What Is the Next Step in U.S.-GCC States Relationship?
China’s growing influence in the Persian Gulf means Washington will have to play a more careful geopolitical game in the region.
Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have thrived over recent decades, deepening links in energy, trade, politics, and culture. The GCC states play a crucial role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and westward expansion, owing to its favorable geographic position and proximity to the Red Sea. The Sino-Gulf monarchies’ economic exchange is not limited solely to energy and chemicals (although it is a central dimension in the relationship), nor operates in one direction. Instead, it has become a bidirectional process that has diversified and deepened at either end to include the development of renewable forms of energy, construction of infrastructure, and transport. In addition, it has also begun to move into other, more advanced, value-added forms of economic activity, including investments in finance, tourism, and the digital economy. At the same time, the PRC has also invested in port development and industrial parks along the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula as part of its Maritime Silk Road Initiative ambitions.
But with the Persian Gulf’s reemergence as an arena of great power competition, the United States takes a concerned view of the PRC’s entry into the region. Much of Washington’s current stress stems from efforts to curb China’s growing global economic, technological, and geopolitical influence. Intensifying full-spectrum rivalry—involving military, trade, financial, and technical power—will increase the risk that the GCC states become the focus of American and Chinese attempts to align with their respective policies and not with their rival’s.
GCC monarchies are thus in a delicate position, where they must strive for greater autonomy by reducing their susceptibility to strategic great power competition. Nonetheless, the speed with which the U.S.-China rivalry has intensified has created an incredibly precarious situation for the GCC states’ foreign policy.
The GCC governments face a new geopolitical and commercial calculus, with new pressures on managing their national security and economic development. The Biden administration has not hesitated to pressure the GCC monarchies, since it perceives certain aspects of their cooperation with China (especially in technological innovation) as damaging to American national security. The GCC states themselves are aware of increasing American concerns about China and do not want to get caught in a conflict between the two. Nevertheless, the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China pressures the GCC monarchies to side with one of the two powers. These states are trying to navigate between their most important ally and defense guarantor on the one hand, and their increasingly important economic partner and a rising regional player on the other.
While maintaining their strategic alliance with the United States, some Gulf countries also seek to hedge themselves against the threats by establishing ties with other powers, such as China, to protect themselves from the increasingly vulnerable geopolitical balance of power. This hedging policy—a fixed element in their political toolkit—aims to use China as an additional source of political, economic, and even military support, all of which can be levered to pressure the United States to adjust its policy. However, despite doubts about Washington’s commitment to their security, Gulf states recognize that there is no substitute for the U.S. military presence in the region.
Unsurprisingly, although the Gulf states share a common skepticism of Washington’s future commitment to the region, their attitudes vis-à-vis China and great power rivalry differ significantly. These views can be divided into three groups: the “hedging states” (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), the “balancing states” (Qatar and Oman), and the “cautious states” (Kuwait and Bahrain). The strategies pursued by each state will eventually test the region’s security and stability, possibly dividing the GCC.
The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and review America’s military presence in the rest of the Middle East—whether it be by cutting U.S. military support for the Saudi-led offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, or moving ships, forces, and weapons systems out of other Gulf countries towards the Pacific theater—has come at the expense of American presence in the region. Yet at the same time, in the age of great power rivalry, Washington cannot play the role alone of the policeman in the Persian Gulf in the way it has in the past—it has other priorities. The United States must find a way to reduce its military presence in the Persian Gulf while at that same time driving GCC states to step in and fill these gaps. This means Washington needs its Gulf partners to be capable of defending themselves, rather than remain militarily and logistic dependent on U.S. support in every regional conflict. For instance, the eight-year-long military campaign in Yemen and the fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has displayed Gulf state deficiencies.
More importantly, although this approach is oriented towards encouraging the GCC states to defend themselves against foreign threats, it also allows them greater autonomy in maneuvering in the great power competition: GCC states will be free ot further develop economic and technological collaboration with China without threatening the overarching strategic-security partnership with the United States as long as those measures do not provide Beijing with an undue strategic foothold in the region.
Given all this, what are the options facing the Biden administration, and what should be the next step in relations with the GCC states?
If the GCC states want to maintain their strategic-security partnership with the United States, they must align with Washington in its rivalry with Beijing The Biden administration expects that its allies in the Gulf may have to make stark and brutal choices between the two great powers instead of attempting to play off both sides. A renewed American commitment to regional engagement might help to tip the balance. As such, a strengthening of the strategic-security partnerships will influence how the GCC monarchies’ decisionmaking.
The U.S. strategic-security partnership (arms sales and regional security guarantees) is the tiebreaker and game changer in stabilizing relations with its Gulf partners and competing with China for regional influence. This “trump card” creates a military umbilical cord that binds and aligns the GCC states with Washington. The Gulf states recognize that there is no substitute for U.S. military presence in the Gulf to block Iranian aggression. Hence, the extent to which the U.S. will remain committed to the GCC states security should be a function of the nature and degree of strategic proximity of their relationship with China. Nevertheless, it takes two to tango, and the GCC states must show they are responsible partners and loyal. In contrast, the Biden administration needs to as it seeks to reconfigure its reliability in everything related to its regional security obligations.
Dr. Mordechai Chaziza holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University and is a senior lecturer at the Department of Politics and Governance and the division of Multidisciplinary Studies in Social Science, at Ashkelon Academic College (Israel). Dr. Chaziza is the author of China and the Persian Gulf: The New Silk Road Strategy and Emerging Partnerships (2019), China’s Middle East Diplomacy: The Belt and Road Strategic Partnership (2020), and The New Silk Road Grand Strategy and the Maghreb: China and North Africa (2022).