US Middle East Policy in Free Fall

American foreign policy is now in free fall. Subject to the erratic impulses of a president whose overriding concern is the domestic political arena, and confronted by ambitious adversaries whose capacity to shape events on the global stage is increasing in direct proportion to the decreasing clout of the United States, the Trump Administration is treading water in a sea of improvised policies. China’s bid to seize total political and financial control of Hong Kong is just one example of a rival power that has little to fear from the United States. But what is really striking about the current situation is not the actions of Washington’s adversaries; rather, it is the difficulty the United States is having in gaining the cooperation and support of its supposed friends.

Consider US policy toward the Gulf Arab states. Although the White House has argued that its overriding goal is to help these states confront Iran, its efforts to advance this goal have not been framed by any coherent strategy. Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fault lines of US policy by causing economic shocks that have upended the calculations of all the key players, not least of which is the United States. Indeed, the White House’s recent and very public campaign to bully Riyadh into cutting oil production suggests that the administration’s presumed concerns about Iranian actions are far less consequential by comparison to the domestic political implications for Donald Trump of crashing oil prices. Having been reminded of the fickle nature of the White House’s security commitments, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have reason to accelerate their plans to push for a more diversified economic and security infrastructure, one that looks for support from other states, including China. Still, for the foreseeable future, Gulf leaders will have little choice but to work with a US president whose Godfather-like approach to international politics provides a shaky basis for any kind of productive relationship with the United States.

The White House’s recent and very public campaign to bully Riyadh into cutting oil production suggests that the administration’s presumed concerns about Iranian actions are far less consequential by comparison to the domestic political implications for Donald Trump of crashing oil prices.

The US-Saudi Nexus under Trump

Trump has never hesitated to state what he sees as the actual basis of Washington’s relations with the Gulf Arab states. “We protect Saudi Arabia,” he asserted in an October 2018 speech to his followers in Southaven, Mississippi. “Would you say they’re rich. And I love the King, King Salman. But I said ‘King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us – you have to pay for your military’.” Whether it is true or not, this statement shows that Trump views US foreign relations as a protection racket system that provides weaker clients a product that could be withdrawn whenever the stronger party is done or feels dissatisfied with the deal. That Trump’s Mississippi audience applauded his assertion that Saudi Arabia “might not be there” without US support highlights the domestic political points that Trump has scored by insisting that the ultimate purpose of US foreign relations is pecuniary. His claim that “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully in the form of jobs” is music to the ears of his fans.

And it is not mere bragging. From 2105 to 2019, Saudi Arabia was the top purchaser of American weapons. Riyadh’s readiness to buy 73 percent of its arms from Washington tied the United States and Saudi Arabia in a tight political and geostrategic knot that seemed impervious to any attempts to loosen or undo it. Attesting to this point, in mid-2019 the Trump Administration issued an emergency declaration to advance an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That sale had been blocked by a group of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who had raised questions about Riyadh’s involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as well as the mounting civilian casualties in the war in Yemen. Trump’s veto of the House measure and subsequent emergency declaration signaled his readiness to shield the Saudi-US relationship from mounting challenges coming from within the domestic political arena or from abroad.

Having failed to forge a coherent strategic alternative to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump Administration’s confused policy generated real uncertainty for Washington’s Gulf friends.

Trump’s efforts were of course abetted by increasing US-Iranian tensions, which seemed destined literally to explode following the May 2019 attack on four oil tankers in the mouth of the Gulf, and four months later, when drone attacks on oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia momentarily shook the global oil market. But if these attacks provided a geostrategic rationale for sustaining US military support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they also signaled that the Trump Administration had yet to figure out how its policy of “maximum pressure” would compel Iran’s cooperation. Trump’s assertions that he wants to avoid a major military confrontation with Iran were welcomed by Gulf leaders. But having failed to forge a coherent strategic alternative to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump Administration’s confused policy generated real uncertainty for Washington’s Gulf friends. The deployment of 14,000 US troops to the region in Fall 2019—along with the two additional US fighter squadrons and Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia—did little to attenuate this uncertainty. Instead, the administration’s actions underscored the inconvenient reality that so long as oil sales remained robust, US policy in the Gulf would rest far more on the economic and political calculations of US, Saudi, and Emirati leaders than on any kind of deeper shared strategic vision for the region.

COVID-19 Upends US-Arab Gulf Relations

The global recession provoked by the COVID-19 crisis has upended US-Gulf relations in ways that few leaders could have possibly imagined just a few months ago. Indeed, unstable oil prices are not conducive to a successful oil industry in the United States, which makes the White House nervous. To be fair, oil prices were already falling before the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. The Saudi-Russian disagreement over oil prices had sent them tumbling in early March, prompting President Trump to tweet that lower prices were “good for the consumer.” But a crashing oil market was also undermining a powerful US energy industry that has donated millions to his reelection campaign. With an approval rating in Texas that is too close to Joe Biden’s, Trump apparently began to shift his views on the domestic costs and benefits of falling oil prices.

