Strategically situated at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East has long been an important focus of U.S. 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 that are seeking to defend themselves. The U.S. also maintains a long-term interest in the Middle East that is related to 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, in addition to 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 religious extremists vying for power, 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 modern-day borders often do not reflect the region’s cultural, ethnic, or religious realities. Today’s borders 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.
But viewing the current instability in the Middle East through the lens of a Sunni–Shia conflict does not show the full picture. The cultural and historical division between Persians and Arabs has reinforced the Sunni–Shia split. The mutual distrust of many Arab/Sunni powers and the Persian/Shia power (Iran), compounded by clashing national and ideological interests, has fueled instability, including in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Sunni extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have exploited sectarian and ethnic tensions to gain support by posing as champions of Sunni Arabs against Iran, Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime, and other non-Sunni governments and movements.
Current 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 the inadequate political, economic, and educational infrastructures in many countries, and the lack of access to education, jobs, and meaningful political participation fuels discontent. Because more than 60 percent of regional inhabitants are less than 30 years old, this demographic bulge will continue to have a substantial effect on political stability across the region.
The Middle East contains more than half of the world’s oil reserves and is the world’s chief oil-exporting region. As the world’s biggest oil consumer, the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining the free flow of oil and gas from the region. This is true even though the U.S. actually imports relatively little of its oil from the Middle East.3 Oil is a fungible commodity, and the U.S. economy remains vulnerable to sudden spikes in world oil prices.
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 (the world’s third largest economy) is the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) importer, accounting for 37 percent of the global market share of LNG demand.4 Qatar is the second largest supplier of LNG to Japan. In 2016, another U.S. ally in Asia—South Korea, the world’s 15th largest economy5—depended on the Middle East for 84 percent of its imports of crude oil.6 The U.S. 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 found 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. Although many oil-exporting countries recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, they have since experienced the deepest economic downturn since the 1990s as a result of to falling oil prices.7 Various factors such as weak demand, OPEC infighting, and increased U.S. domestic oil production have contributed to these plunging oil prices.8
Nevertheless, the Middle East is full of economic extremes. For example:
- Qatar is the world’s wealthiest country in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, while Yemen, a mere 700 miles away, ranks 194th.9
- Saudi Arabia has 265 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. It shares a nearly 500-mile border with Jordan, which has just 1 million barrels of proven oil reserves.
- According to the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, Bahrain ranks 18th in the world in terms of economic freedom, and Iran ranks 171st.10
These disparities are worsened by government corruption across most of the region, which not only squanders economic and human resources, but also restricts economic competition and hinders the development of free enterprise.
The economic situation, in part, drives the Middle East’s political environment. The lack of economic freedom was an important factor leading to the Arab Spring uprisings, which disrupted economic activity, depressed foreign and domestic investment, and slowed economic growth.
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 that began in early 2011 formed a regional sandstorm that eroded the foundations of many authoritarian regimes, erased borders, and destabilized many countries in the region. Even so, 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, these uprisings made slow progress toward democratic reform. At worst, they added to political instability, exacerbated economic problems, and contributed to the rise of Islamist extremists. Five years later, economic and political outlooks remain bleak.11
There is no shortage of security challenges for the U.S. and its allies in this region. Iran has exacerbated Shia–Sunni tensions to increase its influence over embattled regimes and undermine adversaries in Sunni-led states. Tehran attempts to run an unconventional empire by exerting great influence over sub-state entities like Hamas (Palestinian territories); Hezbollah (Lebanon); the Mahdi movement (Iraq); and the Houthi insurgents (Yemen). In Afghanistan, Tehran exerts influence over some Shiite groups. Iran also provided arms to the Taliban after it was ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition12 and has long considered the Afghan city of Herat, near the Iranian border, to be part of its sphere of influence.
The Iran nuclear agreement has strengthened Tehran’s ability to establish regional hegemony. Tehran has recovered approximately $100 billion in frozen assets that will boost its economy and enhance its strategic position, military capabilities, and support for surrogate networks and terrorist groups.13 The economic transfusion will enable Tehran to further tilt the regional balance of power in its favor.
Iran already looms large over weak and divided Arab rivals. Iraq and Syria have been destabilized by insurgencies and may never fully recover. Egypt is distracted by its own internal problems, economic imbalances, and the Islamist extremist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan has been inundated with a flood of Syrian refugees and is threatened by the spillover of Islamist extremist groups from Syria. Meanwhile, Tehran has continued to build up its missile arsenal (now the largest in the Middle East) and has increased its naval provocations in the Persian Gulf, intervened to prop up the Assad regime in Syria, and reinforced Shiite Islamist revolutionaries in Yemen and Bahrain.14 In Syria, the Assad regime’s brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations in early 2011 ignited a fierce civil war that has led to the deaths of more than 470,000 people15 and displaced about 4.5 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.16 More than 7.6 million people “are internally displaced within Syria.”17 The destabilizing spillover effects of this civil war include the creation of large refugee populations that could become a reservoir of potential recruits for extremist groups. In Jordan, where King Abdullah’s regime has been buffeted by Arab Spring protests and adverse economic trends, Syrian refugees now account for more than 10 percent of the population. This has placed even more strain on Jordan’s small economy, scarce water resources, and limited social services, creating rising resentment among the local population.
In 2015, more than 1 million Syrian migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, the largest numbers of migrating people that Europe has seen since World War II.18 This has sparked a crisis as countries struggle to cope with the massive influx and its social, economic, and political ramifications.
