I have just come back from two weeks in Saudi Arabia, continuing my research on Saudi-China relations as a part of the West Asia program's project on 'Western Approaches: responses to China in the Middle East and Central Asia'.
While it is not central to my research, I was curious to ask my Saudi interlocutors (businesspeople, journalists, officials and academics) what they thought of America's so-called 'pivot' from the Middle East and Southwest Asia ('West Asia' as we like to call it) to East Asia.
The response was sceptical. This is hardly surprising given the long history of America's engagement with the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular. Is it possible, nevertheless, that the Saudis might be in for a geo-strategic surprise in coming years? There is no doubt that America's military presence in West Asia will decline in the next few years after over a decade fighting two wars in the region. There is certainly some 're-balancing' going on (I gather this is the preferred term of art for America's desire to shift focus to East Asia).
But the question is whether West Asia will let America escape, even a little bit. Current and future events would suggest not.
In the Gulf, America is trying to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Even if this effort is successful, it would still require deep American diplomatic and military engagement to make sure any deal sticks and to reassure America's allies in the region.
In Syria, America is gradually exhausting its non-military options for pressuring Bashar al-Assad from power. So desperate is it to avoid another military entanglement in the region that it would probably even accept Bashar alone departing, leaving the rest of the regime intact. Nevertheless, while Assad remains, every atrocity his regime commits or permits drags America closer towards some form of military intervention. And even if Bashar departs, Syria will still probably end up in civil war which will require copious amounts of American attention, if not intervention.
Meanwhile in Egypt, there is cause to worry about the future of what was one of the crowning achievements of American diplomacy in the Middle East: the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
This is not because I believe any new Egyptian government will abandon the treaty, but because Egypt's loss of security control in the Sinai could draw Egypt and Israel into confrontations neither want. Today one finds in the Sinai everything from Bedouin gangs masquerading as jihadists to sophisticated weapons looted from Libyan armories. There have already been cross-border attacks into Israel from the Sinai, and Israeli reprisals have inflamed popular passions in Egypt.
And while Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda central is probably dying, the terrorist threat is unlikely to disappear. Before 2001 there were only two real ungoverned spaces in the broader region that were serving as incubators and training grounds for extremist groups, namely Afghanistan and Somalia.
Today, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, you could list at least six such ungoverned spaces that are, or might soon, be hosting some form of extremist presence: Somalia, parts of Yemen, the Sinai, parts of Syria and Iraq, and parts of Libya, with the possibility of parts of Afghanistan returning to the list not long after NATO withdraws in 2014.
You can add to these and other issues demanding American attention in the Middle East the fact that the American national security budget is shrinking. At the very least this means there probably won't be a whole lot of balance in any re-balancing.
But it also raises an interesting issue for Australian strategic thinkers who seem to remain, as ever, pre-occupied with planning for the wars Australia never actually seems to fight. That is, if America is going to re-balance into East Asia it is probably going to need even more help from friends and allies in West Asia. Australia recent decade of heightened military and diplomatic engagement in the region is, therefore, unlikely to be its last.
Photo by Flickr user United States Forces - Iraq.