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Biden’s trip was a start, but the US needs to sustain its influence in the Gulf

Research Analyst Fatima Abo Alasrar writes about the importance of sustaining a principled American leadership approach in the Gulf for the security and economic stability of the region and cultivating a meaningful relationship with the Jeddah-Summit countries that would include incorporating their input on regional issues pertaining to their security.

At the Jeddah summit in mid-July, President Joe Biden declared that “America is back,” a message that was welcomed by Saudi Arabia and Gulf media outlets. But Washington cannot maintain its influence and develop robust relationships in the Middle East without sustained American interest and effort, which have been oscillating with every change in administration.

The more the U.S. distances itself from the Middle East, the more influence it loses and the greater the opening it creates for Russia and China to fill the void. Although the White House has not seemed concerned about this for the past several years, the war in Ukraine has brought about a dramatic change in dynamics and perceptions. The war has resulted in a global economic crisis that has affected the U.S., compounding an already challenging economic situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis highlights the interconnected nature of the global economy and the importance of limiting trade with certain countries while maximizing partnerships with others. In line with this policy, Saudi Arabia seems to have fallen into the “friend-shoring” zone, both economically and politically.

Naturally, given Washington’s frayed relations with Riyadh due to the widely criticized war on Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, there was much skepticism about whether Saudi Arabia would be willing to help. This comes at a time when Saudi ties with Russia have been growing on a diplomatic and military level, most notably with the signing of a “military cooperation agreement” last year amid American public pressure to cut arms sales to the kingdom. Moreover, just last month, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, described relations between Riyadh and Moscow as “warm as the weather in Riyadh” during a surprise visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, prompting speculation about whether the kingdom was ready to cooperate with the U.S.

So the question is, can Gulf countries help to serve American interests after years of U.S. indifference? For now, the answer seems to be yes. U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein reported that, based on discussions held in Jeddah during Biden’s visit, major oil producers would likely raise output in the coming weeks. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on July 16 that Riyadh would be increasing its production capacity to 13 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2027, well above the kingdom’s 2021 average output of 10.7 million bpd. It is unclear if Riyadh can actually raise its production to this level this quickly, as industry experts claim, or if it plans to carry out further exploration, as the kingdom’s current sustainable production capacity is 12.2 million bpd per International Energy Agency estimates. Moreover, beyond the technical considerations, there are other challenges to boosting production as well, a point underscored by the Iran-backed Houthi militia’s March attack on the Saudi oil refinery at Yanbu. The overall message is clear though: The Saudis and the Gulf are ready to increase oil output capacity in cooperation with the U.S.

This does not necessarily mean that Saudi Arabia will jeopardize its burgeoning relationship with Russia. Indeed, it appears that the Saudis are keen on maintaining an open-door policy with the Russians as the Biden administration pursues efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. In his July 9 op-ed in The Washington Post, President Biden emphasized that he would reunite with Europe and other allies to reverse America’s “isolation” on Iran, despite Tehran’s hostile attitude and lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on its past nuclear activities. Riyadh has come to realize that its national security is not a priority for the U.S.

President Biden attempted to reassure the Jeddah summit countries of his intention to re-engage with the Middle East through “principled American leadership” so as to not leave a “vacuum” filled by Russia, China, and Iran. In his “five key principles” framework introduced at the summit, Biden expressed his backing for like-minded countries that support a “rules-based” international order. He also assured the Gulf that the U.S. would support its security by not allowing foreign or regional powers to jeopardize its waterways and by deterring threats. In addition, he promised that the U.S. will work to reduce tensions, de-escalate, and end conflicts wherever possible.

On this point, the Biden administration has already attempted to positively influence the trajectory of the war in Yemen by promoting diplomacy as the main tool to resolve the conflict. However, despite sustained diplomatic cooperation over the past 18 months that has resulted in major changes on Yemen’s political scene, the administration’s efforts have neither brought peace, nor made Yemen and the region any safer. Ending the war is not easily achievable as the U.S. lacks direct leverage with all the parties involved, especially the Houthi militia.

Given America’s inability to influence the Houthis, as well as the Biden’s administration’s overambitious goal of “ending the war in Yemen,” the best the administration can do is pressure the Saudis to end their involvement or drastically reduce their military operations. Yet an abrupt Saudi departure without a peace settlement would put Yemen’s territorial integrity at risk and leave the country completely vulnerable to Houthi attacks. The administration has finally grasped the complexity of the situation and has been more forthcoming about the difficulties of getting the Houthis to cooperate, but it still needs to take a decisive position on Iran and its malign activity, which is destabilizing the region.

President’s Biden comments about the importance of pursuing the Iran deal have created a sense of unease in the region, as the U.S. seems to be pursuing its own interests and those of European countries, irrespective of its Arab partners’ security concerns about Iran’s role and activities in the Middle East. The divergent points of view on this issue need to be reconciled, in partnership with Israel and the countries that attended the Jeddah summit, to restore relations with Iran, and negotiations should extend beyond Tehran’s nuclear program to also cover its ballistic missile program and support for militias across the region.

Overall, the Saudis seem to be willing to support the U.S., but they are also working on being less dependent on Washington, given the different policy approaches to regional security. The Saudis understand that there are changes in the U.S. administration and approach every four or eight years, which means that the American system cannot provide an indefinite guarantee. Going forward, it is important to build trust and secure buy-in from both Democrats and Republicans on the need for principled American leadership in the Middle East to ensure that the partnerships that are being cultivated now are not jeopardized in the future. The U.S. must also prove that it is not just driven to re-engage with Saudi Arabia and other countries for the sake of responding to a global crisis like the war on Ukraine or to domestic economic challenges at home, but that it is committed to re-engaging because it understands the value of these partnerships in the long run and the benefits they can yield for the stability of the region.

 

Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Analyst with the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies. The views expressed in this article are her own.

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