Thanks to the power vacuum created by the ongoing civil war in Syria, Islamist extremist groups, including the al-Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra Front and the self-styled Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS or ISIL and before that as al-Qaeda in Iraq, have carved out extensive sanctuaries where they are building proto-states and training militants from a wide variety of other Arab countries, Europe, Australia, and the United States. With a sophisticated Internet and social media presence, and by capitalizing on the civil war in Syria and sectarian divisions in Iraq, ISIS has been able to recruit over 25,000 fighters from outside the region to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters include over 4,500 citizens from Western nations, including approximately 250 U.S. citizens.19
In late 2013, the IS exploited the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s heavy-handed alienation, marginalization, and repression of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq to reinvigorate its insurgency and seize territory in Iraq. In the summer of 2014, the IS spearheaded a broad Sunni uprising against Baghdad. The assault was incredibly effective, and by the end of the year, the IS controlled one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria—a land mass roughly equal to the area of Great Britain—where the extremist group ruled upward of 9 million people. However, since then, the self-proclaimed caliphate has lost approximately 40 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 10 percent–20 percent of the territory it controlled in Syria.20 The Peshmerga militia of the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous area in northeastern Iraq, took advantage of the chaos caused by the collapse of the Iraqi security forces and occupied the city of Kirkuk, long considered by Kurds to be rightfully theirs—a claim rejected by the central government in Baghdad. The IS continues to attack the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, massacre Shia civilians and Sunnis who disagree with it, and terrorize religious and ethnic minorities in northern Iraq including the Christian community, Kurds, Turkmen, and Yazidis. In early 2016, Iraq’s military and militia forces, backed by air power from the U.S.-led coalition and by Peshmerga forces, launched an offensive to retake Mosul, but at the time of publication, only limited progress has been made.21
In April 2016, the Obama Administration announced that it was sending an additional 250 U.S. special operations forces to Syria.22 In Iraq, approximately 3,500 U.S. personnel were on the ground, although the numbers sometimes surpassed 5,000 due to rotations and temporary deployments.23 The U.S. led a coalition air campaign in Iraq and Syria with the help of Australia, Bahrain, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom (U.K.).24 In early 2016, the IS experienced difficulty replenishing its foreign fighters as it struggled to pay fighters and recruit new ones to replace those who have deserted, defected, or died.25 The recruitment problem was compounded by a string of major battlefield defeats, including the Iraqi military’s liberation of Ramadi,26 which contributed to their loss of substantial territory in Iraq and Syria.27 In May 2016, Iraq launched an offensive to retake the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah,28 which it managed to do in June.
Arab–Israeli tensions are another source of instability in the Middle East region. The repeated breakdown of Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations and the rise of the Hamas regime in Gaza in a 2007 coup have created an even more antagonistic situation. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, 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.
Although elected to power with only 44 percent of the vote in the 2006 elections, Hamas has since forced its radical agenda on the people of Gaza. This has led in turn to diminished public support and a high degree of needless suffering. Hamas has provoked wars with Israel in 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2014. It continues to pose threats to Israel and to Arab leaders who have signed peace agreements with Israel (representatives of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority). As long as Hamas remains imbued with its Islamist extremist ideology, which advocates the destruction of Israel, and retains a stranglehold over Gaza, achieving a sustainable Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement appears impossible.29
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 members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).30 Since 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. 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 between Arab states.
Often, bilateral relationships between Arab Middle Eastern countries and Western countries, including the U.S., are secretive. The opaqueness of these relationships sometimes creates problems for the U.S. when trying to coordinate defense and security cooperation with European allies active in the region (mainly the U.K. and France).
Military training is an important part of these relationships. The main motivation behind these exercises is to ensure close and effective coordination with key partners in the region, 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. In April 2016, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command launched the world’s largest maritime exercise across the Middle East to demonstrate global resolve in maintaining freedom of navigation and the free flow of maritime commerce.31
Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have participated in Combined Task Force-152, formed in 2004 to maintain maritime security in the Persian Gulf, with Bahrain commanding the task force on two separate occasions.32 The commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) noted that Middle Eastern partners have begun to take more seriously the threat from transnational Islamist extremist groups as ISIS has gained momentum, increased in strength, and expanded its international influence.33 Middle Eastern countries have also participated further afield in Afghanistan; since 2001, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE have supplied troops to the U.S.-led mission there. During the 2011 NATO-led operation in Libya, U.S. allies Qatar, Jordan, and the UAE participated to varying degrees.
In addition to military training, U.S. defense relations are underpinned by huge defense equipment deals. U.S. military hardware (and, to a lesser extent, British and French hardware) is preferred across the region because of its effectiveness and symbolic value as a sign of a close security relationship, and much of it has been combat tested. For example, Kuwait, the UAE, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have over 400 F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 jet fighter aircraft combined. Following the Iran nuclear deal, threatened Arab states undertook military buildups and a flood of arms purchases. The U.S. approved $33 billion worth of weapons sales to its Gulf Cooperation Council allies between May 2015 and March 2016. The six GCC countries received weapons that included ballistic missile defense systems, attack helicopters, advanced frigates, and anti-armor missiles.34 The use of U.S.-made hardware helps with interoperability and lays the foundation for longer-term engagement and cooperation in the region.
Iran continues to incite violence against Israel by providing thousands of increasingly long-range rockets to Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah—all of which are committed to destroying Israel. Additionally, Iran has escalated its threats against Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf by funding, training, equipping, and supporting anti-government militant groups in an attempt to undermine various Arab regimes. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has responded negatively to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement by distancing itself from Washington and adopting more aggressive policies to push back against Iran and its allies in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.35
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 countries in the Middle East reject those values. Israel has been designated as a Major Non-NATO ally (MNNA)36 because of its close ties to the U.S. With support from the United States, Israel has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated air and missile defense networks.37 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.38
In March 2015, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu soundly defeated his chief rival faction, the center-left Zionist Union. Netanyahu’s reelection enabled him to criticize the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran from a position of strength and further strained political relations with the Obama Administration, but bilateral security cooperation with the United States remained strong.
