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Friday, May 20, 2022

The Wall Street Journal: A Great Crisis Between Washington and the Gulf

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When the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia refuse to answer the US president’s phone calls, reject his requests to help lower oil prices, fail to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and when the UAE hosts the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Abu Dhabi, there is indeed a major crisis in US-Gulf relations.

The Biden team has two flawed assumptions: that China’s rise and Russia’s return as great-power rivals will involve a recalibration from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and now Eastern Europe, and that detente with Iran, beginning with a nuclear deal, make the region more stable

This is what researcher Firas Maksd wrote in the Wall Street Journal, expecting this matter to worsen in the coming weeks if the United States is close to concluding an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program that lifts many sanctions against the Islamic Republic. He believed that how Washington deals with this situation will determine the future of the region and America’s place in it for decades to come.

Diversity of options
The writer noted that America’s partners in the Middle East have come to the rational conclusion that they need to diversify their foreign policy options given Washington’s reluctance to meet its defense obligations. Dramatic scenes from the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan confirmed that the US was in decline. For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular, the lack of a meaningful US response to Iranian-sponsored drone strikes on airports and oil facilities in 2019 and 2022 was the last straw.

After the last major attack in January, the United Arab Emirates heard no comment from senior US administration officials, and when General Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the region, visited Abu Dhabi more than three weeks later, the The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi refused to allow the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, to be interviewed. Concerns about US engagement have turned to anger. Then, when Biden wanted to call the Emiratis for help in lowering oil prices weeks later, his Emirati counterpart wasn’t listening.

two wrong assumptions
The writer believed that the Biden administration’s behavior toward the Gulf states contradicts its national security strategy, which emphasizes reinvigorating American alliances and partnerships. He argued that the Biden team had two wrong assumptions: that China’s rise and Russia’s return as great-power rivals would imply a recalibration from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and now Eastern Europe, and that detente with Iran , starting with a nuclear deal, would make the region more stable.

For US officials, these two hypotheses complement each other: a US withdrawal from the Middle East should make Iran less aggressive. In turn, detente between the United States and Iran would give Washington more time to focus on emerging threats elsewhere. On the surface, this appears to be a win-win deal in that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and thus Israel would theoretically benefit from an Iranian commitment to de-escalation.
But the writer believes that this strategy is based on the wrong foundation. In fact, the Middle East is considered the “Wild West of great power rivalry” according to General McKenzie. It is located at the crossroads of three continents and encompasses three of the world’s most important shipping lanes, and is a vital area for global trade and commerce. It also accounts for about half of the world’s oil reserves and more than a third of oil production.

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One source noted that the United States cannot effectively engage in a major power competition while relinquishing its dominant position in such a strategic part of the world. When the void left by the United States is filled with Russia’s military invasion of North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea corridor, and with China eliminating the United States as a major trading partner for most of the Middle East, allies and partners will have to adjust their positions accordingly.

The writer stressed that there is no guarantee that US-Iranian detente will lead to a more stable Middle East. Once most Western sanctions are lifted and US deterrence eases in the region, Iran’s appetite for expansion is likely to increase. This could fuel more conflict, strengthen Saudi resolve to keep up with Iran also becoming a nuclear threshold state, and drag the US into future military dilemmas.


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