In the past two months the U.S. government has taken a series of steps to improve relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with then-Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Morocco, a meeting that reportedly included an apology for neglecting the concerns of a key U.S. partner regarding the U.S. response to attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen. In mid-April, CIA Director (and former senior U.S. diplomat) William Burns met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, a show of senior-level U.S. attention to help mend ties with a leader previously consigned to meet sub-Cabinet level officials. In May, a senior U.S. delegation, led by Vice President Kamala Harris, which included Blinken, Burns, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, traveled to Abu Dhabi to offer condolences to newly named UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed on the passing of President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The heavy-hitter roster on the trip was meant to follow up on the Blinken visit in conveying the importance the United States attaches to the relationship with the UAE. These developments come amid reports that President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is considering a trip to Riyadh in June that would likely coincide with a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting and would allow him the opportunity to meet with Mohammed bin Salman.
A Sense of Grievance
All this high-level diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance each of these Gulf capitals harbors, if not all the specific grievances themselves. The Emiratis have been irritated for months with the perceived lack of urgency in Washington’s response to the January 17 Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi that killed three people; U.S. refusal to reimpose the terrorist designation on the Houthis, particularly in the wake of the attacks; and U.S. reluctance to approve requested untrammeled weapons systems, including the F-35 fighter aircraft. Well-documented Saudi irritations – sometimes captured in high-profile media accounts – are connected with continued U.S. recriminations regarding the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in tandem with candidate-turned-President Biden’s perceived disdainful attitude toward Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. criticism over Saudi prosecution of the war in Yemen. The Saudis are also operating from the reality, as one former U.S. official put it, that Saudi Arabia is at the epicenter of the current Middle East: Ignoring the reality of those levels of regional influence and responsibility feeds the sense of grievance in Riyadh.
And Longer-Term Strategic Diversification
Rising gas prices in the United States – now near historic, inflation-adjusted highs – and the crisis provoked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine form the backdrop that helps clarify this Gulf discontent and provide Washington impetus to address it. But there have been longer-term developments that have contributed to perceived fraying of Washington’s relations with key Gulf allies. Gulf countries for a number of years have been engaged in strategic diversification as they sensed: declining U.S. willingness to act decisively in the region; an emerging Chinese role in the Gulf; and a brutal, but effective, Russia capable of projecting significant regional influence and protecting its clients. Gulf countries have also been engaged in a broader regional realignment that has emphasized retrenchment, diplomatic maneuver, and exiting from entangling military commitments.
These Gulf assessments were buttressed by perceptions, created largely by the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the United States is willing to turn its back on old allies and prove an unreliable strategic partner. This fraying of relations cannot all be laid at the Biden White House doorstep. Some of it dates back to the failure of the administration of former President Donald J. Trump to respond to Iran for the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. And some date to former President Barack Obama’s perceived tilt to Iran during and after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal negotiations (and fed by occasional dismissive gibes about traditional Gulf allies and poorly received calls for an evenhanded, “share the neighborhood” approach that seemed to ignore Iranian malign behavior and decades of Gulf Arab cooperation with the United States).
But if Iran, strategic diversification, and perceptions of U.S. loss of interest led to fraying on the Gulf side, the issue of China has loomed large in U.S. calculations of its interests in the Gulf and led to frictions. The U.S. inability to deliver requested military purchases like the F-35s was largely a function of Washington’s fears that sensitive technology could be compromised by Chinese assets in the region, so the UAE was being offered a pared-down system with so many constraints that the costly sale became unattractive. There was also a sense in Washington of a lack of transparency regarding deals these capitals were making with China. The U.S. strategic concerns over China helped encourage already existing Gulf-focused animus in the wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties, noted one analyst, speaking on background, constraining the administration’s room for maneuver to address problems with these relationships early on.
The strategic hedging in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, reflecting fears of flagging U.S. resolve to provide security, while understandable on the merits and even as a negotiation tactic to ensure U.S. attention to their interests and concerns, is also, according to former and current U.S. officials, speaking on background, creating aspects of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Fearful the United States cannot be relied on to come to their rescue if they faced a threat like Kuwait did from Iraq in 1990-91, they are taking actions that, in some quarters, make the case less compelling for the United States to guarantee their security. And while Washington has traditionally not been concerned about the Gulf’s strategic hedging, when it involved, for example, European allies like France or the United Kingdom, the specter of an ascendant China has changed U.S. sensitivities in this regard. There is also a sense among some observers in Washington that the hedging – and associated messaging – has taken on an aspect at times that seems dismissive of the broad structure of U.S. policy and decision making in most administrations. On both sides, such suspicions have increasingly taken on the appearance of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Nowhere is the double edge of this strategic hedging behavior more evident than with the issue of Ukraine. One former U.S. official expressed understanding and sympathy for initial Gulf perspectives on Ukraine but felt leaders should find a way to adjust and pivot as they recalculated their interests in the face of massive U.S. and NATO support and the sustained faltering of the Russian military effort. While Russia got significant credit in the Gulf for its decisive (if brutal) military intervention in Syria and its unwavering support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is being discounted almost daily as the Russian military’s woeful performance in Ukraine gets microscopic attention and President Vladimir Putin digs himself – and Russia – into a deeper and deeper strategic hole. Others in the United States are skeptical of significant change in Gulf calculations on Ukraine, feeling they have been shaped by an assessment that the United States and NATO, in the long years leading up to the current crisis, did indeed crowd Russia and dismissed its concerns regarding NATO expansion. Gulf perceptions of a double standard in the United States’ bold response on Ukraine, in comparison with its feeble response on Syria – in tandem with Europe’s differing responses to the refugees created by each crisis – further reinforce Gulf assessments on Ukraine.
An Overlay of Common Interests
Thus, both the United States and key Gulf countries have narratives that help explain the fraying of this important relationship. The bedrock reality is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE need the United States, and the United States needs them. And strategic hedging cannot negate or supplant fundamental considerations of national security. Whatever differences in interests and narratives each side brings to the table, and whatever differences in political systems and cultural norms, there is an overlay of common interests that make it incumbent to stop the fraying and repair the relationships.
Recent U.S. steps have gone some way toward improving ties, and the upcoming Biden visit to the region will also pay significant political dividends (although the administration will need to guard against creating a perception of weakness in a region prone to dismiss those guilty of showing it). And such improvement efforts are a two-way street. Many in Washington will be looking for some signals in response to U.S. initiatives to right the ship. They expect long-term friends and partners to understand that the administration needs to address domestic concerns. This improvement in relations won’t be easy or perfect. And there will be pushback in certain quarters of the U.S. political establishment and media. Nonetheless, the case for such improvement is clear and progress is already underway; effective diplomacy and a continuing focus on the realities that confront the U.S.-UAE and U.S.-Saudi relationships set the stage for further repair of the great fraying in these relationships.