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. The United States started to play a more active role in the Persian Gulf after the U.K. completed the withdrawal of its military presence from bases “east of Suez” in 1971. The U.S. is also the largest provider of arms to Saudi Arabia and in November 2015 approved a $1.3 billion sale to restock munitions stockpiles depleted by fighting in Yemen.39
America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is based on pragmatism and is important for both security and economic reasons. The Saudis enjoy huge influence across the Muslim world. Roughly 2 million Muslims participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Saudi Arabia owns the world’s largest oil reserves and is the world’s foremost oil exporter. The uninterrupted flow of Saudi oil exports is crucial for fueling the global economy.
Riyadh has been a key partner in efforts to counterbalance Iran, safeguard the security of its GCC allies, remove Syria’s Assad regime from power, and stabilize Egypt and Yemen. Saudi Arabia also has played a growing role in countering the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Until 2003, Riyadh was in denial about Saudi connections to the 9/11 attacks. However, after Saudi Arabia was targeted by al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on its own soil, the government began to cooperate more closely in combating al-Qaeda.40 After the death of King Abdullah, his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, ascended to the throne in late January 2015. The new Saudi leadership has taken a more assertive military role in the Middle East as a result of an emboldened Iran and a retreating United States. In early 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab states to intervene in Yemen’s civil war after Yemen’s government was ousted by Houthi rebels.
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, making them strategically important to the U.S.41 The root of the 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 and Sunni Islam. Tehran has sought to radicalize Shia Arab minority groups to undermine Sunni Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen. 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 states carved out of the former Persian Empire and propped up by Western powers. Long-standing Iranian territorial claims in the Gulf add to Arab–Persian tensions.42 For example, Iran has long considered Bahrain to be part of its territory, a claim that has strained bilateral relations and contributed to Bahrain’s decision to break diplomatic ties after the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in early 2016.43 Iran also occupies the small but strategically important islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb (also claimed by the UAE) near the Strait of Hormuz.
The GCC often has problems agreeing on a common policy on matters of security. This reflects the organization’s intergovernmental nature and the desire of its members to place national interests above those of the GCC. Perhaps this is best demonstrated in the debates over 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, both of which share natural gas fields with Iran, view Iran’s activities in the region as less of a threat and maintain good relations with Tehran. Kuwait tends to fall somewhere in the middle. Inter-GCC relations also can be problematic. The UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have been at odds with Qatar over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a threat to internal security, and Qatar has recently decreased its overt support for the organization in order to strengthen relations with its GCC partners.
Apart from Bahrain, the GCC countries have weathered the political turbulence of the Arab Spring relatively well. Many of their citizens enjoy a high standard of living (made possible by millions of foreign workers and the export of oil and gas), which makes it easier for them to tolerate authoritarian rule. Of the six GCC states, Bahrain fared the worst during the 2011 popular uprisings due to persistent Sunni–Shia sectarian tensions worsened by Iranian antagonism and the increased willingness of Shiite youths to protest what they see as discrimination by the al-Khalifa monarchy.
Egypt. Egypt is also an important U.S. military ally. As one of only two Arab countries (the other being Jordan) that have diplomatic relations with Israel, 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 al-Sisi, pledged to restore democracy and was elected president in 2014. His government faces major political, economic, and security challenges. Egypt’s limping economy has been badly damaged by more than five years of political turbulence and violence that has reduced tourism revenues, deterred foreign investment, and raised the national debt. The new regime also faces an emboldened ISIS that launched waves of attacks in North Sinai in mid-2015, including the destruction of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.44
The July 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood–backed Morsi regime strained relations with the Obama Administration and resulted in a temporary hold on U.S. military assistance to Egypt. Cairo demonstrated its displeasure by buying Russian arms financed by Saudi Arabia in late 2013, but bilateral relations with the U.S. improved after Egypt’s military made good on its promises to hold elections. In April 2015, the Obama Administration released its hold on the annual $1.3 billion military aid package for Egypt.45
Lebanon and Yemen. The United States has developed cooperative defense arrangements with Lebanon and Yemen, two states that face substantial threats from Iranian-supported terrorist groups as well as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The United States has provided arms, equipment, and training for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has found itself increasingly challenged by Sunni Islamist extremist groups, including the IS, in addition to the long-term threat posed by Hezbollah. Hezbollah has emerged as Lebanon’s most powerful military force, adding to GCC fears about growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. In early 2016, Saudi Arabia cut off its funding for $4 billion worth of military aid to Lebanon because the country did not condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, thereby intensifying the proxy war with Iran.46
Washington’s security relationship with Yemen has grown since the 9/11 attacks. Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, faces major security threats from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliates.
The overall political and security situation in Yemen deteriorated further in 2014–2016. In January 2015, the Houthis, a militant Shiite group based in northern Yemen and backed by Iran,47 overran the capital city of Sana’a and forced the internationally recognized government led by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign. The Houthis solidified their control throughout the North and West of Yemen, and President Hadi fled to Riyadh. Backed by the U.S., the U.K., and France, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of 10 Sunni countries and led an air campaign against Houthi forces that began in March 2015. The coalition has rolled back the Houthis but is no closer to reinstating the internationally recognized government in Sana’a.
