Tuesday, January 18th | 17 Shevat 5782

December 8, 2021 11:43 am

US Foreign Policy Turns to Realism in the Middle East

avatar by James M. Dorsey


Saudi Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and minister of state for the United Arab Emirates, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber attend the Saudi Green Initiative Forum to discuss efforts by the world’s top oil exporter to tackle climate change in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Photo: October 23, 2021. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri

A cursory look at Saudi Arabia and Iran suggests that emphasizing human rights in US foreign policy may complicate relations, but has little impact on regional stability.

A post-9/11 US emphasis on human rights was not what inspired the Arab Spring. And afterwards, many Arab countries enacted counter-revolutionary efforts. Subsequent US administrations effectively let the counter-revolutionary moves pass, although, to be fair, the Biden administration has suspended $700 million in aid to Sudan following a military power grab in October. However, it has yet to do the same with an additional $500 million for Tunisia. Democratically elected President Kais Saied disbanded parliament in July and assumed the power to enact laws.

By the same token, Middle Eastern protagonists, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran, opted to reduce tensions and explore ways of managing their differences to focus on reforming and diversifying their economies, fueling growth, and stimulating trade.

The Biden administration’s decision to swap principle for pragmatism was evident in the recent shift in oil politics.

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The shift was prompted by US efforts to assure the Saudi kingdom and other Gulf states that the United States was no longer in the regime change business. US officials also insisted that the administration would concentrate on maintaining and strengthening regional partnerships. This signaled that the administration’s words about human rights and democratic values would not have stern policy consequences for the country.

The message was well received in Riyadh. In response, Saudi Arabia reversed its rejection of Biden’s request to increase oil production to reduce soaring prices at US gas stations.

The Saudi concession also came in response to the administration’s willingness to sell the kingdom US $650 million worth of missiles. The administration says the sale is in line with its policy of supplying only defensive weapons to the kingdom, as US officials push for an end to the devastating, almost seven-year-long Yemen war that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Administration officials assert that the missiles would enable Saudi Arabia to shoot down Houthi drones in the air before they hit targets in the kingdom, but cannot be used for attacks against the rebels in Yemen itself.

Meanwhile, the administration’s efforts to reassure Middle Eastern nations that its policy emphasis has changed has done little to prevent Iranian negotiators at the Vienna nuclear talks from hardening their positions.

Iran believes that the United States and, at least until recently, some of its Gulf allies, aim to encircle the Islamic Republic and foment domestic unrest that will lead to the regime’s fall. The US has imposed crippling sanctions in response to its nuclear program, and harshly criticized Iran for its abusive human rights record.

But that has not stopped Iran from engaging in separate talks with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which appear to be producing results in Yemen.

As a result of those talks, Saudi and Emirati forces, and their Yemeni allies, were reportedly withdrawing from positions in southern and western parts of the country.

The war has increasingly turned into an albatross around Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s neck, with much of the international community wanting to see an end to the conflict.

It was not immediately clear if and what Iran may have offered in return for the withdrawals that have allowed the Houthis to move into evacuated spaces. “The latest developments seem to suggest that the Houthis seem on the edge of gaining the upper hand,” said NATO Foundation analyst Umberto Profazio.

The Emirati withdrawals, particularly around the strategic port of Hodeida, follow gestures including an effort to return Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab fold, and an exchange of visits with Iran.

The withdrawals, including from Mara on the Yemeni border with Oman, help Saudi Arabia put its backyard in order. Saudi operations in Mara irritated Oman, which sees the Yemeni region as its sphere of influence.

The withdrawals helped facilitate a visit to Oman by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) this week. MBS may try to reach an agreement during the visit to construct a pipeline from the kingdom’s oil fields to an export terminal in Oman. The pipeline would allow Saudi Arabia to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz.

In the final analysis of a values-driven US foreign policy, hard-line realists will argue that backing down on rights produces tangible results. Yet, the United States’ selective and opportunistic emphasis on rights and values in Iran may have been one factor that inspired the Islamic Republic to engage with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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.

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