The Middle East—strategically situated at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa—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 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. The region 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 40 percent of regional inhabitants are between the ages of 15 and 29, this demographic bulge will continue to have a substantial effect on political stability across the region.3

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.4 Oil is a fungible commodity, and the U.S. economy remains vulnerable to sudden spikes in world oil prices.

Also, many U.S. allies are dependent on Middle East oil and gas, so there is a second-order effect to the U.S. if supply from the Middle East is reduced or compromised. For example, U.S. ally Japan (the world’s third largest economy) is the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) importer, and, on average, an LNG tanker enters Tokyo harbor every 20 hours. Qatar is the second largest supplier of LNG to Japan. In 2013, another U.S. ally in Asia—South Korea, the world’s 14th largest economy—depended on the Middle East for 87 percent of its imports of crude oil imports. The U.S. might not be dependent on Middle East oil or LNG, but the economic consequences arising from a major disruption to supplies would ripple across the globe.

The Middle East is also growing financial and logistics hubs 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. Like the rest of the world, the Middle East was hit by the global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession, but many oil-exporting countries have made an economic recovery.

The Middle East is full of economic extremes. For example:

  • Qatar is the world’s wealthiest country in terms of GDP per capita, while Yemen, a mere 700 miles away, ranks 151st.
  • 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 2015 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, while Iran ranks 171st.5

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 have disrupted economic activity, depressed foreign and domestic investment, and slowed economic growth. This was the case when international investors started to shun Bahrain, rocked by the Arab Spring protests, for the stability of the UAE in 2011.6

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 boosted political instability, exacerbated economic problems, and contributed to the rise of Islamist extremists.

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 coalition7 and has long considered the Afghan city of Herat, near the Iranian border, to be part of its sphere of influence.

Iran has continued its military buildup, including ballistic missiles that pose a growing threat to Israel and at least four NATO allies in southeastern Europe—not to mention the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in the region.8 Tehran also has threatened to disrupt the flow of oil and LNG from the Persian Gulf if it becomes embroiled in a war against the U.S. or Israel.

In Syria, the Assad regime’s brutal repression of the peaceful demonstrations in early 2011 ignited a fierce civil war that has led to the deaths of more than 220,000 people and displaced about 3.9 million refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.9 More than 6.5 million people “are internally displaced within Syria.”10 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.

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, and even the United States.

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. By June 2014, the IS was spearheading a broad Sunni uprising against Baghdad that expelled Iraqi security forces from areas populated predominantly by Sunni Arabs in northwestern Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In Syria and Iraq, the IS now controls an area the size of Maryland.

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 that disagree with it, and terrorize religious and ethnic minorities in northern Iraq including the Christian community, Kurds, Turkmen, and Yazidis. In early 2015, Iraqi Security Forces launched an offensive to seize the strategic town of Tikrit from IS, with Iranian and Shiite militia support at the onset and U.S. air support in the final stages of the operation.

The May 2015 seizure of the city of Ramadi by the IS prompted the Obama Administration to dispatch another 450 U.S. troops to act as trainers and advisers to Iraqi security forces on top of the 3,100 military advisers already deployed to Iraq. A U.S.-led air campaign against the IS by a coalition that included Iraq, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands attacked targets in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and the UAE also joined the United States in attacking IS targets in Syria. Despite some local setbacks inflicted on the IS by ground forces deployed by Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government, the IS has demonstrated a persistent ability to mount surprise attacks and limited ground offensives, in part due to a steady influx of foreign fighters that has bolstered its strength.

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 (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.11

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).12 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 due to 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. In the past year, U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) conducted 45 multilateral and bilateral training exercises with many of these allies and partners.13 The main motivation behind these exercises is to ensure close and effective coordination with key partners in the region, to demonstrate an enduring U.S. security commitment to regional allies, and to train Arab armed forces so they can take a larger share of responsibility for regional security. The results have been mixed.

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.14 Jordan hosted the Eager Lion 14 training exercise, which included 4,000 military personnel from 14 Arab countries and 4,500 U.S. military personnel.15 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-18 jet fighter aircraft combined. In light of the Iranian missile threat, the UAE and Qatar have invested billions of dollars in the U.S.-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. In 2010, the U.S. signed a $60 billion armaments deal—its biggest ever—with Saudi Arabia.16 The use of U.S.-made hardware helps with interoperability and lays the foundation for longer-term engagement and cooperation in the region.

