Like President Donald Trump before him, President Joe Biden has dialed Gulf dictators for help stabilizing gas prices in an election year. Unlike Trump, however, Biden appears unlikely to strike any deal. This is not because Trump is any kind of dealmaker, but because Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not received a satisfactory carte blanche from their benefactors in Washington.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the UAE’s decision to keep its door open to Russian oligarchs and their money, as well as their decision along with Saudi Arabia to ignore a US president’s calls to stabilize energy markets, should not be surprising. It is more important to focus on how Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s decision fundamentally undermines the strategic grand bargain that serves as the purported basis of the US security relationship with the Gulf States — Saudi Arabia in particular — in the first place. It begs the question, with friends like these, who needs enemies?
Of course, I’ve never thought that the Gulf monarchies were US allies despite the official line in Washington about their valued partnerships. For decades monarchies in the Persian Gulf have committed horrific human rights abuses, invasions of other countries, arming and unofficially financing non-state armed groups espousing puritanical ideologies, and financing counterrevolutionary information operations and antidemocratic (often violent, military) crackdowns. US policymakers and national security elites have been inconsistent with their concern, often weighing in only to reaffirm how valuable Gulf states are to US security. They couldn’t be more wrong: The Gulf’s decision to buck Biden last week should serve as yet another reminder that these alliances (which are not, in fact, alliances but transactional elite relationships) have, at the very least, outlived their usefulness.
SQUINTING TO SEE SOME BENEFITS
As an example, let’s analyze this “cost to US security” justification. A key original basis upon which these monarchies were deemed US allies was an elite bargain of security for oil: The US would protect these regime’s from external threats while these oil-rich nations would provide the US with ample fossil fuel resources. This arrangement may have provided Gulf security in exchange for their fossil fuel resources, but it put the economic security of everyday Americans, in part, in the hands of foreign oil producers. Previous oil shocks during World War II and the 1970s, like today, are a stark reminder of this reality. It may have also created useful military client states for the Pentagon in terms of basing rights (and an even more useful resource for its gas-guzzling boondoggles), enabling a globally, forward-deployed US military posture. In reality, it has only helped entrench preventative warfare as the primary tool of US statecraft.
Moreover, as the US’ obsession with global counterterrorism operations grew after 9/11, the Gulf alliances, as the cornerstone to US security, became the standard justification for the relationship with Washington. According to a three-decade career member of the CIA’s clandestine service, for example, the politicization of the US intelligence on Saudi Arabia led to confirmation bias and a sitting CIA director became a Saudi Crown Prince’s “active advocate with the Obama White House, with the goal of helping install him on the Saudi throne.”
The US security relationship with the Gulf states, particularly with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, directly undermines US military interests, and also harms Americans and other people around the world.
None of this is based on fundamental national security interests, of course; it’s more so about enabling Washington to continue putting elite interests first, conveniently glossing over the fact that the very regimes the US was developing deep military and intelligence cooperation with were also the ones unofficially and officially funding non-state armed groups throughout the region, and committing egregious abuses against their people that contributed to the power and existence of these groups in the first place. Washington’s willful ignorance of the Gulf states’ (and other counterterrorism “allies”) weaponization of anti-terrorism laws against peaceful political dissidents and human rights defenders is about protecting entrenched power, not making the world a safer place.
The US security relationship with the Gulf states, particularly with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has long been a useful shield for sloughing off human rights criticisms and the poster child of “we must see the world as it is, not as we want it to be” realpolitik. But what about when it not only directly undermines US military interests, but also harms Americans and other people around the world? This justification has led to some of the greatest hits of disastrous US foreign policy decisions, from getting the US to unilaterally violate the Iran anti-nuclear deal; aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen (that continue to this day); and the ongoing belief that the backing of authoritarian strongmen who devastate their own people while getting rich somehow brings stability.
More than ever before, Washington policymakers are beginning to see there is little political cost to re-examining the US relationships with these abusive monarchies — outside of foreign lobbyists — and maybe some arms dealer-campaign donations. Half of Trump’s vetoes in office were related to Congress attempting to block Saudi Arabia and the UAE by ending US complicity in their intervention in Yemen and for the Saudi government’s assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It was a period of much-needed bipartisan accountability in the US relationship with these countries that has long been overdue. But Washington’s reversion to meekness in failing to block any last-minute Trump-era or Biden-initiated arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE shows that accountability is fleeting without a sociopath in the White House.
FAILING TO LEAD
Rather than continue the reset they began under Trump, Congress has once again failed to hold the executive branch accountable to the president’s campaign promises or change the US relationship with these countries. Republicans, who by and large have never sought to rebuke these abusive alliances, have continued to seek confrontation with Iran at every turn rather than accountability for US partners fueling conflict. Democrats, under a Democratic president, just as they did under President Barack Obama before, are mostly deferring to Biden on foreign affairs. Continuing down this path would be disastrous not just policy-wise, but politically as well.
Polling continues to show the American people are fed up with US arming of human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its backing of these monarchies’ war in Yemen, and inaction in Washington on climate. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a moment of crisis that requires bold leadership to address the structural ills that have led the world down this primrose path — and US security policy is no exception. So long as Democrats remain silent on the impunity driving the US relationship with these and other dictators at this moment, they will miss yet another opportunity to not only govern, but to lead.
Kate Kizer is a progressive foreign policy writer and strategist, and a columnist at Inkstick.