ago, he and some Air Force colleagues decided to visit Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel Aviv, which is strongly backing Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the court, given how it often intervenes to curb the power and perquisites of the ultra-Orthodox. Dromi has been mobilizing other retired airmen to oppose Netanyahu’s effort, and they went to Bnei Brak to try to understand how it can be “that under the same Israeli skies there are people who think so differently from me,” Dromi explained.
The night before the visit, Dromi called the kosher Hazvi Bakery there to arrange for dozens of challah breads that Jews often eat on the Sabbath, along with plastic bags for each one with the bakery’s kosher logo. He used the breads as his calling card, putting a note on each bag of challah: “Shabbat is dear to all our hearts. So is democracy.”
It triggered several conversations that made Dromi reflect. He recalled an ultra-Orthodox woman telling him: “You are pushing your liberal agenda on me, and I have to defend myself.” The woman added: “My husband studies all day and I am a computer engineer.” When Dromi asked her why her husband doesn’t work, she answered: “Because after the Holocaust we need big families, and someone has to keep the torch of the Torah alive.” To liberal ears, Dromi remarked, “that may sound like nonsense, but it is deeply believed by them.”
Dromi recalled how, as he sat on a bench, a young ultra-Orthodox boy approached him and asked, “What is democracy?”
“It touched my heart,” Dromi recounted. “I said, ‘In democracy everyone is equal, like you and me, and if something happens between us, we go to the court.’ He said he was told you should not go to an Israeli government court because ‘it was a goyim court,’” meaning it served gentiles.
A day later, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, shared with me that most Fridays he and his wife go grocery shopping at a local market. He said the biggest question he receives from fellow shoppers every time he’s in the store now, regarding the talks he has convened to broker some kind of deal over judicial reform, is, “When is there going to be a compromise?”
I am convinced that a lot more people in Israel and in the region are exhausted from hating one another and have transcended the political divides — or at least sure want to — within their societies and among their societies. Their lived realities are now so much more intertwined than you’d think.
As much as Israeli media outlets and politicians are narrowcasting their ideologies every day, Israel’s emerging blended society is on full display every night on prime-time TV — an ultra-Orthodox woman celebrity chef on one channel, an Israeli Druze woman celebrity chef on another, an Israeli Arab star journalist on another. And this week the sports news has been dominated by the dream journey of Israel’s under-20 soccer team, which just beat Brazil 3-2 in the quarterfinals of the under-20 World Cup championship in Argentina. The Israeli team is composed of young, observant Jews, secular Jews and three Israeli Arabs. Two of Israel’s three goals against Brazil were scored by Israeli Arabs, prompting one wag on Israeli Twitter to remark: “No Arabs, no goals.”
Unfortunately, since 1996, Netanyahu’s whole strategy of winning elections and governing has been to divide, divide, divide — left from right, Jews from Palestinian Arabs, secular from religious, Ashkenazim from Sephardim — and to try to win every election by just 50.001 percent. (Just like Donald Trump.)
He’s hardly the only problem, but he’s been a huge figure in Israeli political life since first winning office — and he’s now in his sixth term. Netanyahu is smart and a once-in-a-generation political talent, but his paranoia, dishonesty and now fear of going to jail on charges of corruption have made him a toxic figure who prioritizes holding power at any cost, not unifying the nation.
This time, though, I think Bibi drove one wedge too many into the heart of Israel’s body politic.
I walked alongside the remarkable democracy protest march in Tel Aviv on the night of Saturday, May 20 — the 20th straight week tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to resist Netanyahu’s attempted judicial takeover. One particular placard in Hebrew caught my eye: “Bibi, you came down on the wrong generation.”
He certainly did. I was observing the demonstration with one of Israel’s leading columnists, Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth, and his wife, Tammy. At one point, Tammy looked around at all the energy of the young demonstrators chanting in Hebrew, “DE-MO-CRAT-YA,” and remarked to me: This is Israelis’ attempt “to repair the damage of Rabin’s assassination.”
I’d never heard that before. Tammy explained that the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist killer was not just an attack on the Oslo peace process that Rabin was leading, it was also an attack on the whole democratic process in Israel itself.
Rabin’s killer voted with a bullet, and then his political allies, some of the very same Jewish supremacists now in the Israeli cabinet, voted with their ballots, which paved the way for the first of Netanyahu’s six terms. Ever since then, Jewish settlers have been implanted deeper and deeper into the West Bank, making a two-state solution nearly impossible, and more resources and powers have been transferred from the secular state to the ultra-Orthodox, making them kingmakers in Israeli politics.