A major source of strain in the relationship between the U.S. and its partners in the Middle East is the question of how best to halt Iran’s nuclear program. There is an understandable concern in Israel and many Arab states that any deal with Tehran will fail to halt its drive for nuclear weapons, instead paving the way for a détente between the U.S. and Iran that will expose U.S. allies to greater threats.17 Many U.S. allies in the region look at the U.S. treatment of Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 after the abrupt cancellation of Phase-3 of the ballistic missile defense program in Europe—an ill-conceived effort to placate Russia ahead of the so-called Russian reset. Leaders in the Middle East, especially the Gulf, are concerned that they may receive similar treatment if the Administration seeks accommodation with Iran.

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)18 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.19 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.20

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 United Kingdom completed the withdrawal of its military presence from bases “east of Suez” in 1971.

The United States’ 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 two 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 contain 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.21 After the death of King Abdullah, his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, ascended to the throne in late January 2015 and immediately began to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy by leading a coalition of Arab states to intervene in Yemen’s civil war after Yemen’s government was ousted by Houthi rebels in early 2015.

Gulf Cooperation Council. The countries of the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) are at the epicenter of the Arab–Persian fault line, making them strategically important to the U.S.22 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 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in Bahrain, a majority-Shia country ruled by 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 the Arab–Persian tensions in the region.23 For example, Iran has long considered Bahrain to be part of its territory. 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 are hawkish in how they see 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 loggerheads with Qatar regarding its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a threat to internal security.

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 slow pace of social reform by the al-Khalifa monarchy.

Egypt. Egypt is also an important U.S. military ally. Egypt, as one of only two Arab countries (the other being Jordan) that have diplomatic relations with Israel, 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 another massive wave of protests in June 2013 that prompted another 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. The new government faces major political, economic, and security challenges. Egypt’s limping economy has been badly damaged by four years of political turbulence and violence that has reduced tourism revenues, deterred foreign investment, and boosted the national debt.

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 the hold on the annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt and promised to continue future requests to Congress for aid.24

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. 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 Islamic State, in addition to the long-term threat posed by Hezbollah.

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 2014–2015. In January 2015, the Houthis, a militant Shiite group based in northern Yemen, overran the capital city of Sanaa 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. Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of 10 Sunni countries and led an air campaign against Houthi forces that began in March 2015.

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, particularly in eastern Yemen.25

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 5.2 percent in 2014 to an estimated $196 billion. Both Iraq’s and Lebanon’s defense spending increased by 15 percent, and Saudi expenditure increased by 17 percent. In 2014, Saudi military expenditure was $80.8 billion, amounting to 10.4 percent of overall GDP, one of the highest percentages in the world. Historically, defense spending figures for the Middle East have been very uncertain, but the lack of data has worsened; in 2014, there were no available data for Iran, Qatar, Kuwait, and Syria, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.26

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 threat to its existence is now posed by an Iranian regime that has called for Israel to be “wiped from the map.”27 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.28 For the Gulf states, the main driver 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.29 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,30 but the IDF’s quality and effectiveness remain unparalleled with regard to both technical capacity and personnel.31 This was demonstrated by Israel’s 2014 military operations in the Gaza Strip: After weeks of conflict, the IDF mobilized over 80,000 reservists, a fact that demonstrates the depth of the Israeli armed forces.32

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.33 In particular, the IDF has focused on maintaining its superiority in missile defense, intelligence collection, precision weapons, and cyber technologies.34 The Israelis regard their emerging cyber capabilities as especially important. Cyber technologies are used for a number of purposes, including defending Israeli cyberspace, gathering intelligence, and carrying out attacks.35 Israel maintains its qualitative superiority in medium- and long-range missile capabilities.36 It also fields effective missile defense systems, including Iron Dome and Arrow, both of which the U.S. helped to finance.37

