The Suez crisis is barely remembered in Britain. Even for a nation that likes to commemorate its military setbacks, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the retreat from Dunkirk, the events of late 1956 were a particularly shabby affair that ultimately spelled its end as an imperial power.

By contrast, the seizure of the Suez Canal by Gamal Abdel Nasser is a staple of the Egyptian school curriculum. Children are taught about the time a nation rose up against its colonial oppressors, restoring faith in a reborn, independent Egypt and the wider project of pan-Arab nationalism.

Or so the story goes. In fact, Egypt’s armed forces had little to do with the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops that winter, but the legend has been burnished over the generations and remains a source of national pride despite later wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973 and the long decades of economic and political stagnation that would follow.

US influence

If there was a long-term winner of the Suez affair, it was the US, which gently forced an end to the hostilities. American involvement in the Middle East had been growing since 1945, when President Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia – ironically, on a ship in the Suez Canal – to discuss their mutual interest in oil. Its later intercession in the Sinai confirmed the arrival of the US as the dominant foreign player in the region.

Sixty years on, that shift in influence can be detected in everything from accents to traffic systems in Anglophone parts of the Middle East. A few politicians or businessmen might speak the Queen’s English and rare, British-style roundabouts can still be discovered in the Gulf but generally speaking US culture predominates, the reach of stateside media, culture and commerce reinforced over the years by institutions such as the American universities of Beirut and Cairo.

American chains line the main streets of most cities in the Middle East today

American chains line the main streets of most cities in the Middle East today

American chains line the main streets of most cities in the Middle East today, representing either the scars of coca-colonialism or a healthy appetite for international commerce, depending on your point of view. Cairo’s Tahrir Square, named after Nasser’s “liberation” movement, heart of the 2011 uprising that ousted US ally Hosni Mubarak and scene of numerous anti-Western protests over the years, plays host to a thriving Hardee’s burger joint. There is a Pizza Hut just around the corner.

US diplomacy broke new ground in 1979, when Israel and Egypt finally signed a peace settlement brokered by the Carter administration. But the same year also posed the most serious challenges so far to Washington’s sense of political entitlement in the region, in the form of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The upheaval of those few months can still be read in the fractured political landscape of today, from the sectarian colours of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to the ideological trenches dug by descendants of the mujahideen.

Anti-American feeling

Even in the post-colonial era, foreign interference in local affairs and the influx of Western values inevitably generated resentment. A strong vein of anti-American feeling fed into the rising current of political Islam, particularly in the work of thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, whose writings in the 1950s and 1960s would go on to inspire everyone from so-called moderate Islamists to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on the US.

A founding narrative of extremist groups is losing relevance as US interest in the region subsides

Half a century on, violent spasms of religious extremism might feel like a permanent feature of modern life. But are they? In the wake of the Arab Spring revolts, many Islamists were willing to engage with the “western model” of democratic government – with mixed results in countries such as Egypt but some promise in the case of Tunisia, for example. Greater engagement of such groups – and civil society in general – could sap some of the tensions that feed into terrorism and the desire for violent revolution in the decades to come.

At the same time, a founding narrative of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda – confrontation between Islam and the West – is losing relevance as US interest in the region subsides. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan under the Obama administration was a clear demonstration of Washington’s political disengagement from the region. Future presidencies may reconsider, but they would be overlooking the breakdown of a deeper economic relationship sustained by oil.

Pivot to Asia

Where the old Middle East once looked west, the rapidly modernising energy producers of the Gulf now look east.

The Middle East will be integral to China’s ’one belt, one road’ programme

The US has already dropped to third in the global list of importers of Saudi crude oil, behind China and Japan and only just ahead of India and South Korea. That said, the burgeoning relationship with southeast Asia is about more than oil and gas. For example, the Middle East will be integral to China’s “one belt, one road” programme aimed at reviving ancient Silk Road trading links with Europe and Africa.

Even so, future prosperity cannot be taken for granted. Gulf economies in particular will need to diversify rapidly to continue to attract the international trade and investment on which they rely so heavily. They only have to look at the struggles of the mature economies of the Mediterranean to provide for their burgeoning populations to know that the post-oil era will not be an easy one. The next 60 years will be a testing time for all.