Now a younger Israeli generation — many of whom were born after Rabin’s death — is rising up and joining with the center of Israeli society to say that this whole drift from democracy has got to stop.
As with all such movements, the key is turning the spirited street energy of this wholly new center-left, center-right coalition into sustained political energy that can one day gain elected office and be an engine for new live-and-let-live approaches inside Israel — and maybe, one day, even between Israelis and Palestinians as well. We’ll see.
I will say this, though: Having observed firsthand the protest movements in Egypt, Hong Kong and Istanbul, this one is a different kettle of fish. It is spearheaded by a coalition of Israel’s most elite technologists and war fighters, who are now deploying the skills they honed competing in California’s Silicon Valley or night fighting in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to make clear to Netanyahu that they can and will shut Israel down — from its governing institutions to its start-up economy and its air force — if he tries to take away the independence of the Supreme Court.
Listen to a few of the protest organizers and you’ll understand how unique this movement is. “I started as an Air Force pilot and have founded six companies,” said Gigi Levy-Weiss. “We’ve created 50,000 jobs. When we started, we all realized that we cannot stay on the sidelines anymore.” This time, “we are not stopping at preventing this legislation,” but rather thinking about “how we build the infrastructure” that will permanently guard Israel’s democracy, he said.
Shira Eting, a woman Israeli Air Force Cobra helicopter pilot, said: “I was able to become a pilot because of a Supreme Court decision. I was the 19th woman to graduate from the Air Force flight academy. Without the Supreme Court, my life would be different. I am married to a woman. If I want to be the mother of my daughter, I need” the protection of the Supreme Court from the ultra-Orthodox who would oppose it, she added. Thanks to Israel’s Supreme Court, “people can make their dreams come true.”
David Gillerman, who served in the Israeli Air Force’s elite search and rescue team and is now a major real estate developer in Israel, told me that he told his children that he was getting deeply involved in the democracy protest movement “so they have a proper country to grow up in. This is our new independence war. All of this has woken up a sleeping lion.”
Bibi definitely came down on the wrong cowboys and cowgirls.
But never, ever underestimate how far Netanyahu will go to stay in power. In order to keep his coalition together, he approved a budget two weeks ago that transfers massive amounts of shekels to the schools of his ultra-Orthodox party allies — schools that reject Israel’s core curriculum — and to their religious students and adults who do not serve in the army and to West Bank Jewish settlers.
“The new government budget includes an unprecedented increment in allocations to the settlers and ultra-Orthodox, including full funding of schools to not teach English, science and math. This budgetary increment alone is more than Israel invests each year in higher education altogether — or 14 years of complete funding for the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T.,” said Dan Ben-David, a macroeconomist who has focused on the interaction between Israel’s demography and education at Tel Aviv University, where he heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. “It is completely nuts.”
The ultra-Orthodox share of Israel’s population doubles roughly every 25 years, added Ben-David. “Today it is 24 percent of the infants. By 2050 it will be half of Israel’s infants. None of them learns basic civics or separation of powers and how liberal democracy works, let alone receiving the tools to thrive in a modern economy,” he told me.
“Unless we get our act together now, this will be the final nail into the coffin of our future,” he said.
So imagine how bizarre it was to find myself — three days after talking to Ben-David in Tel Aviv — sitting in the living room of Saudi Arabia’s minister of education, Yousef al-Benyan, listening to him describe how Saudi Arabia has been overhauling all of its public schools and university curriculums to develop a work force of men and women who can compete in a post-oil age.
Public school textbooks have been scrubbed to eliminate materials that promote intolerance of other faiths or subservience for women, and the government is doubling down on teacher training, all with the aim of “instilling technological proficiency alongside critical thinking, problem solving and analytical capabilities” to align the Saudi education system “with competitive international standards,” as a recent Oxford Business Group study put it. It has a long way to go, but compared to a decade ago, it constitutes an education revolution.
And like practically every other minister I met in Riyadh, al-Benyan was bursting with pride over a national team of Saudi boy and girl science and math students recently winning 27 prizes at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas. More than 70 countries were competing there, in the world’s largest international pre-college science competition.
