From Dependents To Allies: America's Gulf Relations Need Reform

From Dependents To Allies: America's Gulf Relations Need Reform

During three major crises, each happening under a different administration, the U.S.-Gulf partnership failed to effectively address the security concerns of the Gulf states. While no partnership is perfect, such major and persistent breakdowns in coordination among longstanding security partners are uncommon, and can be deadly if left unresolved.

But there are real fears of blowback in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama—which explains why the Gulf states didn’t publicly celebrate Soleimani’s death and even tried to calm tensions through official statements calling for “wisdom and political solutions” and restraint to prevent the “unbearable consequences” of further escalation. Shortly after Tehran retaliated on January 8, 2020, by firing missiles against American troops in Iraq, Iran’s leadership threatened to strike the Emiratis (and the Israelis) if the Americans responded. That Trump opted to hold fire and declare, “All is well!” allowed Gulf leaders to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

But this halt in violence between Iran and the United States might be temporary. With the two countries seemingly on a collision course, it might be only a matter of time before another military crisis erupts and shots are fired. Whenever that happens, it is likely, if the latest action-reaction cycle by Washington and Tehran is any indication, that a serious conflict would occur in the region. That scenario is precisely what the states in the region dread the most, though it is the most probable for two reasons. First, Iran much prefers to avoid a large-scale military conflict with the United States, given the massive disparity in conventional firepower favoring the American side. Therefore, Iran will probably continue to challenge U.S. interests indirectly and go after Washington’s more vulnerable regional partners as it has done for years and especially in recent months. Second, Trump could not have telegraphed more clearly and repeatedly his intentions toward Iran (although those could always change): he will only use force against Iran if American lives are lost or perceived to be at serious risk. It’s worth recalling that it was shortly after Iran’s Iraqi allies killed an American contractor on December 27, 2019 and tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that Trump decided to act and approve the hit against Soleimani.

But as worried as the Gulf states are about the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, they also are furious with Washington because they found themselves in an all-too-familiar position: not being consulted about an American decision that could have gone terribly wrong. The New York Times reported that “Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman], was so alarmed [about the strike] he dispatched his brother to Washington for a meeting with [Trump].” Once again, the Gulf states were kept in the dark, along with European allies, about monumental U.S. plans.

WHAT EXPLAINS Washington’s failure to coordinate with its Gulf partners during these three major security crises and possibly others? That these happened under three different administrations suggests that this is more of a trend, and one that has gotten worse over time. Some of the more obvious factors that have contributed to this include U.S. domestic politics, evolving American priorities, policy differences, the absence of a defense pact between Washington and the Gulf states, and operational considerations. 

Until 9/11, America’s relations with the Gulf states did not elicit much concern among the American people, with a couple of notable exceptions: in June 1967, when Saudi Arabia (along with Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria) banned oil shipments to the United States in response to its backing of Israel’s war that same summer against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; then again in 1973, when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo against the United States in retaliation for its military support of Israel’s Yom Kippur War; and in 1990–91, when the United States expelled Saddam’s forces from Kuwait and defended Saudi Arabia. If the United States could maintain a steady stream of oil imports from the Gulf and Americans could fuel their cars cheaply, the U.S.-Gulf partnership was not a topic of discussion outside the nation’s capital. But after 9/11, the American public’s interest in the Gulf states, and particularly the Saudis, changed dramatically. That many of the new U.S. perspectives were ignorant and Islamophobic—lumping all Middle Easterners and Muslims in one basket—didn’t matter and couldn’t alter the reality that U.S.-Gulf relations would never be the same.

These negative public attitudes would worsen over time, forcing U.S. officials and lawmakers to take note. In February 2020, a Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed didn’t do U.S.-Saudi relations or his country any favors by causing a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen; blockading Qatar, a country in which the United States has the biggest military base in the Middle East; and allegedly ordering the grisly murder of Saudi national and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. These domestic views would ultimately find expression in Congress, whose members, from both parties, have sought on multiple occasions to sanction Saudi Arabia and forbid the U.S. government from selling it weapons.

