The United States has serious issues with its international allies, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While Russia’s attempted conquest of Ukraine increased in brutality daily, President Joe Biden also had to deal with the problem of keeping oil prices in the US manageable as Western sanctions on Russian oil took effect. And for that, he needed the support of traditional US allies like the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. Only this time, they were not taking the US president’s calls.
The Gulf states have, over the past few decades, served as more or less reliable partners for the US, in terms of both oil supplies and strategic concerns. Given the numerous vast differences in culture, values, and ideas about human rights and the rule of law, the economic and security ties between the American democracy and these ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim kingdoms have proven remarkably resilient.
However, in the first week of March 2022, the White House admitted that the Saudis and the Emiratis had refused to schedule calls with Biden to discuss the American president’s desire to see them step up their pumping of oil. According to the Wall Street Journal, multiple sources in both the US and the Mideast report that the leaders of the two Persian Gulf nations have not made themselves available to Biden as they likely would have in the past.
The oil superpowers can certainly fill the gap that was left when the West put the brakes on Russian supplies. Yet OPEC+, of which Russia is a member, elected not to boost production in the face of the Ukraine-Russia crisis and Biden’s decision to ban all Russian oil imports. Thanks to both the ban and the oil producers’ intransigence, in early March oil prices in the US soared higher than they had in the previous 14 years.
Bones of contention – Yemen and Iran
This seems to indicate that, unless Washington does more to support them in finding palatable solutions to both the war in Yemen and their security concerns amid Western attempts to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program, these Gulf monarchies are tired of playing the same old game. US officials, on the other hand, said they are continuing to work with the Saudis and the Emiratis in solving security concerns and disagreements on the Iran negotiations.
However, Biden has received harsh international criticism for his approach in Yemen.
Supported by Iran and Hezbollah, for the past seven years Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been taking over increasing swaths of territory in the already crisis-beset small nation, expelling its internationally recognized official government. The Saudis lead the coalition battling the Houthis to maintain both regional stability and their own security. The fact that the UAE also backs foreign militias operating in its interest in Yemen further complicates matters, as has its pursuit of policies in contrast with those of its allies. In early 2022, the Houthis launched missile and drone attacks across the border with the UAE and made incursions into Saudi territory.
In the first foreign policy speech of his presidency, Biden promised to backtrack some of his immediate predecessors’ decisions on Yemen, stressing a more diplomacy-focused approach. Yet, while continuing US support of the Saudi blockade of Yemen and other Gulf state-driven measures, he has tended toward less active US engagement on the issue.
That approach, and Biden’s withdrawal of a prior foreign terror designation for the Houthis, have so far borne little productive fruit. It’s small wonder if the Saudis and the Emiratis feel unsupported by their ally.
Ever since the official founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and the discovery of oil from a well owned by the American company Standard Oil in 1938, the country has maintained ties with the US. The relationship was cemented the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the dynasty’s founder, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, on board a US Navy destroyer in 1945. During the Second World War, the officially neutral kingdom elected to permit Allied forces to fly over its airspace.
The American interest in keeping up those ties has weathered major crises, such as the Saudis’ 1973 oil embargo against the US due to American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 (15 out of the 19 hijackers of the US aircraft that struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that day were Saudi nationals).
The US has built a strong presence as a military advisor in the kingdom over the decades, and the Saudis remain the Americans’ largest customer for foreign arms sales. The UAE, prompted by the US, signed onto the historic Abraham Accords in 2020, formally recognizing Israel and beginning an open and robust relationship with the Jewish State.
During the Obama Administration, tensions between the US and its Saudi allies soured over the Kingdom’s refusal to do what the Americans felt was its part in creating a deal with Iran. And then, as now, the Saudis’ lack of response to humanitarian concerns in their own country and Yemen roil the bilateral relationship. Today, the one issue around which Saudi Arabia and the US likely agree upon is the need to contain Iran and conclude a nuclear agreement that can curb its ambitions.
The US has maintained friendly relations with the UAE since 1971 when several sheikhdoms formed a common government as they achieved independence from the United Kingdom. Both the Saudis and the UAE allied with the US-led multi-national coalition in the First Persian Gulf War against the forces invading Kuwait from Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Additionally, the Saudis provided a refuge for the Kuwaiti government and a base for close to a quarter-million US troops.
So not agreeing to talk to Biden is a serious sign of an issue, possibly symptomatic of the present reshuffling of diplomatic and strategic relationships across the Middle East and the globe. This was already going on before Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine, but it seems like the dominoes have begun falling faster and faster since.