It is interesting to note that al-Benyan formerly led one of the most important companies in the country, SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation), which is among the world’s largest diversified petrochemical companies. The Saudi leadership wanted an education minister who understands what it takes to get a good private sector job today, because the days of getting a B.A. in Islamic studies and thinking you can get a cushy government job are over.
It’s just the opposite of what Israel is doing with its religious youth.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is now trying to suppress the strict religious forces that Israel is increasingly empowering. But the Saudi ruling family have a lot to make up for, because the religious excesses they indulged at home and funded abroad beginning in 1979 warped the whole Muslim world and helped to inspire 9/11. The short story: The Islamist and women-suppressing traditionalists here were given free rein after 1979, after extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and accused the ruling al-Sauds of being insufficiently pious. In response, the ruling family gave their clerics unrivaled powers to impose the most puritanical brand of Islam at home and export it abroad. It changed the face of Islam globally.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the effective ruler now that his elderly father, King Salman, has stepped back from most of his public leadership duties, has basically been reversing 1979 — putting the religious authorities tightly under the government’s thumb and the most radical Islamists in jail, and lifting their heavy lid off Saudi society — with strong buy-in from the two-thirds of its population that is under the age of 30.
I found it quite symbolic that back in 2021, M.B.S.’s Islamic affairs minister ordered all mosques to “lower the volume” on their loudspeakers, “saying families had been complaining that competing speakers were keeping their children awake,” as Reuters reported.
The big question for Saudi Arabia is whether the country can stay stable, and achieve even half of its ambitions, at a time when every Saudi is being asked to hop on a bullet train to modernity that aims to make up for decades of drift under tired old men, for whom change at five miles an hour was fast enough, but was so sclerotic it was threatening the viability of the whole Saudi system.
What do I mean by a bullet train? When I was last here, in late 2017, M.B.S. surprised the country by announcing that Saudi women and girls would be permitted for the first time to attend soccer games as fans.
I came back last week and discovered that a Saudi women’s premier soccer league is now headed into its second season.
When I was last here in 2017, M.B.S. had announced that women would be granted the right to drive. When I came back last week, I discovered that in March 2022, the racer Aseel al-Hamad became the first Saudi woman to drive a Formula 1 car in Saudi Arabia, and Reema Juffali became the first Saudi woman to compete in an international racing series in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, in 2019. Summon an Uber in Riyadh today and a female driver might fetch you.
The pace and extent of change in Saudi society has been underreported in part because few foreign reporters visited during Covid, when so many reforms here achieved escape velocity, and in part because many reporters — myself included — struggle with how to write about authentic positive changes in Saudi Arabia when the author of so many of them is M.B.S., who in 2018 also enabled the grotesque and senseless dismemberment of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The only answer for Biden is to talk about both. To just set aside what M.B.S.’s people did to Khashoggi would be immoral and inconsistent with American values and interests. So too would be setting aside the Saudis’ continuing curtailment of any public expressions of dissent or criticism of the leadership on any issue. M.B.S. would benefit from letting more Saudi voices be heard at this time of massive and rapid change.
But for American officials to adopt a permanently standoffish approach to Saudi Arabia would be irresponsible. It would ignore the extensive and popular reforms that M.B.S. has unleashed at home that could transform Saudi Arabia and the whole Muslim world in some very healthy ways — ways that are also hugely in America’s interest.
This tension is never going to go away as long as M.B.S. is running the show here. If you only want to write about, or engage with, countries without moral quandaries, you’ve come to the wrong neighborhood.
It’s late afternoon in Riyadh and I am sitting in the Salam coffee shop, one of scores of new coffee houses and restaurants that have opened here since I last visited. I am with three Saudi 20-somethings, two of whom, men, were college-educated in America and chose to come back to be part of the reform movement here, and another, a woman, who was educated here. We are inside, but outside, they point out to me, are four Saudi women, hair only loosely covered, enjoying their coffee and vaping. I never saw that here before.
These young people did not want to speak on the record. As I said, for all the radical social, religious and economic reforms here, this is still an absolute monarchy, where you can get arrested and imprisoned just for tweeting mild criticism of M.B.S. or his government. (The Saudi government has also grown very adept at using Twitter bots to attack critics and amplify support for the leadership.)
