Gauging Gulf Responses to President Biden’s Middle East Diplomacy

When examining how the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) perceived and reacted to US President Joe Biden’s July visit to the Middle East, the Gulf states should first be separated into two subgroupings. The first set of Gulf states, which includes Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain, perceived the visit in a far different manner than did the second grouping, which comprises Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is due to the fact that Biden’s trip to the Middle East was more directed at the second grouping, which has increasingly pushed back against Washington since the president took office in January 2021.

Traditional Cordiality with Some…

Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain interpreted Biden’s Middle East venture in a more subtle and nuanced manner than did Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar’s inclusion in Biden’s meetings schedule in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia represented a rather dramatic shift from the policies of former US President Donald Trump, and from the blockade that was imposed on Doha by neighboring Gulf states and Egypt in 2017. During his visit, President Biden praised Qatar’s leadership and highlighted how his administration had designated the country a major non-NATO ally earlier this year. He also expressed appreciation for “Qatar’s role in promoting security and stability for the Afghan people, and Qatar’s exceptional efforts in the evacuation of Afghans.” For Qatar, the visit and the accompanying praise from Joe Biden were welcomed as a marked departure from his predecessor.

During his visit, President Biden praised Qatar’s leadership and highlighted how his administration had designated the country a major non-NATO ally earlier this year.

Biden also embraced Kuwait and Oman, and hailed both countries for their conflict mediation efforts in the region. Because neither country has faced isolation attempts like those that Qatar experienced during the Trump administration, or increased criticism similar to what Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently experienced, they likely saw the visit as Washington’s attempt to assuage tensions with their Gulf neighbors. Although Bahrain has faced increased criticism from human rights activists for its continued repressive and discriminatory policies, these complaints do not appear to have influenced the Biden administration in any meaningful way. While in Saudi Arabia, Biden hailed Washington’s partnership with Bahrain and praised King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for normalizing relations with Israel as part of the so-called “Abraham Accords.” The president also vowed to increase security and economic ties with Bahrain, demonstrating to the country that the Abraham Accords have effectively shielded its regime against human rights criticism and calls for democracy.

…Hard Politics with Others

Although this first grouping certainly benefited from President Biden’s recent visit to Jeddah, the true victors were Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which have faced increased criticism due to their domestic human rights abuses and destabilizing regional policies, as well as their ongoing engagement in international surveillance, harassment, and malign influence campaigns. Biden’s visit was mainly directed toward these two countries, and took place amid heightened tensions with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden bent a knee to these actors without them having to make any concessions regarding oil, human rights, or their relationships with Russia or China—all of which were purportedly reasons behind the president’s visit. The visit demonstrated Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s ability to make themselves relevant—and to gain concessions from their primary security guarantor, the United States—given Washington’s strong focus on the war in Ukraine and on increased tensions with Beijing. While in Saudi Arabia, President Biden highlighted Washington’s continuing support for these two countries and stressed that the US will not be walking away from the region. In many ways, Biden’s trip was a doubling-down on the two foundational pillars that have guided US Middle East policy for decades: support for select autocrats rooted in the “myth of authoritarian stability,” and unwavering support for the state of Israel.

In many ways, Biden’s trip was a doubling-down on the two foundational pillars that have guided US Middle East policy for decades: support for select autocrats rooted in the “myth of authoritarian stability,” and unwavering support for the state of Israel.

Biden’s visit was an emboldening moment for these actors, as it represented a capitulation by the United States, one that came without the demand that they alter their domestic or foreign policies in any meaningful manner. Soon after Biden’s visit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) traveled to Greece and France, demonstrating that he and other regional actors now feel that they are “back” as key players in the international arena. However, the ultimate strategic imperatives of Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain the same: regime preservation and power projection, with the latter often used as a mechanism to achieve the former. The United States, being both the region’s hegemonic power and the primary security guarantor for these two states, plays a central role in their calculus. President Biden’s visit must be analyzed from this perspective, by looking at how Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular used the Jeddah summit to advance their fundamental objectives and to maintain a semblance of leverage over Washington.

Toward a Reset of Relations?

The Middle East is unique in that its hegemon, the United States, is located thousands of miles away. Saudi Arabia and the UAE rely on a regional security structure that is underpinned by American power, making them dependent upon the status quo and on Washington’s commitment to the region, which has been at least rhetorically questioned by the Gulf states for over a decade. Complaints emerged during the presidency of Barack Obama, whom the Gulf states criticized for what was, in their view, his “inadequate” response to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, for pursuing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and for downsizing direct American presence in the region as part of his “pivot” to Asia. The tenure of Obama’s successor, Donald Trump—and specifically the myriad concessions and overtures he made to Saudi Arabia and the UAE—was therefore enthusiastically embraced by both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. With Joe Biden now president, Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE apparently miss the carte blanche that the Trump administration was largely willing to give them, and now seek to gain concessions from a seemingly less interested Washington.

President Biden’s visit was portrayed by many as a desperately needed “reset” designed to reassure America’s regional partners—and especially the Gulf states—of Washington’s commitment to the Middle East. However, upon closer inspection, the Biden administration’s approach to the region has been rooted in continuity as opposed to change, which challenges the notion of a regional reset. Despite his campaign rhetoric, President Biden has pursued policies designed to preserve the regional status quo. For example, Biden refused to hold MBS accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite an intelligence report directly implicating MBS in his murder. Biden has also continued to support Saudi Arabia and the UAE amid their disastrous military campaign in Yemen, and has refused to hold them and others responsible for their prolific use of surveillance and hacking technology on their own populations, as well as on dissidents, journalists, and politicians abroad.

