Back in early summer I warned that the United States was looking at a major breach in its relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Four months later, the Biden administration is embroiled in a very messy dispute with these two powerful erstwhile allies of America. If this trend is not reversed, it could worsen matters for an already destabilized region and the world.
The Saudi-led decision by OPEC-Plus to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day, followed shortly thereafter by the St. Petersburg meeting between UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed and Russian President Vladimir Putin, are the latest signs of a long-term divergence in U.S. and Saudi/UAE strategic interests. Despite their protestations to the contrary, these Arab leaders have concluded that a close partnership with an America governed by the Democratic party is not in their interests.
The strains between Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have assumed a tabloid-like flavor—from the American president’s labelling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince blithely stating, “I do not care,” when asked whether Biden misunderstands him. More fundamentally, however, whether intentional or not, MBS’ snub of administration pleas to hold the line on oil output has delivered the coup de grace to what little good will remained for the soon-to-be Saudi monarch in Washington.
It comes on top of financially suspect contributions of billions of dollars of Saudi public money to investment funds run by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has funneled millions more into Trump-owned golf clubs hosting the breakaway LIV golf tour. By rejecting requests from U.S. officials to postpone the OPEC+ meeting until after the mid-term elections in the United States, Saudi officials have opened themselves up to charges of springing an “October surprise” on the Democrats.
The United Arab Emirates is also not pulling any punches. While insisting that his visit was intended to promote a peaceful solution to the Ukraine conflict, the UAE president’s meeting with Putin in Saint Petersburg less than a week after OPEC’s gift to Russia undermines international efforts to isolate a war criminal. In addition, it underscores a robust partnership between Abu Dhabi and Moscow. The UAE receives more investment from Russia than any other Arab country and is the largest Arab investor in Russia. These ventures include a partnership with Gazprom to develop Russia’s Siberian oilfields and joint efforts to develop fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The UAE’s abstention on a UN Security Council vote condemning Russia’s invasion set off alarm bells in Washington, which further parleys will do little to silence.
The Emiratis continue to go out of their way to portray themselves as a valued U.S. partner while at the same time taking steps to shape political developments in their favor. A recent French report reveals stunning details of an ongoing UAE campaign to co-opt European media and politicians. The trial of former Trump consigliere Thomas Barack has lifted the veil on Emirati attempts to trade cash for political favors in the United States. A 2018 investigation by The New York Times exposed Emirati support for Donald Trump‘s election campaign in 2016.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are miscalculating in their efforts to leverage Russia and China to try and shape U.S. behavior. It is likely to have the opposite effect: a rupture with the United States, that would leave them isolated and vulnerable. The collapse of Putin’s Russia is inevitable. Lack of investment and loss of markets will cripple its energy industry and doom the long-term viability of the OPEC+ construct. Neither Russia nor China have the military means or the geopolitical will to secure the Gulf states from the threat posed by Iran. Their courting of Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to build a more favorable multipolar order could deprive them of access to western capital and technology.
Recent attempts at reconciliation have failed, and given current trendlines, future efforts also run the risk of proving similarly fruitless. Biden spent valuable political and personal capital when he agreed to meet the Saudi crown prince last July in Jeddah, but he deemed it necessary to secure oil supply stability. He won’t make the same mistake twice.
Washington’s strategic interests and UAE policies seem to be on a collision course. Dubai has become a haven for sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Abu Dhabi’s accelerating partnership with China represents a significant threat to U.S. interests, according to administration officials. And the UAE’s ongoing support for the Haqqani network in Afghanistan strikes at the very heart of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Moreover, the recent Emirati statement of support for OPEC’s production cut leaves no doubt that it is in lock-step with the Saudis. When President Mohamed bin Zayed visits Washington later this year, diplomatic platitudes will not suffice in masking a fundamental trust deficit between the two nations.
The pace and extent of America’s breakup with these two regional powers remains uncertain, but the trajectory is clear. Absent a radical shift in their policies of accommodating America’s adversaries, the areas in which we cooperate will become increasingly limited, and the points of friction will continue to multiply—no matter which party controls the White House or Congress. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi must work out their differences with Washington before the current disagreements hurl the Middle East towards a state of greater turmoil.
Kamran Bokhari, PhD, is the director of Analytical Development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.