In an attempt to salvage his country’s waning influence in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is embarking on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia this week. But advancing “strategic cooperation” with his Saudi and Gulf counterparts may well prove an uphill battle.
In July last year, President Joe Biden attended the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in the kingdom and vowed that the United States “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran”. But that is precisely what has been happening.
Despite US objections, the past year has seen its regional allies go hybrid: they have improved relations with Beijing and Tehran and maintained strong ties with Moscow.
Although the Biden administration has publicly downplayed the importance of the recent Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations, it seems frantic about the growing Chinese influence in the oil-rich Gulf region and the greater Middle East.
Over the past two decades, the US has ramped up oil and gas production, becoming virtually energy independent. It may no longer need Gulf oil as much, but it insists on being in charge in the region so it is able to cut China off of vital energy supplies in the event of a conflict, and secure them for its allies.
As Blinken warned last month, “China represents the most consequential geopolitical challenge we face today: a country with the intent and, increasingly, the capability to challenge our vision for a free, open, secure, and prosperous international order.”
But Beijing’s autocracy may actually be an easier and better fit for the region’s autocrats than Washington’s democracy.
Russia’s sway in the Middle East and beyond has also made the US nervous.
Fed up with their ambiguity, even complicity with Russia, the Biden administration has been ramping up pressure on certain Middle Eastern states, making clear that its patience is running out. It has been warning countries in the region against helping Russia evade sanctions and demanding they pick sides – or else face the wrath of the US and G7 nations.
But to no avail.
Saudi Arabia has thus far refused the US request to substantially increase oil production to lower its market price and offset the effect of Western sanctions on Russia. It has maintained good relations with Moscow and dragged its feet on supporting Ukraine. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “middle finger to Washington” has reportedly made him extremely popular in the region.
Last year, in response to Biden’s threats to punish Riyadh for its presumed insolence, the kingdom went on to host the Chinese president, Xi Jinping for bilateral talks and the China-GCC and China-Arab summits. Saudi Arabia then normalised relations with Iran under Chinese auspices, just as the West was tightening sanctions against Tehran, and in a clear snub to the US, went on to repair ties with Syria.
But this new attitude towards relations with the US is not only evident in Riyadh; it is a regional phenomenon. The United Arab Emirates, another US ally, has also cultivated closer ties with China, improved strategic relations with France, and worked on engaging Iran, Russia and India. This, at times, has been at the expense of its relations with the US.
The region as a whole has been diversifying its global engagement. This is quite apparent in its commercial relations. Between 2000 and 2021, trade between the Middle East and China has grown from $15.2bn to $284.3bn; in the same period, trade with the US has increased only modestly from $63.4bn to $98.4bn.
Six Middle Eastern countries – among them Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – have recently requested to join the Chinese-led BRICS group, which also includes Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is despite the West’s ever-widening sanctions regime imposed on Russia.
Of course, America has been the dominant strategic power in the Middle East the past three decades and remains so today. But will it be in the next three decades?
In a region where autocratic regimes and the general public do not agree on much if anything at all, saying no to America is a very popular stance because the majority believes it is a hypocritical imperial power that pays only lip service to human rights and democracy.
This is particularly apparent in US foreign policy on Palestine, which staunchly and unconditionally supports the Palestinians’ coloniser and occupier – Israel.
On his visit to Riyadh, Secretary Blinken will likely put pressure on Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Tel Aviv, hoping to lower its asking price, which reportedly includes a nuclear civilian programme and major security assurances.
The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have already normalised relations with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians in return for American concessions, such as the sale of US-made F-35s to Abu Dhabi, US recognition of Moroccan claims over Western Sahara, and the lifting of US sanctions on Khartoum. All so that the Israeli government does not have to make any “concessions” of its own and end its decades-long occupation of Palestine.
But the Palestinian cause, which is quite close to the heart of ordinary Arabs, is not the only issue that has convinced the Arab public that America is a duplicitous power that should be kept at a distance.
Thanks to satellite television and social media platforms, people of the region saw with their own eyes US crimes in Iraq and its humiliation in Afghanistan, and do not think of it as a guardian of civilisation, let alone an invincible power. The balance sheet of US interventions in the Middle East over the past 20 years since the 9/11 attacks is firmly not in its favour.
No wonder that in a 2022 poll conducted by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in 14 Arab countries, 78 percent of respondents believed that the biggest source of threat and instability in the region was the US. By contrast, only 57 percent thought of Iran and Russia in these terms, both of which have had their own share of dirty work in the region – from Syria to Iraq and Yemen.
In his aptly titled book, Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East, former US official Steven Simon estimates the US has wasted some $5-7 trillion on wars that have resulted in the death of millions of Arabs and Muslims, and the devastation of their communities. In addition, these conflicts have killed thousands of US soldiers, injured tens of thousands and led to some 30,000 suicides of US veterans.
It is no coincidence then, that more Middle Easterners (and Americans) agree that the region’s decoupling from America and at least some American disengagement from the region is as desirable as it is inevitable.
Such a turn of events would also be terribly consequential with messy long-term implications for both sides and it would be determined by whether and how America chooses to change its foreign policy.
But that’s another discussion for another day.