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The United States and China in the Multi-aligned Middle East

A New Strategy of American Influence

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, The Middle East in a Multipolar World.


The specter of China’s rising influence in the Middle East haunts many U.S. policymakers, casting a shadow of threat over American interests and regional stability. This alarmist narrative, however, obscures a deeper truth: China’s ascent reflects not a hostile power play, but the region’s geopolitical pivot towards multi-alignment. Middle Eastern nations, while eager to maintain strong ties with Washington, are proactively diversifying their partnerships across security, economic, and diplomatic spheres.

Rather than clinging to a fading hegemony, the U.S. should embrace this trend. By capitalizing on multi-alignment and leveraging its vast network of allies and partners, Washington can solidify its position, not through dominance, but through collaboration.

Rather than clinging to a fading hegemony, the U.S. should embrace this trend. By capitalizing on multi-alignment and leveraging its vast network of allies and partners, Washington can solidify its position, not through dominance, but through collaboration. Two key actions stand out:

First, Washington should diversify its engagement, moving beyond traditional security partnerships. Cultivating a robust economic agenda that fosters private sector involvement can anchor the U.S. presence in a vibrant web of economic relationships, forging deeper connections that transcend security concerns. Imagine partnerships in renewable energy, infrastructure development, and technology transfer, creating tangible benefits for the region and solidifying American ties beyond the security sphere.

Second, the ability to integrate its European and Asian allies more deeply into the region constitutes a powerful opportunity for the United States. Facilitating specialized partnerships and alignments amplifies U.S. priorities where interests align, offering attractive alternatives to dependence on China. Consider collaborations with European partners on renewable energy projects in the Gulf, or working with Asian allies on digital infrastructure initiatives across the region. By working in concert with like-minded partners, the U.S. can amplify its impact and offer Middle Eastern states compelling options in addition to engagement with China.

By embracing multi-alignment and acting as a facilitator, the U.S. can not only safeguard its interests but also become a catalyst for progress and stability in a reconfiguring Middle East. This proactive approach, built on collaboration and partnership, ensures that the U.S. remains a central player, not through fear or force, but through shared interests and mutual prosperity.


According to many U.S. policymakers, China’s growing and active presence in the Middle East is a threat to U.S. interests and the region’s stability. “The PRC pursues ties based solely on its narrow, transactional, commercial, and geopolitical interests…bypassing meaningful investments in regional security,” then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl argued in 2022 about Beijing’s role in the region.1Colin Kahl, “Remarks by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl at the IISS Manama Dialogue (As Delivered),” U.S. Department of Defense, November 18, 2022 A top U.S. Air Force General agreed, asserting further that with an expanding economic, military, and diplomatic footprint, China was trying to “displace” the United States in the region.2Jim, Garamone, “General Says Middle East is a Theater for Strategic Competition,” U.S. Department of Defense, October 4, 2023,

But this narrative is misleading. Rather than an effort to usurp U.S. regional influence, China’s increased role is best understood as evidence of the region’s broader geopolitical shift toward multi-alignment. Specifically, Middle Eastern states are no longer looking for one “partner of choice,” as Washington prefers to see itself, but many, aiming to diversify partnerships as the best way to preserve their autonomy and pursue their self-interest.3Jennifer Kavanagh and Frederic Wehrey, “The Multialigned Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, July 17, 2023, This trend toward multi-alignment has opened the door to Beijing’s greater involvement in the region, but has also created new interest across the Middle East for greater engagement with India, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and other middle powers.

Middle Eastern states are no longer looking for one “partner of choice,” as Washington prefers to see itself, but many, aiming to diversify partnerships as the best way to preserve their autonomy and pursue their self-interest.

U.S. efforts to contain China’s influence in the Middle East are unlikely to work in a region that is actively courting new partners and has welcomed Beijing’s presence. Rather than fighting it, the United States should adopt a strategy that takes advantage of multi-alignment by acting as a broker or bridge, pulling more stakeholders into the Middle East’s security and economic progress. First, Washington should diversify its own presence in the Middle East, building a more robust economic agenda that includes greater private sector engagement. Second, the United States should invest in integrating its European and Asian allies and partners more deeply into the region by facilitating new, narrowly focused partnerships and alignments. This approach can amplify U.S. priorities where interests align, provide the region with much-needed resilience, and dilute the region’s dependence on China by offering new engagement alternatives.

China's Middle East Rise

Despite being a decade into its pivot away from the Middle East, Washington remains the region’s primary security guarantor and a major economic and diplomatic player. Washington maintains about 45,000 forward-deployed troops in the Middle East, spread across more than a dozen installations, supported by fighter jets and warships. U.S. arms sales to Middle East regimes account for half of the region’s total and occur alongside billions in security assistance each year.4Jacob Knutson, “Where U.S. Troops Are Stationed in the Middle East,” Axios, October 31, 2023, The United States is the region’s leading source of foreign direct investment, despite declining trade volumes. It has also invested diplomatic capital in pursuit of Arab-Israeli normalization and to control regional tensions amidst the Israel-Hamas war.