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.38

After Israel, the most technologically advanced and best-equipped armed forces are found in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The export of oil and gas means that there is no shortage of resources to devote to defense spending, and the ever-present threat of Iran means that there is no shortage of political will to invest in defense. Most staff officers have been educated in the U.K. or the U.S. Generally speaking, these are 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 to 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.39 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 600 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 300 combat-capable aircraft including F-15s, Tornados, and Typhoons.40 These were used with limited success in northern Yemen against Houthi rebels in 2009–2010 and again during Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led air campaign launched in March 2015 against the Houthis as they advanced southward.41 Both Saudi Arabia42 and the UAE43 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. The UAE operates the F-16E/F Desert Falcon, which is even more advanced than any variant of the F-16 the U.S. operates.44 Qatar operates French-made Mirage fighters. The latter two countries 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.45 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.46

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.”47

Egypt’s military is the largest force in the Middle East at about 450,000 total personnel.48 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.49 Since then, its army and air force have been significantly upgraded with U.S. military weapons, equipment, and warplanes.

Obsolete platforms and poor systems integration constrain Egypt’s air force, and although it has large inventories, few platforms are advanced or state-of-the-art.50 Additionally, Egypt boasts substantial manpower, but its quality is limited by conscription and an absence of recent combat experience.51

The most visible expression of U.S. influence in Cairo is military aid, which was withheld in some areas after the 2013 military coup.52 This indefinite hold applied to Apache attack helicopters, F-16s, Harpoon ship-to-ship missile systems, and M1A1 tank kits.53
Since Egypt relies upon U.S. assistance to combat Islamist militants and terrorists, the ability of the military to contain Islamist threats was undermined.54 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,55 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.56

Jordan is a close U.S. ally with small but effective military forces. The force drivers for the Jordanian military are the spillovers from fighting in Syria and Iraq. While it faces few conventional threats from its neighbors, Jordan’s 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.57 Even so, Jordan’s conventional capability is significant considering its size.

Jordan’s land forces total 75,000 soldiers and include 390 British-made Challenger 1 tanks. The backbone of its air force is the F-16.58 Jordan’s special operations forces are very 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 IS in February 2015 when the extremist group 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.59

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 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 all have combined to weaken the effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces. In June 2014, up to four divisions collapsed and were routed in the face of vastly smaller numbers of Islamic State fighters. Although the Iraqi army, backed by U.S. air support, Kurdish militias, and Shiite militias backed by Iran, has recovered some territory lost to the IS, it remains a work in progress that requires further reforms, training and support.

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 in 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,60 but the 1979 Iranian revolution demolished one pillar, and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan boosted 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. United States Central Command, “U.S. Central Command History,”
(accessed July 28, 2014). ))

Up until the late 1980s, a possible Soviet invasion of Iran was the most significant threat facing the U.S. in the Middle East.61 After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime became the chief threat to regional stability, and Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The United States responded by assembling an international coalition of more than 30 nations to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in January 1991. CENTCOM commanded the U.S. contribution of more than 532,000 military personnel to the coalition armed forces, which totaled at least 737,000.62 This marked the peak U.S. force deployment in the Middle East.

Confrontations with Iraq continued throughout the 1990s due to 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 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. 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 troops, American combat forces in Iraq fluctuated between 100,000 and 150,000.63 In December 2011, the U.S. officially completed its withdrawal of troops, leaving only 150 personnel attached to the U.S. embassy in Iraq.64

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 troops are based in GCC countries. In 2014, 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,65 but information gleaned from open sources shows the following:

  • Kuwait. Approximately 15,000 U.S. troops are based in Kuwait.66 These troops are spread among Camp Arifjan, Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, and Ali Al Salem Air Base.
  • UAE. According to UAE and U.S. officials, about 5,000 U.S. troops, mainly Air Force personnel, are stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base. The main mission for U.S. military personnel in the UAE is to operate refueling and surveillance aircraft. The United States also has regularly deployed F-22 Raptor combat aircraft to Al Dhafra.67
  • Oman. Since 2004, Omani facilities reportedly have not been used for air support operations in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and the numbers of U.S. military personnel in Oman have 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.68
  • 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. In addition, 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.69 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.70
  • Qatar. Thousands of U.S. troops are based in Qatar, mainly from the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. operates its Combined Air Operations Center out of Al Udeid Air Base, which is one of the most important U.S. air bases in the world. Al Udeid Air Base also serves as the forward headquarters of CENTCOM. In addition, the base houses significant prepositioned U.S. military equipment.
  • 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, and a Patriot missile battery have been deployed in Jordan.71
  • 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 June 2015, approximately 3,000 U.S. troops were committed to train, support, and advise Iraqi security forces, with another 450 more military trainers earmarked for deployment later in the year.72 In February 2015, the U.S. reportedly moved combat search-and-rescue teams to northern Iraq to support possible rescue missions in Syria.73

