Since its inception, the United Arab Emirates has had a strong relationship with the United States. This is still the case, regardless of current tensions with the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the White House.
The United States was among the first to recognize the UAE immediately after its inception in December 1971. And Ambassador William A. Stoltzfus was sent as an ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the UAE three months later to prepare for opening the U.S. Embassy in 1974.
The UAE and the United States have since enjoyed a steady and strong relationship. Bilateral trade has risen to $23 billion. And, more significantly, the UAE has participated in U.S.-led military operations in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Serbia, and Iraq as well as the NATO U.S.-led mission in Libya. Added to this is deep security cooperation on counterterrorism that ranges from intelligence sharing to deradicalization efforts.
This history of strong ties contrasts with the current discourse permeating U.S. media regarding the relationship with the UAE – that it is reaching a new low or that there is even a crisis due to the UAE disregarding Biden and showing solidarity with Russia over the alliance with the United States. Nonetheless, the current relationship has been undergoing some stress testing.
How Did the Relationship Get There?
The relationship has had its ups and downs, but the current tensions, for the most part, are rooted in the U.S. strategic shift with the “pivot East” foreign policy of the administration of former President Barack Obama. That pivot to counter China’s ascendence to potentially becoming the largest economy in the world required – for many U.S. officials and policy analysts – a pivot away from the Middle East, in tandem with efforts to reduce perceived U.S. costs and burdens associated with such a large security footprint.
This was soon translated into public and foreign U.S. policies, including allowing fracking to achieve energy independence, and introducing austerity measures to Department of Defense budgets to the extent that an article in The Atlantic described Obama as the “Austerity President.”
On foreign policy, the finalizing in 2015 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, without the consultation of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, was perceived by the Gulf Arab states as an attempt to reduce U.S. security involvement in the Middle East. The general view from these states was that limiting the JCPOA negotiations strictly to Iran’s nuclear program was a missed opportunity for restricting the destabilizing activities of Iranian-backed militia groups. Accepting Iranian proxies to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, including the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and turning a blind eye to Iran’s mobilization of Shia movements like the Zeinabiyoun Brigade from Pakistan and Fatemiyoun Division from Afghanistan to fight against ISIL in Syria, was a sign of a shifting of the security architecture reflecting greater freedom of movement for Iranian-supported militia activity. But U.S retrenchment extended even further. Giving Russia the Syria file, instead of enforcing a no-fly zone, was not only a means of reducing the U.S. security bill – and a potential open-ended U.S. military involvement – in the Middle East but a major restructuring of security responsibility that ended up giving both Russia and Iran a new role in the region.
The biggest blow was the U.S. position on the offensive of the Iranian-supported Houthi movement in Yemen. The Houthis moved quickly from occupying Sanaa to attacking Aden and threatening Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Embassy continued to operate in Sanaa until mid-February 2015 before closing; that it stayed open for a month after the Houthi takeover of the capital was perceived by some as providing legitimacy to the Houthis. This marked a major departure from the Carter Doctrine and the U.S. commitment to the GCC states made between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz al-Saud on board the USS Quincy in 1945. The Obama administration supported the Saudi-led coalition in its intervention in Yemen as a means of establishing its “burden sharing” or “do it yourself” doctrine for regional security. The Biden administration’s move in June 2021 to withdraw Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia as it continued facing Houthi drone and missile attacks was possibly the last nail in the Carter Doctrine’s coffin.
The Biden administration’s handling of relations with Saudi Arabia was possibly the most perplexing and damaging aspect of GCC-U.S. relations. While clearly feeling compelled to offer its own response to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the administration seemed to allow media and congressional reaction to prevent any serious effort to rebuild the relationship. The sense of drift in U.S.-Saudi relations fed the perception that the United States no longer took its relationship with Saudi Arabia – or its Gulf security commitments – seriously.
Until oil prices started to soar, the GCC countries were not a priority for Biden, whose Middle East policy was JCPOA centric. The administration’s considering removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the list of foreign terrorist organizations was seen as an incentive to accelerate the return of Iranian oil to the market in light of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s commitment to the OPEC+ production cut agreement among OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers.
Clash of World Orders
However, the changes are not limited to U.S. policy in the Middle East. They also affect how the world order is framed. The U.S.-led unipolar world order, after the fall of the Soviet Union, ushered in globalization, which was adopted by Russia and China. The GCC countries have heavily invested in globalization. The entire post-oil development plans in the region are based on global economic connectivity. However, this globally interconnected world order is seriously threatened. The Biden administration’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is bringing back, inadvertently or not, the bipolar world order that ended in the 1990s. The current use of sanctions, asset seizures, and freezing of possessions of companies, individuals, and their relatives is sending ominous signals for everyone who believed in foreign investment and interconnected global economy. For many, one administration seems to be setting the clock on a globalized economy back 35 years and all the investments into a networked global economy are now evaporating.
The UAE, like many other countries, has believed in globalization and has molded its entire economic and diplomatic structure based on open arteries of trade and finance, flows of people, and data exchange. From Emirates Airlines to Dubai Ports World to the Abraham Accords, Emirati public and foreign policies are dependent on the world order the United States created. The return to the Cold War era is a major disruption. This is part of the reason the UAE froze its discussions on the purchase of F-35 fighter jets because it became clear part of the price was a return to a binary system of friends and foes that is counter to the way the rest of the world sees economic relations. Though the current standoff is with Russia, the implications of extending it to China, as was the case with using Huawei’s 5G network, is a clear and present danger to global connectivity.
Can Things Change?
One of the main outcomes of the Abraham Accords was the reassessment of the threat matrix. The shift of Israel from “enemy” to “friend” has opened new horizons in the relationship between Israel and key Gulf countries, even those that have not signed on to the accords, increasing cooperation on airspace usage, military exercises, and cultural engagement. Among other things, the accords are indeed a sign that things can change and options previously thought of as impossible or too difficult can, with leadership and vision, become real.
The Biden administration can find an opportunity in the crisis between the United States and some GCC states to reassess the relationship and its value to both parties in a sort of “Quincy II” process, similar to the agreement between Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, that takes into consideration the changes in their national interests, development directions, and the global landscape. This could lead to a redefinition of the relationship between the United States and GCC countries to establish if they are allies or just partners. Currently, there is no real security alliance structure for the United States and the GCC even though both the U.S. Central Command and 5th Fleet are stationed in GCC countries.
This alliance, or partnership, will need to take into account the future planning of both the United States and GCC countries. In the case of the UAE, it has started outlining a 50-year agenda, which includes issues regarding artificial intelligence, the global connectivity agenda, and life in the digital world. These are aspirations shared by all GCC countries, despite differences in priorities and speed of execution. For a sustainable U.S.-GCC relationship it will have to be based on a shared imagination of the future.
To facilitate this redefining of relations, the United States and the GCC countries can use the model of the “T-20” process that brought together leading think tanks and research institutions from G-20 countries to craft policy recommendations. Institutions in both the United States and GCC countries could meet regularly to develop a shared agenda for the next 50 years that could become the basis of developing either an alliance or a partnership with clear expectations and commitments in efforts to add more strategic depth and clarity to the relationship.
So much has been invested in a very deep-rooted relationship between the Gulf Arab countries and the United States. It would be costly for both parties to see it wither away.