The Yemeni conflict has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh supports the Yemeni government, and Iran has provided money, arms, and training to the Houthi rebels, who belong to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam. The unstable political situation in Yemen caused the United States to evacuate its embassy and withdraw its special operations forces, severely undermining U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities in Yemen. The growing chaos enabled AQAP to expand its presence and establish a “mini-state” spanning more than 350 miles of coastline.48 IS entered Yemen in March 2015; however, estimates suggest that the number of IS personnel in Yemen is in the hundreds, while al-Qaeda numbers in the thousands.49
Quality of Armed Forces in the Middle East
The quality and capabilities of the armed forces in the region are mixed. Some countries spend billions of dollars each year on advanced Western military hardware, and others spend very little. Defense spending in the Middle East overall increased by 4.1 percent in 2015. Saudi Arabia was by far the region’s largest military spender, with an estimated $87.2 billion. Iraq had the region’s (and the world’s) largest increase in defense spending between 2006 and 2015: Its military spending in 2015 was $31.1 billion, up 35 percent from 2014 and up 536 percent from 2006. Iran’s military expenditure is expected to rise with the lifting of European Union and U.S. sanctions. Historically, defense spending figures for the Middle East have been very unreliable, but the lack of data has worsened; for 2015, there were no available data for Kuwait, Qatar, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.50
Different security factors drive the degree to which Middle Eastern countries fund, train, and arm their militaries. For Israel, which defeated Arab coalitions in wars 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 from the map.”51 As a result of Israel’s military dominance, states and non-state actors in the region have invested in asymmetric and unconventional capabilities to offset Israel’s military superiority.52 For the Gulf states, the main driver of defense policy is the Iranian military threat combined with internal security challenges. For Iraq, the internal threat posed by insurgents and terrorists drives defense policy.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are widely considered the most capable military force in the Middle East. On a conventional level, the IDF consistently surpasses other regional military forces.53 Other countries, such as Iran, have developed asymmetric tactics and have built up the military capabilities of proxy groups to close the gap in recent years,54 but the IDF’s quality and effectiveness remain unparalleled with regard to both technical capacity and personnel.55 This was demonstrated by Israel’s 2014 military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip: After weeks of conflict, the IDF mobilized over 80,000 reservists, demonstrating the depth and flexibility of the Israeli armed forces.56
Israel heavily funds its military sector 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.57 In particular, the IDF has focused on maintaining its superiority in missile defense, intelligence collection, precision weapons, and cyber technologies.58 The Israelis regard their cyber capabilities as especially important. In early 2016, the IDF unveiled a new five-year plan, worth roughly $78.6 billion, to enhance cyber-protected and networked combat capabilities in order to augment the IDF’s capacity to fight in multiple theaters.59 Cyber technologies are used for a number of purposes, including defending Israeli cyberspace, gathering intelligence, and carrying out attacks.60 Israel maintains its qualitative superiority in medium- and long-range missile capabilities.61 It also fields effective missile defense systems, including Iron Dome and Arrow, both of which the U.S. helped to finance.62 U.S. spending on Israel’s air and missile defense has soared in the past decade, from $133 million in 2006 to $619 million in 2015.63
Israel also has a nuclear weapons capability (which it does not publicly acknowledge) that increases its strength relative to other powers in the region. Israel’s nuclear weapons capability has helped to deter adversaries as the gap in conventional capabilities has been reduced.64
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 may force oil-exporting countries to adjust their defense spending patterns. At present, however, GCC nations still have the best-funded, although not necessarily the most effective, Arab armed forces in the region.
The GCC established a joint expeditionary force called the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF), which has had only modest operational success and has never met its stated ambition of deploying tens of thousands of soldiers. Created in 1984, its main purpose today is to counter Iran’s military buildup and help maintain internal security. The PSF first deployed a modest force of 3,000 troops to help liberate Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Its most recent deployment was to Bahrain in 2011 to help restore order after Iranian-backed Shiite protests brought the country to a standstill and threatened the monarchy.65 Internal divisions inside the GCC, especially among Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, have prevented the PSF from playing a more active role in the region.
All GCC members boast advanced defense hardware with a preference for U.S., U.K., and French equipment. Saudi Arabia maintains the most capable military force in the GCC. It has an army of 75,000 soldiers and a National Guard of 100,000 personnel reporting directly to the king. The army operates 730 main battle tanks including 200 U.S.-made M1A1s. Its air force is built around American and British-built aircraft and consists of more than 325 combat-capable aircraft including F-15s, Tornados, and Typhoons.66 These aircraft flew missions over Yemen against Houthi rebels in 2009–2010, during Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen beginning in March 2015, and most recently over Syria as part of the U.S.-led fight against ISIS.67 Both Saudi Arabia68 and the UAE69 have hundreds of Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles (known as Black Shaheen in the UAE) in their inventories. These weapons proved highly effective when the British and French used them during the air campaign over Libya in 2011.
In fact, air power is the strong suit of most GCC members. Oman operates F-16s and has purchased 12 Typhoons, to be delivered in 2017. According to Defense Industry Daily, “The UAE operates the F-16E/F Desert Falcon, which holds more advanced avionics than any F-16 variant in the US inventory.”70 Qatar operates French-made Mirage fighters. The UAE and Qatar deployed fighters to participate in NATO-led operations over Libya in 2011 (although they did not participate in strike operations). Beginning in early fall 2014, all six GCC members joined the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, with the UAE contributing the most in terms of air power.71 The navies of the GCC members rarely deploy beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones, but all members, other than Oman, have participated in regional combined task forces led by the U.S.72 In 2016, Oman and Britain launched a multimillion-dollar joint venture to develop Duqm as a strategic Middle Eastern port in the Indian Ocean to improve defense security and prosperity agendas.73
Even with the billions of dollars invested each year by members of the GCC, most see security ties with the United States as crucial for their security. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once noted, the Saudis will “fight the Iranians to the last American.”74
Egypt has the largest Arab military force in the Middle East, with 438,500 active personnel and 479,000 reserve personnel in its armed forces.75 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.76 Since then, its army and air force have been significantly upgraded with U.S. military weapons, equipment, and warplanes.