And yet there are more than a few young Saudis who use M.B.S.’s image as a screen saver, and it is authentic. Why? Because everything is relative. You cannot imagine what it was like to be a modern Saudi young woman before M.B.S. completely uprooted the mutawa — the Muslim religious police — who for decades terrorized the population and could arrest any woman for a lock of hair hanging too loosely from her veil or, in the case of a young male Saudi friend of mine, try to prevent someone from going through passport control on his way to study abroad because his hair was too long and he was going to an “infidel” college.
Being allowed to drive, the young woman I was having coffee with explained, is about more than just driving. “It is about me driving my own life now. You come here and you see women driving today and it doesn’t mean anything to anyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me. My whole teenage years, my goal was to live abroad. I thought if this country is going to change, it is going to take centuries and decades. I studied literature, and we studied women in the Renaissance and the changes they went through. I never thought I’d be one of them.”
And she is not alone. Saudi Arabia has long had “one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world,” notes a 2021 report by the Brookings Institution. In 2018, “the share of Saudi women who had a job or were actively looking for one was 19.7 percent of the adult population of women with Saudi citizenship. … In the years before that, the rate was much lower.”
But in the wake of M.B.S.’s decision to permit women to drive — and those 21 and over to no longer be required to get permission from a so-called male guardian to apply for a passport or travel abroad — the labor force participation rate of Saudi women jumped 64 percent in two years, to 33 percent by the end of 2020. It grew to 37 percent in 2022. This is still hardly a paradise for women — women’s rights activists have been detained — but compared to what it was just six years ago, the change is extensive.
This generation of Saudi leaders is acutely aware that “oil will not be there forever,” said Saudi Arabia’s minister of economy and planning, Faisal Alibrahim, an M.I.T. grad who, like so many ministers here today, came from the private sector. “So our competitiveness has to come from other places and our sources of growth have to diversify if we are going to make the economy more resilient and unlock the full potential of the society.”
That meant finally unlocking the full potential of the female half of society after centuries. This generation of Saudi leaders concluded, noted Alibrahim, that “social and cultural change” was not just a hopeful “byproduct of economic development,” it was the “necessary ingredient for it.”
This is an important U.S. foreign policy interest. Why? After it was announced in October 2017 that Saudi women would be able to attend public sporting events, guess what happened? Iranian women next door, who had been banned from such opportunities since the Islamic revolution in 1979, demanded the same rights and were granted them in 2019 — following “the death of a fan who had set herself alight after being arrested for trying to attend a match,” BBC News reported.
This is not complicated: Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia have competed for which was the most authentically pious Islamic country — and they exported that competition around the Arab-Muslim world, pushing mosques and madrassas to preach the most puritanical, anti-women and anti-religious-pluralism ideas.
Iranian women are now rebelling for their own reasons, throwing off their head coverings in defiance of the clerics. But there is no question in my mind that a Saudi Arabia that is liberalizing socially, culturally, religiously and economically will not only stimulate more reform around the Arab-Muslim world, it also can’t help but be another source of pressure on Iran’s Dark Ages clerical leadership. What happens in Saudi Arabia does not stay in Saudi Arabia. That was true when it was Wahhabi fundamentalism — and hopefully it will be true with a more moderate Islam.
When I started working in this region, Jews were not welcome to visit Saudi Arabia unless their last name was Kissinger. Today, Israel and Saudi Arabia are quietly talking about terms of peace. It is a three-cornered shot. The Saudis want Israel’s help with Congress to secure a long-term U.S.-Saudi security deal, a civilian nuclear energy program and access to America’s most advanced weapons — in exchange for Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel.
The Israelis keep telling me that if they help deliver those goods from the United States, the Saudis will normalize relations with Israel without demanding any concessions from Israel for the Palestinians.
I don’t believe it. From my conversations with a senior Saudi official, the Saudis still have not made up their minds about how much they will require Israel to do vis-à-vis the Palestinians in return for opening relations — but it won’t be zero. Saudi Arabia is very competitive these days with the United Arab Emirates, and Riyadh will almost certainly want to get more from Israel than the U.A.E. got for signing the Abraham Accords.
Never thought I’d write this, but: Saudi Arabia may not be interested in Jewish history, but Jewish history is now very interested in Saudi Arabia. That’s because the conditions that Saudi Arabia demands from the Jewish state in return for normalization will have a huge impact on whether Israel can remain a Jewish state and a democratic state.