This increasingly toxic domestic context has led American decisionmakers and public elites, either consciously or subconsciously, to create some distance from the Gulf states. Contrast this with the case of Israel, for example. Given how deeply rooted America’s relationship with Israel is and how popular it has been consistently among the majority of the American people, U.S. officials have treated that relationship with the utmost care and urgency, which helps to explain why security coordination between the American and Israeli governments has generally been strong.

Beyond domestic politics, the United States, at least since the Obama administration, has sought to reduce its military involvement in the Middle East (although regional circumstances have yet to permit that goal). The Trump administration has effectively deprioritized counterterrorism and elevated the objective of competing with China and Russia on the global stage. While Washington’s precise strategy is still a work in progress, the new emphasis on great power competition rests on a remarkably firm bipartisan political consensus. Likewise, it is informed by a lasting mood among most Americans to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East.

America’s much-reduced reliance on Middle Eastern oil due to a revolution in domestic production and Saudi Arabia’s latest oil price war with Russia are two other significant factors. On April 2, prompted by a half-dozen Republican senators, Trump threatened to pull out all American soldiers and equipment stationed on Saudi oil (after removing earlier two Patriot missile batteries guarding Saudi facilities) if Crown Prince Mohammed didn’t stop waging “economic warfare” on the United States by massively increasing oil output. The Saudis committed to rebalancing the oil markets, but their priority of market share increase at the expense of U.S. producers will continue to be a point of serious contention in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Yet even if the domestic and strategic environments in the United States were more conducive, the United States had significant disagreements over policy with its Gulf partners during the previously mentioned crises, which might provide clues as to why security coordination fell through the cracks. Bush had a good personal relationship with then Saudi king Abdullah, but dismissed the latter’s advice to avoid war with Iraq and focus instead on Iran, which the Saudi monarch described as a snake whose head had to be cut off, according to leaked diplomatic cables.

Obama believed that relations between Iran and the Gulf states have been strained for so long in part because some Gulf states are internally repressive toward their Shia communities and unwilling to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, as he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The immediate U.S. national interest, as Obama saw it, demanded that he address first and foremost the challenge of a nuclear Iran. If Tehran were to acquire nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the U.S. homeland, which currently it doesn’t have, it would represent a clear and present danger. The Gulf states’ immediate concerns, however, were and remain Iran’s hostility in the region. That threat perceptions and priorities regarding Iran differed, and that the two sides clashed over the meaning of and responses to the 2011 Arab uprisings, might explain why Obama didn’t keep his Gulf partners in the loop on strategic regional affairs.

Trump has been both a blessing and a curse for the Gulf states. Unlike Obama’s, his administration shares the same diagnosis of the Iran challenge and sees it in its totality—including Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, ballistic missile development, and political violence across the region. Trump’s policy, however, leaves much to be desired. While the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis couldn’t be more pleased with Trump’s relentless campaign to shut down Iran’s economy to prevent its Revolutionary Guards from funding their proxy networks and sowing further chaos in the region, they have serious qualms about Trump’s sporadic and incoherent overtures toward Tehran that oftentimes omit Gulf security interests. One day he threatens to obliterate Iran and its cultural sites, the next he promises it prosperity and membership in the community of nations.

Even when Trump addresses Gulf leaders, he swings from deference and admiration to neglect and disparagement. For instance, on September 15, 2019, shortly after Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, Trump said that the United States was ready to respond but “[is] waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” This prompted fury in Washington and accusations by Democrats of the president placing the security interests of Saudi Arabia above those of the United States. A couple of months earlier, Trump gave a strong endorsement of Crown Prince Mohammed, calling him “a friend of mine” and saying he’s done “a spectacular job,” despite the young leader’s reckless behavior at home and abroad.