In addition to permanently based U.S. troops in the Middle East, there have been media reports that the U.S. government operates a secret unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) base in Saudi Arabia from which drone attacks against militants in Yemen are launched.74 There also are reports of an American base on Socotra Island, which is off the coast of Somalia and belongs to Yemen, being used for counterterrorism operations off the Horn of Africa and Yemen.75

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 2015 CENTCOM posture statement submitted to Congress, the 10 focus areas are:76

  • Degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL in order to prevent the further spread of sectarian-fueled radical extremism, and to mitigate the continuing Iraq–Syria crisis.
  • Continue support to Afghanistan, in partnership with NATO, as a regionally integrated, secure, stable, and developing country.
  • Defeat Al Qaeda, deny violent extremists safe havens and freedom of movement, and limit the reach of terrorists.
  • Counter malign Iranian influence, while reducing and mitigating against the negative impacts of surrogates and proxies.
  • Support a whole of government approach to developments in Yemen, preventing Yemen from becoming an ungoverned space for AQ/VEOs; retain CT capacity in the region.
  • Maintain credible general and specific deterrent capability and capacity to counter Iran.
  • 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, and maintain ready, flexible regional Coalitions and partners, as well as cross-CCMD [combatant command] 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 area.
  • 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 U.S.).
  • 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 in the region 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 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.77

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.78 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.79 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.80 In total, the French have 700 troops based in the country along with six Rafale jets.81 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.

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 in the Middle East 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 troops and equipment out of the country was an enormous undertaking—“the largest logistical drawdown since World War II”82 —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.”83

While 60 percent of roads in the Middle East region are paved, wide variation exists between countries. For example, 100 percent of the roads in Israel, Jordan, and United Arab Emirates are paved. Other nations, such as Oman (46 percent), Saudi Arabia (21.5 percent), and Yemen (8.7 percent), have poor paved road coverage.84 Rail coverage is also poor. For instance, Saudi Arabia has only 700 miles of rail. By comparison, Maryland, which is roughly 1.5 percent the size of Saudi Arabia, has about the same amount of rail.85 In Syria, three years of civil war have wreaked havoc on the rail system.86

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 2014,87 Abu Dhabi International Airport is undergoing an expansion program expected to be completed in 2017, and Dubai’s International Airport is currently the seventh busiest airport in the world.88

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. As of April 2014, the Naval Support Activity Bahrain has continued a $260 million expansion project, which would enable the homeporting of littoral combat ships by 2018 in one of the world’s busiest waterways.89 The U.S. also has access to a deep-water port, Khalifa bin Salman, in Bahrain and naval facilities at Fujairah, UAE.90UAE’s commercial port of Jebel Ali is open for visits from U.S. warships and prepositioning of equipment for operations in the theater.91 Approximately 90 percent of the world’s trade travels by sea, and some of the most important and busiest 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.92 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 2014, 962.7 million tons of cargo transited the canal, averaging 47 ships each day.93 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 increasingly important for Europe in terms of oil transportation. In 2014, the canal saw an increase of 18.9 percent in terms of “Southbound Oil & Products” traffic from the prior year.94 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.95
  • Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is a critical oil-supply bottleneck and the busiest passageway for oil tankers in the world. 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-trade 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.96 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 in the event of a conflict. 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.
  • 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 3.8 million barrels of oil per day through the strait.97 The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting passage to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments.98 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.99

Maritime Prepositioning of Equipment and Supplies. The U.S. military has 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.

