Saudi Arabia and the UAE are supposed to be important US security partners, a relationship that in theory ought to have mutual benefits. This is why recent reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s very public visit to the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s talks with China about pricing some of its oil to China’s currency, the UAE’s abstention from a UN Security Council vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and both partners’ unwillingness to pick up the phone, are particularly shocking.
Over the past several decades, the US has firmly committed to its Gulf security partners, stationing US 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 US has tried to use these security partnerships in service of the strategic goals of stabilizing oil markets, fighting terrorism, and deterring Iran.
It’s not clear that these security partnerships have furthered these strategic aims. But at the same time, the state of the relationships themselves — rather than these strategic ends — have increasingly become the goal of US foreign policy in the region. To put it succinctly, the means have become the ends. And that needs to change.
RELATIONS “UNDER STRAIN” — AGAIN
The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen began seven years ago on Mar. 26, 2015. In 2015, as the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was being finalized, there was plenty of talk among US and Gulf policymakers that the relationship between the US on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other, was becoming increasingly stressed due to the Gulf monarchies’ opposition to the deal. In exchange, when the intervention in Yemen began, US officials (including Robert Malley, now US Special Envoy for Iran) later said that they offered support for the intervention, not because it would further US strategic priorities, but because the US ties with these 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 Yemen intervention, US policymakers hoped, would improve those relationships, while giving the US the chance to push the intervention in the right direction — a dynamic they likened to “getting into a car with a drunk driver,” according to Malley and Stephen Pomper.
Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s refusal to support Biden’s approach to Russia and Ukraine seems calculated to demonstrate to US officials that their bilateral relationships with the US are not only under stress, but that it is the US’ job to fix it.
The military intervention, it turned out, did not further US security interests. Rather, it led to Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabian territory, destabilized oil markets, and allowed the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP to take over Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city, for more than a year. Indeed, it also ultimately failed to improve the US security partnership with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Instead, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians, due to airstrikes as well as starvation and disease brought on by the fighting, soured the American public and leading members of Congress on the US relationship with Saudi and the UAE. It even led many Americans to actively organize against US support for the war. The UAE cited US opposition when it partially drew down its forces in Yemen in 2019, while the war and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi led President Joe Biden to call Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” and note there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia” during the 2020 presidential primary debates — words the White House press secretary just recently affirmed that the president stands by.
The Biden administration sought to reset the relationship without collapsing it entirely, pressing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to engage in the UN-led peace process and pausing the sale of some weapons, while moving ahead with other sales and providing assistance to both countries to defend them against Houthi attacks. This support has apparently not been enough for some Gulf officials. Both Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince) and Mohammed bin Zayed (Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and de facto leader of the UAE) — known as MbS and MbZ respectively — reportedly declined to even take a phone call with Biden in recent weeks. Assad’s very public visit to the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s talks with China about oil pricing, and the UAE’s abstention from a UN Security Council vote on Ukraine were also seen as diplomatic snubs, even if they weren’t openly aimed at the US. The relationship is “going through a stress test,” UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said. It seems that some in the US policy community have accepted that narrative too: “There is no doubt that a major crisis in the US-Arab Gulf relations is underway,” a recent op-ed noted, citing the litany of recent diplomatic snubs as evidence.
Foreign policy thinking in both of these Gulf monarchies is often opaque. But this recent set of moves — especially both countries’ refusal to support Biden’s approach to Russia and Ukraine — seems calculated to demonstrate to US officials that their bilateral relationships with the US are not only under stress, but that it is the US’ job to fix it. Saudi and Emirati leaders seem to think they can use a situation that is similar to 2015, when a new Iran nuclear deal is being finalized and global energy markets are under strain, to use US leverage in reverse by holding the bilateral relationship itself hostage. “It was not that long ago that the United States presented itself to its allies as their shield against all actors who sought regional hegemony,” wrote Saudi commentator Mohammed Alyahya, former Al Arabiya English editor, “Why should America’s regional allies help Washington contain Russia in Europe when Washington is strengthening Russia and Iran in the Middle East?” Likewise, “The UAE relationship with the American partner is facing difficulties it has not faced in 50 years,” Emirati commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla wrote last week. “Certainly, the task of correcting the misunderstanding lies with the Biden administration.”
TIME TO CALL THEIR BLUFF
This time, that move should backfire — the Biden administration should call their bluff. After all, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE has alternate viable security partners they can immediately turn to, especially as they lean on US assistance to protect themselves from Houthi missile and drone attacks. Saudi Arabia has held discussions about purchasing Russian-made weapons, but Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine meant that Russia is itself now asking China for military aid. Both Gulf monarchies look to be exploring options to increase more weapons from China in an effort to diversify their security partnerships, but it’s not as simple as switching from the US to China as their main security patron. After decades of receiving military assistance, arms, and training from the US, as well as France and the UK, such a major pivot would entail altering logistics systems that are set up to maintain and sustain US (and French and British) equipment and retraining military personnel to use different systems. All of this would soak up plenty of resources and require a lot of time.
Neither is there much evidence that China or Russia are poised to be the kind of security partner that these Gulf monarchies are looking for. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have looked to the US for not just high-tech weapons systems, but also for tangible security guarantees in the form of US assets and forces stationed in the region and assistance with protecting against attacks on Saudi and Emirati territory.
In the past, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been able to wrangle concessions from the US when they can convince DC policymakers and watchers that their relationships with the US are “strained.” This time ought to be different: Saudi Arabia and the UAE should no longer be able to set the terms of the relationship.
Alexandra Stark is a Senior Researcher at New America and holds a PhD from Georgetown University. She is currently working on a book manuscript, “Forgotten Wars: What intervention in Yemen’s civil war tells us about Middle East politics and the failures of US policy.”