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Obama's Middle East Challenge - The Stakes Couldn't Be Higher

28/01/2015 12:21 GMT | Updated 29/03/2015 10:59 BST

Over four years ago on December 17, 2010 Mohamed Bouaziz a Tuisian street vendor set himself on fire as the first defiant act of what we now know as the Arab Spring.

That January in 2011 protests arose in Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Morocco.

On February 11, 2011 after thousands protested in Tahrir Square in Cairo President Hosni Mubarak resigned. He is now being held in a military hospital.

On February 15, 2011 protests broke out against Libya Leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Gaddafi was brutally murderer by rebel fighters in the street and his regime was overthrown in August of 2011.

The conflict in Syria between its President Bashar al Assad and those opposing his ruthless regime intensified in 2011 and has ripened into a full blown civil war which continues today with no end in sight.

On June 3, 2011 the President of Yemen Ali Abudallah Saleh was injured in an assassination attempt. In a move that was to be temporary, he made his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi the Acting President of Yemen. On February 3, 2012, President Saleh officially resigned, and Hadi became Yemen's President.

Fast forward - Just last week, President Hadi of Yemen resigned and his entire government collapsed when confronted by Shia backed Houthi rebels.

This latest event has further complicated Middle East foreign policy for President Obama and all the other Western leaders.

Needless to say, the Middle East has always been a challenge for US Presidents.

At the end of WW II the US and its closest ally Great Britain did not see eye to eye on the future of the Middle East.

Great Britain along with France had gained economic spheres of influence in this region from the Sykes Picot Treaty in 1916 before the Armistice ending the Great War and they were not interested in relinquishing or sharing any of their prizes.

It was at the end of World War II while on his way home from Yalta, where he had just met with Winston Churchill and Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, that Franklin Roosevelt surprised Churchill by arranging to meet with King Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

This region has always been extremely challenging for the US, requiring a delicate diplomatic balancing act as presidents in succession have tried to maintain friendships with these many nations who in fact do not get along with one another.

At the heart of this perplexing problem for the West is the fact that the Middle East represents the place where the US and its allies' economic interests and their support for so-called democratic principles collide.

US dependence on oil and its desire for stability in this region have meant that US-Middle East foreign policy has always been something of a contortionist act.

This explains why the US has supported or propped up oppressive leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and others.

Since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War between the Israelis and its Arab neighbors in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, starting with Jimmy Carter, six presidents have tried and failed at negotiating a lasting Middle East Peace Agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

This vexing conflict along with the US support of some of the most oppressive leaders has fueled anti-American sentiment among so many of the people in this region.

Unfortunately, The Arab Spring has turned from a hopeful movement of opportunity and democracy for so many of the people living under oppression into a full-blown religious war and power struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Was there one act or one moment where the US and its Allies missed the opportunity to tip the balance toward peace and democracy and away from chaos and calamity?

That will have to be left to the historians to decide.

This battle has become something of proxy war for regional influence and domination between Iran and its Shia allies and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni sphere of influence.

More recently al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIL both initially Sunni aligned extreme terrorist operations are now horrifically engaged in competition for the title of "Most Vile".

Once again, as in Vietnam, the US is being dragged into the middle of a religious conflict as it tries to sort and balance its interests while these competing groups vie for dominance.

The US and the West are reactively responding to the latest series of unfolding events without understanding what is at stake for them or without a clear overall plan as to where they want to end up - if and when the battle is ever over.

Now both Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of the closest US Allies - some say 'allies of convenience' or necessity - find themselves in increasingly hostile neighborhoods and in some ways on the same side of the Iran issue for completely different reasons.

Since the Arab Spring, Israel has found itself surrounded by even more instability than before -with Egypt a country in chaos, Jordan being destabilized by refugees from Syria, Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah and Syria's raging civil war.

Israel's war this summer in Gaza with Hamas added more fuel to the fire making negotiating a peace agreement in the Middle East a Herculean task.