But while the United States remains the largest and most influential external stakeholder, the Middle East is much different today than a decade ago, with an increasing number of additional players taking on increasingly large roles.

In this vein, China’s regional rise has received the lion’s share of attention in Washington, for its speed and scope, especially in the economic domain, perceived as the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the region. Over the last decade, China’s trade with the Middle East has increased by about 40 percent, driven by its own high energy demands and the hunger of Middle Eastern states for Chinese electronics and manufactured goods.5Exports, FOB to Selected Economies, 2013-2022, IMF Archive, China’s investment in the Middle East has also increased dramatically, reaching more partners and more sectors, where it is welcomed because it comes without the strings that sometimes accompany U.S. aid. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one major impetus behind this investment, drawing in Chinese companies and capital as well as Chinese firms that are also involved in major telecommunications and 5G projects across the region.6Vivian Nereim and David Pierson. “Xi will Visit Saudi Arabia, a Sign of China’s Growing Middle East Ties,” The New York Times, December 6, 2022,; Mohammad Eslami and Maria Papageorgiou, “China’s Increasing Role in the Middle East: Implications for Regional and International Dynamics,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, June 2, 2023,

China has a limited forward military presence and no permanent bases in the Middle East, though it uses ports such as the UAE’s Khalifa Port, where it has an economic presence to support limited military operations.7Isaac Kardon and Wendy Leutert, “China’s Port Power,” Foreign Affairs, May 22, 2023, The region’s autocratic regimes and weak democracies have also been willing consumers of China-provided training and advice on internal security and law enforcement activities, often accompanied by the sale of Chinese surveillance technology.8Mordechai Chaziza, “China’s Overseas Police Service Stations in the Middle East,” The Diplomat, June 29, 2023, China has been an in-demand arms provider, where it has offered unconditional sales of high-end capabilities like drones and precision-guided munitions to countries that cannot get these weapons from the United States. However, it is important to note that Chinese sales remain below 5% of the region’s total.9Author’s calculations using SIPRI arms transfer database, Import-Export Tables,

China played a key role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement but has been more active in working with Middle Eastern states in multilateral fora.

In the diplomatic space, China played a key role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement but has been more active in working with Middle Eastern states in multilateral fora. For instance, it has led efforts to absorb some Middle Eastern states, including U.S. partners, into its security and economic networks, including the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.10Sierra Janik, ”The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A Testbed for Chinese Power Projection,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, November 12, 2020,; Christian Shepherd, ”Six Countries to Join BRICS Group; China Labels Expansion ’Historic,‘“ The Washington Post, August 24, 2023, These groupings are far from formal U.S. alliances, but interest in joining them is an indicator of the increasingly diversified alignment choices of Middle Eastern states. Finally, U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia have been eager for closer bilateral ties with China, hosting lavish diplomatic visits and communicating often.11Nadeen Ebrahim, ”China’s Xi Gets a Grand Welcome to Saudi Arabia and Promises a ’New Era’ in Chinese-Arab Relations,” CNN, December 8, 2022,

The Multi-Aligned Middle East

While far-reaching on its face, China’s changing role is only a part of the larger trend that is emerging in the region. Countries across the Middle East have welcomed not just China but also the increased involvement of many other major and rising powers, creating a web of overlapping partnerships with diverse external stakeholders. Viewed from a broader perspective, China’s active role in the Middle East seems less like a push by Beijing to erode U.S. influence and more like one piece of a broader geopolitical change driven largely by the region’s states.

For example, in addition to building economic ties with China, countries across the Middle East have also pursued deeper economic relationships with India, retained strong trade partnerships with the European Union, and sought to revitalize their lagging ties with Turkey. India has become one of the region’s top trade partners, for instance – its trade with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states alone increased by 20 percent over the past 10 years.12”Hope India-GCC FTA Becomes a Reality ’Very Soon’: Official,” The Economic Times, July 12, 2023, The UAE and Israel have further strengthened ties with India through mutual participation in the I2U2 minilateral, which has spawned projects in agriculture, infrastructure, and technology.13”I2U2,” U.S. Department of State, And China is far from the only external stakeholder sought after for infrastructure investment. Indian-owned Adani Group recently spent $1.2B to buy Israel’s Haifa port, and Turkey has signed energy, transportation, and infrastructure deals with several GCC states.14 Serhat S. Cubukcuoglu and Mouza Hasan Almarzoogi, ”What’s Behind Growing Ties Between Turkey and the Gulf States,” Atlantic Council, July 21, 2023,;  Ari Rabinovitch, ”Adani-Led Group Completes Purchase of Israel’s Haifa Port,” Reuters, January 10, 2023,[/mfn]

