Who directs US relations with the Gulf States?

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are meant to be important US security partners, a relationship that, in theory, should have mutual benefits. This is why recent reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s very public statements to visit in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia talks with China on the price of some of its oil in Chinese currency, the United Arab Emirates abstention of a UN Security Council vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the two partners reluctance pick up the phone, are particularly shocking.

Over the past few decades, the United States has made a strong commitment to its Gulf security partners, stationing American personnel at bases in the region, selling these countries advanced weapons, and providing military training, maintenance and other forms of support. In exchange for this support, the United States tried to use these security partnerships in the service of the strategy goals stabilize oil markets, fight terrorism and deter Iran.

It is uncertain whether these security partnerships furthered these strategic objectives. But at the same time, the state of the relationship itself – rather than these strategic goals – has increasingly become the focus of US foreign policy in the region. In short, the means have become the ends. And that must change.


The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen began seven years ago on March 26, 2015. In 2015, like the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Global Action Plan (JCPOA), was being finalized, American and Gulf policy makers spoke a lot about the fact that the relationship between the United States on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other, was increasingly tense due to opposition from the Gulf monarchies. to the case. In exchange, when the intervention in Yemen began, US officials (including Robert Malley, now US special envoy for Iran) said later that they offered their support for the intervention, not because it would further U.S. strategic priorities, but because U.S. ties with those partners were “under strain.” Mally explained that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies saw the Iran nuclear deal, then nearing completion, as giving Iran “a leg up at their expense”. Support for the intervention in Yemen, U.S. policymakers hoped, would improve those relations, while giving the U.S. room to nudge the intervention in the right direction — a dynamic they likened to “getting into a car with a drunk driver”. according to to Malley and Stephen Pomper.

The refusal of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to support Biden’s approach to Russia and Ukraine seems calculated to demonstrate to American officials that their bilateral relations with the United States are not not just under tension, but that it is the United States’ responsibility to fix them.

It turned out that the military intervention did not further US security interests. On the contrary, it led to the Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi territorydestabilized oil markets and allowed the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP to to resume Mukalla, the fifth largest city in Yemen, for more than a year. Indeed, it ultimately failed to improve the US security partnership with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Instead, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis civiliansdue to airstrikes as well as starvation and disease caused by the fighting, embittered the American public and first members of Congress on US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It even led many Americans to actively to organise against American support for the war. The bucket cited The US opposition when it partially withdrew its forces from Yemen in 2019, while war and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi led President Joe Biden to call Saudi Arabia is an international ‘pariah’ and notes that there is ‘very little redeeming social value in the current government in Saudi Arabia’ during the 2020 presidential primary debates – the press secretary of Saudi Arabia said recently. the White House affirmed that the president supports.

The Biden administration has sought to reset the relationship without completely collapsing it, urging Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to commit to the UN-led peace process and to make a break the sale of certain weapons, while go forward with other sales and provide support to both countries to defend them against Houthi attacks. This support has apparently not been enough for some Gulf officials. Mohammed bin Salman (Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia) and Mohammed bin Zayed (Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates) – known respectively as MbS and MbZ – are said to have decreases even taking a phone call with Biden in recent weeks. Assad is very public visit to the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s talks with China on oil prices and abstention of a UN Security Council vote on Ukraine were also seen as diplomatic snubs, even if they were not overtly aimed at the United States. The relationship is “going through a stress test”, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said. noted. It seems that some members of the American political community have also accepted this narrative: “There is no doubt that a major crisis in American-Arab relations is underway,” an editorial recently published. Notedciting the litany of recent diplomatic snubs as evidence.

The reflection on foreign policy in these two Gulf monarchies is often opaque. But this recent series of moves — particularly the two countries’ refusal to back Biden’s approach to Russia and Ukraine — seems calculated to demonstrate to U.S. officials that their bilateral relationship with the U.S. is not just under attack. tension, but that it is the job of the United States to fix it. Saudi and Emirati leaders seem to think they can use a situation similar to 2015, when a new Iran nuclear deal is being finalized and global energy markets are under pressure to use US influence in reverse by holding the bilateral relationship itself hostage. “Not so long ago, the United States presented itself to its allies as its shield against all actors who sought regional hegemony,” he added. wrote Saudi commentator Mohammed Alyahya, former English editor of Al Arabiya, “Why America’s regional allies should help Washington contain Russia in Europe while Washington is bolstering Russia and Iran in the Middle East ?” Likewise, “the UAE’s relationship with the American partner is facing difficulties it has not encountered for 50 years,” commented Emirati commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla. wrote Last week. “Certainly, the task of correcting the misunderstanding falls on the Biden administration.”


This time, that decision should backfire — the Biden administration should call its bluff. After all, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have any other viable security partners to turn to immediately, especially as they rely on US aid to protect themselves from attacks by Houthi missiles and drones. Saudi Arabia held discussions about buying Russian-made weapons, but Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine has meant that Russia itself is now request China for military aid. Both gulf monarchies are looking to explore options to increase more arms from China in a bid to diversify their security partnerships, but it’s not as simple as switching from the US to China as the main sponsor of security. After decades of military assistance, armaments and training from the United States, as well as France and the United Kingdom, such a major pivot would involve modifying the logistical systems put in place to maintain and support the American (and French and British) equipment and recycling. military personnel to use different systems. All this would absorb a lot of resources and take a lot of time.

Nor is there much evidence that China or Russia are poised to be the kind of security partners these Gulf monarchies are. looking for. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have turned to the United States not only for high-tech weapons systems, but also for tangible security guarantees in the form of means and forces stationed in the area and assistance protect against attacks on Saudi and Emirati territory.

In the past, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been able to extract concessions from the United States when they can convince DC policymakers and observers that their relationship with the United States is “tense.” This time should be different: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should no longer be able to set the terms of the relationship.

Alexandra Stark is a Principal Investigator in New America and holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. She is currently working on a book manuscript, “Forgotten Wars: What intervention in Yemen’s civil war tell us about Middle East politics and the failures of American politics.”

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