Things are not much rosier for Saudi Arabia - the other powerful close Ally of the US - a Sunni lead Arab nation now surrounded by potentially unfriendly Shia supported governments in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq - and now Yemen to the south.

The only neighboring countries not posing a problem for them at the moment are Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE.

This is of course not a surprise since Saudi Arabia has sent $12billion in assistance to President Sisi's government in Egypt and they are also financially propping up Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq - and supporting Saudi friendly factions in Libya and Tunisia.

The Saudi Royal Family also supports Oman and Bahrain along with help from the other oil-rich nations of UAE, Qatar and Kuwait.

It is against this backdrop that President Obama has chosen to personally pay his respects to the Saud family on the passing of King Abdullah - leading an impressive however hastily cobbled together delegation of past and present US leaders and operatives - and personally meet with King Salaman, the late King's half-brother, former Minister of Defense and ascendant to the family throne.

The former King died on Friday, weeks after being admitted to hospital with a lung infection.

Clearly, with such an important array of competing players in this region paying their respects, President Obama decided he must indeed go in person.

Dignitaries including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, HRH Prince Charles, President Francois Hollande of France, King Felipe VI of Spain and Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik have all paid their respects in person.

Gulf leaders, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the funeral on Friday, the day of the King's passing which is Islamic tradition.

Iran represented by its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarifm offered his condolences in person as well.

Saudi Arabia has lost its leader and a new leader must now decided how to best secure his people's future for years to come.

In this region nothing is simple and US efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran not only has the Saudis on edge - but the Israelis are also opposed to this idea.

The sands of their security are literally shifting around them at an alarming rate.

Syria, Lebanon and Yemen may now all be under Shia control supported by Iran's Shia leaders.

Clearly over the past several months Iran has provided material support to the Houthis in Yemen. Whether Iran is directing the present activities of the Houthis seems not as clear to this Administration.

It is in the best interest of both Saudi Arabia and Israel that Iran remains weak, under sanctions and that no deal on its ability to have nuclear technology is reached.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the US efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran has domestic political implications as well as international ones.

So as President Obama made his plans to head off to India for several days, House Speaker John Boehner invited Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel to address Congress on the Israeli concerns relating to a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Obama Administration took this as something of a personal affront - despite the fact that they had invited PM David Cameron to the US the week before and allowed him to lobby Congress on their behalf to avoid additional sanctions while negotiations were still underway with Iran.

The White House also announced that it would not be meeting with PM Netanyahu while he is here in US "in an effort not to influence the Israeli Election" coming up in March.

By refusing to meet with PM Netanyahu are they not in fact sending a message to the Israeli voting public?

The Obama Administration has made no secret of their disagreement with PM Netanyahu when it comes to a nuclear deal with Iran. Although just like the Middle East Peace Process many other American presidents have tried and failed to reach a verifiable nuclear deal with Iran.

In the background while all of this is going on, the dropping price of oil on the world markets is also having an effect. With global production currently outstripping demand, oil has dramatically fallen in price. This will put more financial pressure on Iran without Congress doing anything.

At its current price of $45 a barrel Iran is estimated to lose another $11billion on top of the estimated $40billion it is currently losing due to existing sanctions. Worsening economic conditions might mean that the Iranian Regime could fall to pressures from within.

Russia another key player in the region and supporter of Syria, is also feeling economic pressure from falling oil prices.

Although Russia is reported to have approximately $240billion in ex-Soviet reserves, prior to the fall in oil prices it took 35 rubles to buy a dollar it now takes 65 rubles to purchase a dollar - and just this week their credit rating has been reduced to "junk" debt status by Standard & Poors.

Although falling oil prices are not good for Saudi Arabia either they do have approximately $900billion in reserves, so for the short term they can weather the storm.

It is often difficult to identify an historic opportunity and seize the moment, however the US and its Allies may realize that it could be time to focus on forging an agreement for peaceful co-existence and cooperation even among 'unfriendly nations' that share a more important common goal - fighting terrorism and total chaos.

Never have the stakes been quite so high for the US, its Allies and the people in the Middle East.