Egypt substantially increased troop deployments and military operations in 2015 following the onslaught of Islamist and insurgent activity at its borders. It has also sought closer security cooperation with other North African states to improve border and internal security.77
The most visible expression of U.S. influence in Cairo is military aid, which was withheld in some areas after the 2013 military coup.78 This indefinite hold applied to Apache attack helicopters, F-16s, Harpoon ship-to-ship missile systems, and M1A1 tank kits.79 Since Egypt relies on U.S. assistance to combat Islamist militants and terrorists, the ability of its military to contain Islamist threats was undermined.80 Washington’s withholding of some U.S. military assistance in 2013 prompted Cairo to diversify its sources of arms. In February 2014, Egypt signed a deal to purchase weapons from Russia, including attack helicopters and air-defense systems,81 but after President Obama lifted the hold on U.S. military aid to Egypt in March 2015, Egypt was slated to receive 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks.82
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, for all of which the Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” terrorist group has claimed responsibility. The government response to the uptick of violence has been severe: arrests of thousands of suspected Islamist extremists and restrictive measures such as a law criminalizing media reporting that contradicts official reports.83
Jordan is a close U.S. ally with small but effective military forces. Its principal security threats include ISIS, turbulence in Syria and Iraq, and the resulting flow of refugees. Jordan is currently home to more than 1.4 million Syrians. In January 2016, King Abdullah announced that Jordan had reached the saturation point in its ability to make more Syrian refugees.84 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 been focused in recent years on border and internal security. Nevertheless, Jordan’s conventional capability is significant considering its size.
Jordan’s ground forces total 74,000 soldiers and include 390 British-made Challenger 1 tanks. The backbone of its air force is comprised of 44 F-16 Fighting Falcons.85 Jordan’s 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. Jordan became more deeply involved in coalition air operations against the Islamic State in February 2015 when the IS burned alive a Jordanian pilot who was captured in December 2014 after his plane crashed in Syria during a mission. Since then, Jordan has stepped up its air strikes in Syria.86
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. Shiite army officers were favored over their Sunni, Christian, and Kurdish counterparts. Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chose top officers according to their political loyalties. The 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.
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, up to four divisions collapsed and were routed by vastly smaller numbers of Islamic State fighters. Although the Iraqi army, backed by U.S. air support, Kurdish militias, and Shiite militias, including some controlled by Iran, has recovered some territory lost to the IS, it remains a work in progress that requires further reform, training, and support. The Iraqi Air Force has become increasingly involved in operations against IS since the end of 2014, following the delivery of Su-25s from Russia and Iran, while its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability has been enhanced by the acquisition of CH-4 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from China.87 In July 2015, four F-16IQ Viper fighter aircraft were delivered to Iraq, the first of 30 Iraq has ordered in addition to six twin seat trainers.88
Current U.S. Military Presence in the Middle East
The United States maintained a limited military presence in the Middle East before 1980, chiefly a small naval force 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,89 but the 1979 Iranian revolution demolished one pillar, and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan increased the Soviet threat to the Gulf. President Jimmy Carter proclaimed in January 1980 that the United States would take military action to defend oil-rich Persian Gulf states from external aggression, a commitment known as the Carter Doctrine. In 1980, he ordered the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), the precursor to USCENTCOM, established in January 1983.90
Up until the late 1980s, a possible Soviet invasion of Iran was considered to be the most significant threat facing the U.S. in the Middle East.91 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 Iraqi forces from Kuwait. CENTCOM commanded the U.S. contribution of more than 532,000 military personnel to the coalition armed forces, which totaled at least 737,000.92 This marked the peak U.S. force deployment in the Middle East.
Confrontations with Iraq continued throughout the 1990s as a result of Iraqi violations of 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 150,000, joined by military personnel from coalition forces. Apart from the “surge” in 2007, when President George W. Bush deployed an additional 30,000 personnel, American combat forces in Iraq fluctuated between 100,000 and 150,000.93 In December 2011, the U.S. officially completed its withdrawal of troops, leaving only 150 personnel attached to the U.S. embassy in Iraq.94
Since the withdrawal from Iraq, the U.S. has continued to maintain a limited number of forces in the Middle East. The bulk of these personnel are based in GCC countries. As of October 2015, approximately 35,000 U.S. military personnel were operating in the Middle East. Their exact disposition is not made public because of political sensitivities in the region,95 but information gleaned from open sources reveals the following:
- Kuwait. Approximately 15,000 U.S. personnel are based in Kuwait.96 These forces are spread among Camp Arifjan, Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, and Ali Al Salem Air Base. A squadron of fighters and Patriot missile systems are normally deployed to Kuwait.
- UAE. According to UAE and U.S. officials, about 5,000 U.S. personnel, mainly from the U.S. Air Force, are stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base. Their main mission in the UAE is to operate fighters, UAVs, refueling aircraft, and surveillance aircraft. The United States also has regularly deployed F-22 Raptor combat aircraft to Al Dhafra.97Patriot missile systems are deployed for air and missile defense.
- Oman. Since 2004, Omani facilities reportedly have not been used for air support operations in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and the number of U.S. military personnel in Oman has fallen to about 200, mostly from the U.S. Air Force. The United States reportedly can use—with advance notice and for specified purposes—Oman’s military airfields in Muscat (the capital), Thumrait, and Masirah Island.98
- Bahrain. The oldest U.S. military presence in the Middle East is found in Bahrain. Today, some 7,000 U.S. military personnel are based there. Bahrain is home to the Naval Support Activity Bahrain and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, so most U.S. military personnel there belong to the U.S. Navy. The U.S. recently signed on to a $580 million military construction program to improve the Al Salman Pier, to be completed in 2017.99 A significant number of U.S. Air Force personnel operate out of Shaykh Isa Air Base, where F-16s, F/A-18s, and P-3 surveillance aircraft are stationed.100 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.
- Saudi Arabia. The U.S. withdrew the bulk of its forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003. Little information on the number of U.S. military personnel currently based there is available. However, elements of the U.S. 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, along with 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.101
- Qatar. Thousands of U.S. personnel are deployed in Qatar, mainly from the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. operates its Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, which is one of the most important U.S. air bases in the world. Heavy bombers, tankers, transports, and ISR aircraft operate from there. Al Udeid Air Base also serves as the forward headquarters of CENTCOM. In addition, the base houses prepositioned U.S. military equipment. It is defended by U.S. Patriot missile systems.
