The landscape of regional politics in the Middle East is in many ways more fluid than ever before, brought on, in large measure, by disorganized policymaking in Washington. Former President Barack Obama started the trend with his highly touted “pivot to Asia,” which diverted some American political attention from the region at a time of growing unrest. It also helped to alienate longstanding allies and create a policy vacuum that many actors, including Russia and Iran, proved eager to fill. President Donald Trump entered office promising to withdraw from Middle East conflicts and focused instead on pushing high-dollar business deals. Regional authoritarians were happy to promise him stability and flattery in exchange for a free hand and an iron fist in ruling their countries.
In response to Washington’s hesitancy and disinterest, a series of shifting situational and threat-based alliances—sometimes even including the United States—sprang up to manipulate circumstances to their particular advantage. Russia, the United States, and Israel are working together to stymie Iran. The United States, Iran, and pro-Iranian Iraqi militias fought together, albeit at arm’s length, against the Islamic State (IS). Israel and Saudi Arabia have cooperated tacitly to encourage the United States to take a hard line in its confrontation with Iran. Turkey and Qatar have forged economic, political, and security ties to serve as a counterweight to other Arab Gulf states.
A Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates-Egypt coalition has also emerged, and for better or worse it is currently the most stable, powerful, and influential, both on the ground and in Washington. Together the three countries have sold themselves to the administration as solidly reliable allies in opposing Islamist extremism and terrorism, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in countering Iranian aggression. In effect, they have offered to take point for the United States on vexing issues of regional politics as the US contemplates retrenchment. And the Trump Administration has been content to encourage them, as their approach plays well with Washington’s current regional priorities.
But the administration’s willingness to sublet its Middle East policy to a Saudi-led bloc has a significant drawback: reckless policy entrepreneurship by the three countries often runs counter to US interests and enables problems to fester and evolve into crises.
Origins of a Bloc
The Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian alliance in its current form developed rapidly after the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Egypt’s late president, Mohamed Morsi, and the installation of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as president in 2014. (Morsi died suddenly during a court hearing on June 17 after a harsh and prolonged imprisonment.) The Saudi-Egyptian “Cairo Declaration” of 2015 laid the groundwork by mapping out a plan to “boost security and stability in the region, and to work together to protect Arab national security” as well as broad cooperation in the economic sphere. Saudi Arabia and the UAE heavily underwrote the Egyptian counterrevolution with tens of billions of dollars in loans and grants. United by mutual antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers, and shell-shocked by the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the three countries also initiated broad crackdowns against homegrown Islamists, dissidents, and critics, often under the cover of vague and overly broad “anti-terrorism” laws.
In Egypt’s case, especially, political repression took the form of a harsh crackdown against a broad swath of Egyptian society; approximately 60,000 Muslim Brothers and suspected sympathizers were involved in a massive campaign of arrests, punctuated by the killing of around 1,000 individuals during an army assault on a largely peaceful sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo on August 14, 2013.
Since then, the practical alliance against political dissent developed major political-military dimensions, often at odds with stated US regional goals and policy.
- Yemen. Since 2015, the alliance has engaged in a war to defend the internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, whom the Saudis consider a crucial front in their long-running battle with Iran for regional dominance. The conflict has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths as well as a widespread humanitarian crisis, often called the world’s worst.
The United States has continued to arm the Saudi-led bloc prosecuting the war, ignoring international and domestic charges that it is supporting war crimes. As opposition in the US Congress mounts, the administration has hunkered down, deeming the fight against the Houthis and, by extension, Iran, to be a matter of US national security. Important players in Washington disagree. As Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it on the occasion of a Yemen vote, “I’m dissatisfied with the state of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Indeed, while Saudi Arabia has long been a bulwark of our Middle East policy, there is a growing gap in U.S.-Saudi relations. Frankly, aspects of Saudi Arabia’s behavior are cause for serious, serious concern.”
- Sudan. The United States has called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis that has gripped the country since the overthrow in April of its longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir. According to Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy, the United States “seeks a civilian-led government at the end of this transition which is acceptable to the Sudanese people,” condemns the “murder, rape, pillaging, by members of the Security Forces,” and supports calls for an “investigation which is independent and credible.” The US backs mediation efforts by the African Union and the African trading bloc IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development). But a robust American strategy is lacking.
The Saudi bloc has stepped unhesitatingly into the gap, playing an active role in backing the Sudanese junta. Egypt and the UAE have provided political support, advice, and some military equipment to the military council now in charge of Sudan. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged $3 billion in aid ($500 million in central bank deposits and $2.5 billion to secure food, medicine and petroleum products) to the Sudanese generals, although it is unclear how much has been delivered.
The three countries’ motives are unmistakable: under no circumstances must a popular uprising with democratic aspirations be allowed to take over in Sudan. As former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told Foreign Policy, “The leaders and governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt do not share our fundamental democratic values, and their views on what should happen in Sudan diverge significantly from the policies the United States should be pursuing.”