A crashing oil market was also undermining a powerful US energy industry that has donated millions to his reelection campaign.

That shift was brought about by the behind-the-scenes lobbying of the oil industry. The effort was also buttressed by 13 Republican senators who, in March, introduced legislation that would remove US troops and Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia unless it cut oil production. Playing good cop/bad cop, in an April 2 phone call with Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) Trump reportedly told the crown prince that unless the Saudis cut production he could not stop the legislation. Ten days later OPEC, Russia, and other major oil producers announced that they were cutting production by nearly 10 million barrels per day, a figure equivalent to some 10 percent of global output. True to form, Trump took credit for the deal in a tweet that celebrated his role as broker of the agreement. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud matched this claim, insisting that MbS had in fact been “instrumental in formulating the deal.”

This parallel rush to take credit for the April agreement underscored the desire of both Riyadh and Washington to contain the damage that had been inflicted on US-Saudi relations. But the production deal was apparently not sufficient to prevent the administration from moving ahead on plans to withdraw two Patriot missile batteries along with a number of American troops and two US fighter jet squadrons. While the White House claimed that Trump had in fact reiterated the “strong US-Saudi defense partnership” in a May 8 call with King Salman, the drawdown fed speculation in some US policy circles that the administration was backing away from its efforts to deter Iran. Seeking to deflect this idea, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook insisted that “We’re standing with our partners … in the region” and that the administration was fully determined to sustain its efforts to deter Iranian “aggression.”

The Iranian Equation

It is difficult to fathom why the administration took a decision that was bound to trouble its Gulf friends. But what is even more confusing is the fact that the move to withdraw the Patriot missiles came three weeks after 11 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy vessels approached and harassed a group of US Navy and Coast Guard ships on maneuver in international waters in the Gulf. Moreover, less than 10 days later, administration officials let it be known that the White House was pursuing an intricate plan designed to gain international support for a set of complex procedures that would limit conventional arms sales to Iran or sales by Iran to third parties. US officials indicated that a key feature of this plan is for the administration to declare that it remains a “participant” in the JCPOA even though Trump had repudiated the accord. While the White House knows that its European allies, Russia, and China would oppose any such move, its convoluted scheme to secure international support for an arms embargo on Tehran nevertheless suggests that Hook’s assertion that the White House remains committed to deterring Iran is in fact genuine.

The administration has not only failed to force Iran back to the negotiating table, but it has also failed to stop Tehran from pushing back against US pressure by taking steps to renew uranium enrichment beyond the limits allowed by the JCPOA. 

Still, what remains unclear is why this recent bid to intensify the policy of “maximum pressure” should in fact prove any more successful than it has been until now. The administration has not only failed to force Iran back to the negotiating table, but it has also failed to stop Tehran from pushing back against US pressure by taking steps to renew uranium enrichment beyond the limits allowed by the JCPOA. While its actions appear designed to rescue rather than kill the accord, Tehran’s risky maneuvering could inadvertently put Iran back on the perilous path of building a full scale nuclear program. Any move down this slippery slope could increase the chances for a major US-Iran military confrontation, or at the very least leave Washington and its Gulf allies struggling to contain Iran. A policy of maximum pressure that sows maximum strategic confusion cannot be reassuring, especially for Arab leaders in the Gulf who have seen the lengths to which Trump and his allies in Congress are prepared to go to compel Saudi Arabia’s cooperation on oil prices.

Gulf Dreams of Self-Sufficiency

Commenting on the efforts of Gulf Arab states to secure military and financial support from China, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker warned on May 7 that “These (Gulf) states have to weigh the value of their partnership with the United States … We want our partner nations to do due diligence.” China’s investments in Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone have in fact expanded: between 2008 and 2019 they totaled nearly $62.55 billion. As the leading purchaser of Saudi oil, China has tried to balance its commercial and military ties with Tehran by providing Riyadh with advanced military equipment and training. Beijing’s efforts include the building of a $65 billion plant in Saudi Arabia for manufacturing China’s CH-4 UAV drones and, in November 2019, the holding of joint drills for the Chinese and Saudi naval special forces.

These programs do not as yet portend a major shift away from the United States. But given the unprecedented global financial pressures that the COVID-19 crisis has produced and the ensuing diplomatic tensions between Washington and Riyadh, Gulf leaders may have reason to explore ways of expanding their modest defense industries. In fact, MbS has made such a project a cornerstone of his “Vision 2030” plan. The problem is that global oil prices are expected to remain low even with the recent production cuts, thus limiting the kingdom’s ability to establish and sustain its economic plans.

What seems to be certain is that a very global financial storm that precipitated a near diplomatic collision between Riyadh and Washington can also hinder the efforts of Saudi leaders to pursue their dreams of economic self-sufficiency and a more robust indigenous arms industry. A public spat may also put in jeopardy decades of a geopolitical relationship that has helped the United States be an essential actor in the Middle East. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, the Gulf states will have little choice but to rely on a US administration whose capacity—and desire—to project power and influence in each of the Middle East’s hot zones appears to be at an all-time low.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here