Strategic autonomy and technology transfers take center stage in a shifting UAE procurement policy.
On June 14, the White House announced plans for President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s first trip to the Middle East since he took office. The trip, set for mid-July, involves much more than simply an effort to buttress ties with traditional partners and, especially, positively recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia. Coming in the internationally transformative wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States appears to be attempting to replicate its success in reviving the Western alliance and reunifying NATO in Europe by reinvigorating and restoring a U.S.-led bloc in the Middle East.
This effort comes amid the apparent failure of indirect negotiations in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran. The talks stalemated largely over Iran’s demand that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. The negotiations are technically ongoing, but even if the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy remains securing an acceptable agreement with Tehran, the construction of a credible new regime of intensified containment and deterrence against Iran and its network of regional proxies is essential. In short, U.S. foreign policy would look much the same whether or not the Biden administration still really holds out hope that it can still secure an agreement with Iran.
Any strengthened U.S.-led camp in the Middle East will effectively be built on a de facto partnership between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan. Washington is already taking steps to improve ties with all these countries and bring them together in closer cooperation. But the key, as usual, lies in Riyadh, which is why Biden has been so insistent that the main point of his trip is not energy pricing but something “much larger” that is intimately connected to Israel’s security. That sounds a lot like political branding to Capitol Hill for a new Middle East policy that some members of Congress would otherwise find politically unpalatable at first glance.
Ukraine, Vienna, and U.S. Middle East Policy
During his campaign and early on in his administration, Biden seemed to distance himself from Saudi Arabia, so this trip appears to be a major reversal of policy. However, with Biden being only the latest U.S. president to run on a platform emphasizing human rights in foreign policy, the imperatives of statecraft were always likely to intrude on such an agenda. Additionally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a new urgency and opportunity for Washington in the Middle East.
The optics and actual dynamics of global power have been significantly altered by the Ukraine war. The Russian military looks like a paper tiger, unable to secure presumed easy victories and far less potent in the field against a much smaller adversary than most had anticipated. The United States, by contrast, while not directly engaged in the conflict, has gained a great deal of credit and credibility by marshaling unexpectedly robust and determined resistance to Russian aggression by European and NATO countries. Indeed, if the current atmosphere persists, Washington will have effectively resurrected a Western alliance in Europe that had been presumed moribund.
This success in rebuilding alliances against a would-be hegemon in Europe has dovetailed with the apparent failure of the Vienna talks. In February, U.S. negotiators, perhaps to a significant degree as a negotiating tactic, insisted that within weeks Iran’s nuclear technological development would render the resurrection of the JCPOA irrelevant. Months later, with no deal in hand and Iran instead enmeshed in a bitter dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency over nuclear residues the agency has discovered that Tehran has not explained, the United States is looking for a Plan B. Since the other options involve walking away from the Gulf region or capitulating to unreasonable Iranian demands, or engaging in military action that would likely be highly destabilizing to the region and unlikely to succeed, the only viable alternative appears to be the creation of a new regime of containment and deterrence against Tehran. Even if the administration holds out significant hope for an agreement in Vienna, a credible effort to create such a new program to contain Iran would be the most obvious means of gaining new leverage with Tehran.
Therefore, U.S. policymakers are seemingly advancing a two-front campaign of containment and deterrence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. All three key U.S. security partners in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – have hedged their responses regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has clearly served as a red flag for Washington. For a decade, these states had steadily lost confidence in the United States as a security guarantor and consequently began to emphasize strategic diversification. That involved outreach to Washington’s global competitors, such as Russia and China, as well as, particularly in the case of Israel and the UAE, each other. Washington has been particularly alarmed at the rise of Chinese influence. Disputes over the alleged or potential transfer of sensitive U.S. security technology to China has been a source of contention with Israel and the UAE. Saudi Arabia, too, has been seeking to build bridges to Beijing. In response, the United States is trying to not only rebuild its own bilateral relations with the states but to promote and build on their growing cooperation against Iran.
Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia eventually sided with the United States against Russia in a strongly worded U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion. Yet, all three have also continued to keep the door open to Moscow and, perhaps more tellingly, Beijing. But since all of this was built on a narrative of U.S. decline, and particularly a lack of will and influence, in contrast with the rise of Russia and China, the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine has offered a unique opportunity to change this narrative and therefore restructure the calculations based on it.
Biden’s Evolution on Saudi Arabia
The president’s trip to Saudi Arabia will effectively involve moving U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia beyond anger in the United States toward the Saudi government, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden had campaigned in a way that fully expressed Democrats’ anger over his killing as well as other human rights violations and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. And when he was first in office, he oversaw the release of a CIA report implicating Mohammed bin Salman in the murder and applied sanctions on some Saudi officials.