The Saudis could cement Netanyahu’s extremist coalition in power for years — by rewarding Bibi with the ultimate prize of diplomatic relations with Riyadh — without any Israeli concessions to the Palestinians in the West Bank. But this would likely lock Israel into an apartheid future.
Or the Saudis could demand Israeli overtures to the Palestinians that would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution — and the hope that Israel could remain both democratic and Jewish — by forcing Netanyahu to choose between his extremist one-state allies and making history by opening relations with Saudi Arabia.
President Biden and American officials are positioned better than anyone to shape the outcome of these discussions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that he planned to talk to Saudi leaders this week during a visit here about the possibility of normalizing ties with Israel.
Watch this space.
To understand America’s long-term staying power in this swiftly changing region, I want to quickly take you back to my stop in Doha, Qatar, where I visited the giant U.S.-al-Udeid air base nearby.
So many people are suddenly talking to so many other people whom they weren’t talking to before: Saudi Arabia is talking to Iran via China. Egypt is talking to Qatar. The U.A.E. is talking to Qatar. Turkey is talking to Egypt. And all the Sunni Arab states are now suddenly talking to Syria. And most of them are also talking to Israel.
It’s the Middle East equivalent of square dancing, and this do-si-do is not hard to explain: the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan under President Biden; the failure of the United States to respond to Iranian-sponsored attacks on Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. during the Trump and Biden administrations; Trump’s sudden, idiotic push to remove U.S. troops from Syria, where they were protecting the Kurds and fighting ISIS. All of these turning points have a lot of folks here convinced that America has one foot out the door. They’d better learn to dance with new partners, the thinking goes, so they aren’t alone if Uncle Sam does step away.
I think that fear is exaggerated, but it is not without some merit. Given the pull of the Ukraine war and the long-term challenge of China in the Pacific, if the United States is going to remain a credible power in this region, it is going to have to think about military strategy and financial costs differently. And that brings me to the most interesting thing I saw and heard at the U.S.-al-Udeid base.
I walked into a big garage and this is what I noticed: a pool table, a bunch of 3-D printers, computer screens, machining tools, a bunch of prototype drones and some tattooed U.S. airmen working under a wall-mounted banner that reads: “Get Shit Done.”
Where was I? I was in one of the most interesting innovations implemented by the U.S. Central Command leader, General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, to extend our staying power. It’s the military version of “frugal innovation.” Centcom challenged itself this way: What if we could only fight ISIS, Al Qaeda and Iran with weapons we had to assemble and make with 3-D printers, and we could only buy the necessary components online from Best Buy, Amazon and Alibaba?
In other words, what if we fought with the same economic limitations that our enemies have been managing quite effectively against us since the U.S. invasion of Iraq — limitations that have led to an asymmetrical battlefield in which we fire $1-million-a-copy missiles to knock down the $500-a-copy drones they’ve assembled largely from cheap components available on Best Buy, Amazon and Alibaba.
With this kind of low-cost strategy in mind, the Centcom engineer in charge of the garage explained to me, “we can iterate” new drones and jammers extremely quickly using 3-D printers and carbon fiber materials. And if the United States and its allies are now able to throw 1,000 cheap drones at a foe, and that foe doesn’t know which one is armed, he explained, “we are imposing costs and creating dilemmas for them and taking their attention away from something else. And by the time they catch on, we’re onto the next thing.”
This kind of frugal innovation might enable the United States to do less with more in this region. Still, the perception continues that we are leaving, and that is what is creating a lot of movement on the geopolitical game board out here. As a senior Saudi official put it to me: While the Americans are still present in this region, “we’re just not sure what they’re present for” — what would trigger them to act in the defense of their allies.
On my last night in Riyadh, Hassan Yassin, a former Saudi diplomat and an old friend, gathered a group together for dinner at his home. Hassan is in 90s and has an amazing picture collection covering his walls. But there was one in particular that he insisted I not miss.
“Did you see the one with my father and President Roosevelt with King Abdul Aziz?” he asked. And then he walked me by the arm to see it.
I thought about that picture and Hassan’s pride in it on the ride back to my hotel. America has been deeply present in the lives of Saudi Arabia and Israel since their founding. I don’t know what the right level of U.S. military presence should be out here. I wish we could get by with as little as possible.
But I am totally sure of this: If there were ever a time for America at its best to be out here leading as much with its values as with its hard power, and inspiring, not just defending, it is right now — when the future character of the region’s two most influential states, and our two most important allies, is totally in play.
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