- Jordan. 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, 1,500 American soldiers, a squadron of F-16s, a Patriot missile battery, and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems102 have been deployed in Jordan.103
- Iraq. In December 2011, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq was reduced to 150 personnel to protect the U.S. embassy. However, since the invasion of northwestern Iraq by the Islamic State, U.S. troop numbers in the country have gradually been increasing. As of March 2016, approximately 5,000 U.S. personnel were deployed on a temporary basis in Iraq, although the number of officially assigned forces remained below a cap of 3,870.104 In February 2015, the U.S. reportedly moved combat search-and-rescue teams to northern Iraq to support possible rescue missions in Syria.105
In addition, there have been media reports that the U.S. government operates a secret UAV base in Saudi Arabia from which drone attacks against militants in Yemen are launched.106 There also are reports of an American base on Yemen’s Socotra Island, which is located near the coast of Somalia, being used for counterterrorism operations off the Horn of Africa and Yemen.107
CENTCOM’s stated mission is to promote cooperation among nations, respond to crises, deter or defeat state and non-state aggression, support economic development, and, when necessary, perform reconstruction in order to establish the conditions for regional security, stability, and prosperity. This mission statement is supported by several focus area objectives. According to the 2016 CENTCOM posture statement submitted to Congress, the 10 focus areas are:108
- Dismantle and ultimately defeat ISIL in order to prevent further trans-regional spread of sectarian-fueled radical extremism and to mitigate the continuing Iraq–Syria crisis.
- Continue support to Afghanistan, in partnership with NATO, to assist Afghanistan as it establishes itself as a regionally integrated, secure, stable, and developing country; continue planning and coordination for the enduring U.S. and NATO partnerships in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2016.
- Defeat Al Qaeda, deny violent extremists safe havens and freedom of movement, and limit the reach of terrorists, to enhance protection of the U.S. homeland and allies and partner nation homelands.
- Counter the Iranian Threat Network’s malign activities in the region, to include the impacts of surrogates and proxies.
- Support a whole of government approach to developments in Yemen, preventing Yemen from growing as an ungoverned space for AQ/VEOs [violent extremist organizations]; and supporting regional stability efforts that retain U.S. CT [counterterrorism] capacity in the region.
- Maintain a credible deterrent posture against Iran’s evolving conventional and strategic military capabilities.
- Prevent, and if required, counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; disrupt their development and prevent their use.
- Protect lines of communication, ensure free use of the shared spaces (including the cyber commons), and secure unimpeded global access for legal commerce.
- Shape, support, incentivize, and maintain ready, flexible regional Coalitions and partners, as well as cross-CCMD and interagency U.S. whole-of-government teams, to support crisis response; optimize military resources.
- Develop and execute security cooperation programs, improving bilateral and multi-lateral partnerships, building partnered “capacities,” and improving information sharing, security, and stability.
CENTCOM is supported by four service component commands and one subordinate unified command: U.S. Naval Forces Middle East (USNAVCENT); U.S. Army Forces Middle East (USARCENT); U.S. Air Forces Middle East (USAFCENT); U.S. Marine Forces Middle East (MARCENT); and 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, it is responsible for land operations in an area encompassing 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, it is responsible for air operations and working with the air forces of partner countries in the region. Additionally, USAFCENT manages an extensive supply and equipment prepositioning program at several regional sites.
- U.S. Marine Forces Central Command. USMARCENT is the designated Marine Corps service component for USCENTCOM. Based in Bahrain, it is responsible for all Marine Corps forces in the region.
- U.S. Special Operations Command Central. SOCCENT is a subordinate USCENTCOM unified command. Based in Qatar, it 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 over which it once ruled and has conducted military operations in the region for decades. Approximately 1,200 British service personnel are based throughout the Gulf. The British presence in the region is dominated by the Royal Navy. In terms of permanently based naval assets, there are four mine hunters and one Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship. Generally, there are two frigates or destroyers in the Gulf or Arabian Sea performing maritime security duties. Although such matters are not the subject of public discussion, U.K. attack submarines also operate in the area. As a sign of its long-term maritime presence in the region, the U.K. recently broke ground on an $11 million new headquarters for its Maritime Component Command at Bahrain’s Salman Naval Base.109
The U.K. also has a sizeable Royal Air Force (RAF) presence in the region, 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. An Expeditionary Air Wing recently stood up to support air transport links between the U.K. and forces deployed in the region and to provide logistical support to RAF assets visiting the region.110 The U.K. also operates small RAF detachments in Oman that 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 in the future.
The British presence in the region extends beyond soldiers, ships, and planes. A British-run staff college recently opened in Qatar, and Kuwait recently chose the U.K. to help run its own equivalent of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.111 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 is still significant. France opened its first military base in the Gulf in 2009 in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. This was the first foreign military installation built by the French in 50 years.112 In total, the French have 700 personnel based in the country along with six Rafale fighter jets.113 French ships have access to the Zayed Port, which is big enough to handle every ship in the French Navy except the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle. In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, Gulf states have increasingly looked to France to buy arms, partly to signal their discontent with U.S.–Iran policy. France secured billions in regional defense contracts in 2015, raising French arms exports to the highest level in 15 years.114
Key Infrastructure and Warfighting Capabilities
The Middle East is geographically situated in a critical location. Two-thirds of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight from the Gulf region, making it accessible from most 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.
