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Primer: Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.

The strategic security landscape of the Middle East is undergoing rapid change, particularly in the Gulf. Local and regional forces are driving this new momentum. But it is the recalibration of great power influence that is the context in which the rebalancing of the region’s security architecture is best understood. The diplomatic dynamism in the region contrasts with a low level of Western strategic engagement; it is instead China and Russia that are the global players currently active in the Middle East.

The recent announcement by Beijing that it had negotiated a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore relations and exchange ambassadors, was the most visible expression yet of the international and regional shifts that are resetting the security agenda in the Middle East. The United States, the traditional guarantor of security in the Gulf – via its vast bases in Bahrain and Qatar, and its significant arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – was left on the sidelines, unable to engage with Iran, a major key regional power, and thus to broker the rapprochement with the region’s other powerhouse, Saudi Arabia. 

The recent announcement by Beijing that it had negotiated a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore relations and exchange ambassadors, was the most visible expression yet of the international and regional shifts that are resetting the security agenda in the Middle East.

Both local hegemons have deep relationships and strategic commitments to states across the region. On the one hand, Iran supports proxy militias and alliances in what is often called the Shia Crescent, which stretches from Yemen through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, in adopting a more muscular foreign posture under the leadership of the young Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), has strengthened ties and is investing substantially in regional states such as Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Morocco. Bringing these adversarial behemoths to the bargaining table has contributed first and foremost to a reduction in tensions in the Gulf, stabilizing smaller Gulf states’ concerns over their regime security. At the same time, it has rapidly galvanized talks between Tehran and Riyad’s closest neighbours, Manama and Abu Dhabi, spawning a new web of relationships that aims to reduce the negative impact of the two states’ rivalry elsewhere including the war in Yemen, the political meltdown in Lebanon, and perhaps over time, the internal conflicts that persist in Syria and Iraq. 

The China-brokered deal inducted Beijing into the Great Power club of global peace-making, setting it apart from the Abraham Accords, facilitated by the US, which sought to recalibrate the Middle East’s security architecture by forming an anti-Iran Arab-Israeli coalition in the region. This, however, was accompanied by a growing perception, particularly in the Gulf, of a drawdown of US commitments to regional security needs, prompting Washington’s strongest Gulf allies to adopt hedging policies to diversify their risk containment strategies. The outbreak of the Ukraine War starkly highlighted the implications of this new ambivalence, with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia rejecting Washington’s pleas for cheaper oil, and adopting a neutral stance toward Russia, rather than aligning with the West in condemning the Russian invasion. Further policy parity with Russia, particularly through OPEC+, has followed.

The Abraham Accords’ inclusion of Israel into closer economic and technological engagement with its Arab neighbours was a critical step forward – and was followed by successful negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over a maritime border that will bring both states access to gas in the Mediterranean. Yet, the Accords’ exclusion of Iran created an unbalanced regional security structure that not only failed to bring stability to the Gulf and the broader Middle East but also further intensified tensions between Iran and Israel with maritime security implications from the Gulf to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The Arab signatories in fact have increasingly made it clear that normalization of relations with Israel cannot be a zero-sum game as they do not want to be seen as conspiring in any overt aggression against Iran. For its part, Saudi Arabia has avoided joining the largely UAE-led Accords, deeming the moment too delicate, particularly in light of Israel’s ongoing domestic turmoil. With China’s entrance into the regional political matrix, Israel’s position has now become more complicated, as any pre-emptive strike against Iran, previously understood by Jerusalem as broadly in line with American policy goals, will now have to take account China’s interests, as well as Saudi Arabia’s.  

Although the re-engagement of Iran and Saudi Arabia still needs testing, their revived diplomatic dialogue anticipates the possibility of addressing one of the Middle East’s greatest dilemmas – the lack of an inclusive, cooperative regional security framework. Indeed, the Middle East is the only region in the world without a multilateral forum to host a discussion of transnational risks, including around arms proliferation, maritime security or threats posed by climate change. Various options have been floated in the past, including in 2019, when former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif unveiled a Gulf-focused security proposal called the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), which set out an ‘Action Plan’ for confidence-building. It served as an alternative to the American-led security alliance, dubbed the Arab NATO plan, which itself countered the 2019 Russian proposal for an OSCE-like collective security programme aimed at including all regional states as well as the US, China, Russia and Europe. 

Although the re-engagement of Iran and Saudi Arabia still needs testing, their revived diplomatic dialogue anticipates the possibility of addressing one of the Middle East’s greatest dilemmas – the lack of an inclusive, cooperative regional security framework.

It is important to note that the Straits of Hormuz, a crucial energy security chokepoint, is only 35 miles (55 km) wide between Saudi Arabia and Iran at its narrowest part. Most countries along its shores believe that an inclusive security framework in the Gulf is essential for ensuring future stability in the region. The US ambition to turn the Abraham Accords into a regional security framework that includes bilateral alliance agreements speaks to its recognition that a new security architecture is necessary, even if such a combination has yet to prove successful elsewhere and may be overly aspirational.

The revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which currently appears unlikely, could also potentially serve as a mechanism for developing a more comprehensive regional security framework in the future. In 2015, when the JCPOA was first signed, the other Gulf states rejected it as threatening to their security. Yet, the lived experience of a sharp rise in regional tensions, which followed Washington’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018, transformed their strategic positions vis-a-vis the nuclear deal with Iran. Whether it is the prospect of Iran’s nuclear weaponization, or the entrenchment of the adversarial standoff between Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, and Iran, an asymmetric power with extensive reach throughout the region, the  Middle East very well understands that alternative scenarios, in the absence of a renewed nuclear deal, appear increasingly threatening to their security at both national and regional levels.  

The restoration of Saudi-Iran relations has already alleviated some of the pressure resulting from Iran’s growing isolation from the West as a result of its internal turmoil and tilt toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine war. As tensions rise between Iran and Israel, with the US providing little brake on Jerusalem and no obvious off-ramp, regional dialogue with Iran is being recognized as crucial to Gulf security not only by Saudi Arabia but also by an increasingly engaged China.

Although the exact path forward is still uncertain, two key insights have emerged. First, the prevailing regional belief is that an inclusive security framework is the sole viable option for lasting peace and stability in the region. Second, there exists an opportunity for Canada and other Western countries to engage more proactively with the Middle East to foster both bilateral and multilateral dialogue in the region as a means to help develop a more cooperative security architecture.

Written By:
Roxane Farmanfarmaian
Roxane Farmanfarmaian is the director of international relations and global studies at the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge University, senior research fellow at King’s College London, affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University, and senior associate fellow at the European Leadership Network.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor