The Man Whispering the Middle East’s Future into Washington’s Ear

The Man Whispering the Middle East’s Future into Washington’s Ear

Though rarely in the headlines, Mohammed Soliman is quietly reshaping U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

Washington, DC has no shortage of foreign policy strategists. Think tanks from K Street to Arlington continuously pump out a wide assortment of articles, white papers, and studies authored by individuals with grand designs on how to direct America’s significant diplomatic, economic, and military heft. Most of these experts model themselves after Henry Kissinger or Cardinal Richelieu, prominent and visionary statesmen with fierce intellect, mastery over the art of diplomacy, and driven by an unshakeable belief in advancing the national interest. They seek to cast their names in bronze and lay their claim to immortal honor, which most mere mortals can only dream of possessing.

Far less recognized are the éminence grises. These are the “Grey Men” (for they are often men): quiet, discrete, and comfortable working behind the scenes. They are a relative rarity in our media-saturated political environment, where the intellectual is forced into the role of “content creator.” The Grey Men find this exasperating, as they eschew the pursuit of public glory and often prefer to possess unassuming titles—if they retain formal titles. For the Grey Men, the great game of geopolitics is not played for the spoils it promises. Instead, the game is played because it is the only game worth playing seriously; all others seem quaint or trivial. You may not see or hear of the Grey Men often, but more likely than not, you’ve heard of their ideas and seen their work implemented.

Lately, though, the great game has become more challenging. The United States is increasingly regarded as in decline, confronted by a rising China and a revanchist Russia, suffering from internal division, a weakened industrial base and military capacity, and more. What was once considered impossible, the end of the U.S.-led unipolar order, is now deemed increasingly possible. The Grey Men have their work cut out for them more than ever.

One of the more forward-thinking of this set is Mohammed Soliman, director of the Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program at the Washington D.C.-based Middle East Institute. While on paper, Soliman may appear to be a niche figure with a relatively unassuming title, this belies his actual importance. Mohammed’s insights on the changing balance of power in the Middle East have caught senior policymakers’ attention. They are increasingly playing a role in shaping the U.S. government’s foreign policy in an increasingly fractured and multipolar geopolitical environment.

Soliman’s background differs from that of a typical foreign policy professional in Washington. A native of Cairo, he grew up in Egypt well into his twenties. From there, far removed from the DC bubble, he witnessed world events from a distinct perspective. As an Arab Muslim, the events of Kosovo, 9/11, and the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were not only examples of good intentions driving problematic military interventions but also stories of disintegration and humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, it was the advent of the Arab Spring in the early aughts, especially Egypt’s own January 25 Revolution, that impacted Soliman the most. Initially a pro-democratization idealist, he came to understand how deeply rooted structural issues and conflicting interests were a greater obstacle to democratic reform than the lack of mere political will. While he studied engineering at the Egyptian Aviation Academy, he came to accept and even embrace the cruel logic of permanent crises, molding a worldview that vindicates the use of realpolitik.

In this, Soliman is following a well-beaten path. In every era, intellectuals and political leaders grow up on the periphery of the reigning empire of the day. The experience of growing up in the periphery of an empire—far removed from the imperial core—is an important one. Individuals molded by such upbringings come to truly appreciate the blessings and the flaws of the current order. Similarly, only by living in the periphery does one understand the true danger that the clash of empires and political disintegration pose to the ordinary man. This exposure radicalizes the ambitious in a certain way, instilling in them a drive to change the current order, either to reform it or remake it entirely anew.

For Soliman, who moved to Washington in his mid-twenties, what the Middle East needs is the restoration of a stable balance of power, which was lost in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Syrian state’s collapse into civil war. This sort of instability is defined by cycles of conflicts with no end in sight. For the region’s inhabitants, this means war, economic fragility, and unending misery. For U.S. foreign policy and national interests, this is ruinous. The Middle East’s perpetual instability haunts Washington and complicates U.S. efforts to deprioritize the region in favor of a more focused posture in the Indo-Pacific. The ongoing Gaza conflict and the escalating tensions in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean offer textbook examples of this dynamic.

But how can the region be stabilized? Soliman wrestled with this quandary in the late aughts as he began to assimilate into Washington’s foreign policy class, attaining his Master’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and taking up various fellowships and consulting positions across the city. These included positions at the two primary institutions he remains affiliated with to this day: the Middle East Institute (MEI), the venerable think tank with excellent connections with the region, and McLarty Associates, the international advisory firm started by President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, III. When asked about Soliman, McLarty says that Mohammed “is part of the next generation of top foreign policy leaders with a keen perspective on the dynamics and shifting political landscape of the Middle East, and regional affairs more broadly.” This is echoed by C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a leading Indian foreign policy analyst, telling me that Soliman “represents a small but significant cohort of scholars offering new and self-assured ways of thinking about world affairs that are neither deferential nor defiant to the dominant discourse in the West.”

Ultimately, Soliman realized the answer lay in reimagining the Middle East’s nominal borders, stretching them to include India. By doing so and redefining the Middle East as “West Asia,” it is possible to link the periphery of Europe to the emerging centers of power in Asia, thereby creating a transregional system where Turkey, Iran, and India would occupy central positions, reclaiming the balance of power and forming the basis for stronger economic integration.

To many—especially Americans, who are biased toward a static conception of geopolitical boundaries—this is a radical departure from the norm. However, in practice, Soliman is advocating for a revival deeply rooted in historical precedents. Regional pre-European hegemony empires had a broader conception of “the Middle East” than most people today. The medieval-era Mamluk Sultanate, for example, was particularly attuned to the politics and economics of both Europe and Asia owing to its control of the spice trade. Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and the editor of Orbis, contends that Soliman’s work “forces us to consider how ties organically develop, not shoehorn relationships into pre-existing organization boxes.” Moreover, Gvosdev adds that Soliman’s research “has been critical as the U.S. foreign and defense establishment is grappling with the realities of regionalism. I consider him to be one of the “godfathers” of the trans-oceanic concept we’ve developed, particularly at the Naval War College, to assess how connections develop around trade and to educate rising national security leaders to see the global chessboard via the web connections of such corridors.”   

It is here that Soliman’s status as one of the Grey Men starts becoming apparent. Though his nominal public focus—given his primary title—is on technology and cybersecurity in the Middle East, his actual portfolio is significantly more vast. His position at MEI, combined with a managerial role at McLarty Associates and a David Rockefeller Fellowship with the Trilateral Commission, grants him access to major government, business, and intellectual figures throughout the Western world, the Middle East, and the globe at large. His engagements and business consultancy work result in an important audience for his myriad essays and spoken lectures, allowing him to ever so subtly nudge strategic thinking toward his worldview. His disciples and mentees—whether through MEI, McLarty Associates, or other institutions he is involved with—become eager advocates of his West Asia concept. McLarty himself notes that “what comes through loudly and clearly in Mohammed’s analysis is his foundation in ‘the art of the possible’ rather than wishful thinking.”

Half a decade after beginning his work, Soliman’s efforts have borne rich fruit. His intellectual engagements and writings are credited with establishing the foundation for the I2U2 Group, a multilateral format composed of India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States. The goal, as he articulates in an influential 2021 essay, is to advance the idea of a broader “Indo-Abrahamic Alliance.” Though this would first be composed of the I2U2 countries, the “alliance” would later incorporate other countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the fullness of time, this “I2U2 Plus” “alliance” would reshape the geopolitical and economic landscape of West Asia, aiming to eventually connect with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad. The ultimate result, he indicated at the time, would be a framework that links the various nations of the Eurasian periphery together, resulting in significant regional political stability, strengthened economic integration, and—the more cynical and security-minded would note—a firm geopolitical structure that could contain China and Russia.