While infrastructure is not as developed in the Middle East as it is in North America or Europe, a decades-long presence means that the U.S. has tried and tested systems that involve moving large numbers of matériel and personnel into and out of the region. For example, according to the Department of Defense, at the height of U.S. combat operations in Iraq in the second Gulf War, there were 165,000 servicemembers and 505 bases. Moving personnel and equipment out of the country was an enormous undertaking—“the largest logistical drawdown since World War II”115—and included the 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.”116
As of 2014, 60 percent of roads in the Middle East region were paved, but wide variation exists between countries. For example, 100 percent of the roads in Israel, Jordan, and the UAE are paved. Other nations, such as Oman (46 percent), Saudi Arabia (21.5 percent), and Yemen (8.7 percent), have poor paved road coverage.117 Rail coverage is also poor. For instance, Saudi Arabia has only 700 miles of railroads. By comparison, Maryland, which is roughly 1.5 percent the size of Saudi Arabia, has about the same amount.118 In Syria, five years of civil war has wreaked havoc on the rail system.119
Though only 45 percent of runways of the region’s 1,135 airports are paved, air traffic is set to grow and eventually to outpace world growth statistics. In an attempt to diversify their economies, some nations in the region have been upgrading their air transportation infrastructure to take advantage of their location for connecting flights, thus opening up a competition. Qatar opened a new $15 billion airport in May 2014;120 Abu Dhabi International Airport is undergoing an expansion program that is expected to be completed in 2017; and Dubai International Airport, the world’s seventh busiest airport, is undergoing a $7.8 billion expansion project to boost capacity.121
The U.S. has access to several airfields in the region. The primary air hub for U.S. forces in the region is at 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; Masirah Island, Oman; and use of 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. Just because the U.S. has access to a particular air base today does not mean that it will be made available for a particular operation in the future. For example, it is highly likely that Qatar and Oman would not allow the U.S. to use air bases in their territory for strikes against Iran.
The U.S. has access to ports in the region, perhaps most importantly in Bahrain. The Naval Support Activity Bahrain has undertaken a $260 million expansion project that will enable the homeporting of littoral combat ships by 2018 in one of the world’s busiest waterways.122 The U.S. also has access to a deep-water port, Khalifa bin Salman, in Bahrain and naval facilities at Fujairah, UAE.123 The UAE’s commercial port of Jebel Ali is open for visits from U.S. warships and prepositioning of equipment for operations in the theater.124
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. For example, the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait combined have over 65,000 cargo ships travelling through them each year.125 Given the high volume of maritime traffic in the Middle East 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 2015, 998.7 million tons of cargo transited the canal, averaging 47.9 ships each day.126 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 for Europe in terms of oil transportation. The canal also serves as an important strategic asset, as it is routinely used 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. 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 90,000-ton aircraft carriers and therefore exposes a larger ship to attack. For this reason, a variety of security protocols are followed, including the provision of air support by the Egyptian military.127
- 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. Nearly 17 million barrels of oil per day, “about 30% of all seaborne-traded oil,” pass through the strait for an annual total of more than 6 billion barrels of oil. Most of these crude oil exports go to Asian markets, particularly Japan, India, South Korea, and China.128
The shipping routes through the Strait of Hormuz are particularly vulnerable to disruption, given the extremely narrow passage and its proximity to Iran. Tehran has repeatedly threatened to close the strategic strait if it is attacked. While attacking shipping in the strait would drive up oil prices, Iran would also lose, both because it depends on the Strait of Hormuz to export its own crude oil and because it would undermine Tehran’s relations with such oil importers as China, Japan, and India. Tehran also would pay a heavy military price if it provoked a U.S. military response.
- 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. Oil tankers transport approximately 4.7 million barrels of oil per day through the strait.129The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting passage to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments.130
Over the past decade, piracy off the coast of Somalia has dominated the focus of international maritime security efforts. Recently, however, the frequency of pirate attacks in the region has dropped off, reaching the lowest point since 2006, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s global piracy report. Pirate activity, however, continues to threaten international trade and the safety of the international commons.131
Maritime Prepositioning of Equipment and Supplies. The U.S. military has deployed non-combatant 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 areas. 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.
For the foreseeable future, the Middle East region will remain a key focus for U.S. military planners. An area that was once considered relatively stable, mainly due to the ironfisted rule of authoritarian regimes, is now highly unstable and a breeding ground for terrorism. Overall security in the region has deteriorated in recent years. Conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have worsened, with Islamic State or al-Qaeda fighters playing major roles. The Russian and Iranian interventions in Syria have greatly complicated the fighting there. Egypt faces a growing insurgency in the Sinai that is gradually spreading. Iraq has managed to stem the advance and push back the Islamic State but needs substantial help to defeat it.
Many of the borders created after World War I are disappearing. 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 main security and political challenges in the region are inextricably linked to the unrealized aspirations of the Arab Spring, surging transnational terrorism, and the potential threat of Iran. 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.
Thanks to decades of U.S. 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. The logistical processes for maintaining a large force forward deployed thousands of miles away from the homeland are well in place. Unlike in Europe, all of these processes have recently been tested in combat. The personal links between allied armed forces are also present. Joint training exercises improve interoperability, and U.S. military educational courses, which officers (and often royals) from the Middle East regularly attend, allow the U.S. to influence some of the region’s future leaders.
America’s relationships in the region are pragmatically based 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 it to 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 utilizes a five-point scale, ranging from “very poor” to “excellent” conditions and covering four regional characteristics of greatest relevance to the conduct of military operations:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Favorable. A favorable operating environment includes good infrastructure, strong alliances, and a stable political environment. The U.S. military is well placed in the region for future operations.
- 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:
- Alliances. Alliances are important for interoperability and collective defense, as allies would be more likely to lend support to U.S. military operations. Various indicators provide insight into the strength or health of an alliance. These 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.
- 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 considers, for example, whether transfers of power in the region are generally peaceful and whether there been any recent instances of political instability.
- U.S. Military Positioning. Having military forces based or equipment and supplies staged in a region greatly facilitates the ability if 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 who 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.