- Libya. Egypt has joined the UAE and Saudi Arabia in supporting the Benghazi-based General Khalifa Haftar’s bid to install himself as Libyan leader, in opposition to the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, headquartered in Tripoli. Until recently US policy involved backing the Tripoli government and UN efforts. But in April, President Trump called his administration’s policy into question with a phone call to Haftar—reportedly at the urging of el-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman–—.to offer his support. US policy in Libya remains in a state of flux.
- Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt joined forces in 2017 to initiate a boycott and partial blockade of Qatar, ostensibly on the grounds that the Gulf state was an active supporter of terrorism. The ongoing boycott has resisted all efforts by the Trump Administration to mediate a resolution, significantly complicating Washington’s efforts to build a united front against Iran, primarily by thwarting attempts to organize a so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance and inhibiting ongoing military cooperation between the Gulf states. Qatar has been forced to draw closer to Iran economically and politically as a result of the contretemps and Tehran has achieved a new measure of influence in intra-Gulf politics.
In the meantime, the alliance has kept up its unrelenting campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) on the international front. Most recently, Egypt and the UAE have pursued a pressure campaign intended to push the White House to declare the group—or at least its Egyptian affiliate—a terrorist organization, against the advice of experts in the State Department and intelligence agencies who believe the evidence is lacking to support such a designation. Many inside and outside of government are fearful that a designation would radicalize MB supporters and contribute to the impression that the United States is fundamentally anti-Islam. In May, the administration appeared on the cusp of acting but it seems to have backed away for now.
Washington Acts against Its Own Interests
Despite the damaging fallout from the alliance’s aggressive foreign policy and increasing domestic repression, the Trump Administration has been largely silent on these developments—and in most cases encouraged them. As Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) has noted, “The Saudis and Emiratis have become so intertwined with the Trump administration that I don’t think the president is capable of distinguishing America’s national interests from theirs.”
For example, the White House has ardently defended the Saudi-led war in Yemen, resisting escalating congressional pressure to end or limit US involvement. Last month the president declared an emergency to circumvent a congressional prohibition on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, enabling the two Gulf countries to pursue their Yemen campaign without hindrance from Washington. As part of the emergency declaration, the defense contractor Raytheon will be allowed to manufacture sophisticated parts and control systems for precision-guided munitions in Saudi Arabia, further insulating the kingdom from outside pressure and giving it access to highly sensitive technology. (The Senate voted to reject the administration’s emergency declaration and block the arms sales in a bipartisan vote on June 20, but a presidential veto is expected.)
In Sudan, while the United States has been critical of the Sudanese military government’s crackdown, the administration has had little to say about the massive financial and political backing by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE for the junta. Washington once more appears content to remain on the diplomatic sidelines.
The United States has likewise given short shrift to growing human rights abuses in the three countries, which the administration treats as a distraction when it is not actually encouraging them. President Trump’s cavalier dismissal of the Khashoggi murder by Saudi agents allegedly acting at the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caused outrage among many in Congress and the human rights community. Trump appeared to endorse the recent passage of a package of constitutional amendments in Egypt that further concentrated power in the hands of the president and military while paving the way for an open-ended extension of Sisi’s term in office. The administration has failed to hold any of the three countries (or human rights abusers in general) to account for their actions.
Strains in the Alliance?
The Saudi-led bloc is far from monolithic, however. Significant differences have emerged on a number of key issues that call into question the bloc’s staying power.
In Syria, Egypt does not entirely share the Gulf states’ aversion to President Bashar al-Assad which is largely based on his close ties to Tehran. Sisi sympathizes instead with the regime’s battle against IS, which he sees as akin to Egypt’s own fight against the IS affiliate in Sinai. As a result, and while rhetorically aligning itself with the Gulf stance, Cairo has taken a more neutral position toward the conflict and originally supported Russian intervention on behalf of the Assad regime.
Similarly Egypt, which the Saudis had exhorted to make a major contribution to the Yemen war effort, has assisted with naval operations and limited troop and air support but has not served as the military backbone that Riyadh evidently hoped for. More important, there seems to be a disconnect in atmospherics and policy interests: Cairo feels disrespected by Riyadh and taken for granted as a workhorse, while Riyadh is beginning to think Cairo is not worth the money. Egypt is focusing on a return to regional prominence while Saudi Arabia sees the alliance as the key to defeating Iran’s ambitions and securing its place as the leader of the Muslim world. Someone is bound to be disappointed.
Washington Needs a Major Rethink
The repercussions for the United States of its own policy drift and the actions of its allies are potentially far-reaching. In addition to exposing Washington to the fallout from ill-considered adventurism, up to and including war crimes, the United States is also at risk of becoming complicit in suppressing legitimate political opposition and helping to enforce the old authoritarian order. As the events of 2011 and their aftermath suggest, this is an exposed and dangerous position for the United States. Given the looming confrontation with Iran, and with the help of reliable allies more valuable than ever before, Washington needs to reevaluate how it does business in the Middle East.