Security underpins U.S. ties with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. But tensions linger
DUBAI — As the war in Ukraine grinds on, the United States is looking internationally to partners to weaken Russia's influence. It's also seeking to blunt China's growing reach.
In the Mideast, President Joe Biden has reached out to Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in an attempt to align interests. While visiting Saudi Arabia last summer, he tried to reassure Arab leaders of U.S. commitment to the region's security. But Gulf nations aren't rushing to side with Washington.
Here's a look at key issues affecting U.S.-Gulf ties into 2023.
There are tensions over an oil pact with Russia
The Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has stuck to a pandemic-era pact with Russia to curb production and keep oil prices up. The agreement has helped Russia retain some of its spending power despite Western sanctions in response to the war in Ukraine.
A decision by the group known as OPEC+ to cut production in November by 2 million barrels a day prompted bipartisan outrage in Washington at the time.
The Saudis insist the OPEC+ decision was based on global market forecasts. They point to the price of oil, trading at under $80 a barrel, as proof that the decision did not send prices soaring in light of China's sluggish economic growth.
The Saudi leadership should not be expected to "take decisions that are harmful to the stability of global oil markets in order to take a short-term position, a tactical position for or against one side in the [Ukraine] war," says Mohammed Alyahya, former editor-in-chief at the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya English website and current fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center.
"What's happening right now is an expansion of relations with all sides," he says, adding that it's mistaken to assume Saudi Arabia is pivoting away from the U.S. toward Russia or China.
Saudi Arabia's crackdown on critics remains a concern
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been praised for pushing through social changes, but he's also overseen an unprecedented crackdown on critics.
President Biden — who authorized release of the CIA's findings about the crown prince's culpability in the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey — raised the issue of Khashoggi's murder with Prince Mohammed in their face-to-face meeting last July. The crown prince, who was elevated to the post of prime minister last year, denies having a role in Khashoggi's death. The Biden administration said his post as prime minister grants him immunity in U.S. civil courts, which prompted a judge to dismiss a case filed against him by Khashoggi's fiancée.
Meanwhile, the kingdom continues to silence critics. In past months, Saudi courts issued decades-long prison terms against a number of people, apparently over their criticism on Twitter of the prince's policies.
Last year also saw the largest mass execution in recent memory in Saudi Arabia — of 81 prisoners convicted on a range of crimes. Activists say around half were minority Shiites involved in violent protests.
Gulf states have taken on a mediating role between rivals
Saudi Arabia has emerged twice as a mediator in prisoner exchanges between Russia and other nations since the war in Ukraine began.
The kingdom said the crown prince used his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and governments around the world to facilitate the release of 10 foreign fighters captured by Russians in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia also claimed a role, along with the United Arab Emirates, in facilitating a high-stakes prisoner swap last month between Washington and Moscow, which saw the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Facilitating talks among rivals is a policy long employed by Oman and Qatar, which have mediated in conflicts stretching from Afghanistan to Yemen. Qatar maintains close ties with the Taliban leadership, some of whom reside in Doha. Qatar also hosts talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan in 2021.
Gulf nations don't see it as being in their national interest to take sides in rivalries between the U.S. and other world powers, says Elham Fakhro, a Bahraini research fellow at Britain's University of Exeter. There's no upside for them in ostracizing Russia, for example, or losing out from trade benefits with China, whose leader Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia last month.
Fakhro says Gulf countries are committed to keeping dialogue open with all sides. Carving out a mediator role helps them show the value in doing so.
"To several of the Gulf states, this is really about ensuring their survival," Fakhro says, referring to the need to keep strong ties with China, the Gulf's top buyer of oil, and Russia, a major energy and grains exporter.
The U.S. remains an irreplaceable security partner
For decades, U.S.-Gulf ties have centered most closely around security. The U.S. maintains an airbase in Qatar that's been used in the fight against Islamic State militants. The Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, patrols the Persian Gulf to deter Iran.
Despite whopping arms sales, joint military exercises with Gulf Arab states and a strong U.S. military presence in the region, there's "mistrust" and a sense in the Gulf that the U.S. hasn't been a consistent security partner since the Obama administration, Fakhro says.
That mistrust stems from the now-tattered international accord which had curbed Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Gulf states and Israel say the deal was flawed and did not curb Iran's missile program nor address Iran-backed militias and its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
The return to power in Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raises the specter of heightened regional tensions with Iran.
There are signs, however, that U.S.-Saudis ties are not as strained as they were just two months ago. The Wall Street Journal reports cooperation has improved on containing Iran, as efforts to revive the nuclear deal remain stalled. And the Biden administration has continued some support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Last summer, the Biden administration approved around $5 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to improve their air defenses. It came several months after the UAE's capital Abu Dhabi was rattled by Houthi missiles and drones. The attack was reminiscent of a larger strike in 2018 against Saudi Aramco's main oil processing facility.
The UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, made clear last month "the U.S. remains our most important partner."
Alyahya notes U.S. soft power is also unmatched, particularly among hundreds of thousands of Saudis who've studied abroad and are "voracious consumers of U.S. pop culture."
"The United States ... maybe stumbles every once in a while," Alyahya says. "But the U.S. is still the most important and most powerful country in the world."
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A previous version of this story misspelled Elham Fakhro's name as Elham Elfakhro.