Gulf Security: It’s Not All Bad News
Gulf states are in a pickle.
They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognized the Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suit[s] them.”
Question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling, but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like are not all negative; in fact, they are helping encourage efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Secretary Blinken tweeted.
The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security — a guarded reference to Iran.
From the Gulf states’ perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is re-configuring its military presence in the Middle East, with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others — but that the US won’t pull out lock, stock, and barrel.
Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’ strategic interest in a counter-terrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an “over the horizon” approach, for which the Middle East remains crucial.
Moreover, domestic US politics will help pressure the US to stay active in the region. Various powerful lobbies and interest groups retain a stake in a continued US presence there. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022.
Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, will keep the US active in the region. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.
That’s further good news for Gulf regimes, against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasizing respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE. Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.
In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.
“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” some experts said in a statement in April.
There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement are taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.