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Moment Of Reckoning For America’s Approach To The Gulf – Analysis

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By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami *

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The Biden administration is advancing its new global strategy, which is centered on creating strategic competition with rival world powers like China and Russia. This strategy focuses on military redeployment to create a massive deterrence near these rivals’ borders and resurrecting old alliances or forging new ones to besiege such powers. Via this strategy, Washington aims to steer global disputes with rival powers in its favor and to strengthen its ties with its allies, while weakening its rivals and undermining their strength.

This strategy has already impacted several “sub-regions,” which the US apparently deems less important at the present time — especially the Arabian Gulf, where Washington’s protective umbrella, its different frameworks of cooperation and its military deployment have all been reconsidered. These developments have taken place in the light of a US belief that Israel has become safer and the Gulf states’ significance as sources of energy supplies has declined, meaning other regions should be given a higher priority to benefit Washington’s strategic interests.

The Ukraine crisis has been a litmus test for the success of the US strategy and its various options. On the one hand, the crisis has contributed to rearranging America’s home front and healing the domestic tensions and political cleavages that followed the 2020 presidential election. On the other hand, at the international level, the reality of Washington’s standing as the leader of the global order has been verified and questions about the scope of its influence have subsided.

The US political class — Republicans and Democrats alike — is throwing its weight behind the Biden administration, with President Joe Biden managing to express the aspirations of both parties regarding the Ukraine crisis, making it an exceptional moment in the country. The Biden administration is a pragmatic one that has adopted an approach based on coordination and cooperation, with its officials displaying expertise and efficiency.

To date, the US has successfully navigated the crisis — regardless of the fact that its approach was one of the factors that created it. The Europeans, who were divided in regard to transatlantic relations before the war, with some seeking strategic independence from the US, have now united behind Washington. This alignment with the US has contributed to the creation of the largest unofficial international alliance to date against Russia — an alliance that is unified and prepared to face any challenge to the current global order, including the looming Chinese threat.

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What the crisis has done for transatlantic ties is, however, totally and diametrically different from its impacts on the Middle East. The Ukrainian crisis has revealed countless differences between the US and its allies in the Gulf. There seems to have been a glaring US failure to secure the required support from the regional powers that have always stood by Washington and essentially contributed to its global leadership over the past three decades. Of course, this neglect of its regional allies is not a spur of the moment thing, but has been the case ever since the US changed its vision regarding the standing and role of the Arabian Gulf in its global strategy. This has become even more evident since Biden took office in January 2021 and particularly after he suddenly withdrew American forces from Afghanistan, creating the widespread perception that the US would betray its allies.

This is not even mentioning Biden’s readiness to make major concessions to Iran over its nuclear program, despite the 2015 nuclear deal being concluded at the expense of the Gulf states. Rather than curbing Iran’s ambitions, this move will enhance its regional role and military capabilities. This is in addition to Washington’s refusal to return the Iran-affiliated Houthi militia to its terror list — despite the fact the UN Security Council described the group as “terrorist” and despite the militia’s repeated attacks on Gulf states. The Biden administration has also sought to obstruct arms deals for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Ukraine crisis has exposed the widening chasm between the US and the Gulf states. This was apparent in the rejection by the Gulf states — most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE — of the Biden administration’s policies. This rejection indicates these two countries’ refusal to bend to Washington’s pressure that they should join the alliance against Russia and increase oil production in line with its demands.

Contrary to the American assumptions and expectations following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Gulf states have not adopted positions supportive of America, which is tirelessly working to tighten the noose on Moscow using all possible means. The UAE has refused to condemn Russia at the UNSC, while Saudi Arabia refrained from supporting Biden’s request to increase oil production. These Saudi and Emirati positions reveal that they prefer to remain neutral in the Russian-Ukrainian dispute. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not, of course, adopting their positions for the sake of appeasing Russia, but in response to Washington’s treatment of the Gulf states, with it failing to take their interests and concerns into account and expecting them to automatically prioritize its interests, even at their own expense. This is the first time for decades that the Gulf states have not emerged as strategic partners of the Western alliance.

On balance, the recent developments prove once again that the Gulf states are an insurmountable factor in the global calculus. This importance is not only due to their energy resources — though the current panic over how best to replace Russian oil and gas demonstrates how wildly false the belief was that their resources no longer matter — nor is it down to the arrogant assumption of some that regional disputes can only be managed by external powers that act to serve their own interests without paying any cost. The Gulf states have shown that they are still crucially important players because their leaders are engaged in ambitious projects and seek to defend their own national interests and the security of their nations — and that they are not ready to be subservient to external powers or allow themselves to be the pawns of any global power.

In this new situation, therefore, the US must choose to either abandon its plan to trigger a potentially catastrophic regional competition and guarantee it will maintain a regional presence to protect its interests and help protect its allies, or brace itself for a new Middle East in which the Gulf states focus on their own strategic independence without any consideration of US interests.

This moment of reckoning comes as the Ukraine crisis has underlined the Gulf’s status as a massive counterweight to Russian hegemony in terms of energy resources and stability of the global markets. This volatile period also underscores that the Gulf has diverse options when it comes to foreign policy and its relations with the global powers. The Gulf states will not accept the US hijacking their potential and positive prospects for the future to serve and benefit its own interests, cynically exploiting them and their resources and abandoning them whenever it desires.

The Gulf states can also step into the vacuum created by the mounting global competition between the global powers. They are now capable of commanding global strategies to protect their own interests, defending these regardless of the status of cooperation with the US.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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