Old US Thinking Does Not Work in the ‘New Gulf’

The U.S. and the Saudi Arabia-led Gulf states have been at loggerheads this year over oil production and their position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The main reason for this crisis is that the fundamental rationale for the U.S.-Gulf alliance has shifted, with the Biden administration’s Middle East policy eroding the very foundation of the relationships between the two sides. Cognitive biases between the U.S. and Gulf states make a clash inevitable.

First, the logic behind the “oil-for-security” alliance has changed. U.S. interest in the Gulf region began with its discovery of oil, and in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt declared security in the region to be a strategic priority for the U.S. In 1945 Saudi Arabia and the U.S. established an alliance with the “oil-for-security” agreement. However, no formal agreement was ever signed, and the alliance was underpinned by a quid pro quo, an alignment of mutual interests which were obviously transactional in nature.

In light of the failure of the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration said that the U.S. would not be directly involved in conflicts in the Gulf and would maintain security in the region through arms sales and the deployment of military bases. However, when President Jimmy Carter took office, he renewed the commitment to the use of military force to defend U.S. interests in the Gulf. This principle, the “Carter Doctrine,” reaffirmed the logic of the alliance between the two sides. Realistically, the U.S. launched the Gulf War to save Kuwait out of its desire to dominate the Middle East, but in the eyes of Gulf nations the effectiveness of U.S. protection was being put to the test. The Gulf states honored their commitment to supply oil to the U.S. at a fair price, and Saudi Arabia even cooperated with the U.S. strategy of striking at the Soviet Union’s economy by increasing oil production to depress prices in order to exacerbate Soviet economic woes.

However, the shale oil revolution has upended the logic of the alliance. The U.S. became energy independent and basically freed itself from its reliance on Gulf oil. It has leaped to become the world’s leading producer and exporter of oil and gas. The two sides have even become competitors in the international oil market, meaning they have lost an important anchor for the alliance. As a major shale producer, the U.S. faces a dilemma over oil prices. High prices are needed for energy independence and increased oil and gas revenues, but low oil prices are needed to curb inflation. This paradox has also been transferred to the Gulf nations while pressure from the U.S. has left them in limbo. Although Gulf oil is of great significance to the U.S. and world economies and continues to be of vital national interest to the U.S., it is not as important as it once was to the relationship between the two allies.

The alliance’s security element has also changed in recent years. The U.S. has engaged in a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, attempting to control it through a “light touch” and offshore balancing. At the global strategic level, the U.S. has reduced its commitment to the Middle East and shifted its strategic focus to the “Indo-Pacific” and Europe. This has meant a weakening of the U.S. security commitment to its Gulf allies.

The U.S. has faded from the Middle East. It no longer takes into account the security concerns of its allies and has repeatedly shirked its responsibilities, meaning the alliance exists in name only. In 2019 there were massive attacks on Saudi Aramco’s oilfield facilities and attacks on multiple strategic targets in the United Arab Emirates in 2021. In response to these threats to Gulf and global energy security, the U.S. has only strengthened sanctions against Iran, leaving its security promises to Gulf allies in disarray. After the Biden administration came to power it prioritized the resumption of negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, while its removal of Yemen’s Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations has been seen as ignoring the security concerns of the Gulf states. These actions have led Gulf states to question the dependability of their alliance with the U.S. At this point, the two main drivers of the “oil-for-security” alliance between the U.S. and the Gulf states have changed, and its weakening is inevitable.

Second, value-based diplomacy undermines the rules of the relationship. The U.S. alliance with the Gulf has been based on a practical exchange of mutual interest, not ideology and political systems. Therefore the U.S. has long “black boxed” the Gulf states and not been concerned with their internal affairs. But the human rights diplomacy of the Biden administration not only ignores the history, reality, society and culture of the Gulf states but also diverges from U.S. strategic priorities in the region. The supreme national interest of Gulf states is to preserve their regimes, and maintaining oil revenues and a stable relationship with their U.S. ally serves this aim. The Biden administration’s waving of the “democracy” and “human rights” stick at the Gulf nations has provoked a fierce backlash. At the same time, engaging in human rights diplomacy with the Gulf states does not serve the U.S. and traps it in a dilemma between following its interests or its values. The U.S. cannot have both, but it may lose both.

Yet again the Cold War mentality alienates allies. The U.S. used the region as a new battlefield for the great powers, pushing the Gulf states to take a “hedging” strategy between them. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Gulf states worked together to prevent Soviet infiltration into the region. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia joined forces to contain pro-Soviet Arab secular nationalist powers such as Egypt and supported the anti-Soviet “mujahedeen” of Afghanistan. Today the interests of the Gulf states are quite diverse. They work very closely with Russia on energy and security matters. In energy, trade, commerce and science and technology China has become one of the most important partners of Gulf states. It is no longer in the interests of Gulf nations to rely solely on the U.S. In order to compete with China, the U.S. agenda for the Gulf has moved from highly political areas such as security and military to low-political issues such as economy, trade and development. However, it is still asking the Gulf states to choose sides. This leaves U.S. policy unable to play to its own strengths while not meeting the expectations of the Gulf nations either. The result is that instead of forcing them to join the “anti-Russia and anti-China” alliance, the U.S. has made Middle East nations more aware of the importance of a multifaceted balance among the major powers. This has led to a weakening of the alliance with the U.S.

Finally, the U.S. has been blind to the “new Gulf.” In recent years Gulf nations have undergone basic transformations as a younger generation of leaders has come to power. Nationalism has flourished in Gulf states as an alternative ideology to pan-Islamism. The strategic and diplomatic autonomy of Gulf nations has increased significantly, and they are not willing to be small and subservient. On issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and oil production, they have set their positions and policies according to their own national interests. Leaders of Gulf nations have even personally intervened in the Russia-Ukraine situation in an effort to play a more important international role. Yet the U.S. ignores these important changes and continues to look at the Gulf in the same old way, expecting them to remain “silent oil kingdoms,” even bullying them over oil production. This is because the U.S. has failed to notice the rise of the “new Gulf.” The frequent difficulties the U.S. has with the Gulf states are the inevitable result of the “take it or leave it” attitude it has to its allies. It also shows the sharp contradiction between U.S. policy on the Middle East and its interests in the Gulf. The U.S. will continue to be frustrated if it fails to put itself on the right track with the Gulf states and face up to the new reality of the relationship.

The author is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Shanghai International Studies University.

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