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 small states. The main security and political challenges in the region are inextricably linked to the unfinished business of the Arab Spring, surging transnational terrorism, and the potential threat of a nuclear 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 in the region 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 region 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 utilized 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:

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

The key regional characteristics consisted of:

      1. 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 give 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.
      2. Political Stability. Political stability brings predictability for military planners when considering such things as transit, basing, and overflight rights for U.S. military operations. The overall degree of political stability indicates whether U.S. military actions would be hindered or enabled and considers, for example, whether transfers of power in the region are generally peaceful and whether there been any recent instances of political instability in the region.
      3. U.S. Military Positioning. Having military forces based or equipment and supplies staged in a region greatly facilitates the United States’ ability to respond to crises and, presumably, more quickly achieve successes in critical “first battles.” Being routinely present in a region also assists in maintaining familiarity with its characteristics and the various actors who might act to assist or thwart U.S. actions. With this in mind, we assessed whether or not the U.S. military was well-positioned in the region. Again, indicators included bases, troop presence, prepositioned equipment, and recent examples of military operations (including training and humanitarian) launched from the region.
      4. Infrastructure. Modern, reliable, and suitable infrastructure is essential to military operations. Airfields, ports, rail lines, canals, and paved roads enable the U.S. to stage, launch 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.100

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

  • Alliances: 3.66 (4) — Favorable
  • Political Stability: 1.66 (2) — Unfavorable
  • U.S. Military Positioning: 3.33 (3) — Moderate
  • Infrastructure: 3.33 (3) — Moderate

Leading to a regional score of: Moderate

Operating Environment for U.S. Forces in the Middle East


  1. 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).  

  2. S.B., “What Is the Difference Between Sunni and Shia Muslims?” The Economist, May 28, 2013, (accessed January 15, 2015).  

  3. General Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander, U.S. Central Command, “The Posture of U.S. Central Command,” statement before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, March 6, 2014, pp. 6–7,
    (accessed July 24, 2014).  

  4. 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, (accessed August 21, 2014).  

  5. Table, “2015 Index of Economic Freedom World Rankings,” in Ambassador Terry Miller and Anthony B. Kim with James M. Roberts, Bryan Riley, and Ryan Olson, 2015 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2015), pp. 4–9,  

  6. Natsuko Waki, “A Scar on Bahrain’s Financial Marketplace,” Reuters, February 16, 2012, (accessed August 21, 2014).  

  7. BBC, “Hague Fury as ‘Iranian Arms’ Bound for Taliban Seized,” March 9, 2011,
    (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  8. The NATO members that fall within the range of Iran’s known missile capabilities are Turkey, Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria.  

  9. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” last updated June 17, 2015, (accessed July 2, 2015).  

  10. Migration Policy Centre, “Syrian Refugees: A Snapshot of the Crisis—in the Middle East and Europe,” updated February and October 2014, (accessed July 2, 2015).  

  11. James Phillips, “Gaza Crisis Illuminates a Grave New World,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, July 17, 2014,  

  12. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  

  13. General Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander, U.S. Central Command, “Commander’s Posture Statement,” statement before the Subcommittee on Defense, Committee on Appropriations, U.S House of Representatives, March 5, 2015, (accessed April 27, 2015).  

  14. Combined Maritime Forces, “CTF-152: Gulf Maritime Security,” (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  15. Austin, “Commander’s Posture Statement,” March 5, 2015.  

  16. Ian Black, “Barack Obama to Authorise Record $60bn Saudi Arms Sale,” The Guardian, September 13, 2010, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  17. James Phillips, “Obama’s Saudi Summit: Focus on Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Terrorism,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4184, March 27, 2014,  

  18. 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.  

  19. Pieter D. Wezeman, “Conventional Strategic Military Capabilities in the Middle East,” EU Non-Proliferation Consortium Background Paper,
    July 2011, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  20. James Phillips, “Threats Demand U.S., Israeli Partnership,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, July 7, 2010,  

  21. Ibid.  

  22. Created in 1981, the GCC was founded to offset the threat from Iran, which became hostile to traditional Arab monarchies after its 1979 revolution.  

