Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has abruptly exposed the existing tensions between the United States and its Middle Eastern partners. This has been most noticeable in the Persian Gulf, where the Biden administration has diverged from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia even as it has embraced Qatar. With concerns about Russia, Iran, and energy security now consuming U.S. foreign policy, understanding how the Gulf states’ relations with each other and with Washington have changed is more important than ever.
The U.S.-Emirati relationship is “going through a stress test,” UAE ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba said on March 3, just days after Abu Dhabi abstained on a February 26 United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding its withdrawal from the country. Although the Emirates later supported a similar, albeit non-binding, resolution at the UN General Assembly, the message was clear: Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), the Emirati crown prince and de facto ruler, is disturbed at the Biden administration’s lack of support for his country.
Indeed, it is not only Biden’s insistence on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal that has alarmed Abu Dhabi. According to Axios, MBZ repeatedly signaled his indignation over Biden’s tepid response to Houthi missile attacks on Emirati territory and the U.S. refusal to redesignate the Yemeni Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (a designation Biden lifted upon entering office). Abu Dhabi’s additional actions, such as welcoming Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for a state visit on March 18—to Washington’s obvious displeasure—and walking back suggestions that it favored increasing oil production following Russia’s invasion, indicate that the UAE is intent on asserting its independence from the United States, despite it being a longstanding U.S. security dependent. To calm tensions, Biden dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East last week, where, the Washington Post reports, an “effusive” Blinken met with a “terse” MBZ in Morocco. Despite that U.S. and Emirati officials alike say that the meeting helped “ease tensions,” it is evident that more must be done to pacify a provoked prince.
Relations are even worse in nearby Riyadh. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) resents that Biden did not give him the warm welcome that he had come to expect after President Donald Trump’s tenure, even though Biden, when push came to shove, backed away from his campaign promises to make the Saudis a “pariah” over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen. Now, like his counterpart in Abu Dhabi, MBS will not answer the president’s phone calls and, as he told The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, “do[es] not care” about burying the hatchet with Biden. Even King Salman, who Biden had elected to engage with while keeping the crown prince at arm’s length, has proven inflexible; Biden’s previous attempts to extract additional oil production from the kingdom (as prices spiked in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine) turned up dry. Plans for a potential presidential visit to Riyadh—which Axios reported but the White House swiftly denied—would be Biden’s first trip to the kingdom as head of state. Yet there is little reason to think that personal appeals and official pomp can repair relations that have been strained by concerns about the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, Biden’s intention to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, and good intentions gone awry.
“The current troubles in Saudi-U.S. ties are only of President Biden’s making,” Ali Asseri, a former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan and Lebanon, recently wrote in The National Interest, but “[t]he Saudi leadership wants to overcome these issues.” It does appear that relations can be salvaged; the Saudis and Emiratis’ actions imply that they do not want a clean break from Washington but are trying to move the Biden administration toward their policy preferences. Accordingly, while White House officials may believe U.S. diplomatic outreach is producing results, a breakthrough is unlikely unless Washington is prepared to offer certain concessions.
For instance, the Financial Times and Bloomberg have disclosed that Saudi Arabia and the UAE both want a “more institutionalized security commitment,” perhaps even a Congressionally-approved security treaty from the United States. Notably, such a formalized security partnership, or even an alliance, would be akin to the Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) designation that Biden bestowed upon neighboring Qatar on January 31. As Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based consultancy, explained to me, “It is not lost on Abu Dhabi and Riyadh the fact that Washington does make a distinction between allies and partners. While the U.S. considers three of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] states—Kuwait, Bahrain, and now Qatar—to be ‘allies,’ the Saudis and Emiratis” realize they have not “received this designation of being allies of the United States.”
