The Biden Administration Is Struggling to Develop a Middle East Strategy

Despite the declining capacity of the United States to shape the Middle East’s strategic architecture, it is unlikely that effective regional solutions to security challenges will emerge without a renewed vision of the US role in the region. Several realities signal that American power still matters, including Russia’s military missteps in Ukraine, the robust diplomatic and military reaction of the US and its western allies to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, and last but not least Russia’s and China’s inability to match the military and technological umbrella the US can offer. Middle East leaders therefore must figure out how to work with the United States, even as they strive to find new ways to cooperate independently of Washington.

The Biden Administration may be making it easier to manage this challenge. By relying on tactical maneuvering rather than a clear strategy, the White House is strengthening the hand of shrewd poker players such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). But while the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE—as well as Turkey and Israel—have secured greater leverage with the Biden Administration, they cannot tackle enduring security threats in the region—the greatest of which is Iran—on their own. Indeed, with talks in Vienna aimed at renewing the moribund 2015 Iran nuclear deal nearing the point of collapse, the prospects for a US-Iranian military clash could escalate. This is not a scenario that any of the key players—including Iran—would relish. At this critical moment, the Biden Administration needs to forge a more balanced and coherent relationship with its increasingly testy Middle East allies, but as of yet it has no clear strategic path forward. 

The Vienna Nuclear Talks and the Iran Factor

 Although Iran is not the only factor driving the efforts of several Middle East states to manage security challenges, it looms large in their calculations. Thus, the Vienna talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have been a key point of concern. Whether they produce an agreement or end up breaking down, the outcome of the negotiations will reverberate through the region for a long time to come. But Gulf leaders seem conflicted about the talks. On the one hand, they argue that the Biden Administration’s refusal to create any link between the talks and Iran’s behavior in the region leaves the Gulf states dangerously exposed. On the other, as Elham Fakhro, an associate fellow with Chatham House, states, “the Gulf states believe that the US should be present at the table for Iran to deliver on any promises made to them.”

The Vienna talks on reviving the JCPOA have been a key point of concern for several Middle East states.

While it is unlikely that Tehran has offered any such promises, during his May 25 Senate testimony, US State Department Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who is the lead US negotiator in the talks, argued that one of the main lessons suggested by the Obama Administration’s push for the JCPOA is that we “should have more deeply consulted and coordinated with our regional allies and partners.” But what would such cooperation look like? Malley and his team have in fact reached out to the US’s key regional partners. But there was nothing in his statement, or in his ensuing discussion with the Senate committee, that would suggest how to apply lessons learned from past experience to the current effort to renew the JCPOA. Instead, as Malley noted, the White House’s central concern was that the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” approach had inadvertently opened the door for Iran to restart and accelerate its enrichment program, while simultaneously providing no clear strategy for addressing Iran’s activities in the region. Malley thus argued that the Biden Administration’s first priority has been to stop, reverse, and contain this expansion of Iran’s enrichment program, and to address its regional activities only after this has been accomplished.

A Fragmented Regional Approach Is Not a Strategy

With the Vienna talks now on the verge of collapse, Tehran might not only have a less constrained path to pursue a nuclear program; it could also find itself in contention with a region that is still struggling to forge a common strategy for dealing with its actions. However much Iran’s leaders decry the growing economic and military coordination between Israel and key regional states—which began with the UAE and Bahrain but may soon extend to Saudi Arabia and Turkey—Middle East leaders cannot effectively address the many challenges posed by Iran without a wider diplomatic and security strategy that has the backing of the United States and key western governments.

Middle East leaders cannot effectively address the many challenges posed by Iran without a wider diplomatic and security strategy that has the backing of the United States and key western governments.