  23. “US Embassy Cables: Bahrain’s Relations with Iran,” The Guardian, February 15, 2011, (accessed August 21, 2014).  

  24. Missy Ryan, “Obama Administration Ends Long Hold on Military Aid to Egypt,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2015, (accessed April 27, 2015).  

  25. Damian Paletta, “Yemen Chaos Derails U.S. Counterterror Strategy,” The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2015, (accessed April 27, 2015).  

  26. Sam Perlo-Freeman, Aude Fleurant, Pieter D. Wezeman, and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2014,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Fact Sheet, April 2015, (accessed April 28, 2015).  

  27. Nazila Fathi, “Wipe Israel ‘Off the Map’ Iranian Says,” The New York Times, October 27, 2005, (accessed August 21, 2014).  

  28. Ibid.  

  29. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2014: The Annual Assessment of Global Military Capabilities and Defence Economics (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 324.  

  30. Zach Pontz, “New Military Index Ranking World’s Top Armies Places Israel Just Three Ahead of Iran,” The Algemeiner, June 14, 2013, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  31. Fareed Zakaria, “Israel Dominates the Middle East,” The Washington Post, November 21, 2012, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  32. Voice of America News, “Israel Calls Up 16,000 More Reservists,”, July 31, 2014, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  33. Anthony H. Cordesman and Aram Nerguizian, “The Arab–Israeli Military Balance: Conventional Realities and Asymmetric Challenges,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, revised June 29, 2010, p. 4,
    (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  34. Ibid.  

  35. Ibid.  

  36. Ibid., p. 27.  

  37., “Iron Dome,” July 23, 2014, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  38. William Wunderle and Andre Briere, “Augmenting Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter 2008),
    pp. 49–58, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  39. GCC Forces Are ‘Protecting Key Installations,’” Gulf Daily News, January 5, 2014, (accessed September 16, 2014).  

  40. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2014, p. 341.  

  41. Al Jazeera, “Saudi Jets Bomb Yemeni Houthis,” November 5, 2009, (accessed October 25, 2014).  

  42. Andrew Chuter, “Deal to Integrate Storm Shadow Missile with Typhoon Ready for Signing,” Defense News, July 16, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  43. “Storm Shadow / SCALP EG Cruise Missile,” Defense Update, January 27, 2005, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  44. Defense Industry Daily Staff, “Top Falcons: The UAE’s F-16 Block 60/61 Fighters,” Defense Industry Daily, January 26, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  45. Helene Cooper and Anne Barnard, “Jordan and Emirates Carry Out Airstrikes in Syria Against ISIS,” The New York Times, February 10, 2015, (accessed April 29, 2015).  

  46. Combined Maritime Forces, “CTF-152: Gulf Maritime Security.”  

  47. Quoted in editorial, “More Complaints from the Saudis,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  48., “Egypt: Introduction,” April 4, 2012, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  49. Ibid.  

  50. Ibid.  

  51. Ibid.  

  52. Eric Trager, “Resuming Military Aid to Egypt: A Strategic Imperative,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Alert, April 30, 2014, (accessed July 1, 2015).  

  53. David Schenker and Eric Trager, “Egypt’s Arms Deal with Russia: Potential Strategic Costs,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch No. 2218, March 4, 2014, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  54. Herbert London, “Egypt Needs US Aid to Fight Extremism,” Newsmax, July 21, 2014, (accessed July 31, 2014).  

  55. Schenker and Trager, “Egypt’s Arms Deal with Russia: Potential Strategic Costs.”  

  56. Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed, “Obama Ends Freeze on U.S. Military Aid to Egypt,” Reuters, March 31, 2015, (accessed April 29, 2015).  

  57. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2014, p. 327.  

  58. Ibid., p. 328.  

  59. Cooper and Barnard, “Jordan and Emirates Carry Out Airstrikes in Syria Against ISIS.”  

  60. 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.  

  61. Ibid.  

  62. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph P. Englehardt, “Desert Shield and Desert Storm: A Chronology and Troop List for the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf Crisis,” U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute Special Report, March 25, 1991, p. 5, (accessed July 28, 2014).  