Although the MNNA designation does not offer a U.S. mutual defense guarantee to Qatar, the security benefits and prestige that it offers are valuable. Also meaningful is that Biden announced the designation during a January 31 meeting at the White House with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani—the first Gulf leader to visit Biden in Washington since his January 2021 inauguration—where he also praised Qatar for its “many years of contributions” to U.S. national security. Certainly, the Biden administration recognizes that while Qatar was facilitating negotiations between Washington and the Taliban, thereby extricating the United States from its longest war; helping Tehran and Washington negotiate a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; and offering to supply natural gas to Europe following the Russian war in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were acting in opposition to U.S. policy on Iran and Russia and rejecting U.S. requests to use their spare oil production capacity to stabilize energy markets.
These dynamics have contributed to the notion that Biden is playing favorites in the Gulf. As one Saudi official recently lamented to the Wall Street Journal, “For the U.S., it is now all about Qatar and being friends with Qatar. What about your allies that have been by your side for years?” In truth, the Saudis’ unease is about more than just being sidelined: Riyadh is incredulous that Qatar—which had been isolated by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt from 2017 to 2021—has reversed its fortunes and supplanted Riyadh’s preeminent place in Washington. However, there is little reason to think that another Gulf crisis is in the offing. “I definitely don’t think there is going to be any significant disquiet about [the MNNA designation] in Saudi Arabia,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told me via email. “The ways in which Qatar was a threat to Saudi Arabia, in particular, and its view of regional politics, in general, have really dissipated. So I definitely don’t see any reason for the reignition of a confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, or even the UAE and Qatar,” he said.
Thus, rather than spark a new crisis, Ibish believes that Qatar’s MNNA status could benefit its Arab neighbors by strengthening the pro-American regional bloc and assuaging rattled U.S. partners that the United States is not retrenching from the region. America’s Middle East partners are well aware that the last three U.S. presidents have sought to pivot from the Middle East to Asia. Yet, despite this recognition, fears remain—and for good reason. The Saudis were taken aback in both 2019 when Trump declined to retaliate against Iran for a major drone attack against a number of key Saudi oil facilities, and in 2021 when Biden withdrew many of the United States’ anti-missile systems from the Gulf. Apprehension over additional U.S. disengagement has contributed to Saudi Arabia and the UAE hedging their bets; the former, for example, has considered pricing its oil sales to China in yuan while the latter has canceled its purchase of the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter to preserve its relations with China.
Therefore, with Washington’s reinvigorated focus on great power competition and energy security, the Biden administration has begun trying to reassure its regional partners. This policy shift has not only included redeployments of missile batteries to Saudi Arabia, but also an endorsement of the Abraham Accords—which the Trump administration brokered to stimulate an Israeli-Arab coalition that could balance Iran in the United States’ absence. Accordingly, before he went to Morocco to meet with MBZ, Blinken visited Israel’s Negev desert on March 26 to confer with the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco (all parties to the Abraham Accords), and Egypt. Nothing substantive came out of the meeting, but, as ABC recounted, it was actually the summit’s “symbolism” that mattered most: the summit was a “dramatic signal of American alignment with Israel and moderate Arab states in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis … and the likely return to the JCPOA Iranian nuclear agreement,” veteran diplomat James F. Jeffrey said.
Needless to say, unequivocal public support may just be what the Saudis and Emiratis need right now—especially since the Gulf states are actively competing for international influence and U.S. backing. Indeed, the Gulf states are not only striving to be perceived as contemporary and stable nations in order to attract the necessary foreign investments and goodwill that they need diversify their heavily-subsidized, fossil-fuel-dependent economies, but they are also vying to lead the region, and the Muslim world, into the twenty-first century. This contest contextualizes the Saudis’ irritation that, despite MBS’ efforts to modernize his country, Biden has been so critical of the kingdom’s human rights abuses—actions that Riyadh decries as interference in its sovereign affairs and, as Ali Asseri, the former Saudi ambassador, observed, blames for “disrupt[ing] the reform process in Saudi Arabia.” It also explains the UAE’s outrage after being bombarded by Houthi missiles—attacks that the militants said were a “warning to foreign companies and investors” that the UAE, once a bastion of stability, had become an “unsafe country.”