The vulnerability of any regionally-led approach was apparent well before the Vienna talks took a sour turn. We need only to rewind to January 17, 2022, when Houthi forces launched a drone assault on Abu Dhabi, destroying a fuel depot and killing three people. This was followed by a second assault on January 24, when US and UAE forces intercepted two ballistic missiles, again fired by the Houthis. This attack, which forced the 2,000 US troops stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base to shelter in bunkers, signaled the possibility of a wider regional conflict. Moreover, the fact that it came only a few weeks after UAE National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed had flown to Tehran to hold talks with President Ebrahim Raisi and other Iranian leaders further underscored the fragility of the UAE’s outreach to Iran.

While Iranian officials asserted that the visit signaled a “new chapter” in UAE-Iran relations, and UAE officials emphasized that they hoped the talks would help de-escalate tensions in the region, Tahnoun’s visit did nothing to dampen the ongoing conflict in Yemen. On the contrary, the Houthi attack suggested that, absent a comprehensive regional strategy that takes into account Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and that has the backing of the US and its western allies who have supplied Saudi Arabia’s air force, bilateral talks between Iran and any given Gulf state are likely to produce confusion and distrust rather than effective regional peacemaking.

The UAE-US Stress Test

In the weeks leading up to and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, confusion was amplified in ways that strained US-UAE relations. The Biden Administration’s decision to cease US military support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen—which followed its February 16 decision to remove the terrorist designation assigned to Houthi forces—may have been impelled by the desire to push for a comprehensive solution to the war in Yemen. Still, coming on the heels of the Houthis’ drone and missile attacks, the decision served to feed worries about diminishing US support for security in the Gulf, especially in the UAE.

The administration’s decision to remove the Houthis from the terrorism list served to feed worries about diminishing US support for security in the Gulf, especially in the UAE.

But it was the White House’s reaction to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine that seems to have set the stage for a mini-crisis in US-UAE relations. One the one hand, UAE leaders viewed the administration’s efforts to galvanize international diplomatic and military support for Ukraine as a sign of benign—or perhaps not so benign—US neglect of the Gulf and the wider region. On the other hand, when the imposition of sanctions on Russia sent oil and gas prices skyrocketing, the administration’s efforts to get the UAE and Saudi Arabia to increase oil production provided Gulf leaders with an opportunity to air their discontent. Saudi Arabia and the UAE not only declined to increase production, but it was widely and apparently credibly reported that in March both MBS and MBZ declined to take Biden’s calls to discuss the matter. While we don’t know if the US president left a message, the lack of response surely echoed throughout Washington. That said, UAE officials had no interest in letting relations further deteriorate. Indeed, in early March, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba asserted that, “We’re going through a stress test but I am confident that we will get out of it and get to a better place.”

A lot has transpired since al-Otaiba made this remark, including the May 13 death of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and an unfolding war of attrition in Ukraine that has pushed the global economy into recession. Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and CIA Director William Burns all traveled to the UAE to pay their respects to the country’s late leader, and to, as Harris noted, “reaffirm the shared commitment we have to security and prosperity in this region.” But the Emirati government under MBZ is unlikely to comply with US requests to increase oil production. Although in April Blinken apologized to MBZ for the US response to the Houthi attacks, which UAE leaders had deemed inadequate, such a bid to assuage hurt feelings suggests that the road to repairing US-UAE relations will not be a smooth one.

Reaching Out to MBS 

The process of mending frayed relations will be even harder in Saudi Arabia. After all, Biden asserted during his presidential campaign that he planned to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” He also added that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” This not so oblique reference to MBS, who the CIA claims ordered the murder of Saudi-born US resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, may be amply justified. And yet, Saudi leaders might be forgiven for feeling singled out. Biden has spoken with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, whose military has killed hundreds of his opponents and jailed thousands of others, and has met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom Biden called an “autocrat” during his electoral campaign. Thus it is hardly surprising that when asked in a March interview with The Atlantic what he thought of Biden’s views of him, MBS responded, “Simply, I do not care.” Following the UAE’s lead, MBS underscored his contempt by also refusing to take a call from Biden, even while taking the time in late April to discuss Ukraine and other matters with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is clear that the global economic and political aftershocks of the Russia-Ukraine War are driving an unabashedly realpolitik US policy.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this history, the White House has announced that Biden will travel to the Middle East in July, where he will meet with Israeli leaders, and then with MBS in the context of a “GCC+3 summit.” This meeting will certainly represent a dramatic about-face for US policy. Originally scheduled for June, its postponement came against the backdrop of mounting criticism from the human rights community in the US and abroad, and in the wake of growing criticism from Senate Democrats. Implicitly responding to his critics, Biden has stated, “I’m not going to change my view on human rights.” However, he also argues that, “As president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can.” Whatever one’s view of the president’s unusually frank effort to square the dual logics of power and principle, it is clear that the global economic and political aftershocks of the Russia-Ukraine War are driving an unabashedly realpolitik US policy, one that cannot succeed if Riyadh and Washington remain at loggerheads.