Many Saudi officials believed that they had taken substantial steps to meet U.S. demands on pursuing a cease-fire in Yemen, accepting refugees from Afghanistan, and providing aid to factions cooperative with U.S. policy in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, only to meet with a cold shoulder from the Biden administration on both policy issues and regarding personal snubbing of Saudi leaders, especially Mohammed bin Salman. Tensions frayed to the point where both sides were snubbing each other, with the U.S. president refusing to deal with the Saudi crown prince and he, in turn, declined to meet with some U.S. officials and, eventually, turned down a phone call with Biden personally.
The gesture of Biden meeting personally with Mohammed bin Salman alone will do much to signal a return to normalcy in the relationship with the kingdom, a relationship that the U.S. government had already renormalized, post-Khashoggi, during the administration of former President Donald J. Trump. Biden’s gesture has met with opposition in the United States, especially among Democrats in Congress, but is likely to prove a bilateral fait accompli. But beyond the optics of the visit, no matter how diplomatically and politically important, are the building blocks for a more integrated and reinvigorated U.S.-led camp in the region.
Practical Steps to Build This Bloc
Though doubts in the United States, especially in Congress, and in Gulf Arab countries persist about each other’s reliability and sincerity, 2022 has been replete with practical steps by Washington and regional partners to push to build a more cohesive partnership. Building on the momentum of the Abraham Accords, Israel has reportedly transferred advanced early warning radar systems to the UAE and Bahrain to shore up their missile defenses. The UAE-Israeli partnership has grown rapidly since the accords were signed in the summer of 2020 and have developed extensive security components. Saudi Arabia has dropped restrictions on Israeli businesspeople entering the kingdom, primarily to facilitate security-related commerce. The two countries were nudged closer together when the United States moved to involve Israel in arrangements to transfer sovereignty over two crucial Red Sea islands from Egypt back to Saudi Arabia.
Israeli officials continue to call for an open alliance with Gulf Arab countries against Iran. Biden appeared to be hinting at just such an agenda when discussing his trip with journalists on June 12. He insisted his trip wasn’t mainly about energy pricing, saying “the commitments from the Saudis” that he had been seeking “don’t relate to anything having to do with energy.” Instead, he said, the trip has to do with “national security for them — for Israelis.” He continued, “I have a program — anyway. It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece.” Biden has yet to explain what program he began to mention but decided to keep under wraps, but the security component appears obvious, and he linked his trip to Saudi Arabia with Israel’s security in the briefing.
Another key component appears to be falling into place. Since at least November 2021, the UAE has made efforts to secure mutual defense assurances with the United States. While a long-standing Emirati goal, this has become even more urgent since the Iranian-allied Houthis in Yemen launched missile and drone strikes in January on Abu Dhabi killing three people. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly apologized to Abu Dhabi’s then-crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, for what Washington agreed was a delayed response to the attacks. The talks continued into early June when it was reported that a “Strategic Framework Agreement” was being seriously discussed and that the White House’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, had delivered a draft agreement to the UAE in late May. While no official announcement has been made by either side, on June 15 prominent and well-connected Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla tweeted that the two countries were on the brink of signing a mutual defense agreement that met all of the UAE’s “specifications.”
Such an agreement could be a major breakthrough in U.S.-Gulf Arab relations and would likely go beyond the benefits that Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar enjoy as designated “major non-NATO allies” of the United States. An agreement signaling a major U.S. commitment to UAE security is a necessary component in the construction of a new, more coordinated, and robust campaign of containment and deterrence against Iran because – lacking Israel’s independent nuclear deterrent and Saudi Arabia’s strategic depth – the UAE is especially vulnerable to devastating missile and drone attacks from Iran or, as the strikes from Yemen demonstrate, Tehran’s allies.
Moreover, it will be an important step in convincing Abu Dhabi – and potentially Saudi Arabia – that the United States is not turning its back on its Gulf Arab allies and is instead willing to recommit to their fundamental security. That may be crucial to convincing these countries, and even Israel, to turn away from a decade of strategic diversification, particularly regarding ties to Russia and China, and to recommit to a security framework in which Washington serves as the coordinating hub. At the same time, Washington will view these discussions as a two-way street, and the administration will need to respond to critics of such an approach, in Congress and elsewhere, and demonstrate that U.S. interests are also being addressed.
In Washington, some proponents of Biden’s trip and a new security commitment to Gulf Arab countries, in cooperation with Israel, are casting it as a first step toward these countries taking the primary responsibility for their own security and regional stability. A major U.S. role will be required for some time to buttress and protect this potential alliance. However, such a regional security structure, if it proves effective and durable, could be a key factor in downsizing the U.S. military footprint in the region and increasingly transferring a defense burden onto local partners.
The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington's eighth annual Petro Diplomacy conference examined the upheaval in the oil and gas markets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the role of Gulf Arab oil producing states in meeting the sudden demand surge.
While the strategic value of Iran’s drones seems limited thus far, Moscow seems to view them as an inexpensive – and punitive – way to maintain leverage in the conflict.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More