In the security domain, Middle Eastern countries are also working hard to diversify their arms suppliers and defence networks. While China has benefitted from this push, South Korea, and European countries like France and Germany as well as Turkey have been even more successful.14Yasmine Zarhloule, “Strengthening European Autonomy Across MENA,” European Council on Foreign Relations, December 2019,
South Korea, for example, has become a preferred supplier of arms in the region. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt have all signed arms sales agreements with Seoul on items ranging from ammunition to air defence to aircraft, with more in the pipeline. With these deals totalling billions of dollars, South Korea’s market share is likely to increase further.15Albert Vidal Ribe, ”South Korea Bets Big on Middle East Defense Exports,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, November 17, 2023,,29tr%20(USD3.; Gordon Arthur, ”How South Korea’s Defense Industry Transformed Itself into a Global Player,” Breaking Defense, November 6, 2023, Several countries have also recently signed defence cooperation agreements with South Korea that include joint military exchanges and exercises, further entrenching its security presence in the region.16Ji Da-gyum, ”S. Korea, UAE Agree to Forge Strategic Defense Industry Cooperation,” The Korean Herald, January 16, 2023,; ”South Korea, Saudi Arabia Discuss Defense Cooperation and Military Exchanges,” Korea Pro, June 15, 2023, Finally, although Russia’s role as an arms seller has been temporarily disrupted by its war in Ukraine, Middle Eastern countries continue to engage with Moscow on energy and security issues.17Hanna Notte, ”Russia in the Middle East After Ukraine: Interview with Hanna Notte,” by Jon Alterman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 24, 2023,

Countries across the Middle East are no longer willing to work only with the United States. But neither are they interested in working only with China... This reality should be the centrepiece of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Rather than a plot to replace or undermine the United States, the more diverse set of stakeholders involved across the region reflects the preferences of Middle Eastern states acting in their own self-interest. In a more dynamic geopolitical environment where states have more choices, countries across the Middle East are no longer willing to work only with the United States. But neither are they interested in working only with China. Instead, they are actively seeking a broader group of patrons and partners. This reality should be the centrepiece of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Missing the Mark

Thus far, however, the U.S. response to the Middle East’s changing geopolitical landscape has fallen short of this goal. Its strategy has three main pieces. First, to reassure and signal its commitment to partners – and especially since October 7 – the United States has increased its military presence in the region and moved ahead with arms sales to partners including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and others. Second, Washington has pushed forward with efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, adding new countries and sectors of cooperation to its network of Arab-Israeli normalization deals.

Finally, the United States has increased pressure on countries to choose between Washington and Beijing. This effort has been clearest in the security domain where Washington has pressed partners in the region to avoid buying arms from sellers other than the United States, but policymakers have also warned regional partners against allowing Chinese companies to build their communications and physical infrastructure. As then-Undersecretary of Defense Kahl warned, “raising the ceiling too much with Beijing will lower the ceiling with the U.S.”18Barak Ravid, ”Top Pentagon Official Warns Middle East Partners to Limit China Ties,” Axios, November 18, 2022,

The United States has increased pressure on countries to choose between Washington and Beijing... This strategy has had limited success because it does not appreciate the true scope of geopolitical changes occurring across the Middle East.

This strategy has had limited success because it does not appreciate the true scope of geopolitical changes occurring across the Middle East. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain are happy to deepen ties with the United States, but they have been unwilling to give up their engagement with other partners. Having diverse patrons provides them with a degree of independence and substantial material benefits that more U.S. security commitments alone cannot offer.

A Better Way

The United States must chart a new course in the Middle East. Instead of clinging to the status quo, Washington should capitalize on the region’s embrace of multi-aligned partnerships. By leveraging its expansive network of allies and partners, the United States can facilitate wider engagement, welcoming new stakeholders alongside existing ties with Beijing.

Rather than attempting to contain or oust China, the United States should become a broker, crafting diverse, tailored engagement options for regional states to pursue. This role – one of facilitation and mediation – plays to America’s natural strengths. It aligns with the successful strategies employed in post-war Europe and, more recently, in Asia, where the United States has woven its European allies into its Asian partnerships. By following these precedents, the United States can adopt a largely behind-the-scenes role, shaping new arrangements that amplify its reach at a reduced cost.