Upon closer inspection, the Biden administration’s approach to the region has been rooted in continuity as opposed to change, which challenges the notion of a regional reset.

The Biden administration has also continued to funnel both military aid and advanced weaponry to Gulf states, announcing that it intends to proceed with a $23 billion weapons sale to the UAE that was initially approved under the Trump administration in return for Abu Dhabi normalizing relations with Israel. The administration has also announced its approval of a $650 million arms package to Saudi Arabia and has provided the country with a significant number of Patriot anti-missile systems. In addition, it has also approved a weapons package worth more than $4 billion for Jordan. All this follows the administration’s choice to deploy advanced fighter jets and a naval destroyer to the UAE after missile attacks launched by Yemen’s Houthi movement, and builds on its wholehearted embrace of the Abraham Accords that were established under the Trump administration.

The question of the United States’ commitment to the Middle East certainly received new emphasis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and actions taken by some Gulf partners. However, far from a reset, Biden merely stayed the course on decades of US Middle East policy, demonstrating his commitment to the regional status quo. This stance was evident upon Biden’s return from his visit, with his administration approving a $5.3 billion arms package to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, with OPEC+ announcing a miniscule oil output increase representing 0.1 percent of global demand, and with Saudi Aramco reporting massive profits from high global oil prices. But despite Biden’s efforts at diplomacy, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister is now discussing the possibility of OPEC+ actually cutting production so that now-declining oil prices can rebound, and the UAE is standing in support of such a possibility. Washington’s efforts have thus emboldened Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and have shown that actions running counter to the interests of the United States will not only be tolerated, but will be rewarded.

Following Biden’s visit, a former Twitter employee who was arrested for illegally spying for Saudi Arabia was convicted of stealing dissidents’ information at the behest of the kingdom. Meanwhile, a Saudi court recently sentenced women’s rights activist and academic Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban for the “crime” of posting tweets advocating for basic rights in the kingdom. Al-Shehab’s conviction adds to a number of other lengthy sentences recently given to other activists and critics of the Saudi regime, including a 10 year imprisonment for Saleh Al Talib, a former imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Saudi Arabia has also already nearly doubled the total number of state executions from 2021, with 120 people having been put to death in the first six months of 2022. Furthermore, days after Biden met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed, the Emirates detained American lawyer Asim Ghafoor after convicting him in absentia of money laundering and tax evasion. These developments make clear that these regimes have essentially no incentive to change their behavior as long as the United States continues to unconditionally support them.

What about Russia and China?

Biden’s visit to the Middle East also occurred against the backdrop of renewed great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to manipulate the return of great power competition—which is taking place both globally and in the Middle East—in order to advance their own strategic imperatives. The two countries are aware that neither Russia nor China are capable or willing to fill a US “void” in the region, and they therefore seek to gain what they can from increased cooperation with Moscow and Beijing while simultaneously pressuring Washington—their primary security guarantor—into providing myriad concessions. This has resulted in a type of “reverse leverage” whereby these actors exploit American fears of losing ground relative to Russia or China in order to advance their interests. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s subsequent pushback against Biden’s requests to increase oil output and condemn Moscow’s actions accelerated these fears in Washington. While in Saudi Arabia, the president addressed this issue directly, stating that the United States “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” And indeed, many analysts have sought to frame Biden’s trip as a much-needed effort to counter Russian and Chinese inroads into the region.

Many analysts have sought to frame Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia as a much-needed effort to counter Russian and Chinese inroads into the region.

However, instead of distancing themselves from Russia or China—and despite Biden’s visit—Saudi Arabia and the UAE have continued their outreach and cooperation with Moscow and Beijing. Following the Biden visit, Riyadh has continued coordinating with Moscow on oil production. In addition, it was recently revealed that Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Co invested heavily in Russian energy groups such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Lukoil—all of which have been sanctioned by the United States and several other western countries—at the height of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco also just signed an agreement with Chinese oil giant Sinopec, which charted plans for further cooperation and for the construction of a new manufacturing hub in eastern Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Saudi Arabia soon, where plans are reportedly underway for a very warm and very public welcome. This is in stark contrast to the low-profile nature of Biden’s reception in July.

The UAE has also maintained its close ties with Moscow and Beijing following Biden’s visit, continuing to serve as a safe haven for Russian oligarchs fleeing sanctions, and criticizing US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, which it called “provocative” while also stressing Abu Dhabi’s support for Chinese sovereignty. These actions demonstrate that instead of changing their calculus vis-à-vis Russia and China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognize that their strategy of reverse leverage continues to pay off.

Moving Forward or Standing Still?

So long as the United States continues capitulating to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two countries will continue to feel emboldened both domestically and internationally. Biden’s visit to the Middle East provided them with a sense of invincibility, allowing them to continue with their problematic policies both at home and abroad. With no incentives to alter their behavior regarding human rights or their increased relations with Russia or China, states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to exploit tensions between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, and to pressure the United States into providing them with concessions. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to play hardball with the Biden administration, ultimately banking on the return of Donald Trump or the election of another Republican in 2024. And indeed, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been sure to maintain their deep financial connections with the Trump entourage. Ultimately, instead of charting a new path forward for US Middle East policy, Biden’s visit confirmed that Washington lacks the will to challenge Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s troublesome actions and policies.