The key strategic question is whether reconciliation will provide a real and politically defensible win for both sides. It is certain that MBS—who this year will likely succeed Saudi Arabia’s 86-year-old king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud—would relish the attention of a US president whom he despises yet whose recognition he surely craves. Apart from MBS’s own interests, the Saudi government’s regional diplomacy would also get a significant boost. Saudi officials have already held five meetings in Baghdad with their Iranian counterparts, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated during a May 24 World Economic Forum that, “Our hands are stretched out,” and that the Saudis “continue to encourage our neighbors in Iran to lean into what can be a very, very important sea change in our region.” But Riyadh also wants the United States to be a part of this change, even as Saudi leaders and opinion makers question the readiness and capacity of Washington to play a leadership role. Sharply making this point, Editor in Chief of Al Arabiya English news channel, Mohammed Alyahya, recently wrote that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s willful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.” According to Alyahya, what Riyadh wishes for is a “strong, dependable America,” which is the “greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have.” But apart from assailing “US weakness and confusion,” Alyahya had little to say about the actual basis of a rebooted US-Saudi relationship.

On the diplomatic front, Riyadh might shift from a policy of “implicit normalization” to full normalization of relations with Israel.

Presumably, such a reboot would include an active effort by Riyadh to join with the UAE, and perhaps also Qatar, in a bid to increase oil output. On the diplomatic front, Riyadh might shift from a policy of “implicit normalization” to full normalization of relations with Israel. Israeli leaders have been yearning for such a dramatic move, and Saudi officials have not shied away from offering the possibility of joining the Abraham Accords. For its part, the Biden Administration would not only welcome normalization, but recent reports suggest that it is actively trying to broker an Israeli-Saudi deal. Such an agreement would be a huge feather in Biden’s cap, one that would help him deflect or even silence criticism in Congress of a US-Saudi rapprochement. By contrast, and despite his ruthlessness, MBS would have to manage domestic resistance to the normalization of relations with Israel. He certainly seems up to the task and may be buoyed by the not unrealistic expectation that the next president of the United States may not be Biden. In short, MBS has every reason to welcome Biden to Riyadh.

Moving Beyond Tactics

Such a welcome might seem easier to pull off if the Vienna talks collapse. With some possible exceptions, Gulf leaders—not least of all those in Qatar—are relieved to see the Biden Administration sticking to its pledge to uphold Donald Trump’s last-hour designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. With both Tehran and Washington unable or unwilling to back down from their positions on this contentious—if ultimately symbolic—issue, the matter may be sufficient to scuttle JCPOA negotiations.

But Gulf leaders ought to be careful what they wish for. Failure to renew the JCPOA would present the Biden Administration and Middle East leaders with the formidable task of forging a more coherent vision of how American power could be hitched to regional efforts to manage security challenges, particularly if the prospects for a US-Iranian military confrontation escalate. This will require going beyond a policy that leans heavily on improvised reactions and tactics. Some recent State Department appointments—including Barbara Leaf as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs—are a good sign, but regardless, significant challenges remain. The political clock is ticking, less so for Arab Gulf leaders, and more for an American president who is grappling with a war in Ukraine that has shaken global food supplies and threatens to push western economies into recession. It remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration will be able to develop a coherent and effective strategy for the Middle East before the situation becomes even more intractable.