First, Washington must develop a robust economic agenda to supplement its large security presence. A greater U.S. economic footprint in the region will offer regional partners new opportunities and extend U.S. influence and involvement into additional sectors and domains. This agenda should be centered around key regional priorities where the United States has a comparative advantage such as alternative and renewable energy, climate change, digital technology, and human capital.19Jennifer Kavanagh and Frederic Wehrey, “The Multialigned Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, July 17, 2023, With new free trade deals largely off the table for now, Washington should instead focus on building and facilitating new partnerships between the region and U.S. private sector economic partners, such as venture capitalists or corporations interested in public-private partnerships and co-development opportunities.20Peter E. Harrell, ”How to China-Proof the Global Economy,” Foreign Affairs, December 12, 2023,

The United States should prioritize efforts to integrate more allies and partners more deeply into the Middle East by encouraging and supporting new security and economic alignments... not by trying to pull partners away from engagement with Beijing – but by providing options countries can pursue in addition to those relationships with China.

There are myriad different opportunities that could be pursued following this model, but as a starting point, the United States could work with European partners to deepen their engagement in the region across various domains. Europe is already a major trade partner, but there is significant potential for expansion in the security and diplomatic arena. For instance, states bordering the Baltic Sea such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden have extensive experience in maritime security and face some similar challenges as coastal GCC countries.21Matthew Thomas, ”Improving the Baltic States’ Maritime Security,” Baltic Security Foundation, September 25, 2019, This could offer a foundation for a partnership around maritime domain awareness, anti-piracy operations, and port security based on information sharing and joint exercises or training that could complement similar U.S.-led efforts in the region.

Opportunities to integrate Europe more effectively into the Middle East also exist in the energy domain. Germany shares an interest in advancing alternative energy options with many Middle Eastern states, opening the door for cooperation on renewable energy technologies.22For a model, see for example Benjamin Wehrmann, ”German Chancellor Pledges €4 bn for Africa- EU Green Energy Initiative,” Clean Energy Wire, November 20, 2023, Here Washington might work with Berlin and a small number of other interested European and Middle Eastern capitals to facilitate a joint R&D or co-production arrangement focused on green technologies that can reduce dependence on hydrocarbons. Canada, also a leader in green technology and climate change mitigation, might also be included.

There are also ways to beneficially engage the EU as a whole, for example in the area of digital governance where it has been a global leader.23See for example, European Data Governance Act 2022, European Commission, September 26, 2023, An information exchange on digital security and privacy issues between the EU and GCC could yield significant gains, especially if it were able to help Middle Eastern states better balance security concerns and user privacy. The United States might participate in such a partnership but let Europe lead in program execution.

A brokering strategy can also be used to bring Asian allies into the region more extensively as well. For example, Washington might encourage new cooperation between Japan or South Korea and Middle East states in industrial development or emerging tech fields.24Suzuki Kazuto, ”Japan Makes Major Shift in Middle East Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, July 27, 2023,; Mayumi Hirosawa, ”Japan Bets on Telecom Ace to Counter China in Global 6G Standards,” Nikkei Asia, January 5, 2023, Partnerships in telecommunications infrastructure could also be useful in increasing regional connectivity and giving Middle Eastern states alternatives to Chinese-manufactured products and systems. The United States might also join with South Korea to invest in the region’s defence industrial base with trilateral co-production that could increase the region’s defence self-sufficiency or support an expansion of current military training and exchanges between South Korea and regional partners.25Albert Vidal Ribe, ”South Korea Bets Big on Middle East Defense Exports,” International Institute of Strategic Studies, November 17, 2023,,29tr%20(USD3.

Ultimately, these and other partnerships would accelerate – not impede – the region’s multi-alignment by bringing in new investment, competition, and opportunities. China would remain active in the Middle East, but the growing presence of U.S. allies and partners would diffuse its influence in ways beneficial to the United States. Critics might perceive the growing number of stakeholders as a threat to U.S. interests. But, as a broker, Washington would still be a central influencer in the region, only with fewer binding and costly commitments.


Washington’s concerns about China’s growing role in the Middle East are not entirely misplaced given Beijing’s authoritarian leanings and its often-divergent interests. However, viewing China’s rise in the region in isolation of broader geopolitical shifts is counterproductive.

Regional pressures and preferences for multi-alignment will push Middle Eastern states toward more engagement with non-U.S. alternatives irrespective of U.S. pushback. This dooms an approach based on containing Chinese activity in the region as well as efforts to recreate the exclusive U.S. partnerships that dominated during the Cold War. Expanding options and stakeholders gives regional states more agency, removes the United States from a futile, zero-sum battle with China, and makes use of Washington’s strengths – its allies and its efficacy as a broker. The region’s future is one of diverse partnerships and the United States will benefit in the near and long term from quickly embracing that. 

Written By:
Jennifer Kavanagh
Jennifer Kavanagh is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A political scientist by training, she has spent her career studying national security threats and their consequences for U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy.
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