  63. BBC, “Iraq War in Figures,” December 14, 2011, (accessed July 28, 2014).  

  64. Reuters, “Timeline: Invasion, Surge, Withdrawal; U.S. Forces in Iraq,” December 18, 2011, (accessed July 28, 2011).  

  65. David Martosko, “US Has No Plans to Send Any of Its 35,000 Middle East-Based Troops into Iraq After Al-Qaeda Overruns Two Cities and Forces 500,000 to Flee for Their Lives,” Daily Mail, June 11, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  66., “Centcom Cites Kuwait as ‘Strong Ally’ to U.S. in Afghanistan,” April 3, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  67. Kenneth Katzman, “The United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report, May 15, 2014, pp. 12–13, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  68. Kenneth Katzman, “Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, December 27, 2013, pp. 9–10, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  69. Kenneth Katzman, “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report, June 11, 2014, pp. 22–23, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  70. United States Air Forces Central Command, “Wing Leadership Visits Eskan Village,” July 5, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  71. Richard Sisk, “US Troops in Jordan Will Train Iraqi Soldiers,”, January 22, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  72. Michael Gordon, “In Shift, U.S. Will Send 450 Advisers to Help Iraq Fight ISIS,” The New York Times, June 10, 2015,
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  73. Andrew Tilghman, “New Search-and-Rescue Teams Moving into Iraq,” Military Times, February 6, 2015, (accessed April 29, 2015).  

  74. BBC, “CIA Operating Drone Base in Saudi Arabia, US Media Reveal,” February 6, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  75. “Israel and Iran: Closer to Takeoff,” The Economist, February 11, 2012, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  76. Austin, “Commander’s Posture Statement,” March 5, 2015.  

  77. Royal Navy, “UK Minister Breaks Ground on Royal Navy HQ in Bahrain,” April 28, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  78. U.K. Ministry of Defence, “New RAF Unit Strengthens Relationship with United Arab Emirates,” last updated March 21, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  79. Frank Gardner, “‘East of Suez’: Are UK Forces Returning?” BBC, April 29, 2013,
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  80. Harriet Alexander, “Where Are the World’s Major Military Bases?” The Telegraph, July 11, 2013, (accessed November 15, 2014).  

  81. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2014, p. 99.  

  82. Donna Miles, “Centcom Undertakes Massive Logistical Drawdown in Afghanistan,” Armed Forces Press Service, June 21, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  83. Ibid.  

  84., “Roads, Paved (% of Total Roads)—Middle East,” (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  85. World Bank, “Rail Lines (Total Route-km),”
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  86. Anne Barnard, “Once Bustling, Syria’s Fractured Railroad Is a Testament to Shattered Ambitions,” The New York Times, May 25, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  87. Leone Lakhani, “Is the Middle East the New Hub of Global Aviation?” CNN, May 29, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  88. Justin Bachman, “Atlanta’s Still the World’s Busiest Airport—but Maybe Not for Long,” Bloomberg Business, April 2, 2014,
    (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  89. Hendrick Simoes, “Work in Progress to Upgrade Facilities at Navy Base in Bahrain,” Stars and Stripes, April 11, 2014, (accessed April 29, 2015).  

  90. Katzman, “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy.”  

  91. Ibid.  

  92. Combined Maritime Forces, “CMF Commanders Speak on Maritime Security at Doha Maritime Defence Exhibition,” April 1, 2014, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  93. “Introduction,” in Suez Canal Authority, Yearly Report, 2014, p. 1,
    (accessed April 29, 2015).  

  94. Ibid.  

  95. “US Carrier Crosses Suez Canal into Red Sea,” The Times of Israel, November 8, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  96. U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” last updated November 10, 2014, p. 4, (accessed April 30. 2015).  

  97. Ibid, p. 12.  

  98. David Cutler, “Factbox—Some Facts on the Bab Al-Mandab Shipping Lane,” Reuters, June 4, 2011, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  99. International Chamber of Commerce, Commercial Crime Services, “IMB Piracy Report Highlights Violence in West Africa,” July 15, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2014).  

  100. See, for example, World Bank, “Logistics Performance Index: Quality of Trade and Transport-Related Infrastructure (1=Low to 5=High),” (accessed October 24, 2014).