from Strength Through Peace and Center for Preventive Action

Major Power Rivalry in the Middle East

The skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is seen from the desert.
The skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is seen from the desert. Franckreporters/iStockphoto/Getty Images

In a new paper, Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, discusses how great power competition is altering the prospects for managing conflicts in the Middle East, and how Washington should avoid the kind of strategic errors that have provided opportunities for other major powers, notably Russia and China, to undermine U.S. policy. These actors—and to a lesser extent India and the European Union—have sought greater influence in the region. While competition among major powers has not led to direct confrontation yet, powerful actors have still sought to establish, extend, and reinforce influence and prestige at each other's expense. Meanwhile, cooperation remains episodic and circumstantial.

Although the United States remains an important—even the most important—external actor in the region, American leaders and the foreign policy community are debating whether Washington should be the primary provider of security in the region. This debate, coupled with actual American disengagement in certain places, has had three significant effects: regional powers have taken matters into their own hands, external actors have seized opportunities to exercise power, and major powers and their allies have either refused or failed to compel regional powers to resolve existing conflicts.

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Developments in places as far as Europe or the South China Sea could also sharpen competition or pave the way for greater cooperation. Given the unpredictability and uncertainty of events, however, one development is clear: the American moment of regional supremacy—when no state or combination of states could hope to challenge U.S. power and influence—is over. The Middle East is now up for grabs among a variety of regional powers and external actors, including the United States. This power vacuum has made the region less secure and competition has affected the trajectory of conflicts in the region.

In this new paper—part of a larger series on managing global disorder—Cook takes a deep dive into how great power competition is affecting the prospects for regional peace. For all the challenges the United States faces in the Middle East, it remains the region's most important, powerful, and influential actor, so it is essential to understand how the trajectory of great power competition is shaping the potential for the United States to cooperate with other major powers and mitigate conflict.

More on:

Conflict Prevention

Middle East