- 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 operations from, 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.132
In summary, the U.S. has developed an extensive network of bases in the region and has acquired substantial operational experience in combatting regional threats, but many of its allies are hobbled by political instability, economic problems, internal security threats, and mushrooming transnational threats. Although the overall score remains “moderate,” as it was last year, it has fallen lower and is on the edge of dipping to “poor” because of increasing 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: 1—Very Poor
- U.S. Military Positioning: 3—Moderate
- Infrastructure: 3—Moderate
Leading to a regional score of: Moderate
For example, Sir Mark Sykes, Britain’s lead negotiator with the French on carving up the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, during a 1916 meeting in Downing Street 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). ↩
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The U.S. imports 40 percent of its oil needs. Of this, 28 percent comes from the Middle East. Since 2005, U.S. oil imports have decreased year on year. See U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “How Dependent Are We on Foreign Oil?” Energy in Brief, last updated May 10, 2013, http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/foreign_oil_dependence.cfm (accessed August 21, 2014). ↩
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U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Japan: International Energy Data and Analysis.” ↩
Clifford Krauss, “Oil Prices Explained: Signs of a Modest Revival,” The New York Times, January 15, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/business/energy-environment/oil-prices.html?_r=0 (accessed June 1, 2016). ↩
Tim Bowler, “Falling Oil Prices: Who Are the Winners and Losers?” BBC News, January 19, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-29643612 (accessed June 1, 2016). ↩
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook 2016, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html (accessed June 1, 2016). ↩
“Country Rankings,” in Ambassador Terry Miller and Anthony B. Kim, 2016 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2016), http://www.heritage.org/index/ranking. ↩
“The Arab Winter.” The Economist, January 9, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21685503-five-years-after-wave-uprisings-arab-world-worse-ever (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
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The MNNA designation was established during the dying days of the Cold War in 1989 to acknowledge American partners that contribute to U.S. security, defense, and broader geopolitical goals but are not members of NATO. The first tranche of countries to become MNNAs included South Korea, Israel, Egypt, Australia, and Japan. The most recent country to be awarded this title is Afghanistan, which was so designated in 2012 by President Barack Obama. ↩
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International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2016, p. 331. ↩
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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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Julia Zorthian and Heather Jones, “This Graphic Shows Where U.S. Troops Are Stationed Around the World,” Time, October 16, 2015, http://time.com/4075458/afghanistan-drawdown-obama-troops/ (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
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Kenneth Katzman, “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report for Members and Committees of Congress, June 11, 2014, p. 19, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/53b5055c4.pdf (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
Ibid., pp. 22–23. ↩
United States Air Forces Central Command, “Wing Leadership Visits Eskan Village,” July 5, 2013, http://www.afcent.af.mil/Units/379thAirExpeditionaryWing/News/Display/tabid/5382/Article/350180/wing-leadership-visits-eskan-village.aspx (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
Andrew Tilghman, “In a First, U.S. Forces in Jordan Have Attacked ISIS in Syria,” Military Times, March 11, 2016, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2016/03/11/us-artillery-jordan-launches-first-strike-isis/81646504/ (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
Richard Sisk, “US Troops in Jordan Will Train Iraqi Soldiers,” Military.com, January 22, 2014, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/01/22/us-troops-in-jordan-will-train-iraqi-soldiers.html (accessed May 26, 2016). ↩
Missy Ryan, “The U.S. Military Has a Lot More People in Iraq than It Has Been Saying,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/03/21/the-u-s-military-has-a-lot-more-people-in-iraq-than-it-has-been-saying/ (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
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“Israel and Iran: Closer to Takeoff,” The Economist, February 11, 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21547297 (accessed May 26, 2016). ↩
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U.K. Royal Navy, “UK Minister Breaks Ground on Royal Navy HQ in Bahrain,” April 28, 2014, http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2014/april/28/140428-hq-in-bahrain (accessed May 26, 2016). ↩
U.K. Ministry of Defence, “New RAF Unit Strengthens Relationship with United Arab Emirates,” last updated March 21, 2014, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/906-expeditionary-air-wing-stands-up-in-the-united-arab-emirates (accessed May 31, 2016). ↩
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Indexmundi.com, “Roads, Paved (% of Total Roads)—Middle East,” http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/IS.ROD.PAVE.ZS/map/middle-east (accessed May 26, 2016). ↩
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Justin Bachman, “Atlanta’s Still the World’s Busiest Airport—but Maybe Not for Long,” Bloomberg, April 2, 2014, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-04-02/atlantas-still-the-worlds-busiest-airport-but-maybe-not-for-long (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
Hendrick Simoes, “Work in Progress to Upgrade Facilities at Navy Base in Bahrain,” Stars and Stripes, April 11, 2014, http://www.stripes.com/news/work-in-progress-to-upgrade-facilities-at-navy-base-in-bahrain-1.277483 (accessed May 26, 2016). ↩
Katzman, “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy.” ↩
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“Introduction,” in Suez Canal Authority, Yearly Report, 2014, p. 1, http://www.suezcanal.gov.eg/Files/Publications/119.pdf (accessed May 31, 2016). ↩
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U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” last updated November 10, 2014, p. 4, http://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis_includes/special_topics/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/wotc.pdf (accessed May 31, 2016). ↩
U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Oil Trade off Yemen Coast Grew by 20% to 4.7 Million Barrels per Day in 2014,” Today in Energy, April 23, 2015, http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=20932 (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
David Cutler, “Factbox—Some Facts on the Bab Al-Mandab Shipping Lane,” Reuters, June 4, 2011, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/06/04/uk-yemen-shipping-bab-al-mandab-idUKTRE75241G20110604 (accessed May 31, 2016). ↩
International Chamber of Commerce, Commercial Crime Services, “IMB Piracy Report Highlights Violence in West Africa,” July 15, 2013, https://www.icc-ccs.org/news/865-imb-piracy-report-highlights-violence-in-west-africa (accessed August 2, 2016). ↩
See, for example, World Bank, “Logistics Performance Index: Quality of Trade and Transport-Related Infrastructure (1=Low to 5=High),” http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/LP.LPI.INFR.XQ (accessed May 31, 2016). ↩