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Ukraine has widened the breach between U.S. and Persian Gulf countries

Relations with Biden administration were already strained over Iran, Yemen, oil production and other issues

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Rabat, Morocco, on March 29. (Pool/Reuters)
9 min

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened existing strains in the Biden administration’s relationships in the Middle East, even as it has brought new unity to NATO and transatlantic ties.

Nowhere have the bonds been as frayed as with Persian Gulf partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their reluctance to increase oil output as gas prices rise, along with what the Biden administration sees as a less-than-robust condemnation of Moscow, are among the most visible current reasons.

But in both cases, the sources of estrangement go far deeper. Gulf officials describe a mix of complaints that have caused them to doubt U.S. security guarantees, including what they consider the administration’s failure to respond vigorously enough to ongoing missile attacks on their countries by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and its eagerness to sign a new nuclear deal with Tehran that does not address Iranian aggression in the region.

Equally important is what they see as a lack of respect from a long-standing ally. “It goes beyond policy,” said Jeffrey Feltman, who served for years as a top U.S. diplomat in the region and as U.N. undersecretary for political affairs. “It goes to the personal.”

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President Biden, who described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state during his campaign, has not yet met or even had a conversation with the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bin Salman’s Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, was said to be livid when weeks passed without a high-level U.S. visit or immediately positive response to requests for more air defense supplies after the first of a series of Houthi missile attacks hit the UAE on Jan. 17, according to people familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

In an effort to get the relationship back on track, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday met with the Emirati crown prince in Morocco. Blinken was effusive as they shook hands for the cameras, saying he was “grateful for the time today, and actually I’m grateful for the time every day, because the partnership between our countries truly matters to the United States.” The UAE, he said, was “a leader in the region, increasingly a leader in the world.”

Bin Zayed was terse. It was an “important opportunity,” he said. “I’m sure we have a lot to talk about, especially between our bilateral relationship.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Blinken said he had “made very clear to him … that the United States is a true partner to the UAE,” but provided few details. He said they did not focus on energy supply.

The administration, according to people familiar with the divide, has little patience with their complaints, and sees the resentments as business as usual in the region. With many crises to address, and pressure from within the Democratic Party and beyond to take a tougher line against the Persian Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Biden has had little room to maneuver. U.S., Saudi and Emirati officials declined to comment.

A meeting, or even a phone call, with bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince — identified by the CIA as having ordered the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi — would be problematic for Biden’s already tenuous relations with many in Congress, where the crown prince is regularly denounced. Biden was willing to meet him at last year’s Group of 20 conference in Rome or at the climate summit in Scotland, but bin Salman declined to attend the gatherings. The White House would not have objected, people familiar with events said, if the crown prince had picked up the phone during last month’s call between his father, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and Biden.

For the Emiratis, the reasons for estrangement are more diffuse, including U.S. delays in the sale of F-35 fighter jets, and the Iran negotiations. But those irritants pale beside what the Emiratis consider a tepid U.S. response to Houthi attacks when the first missiles rained down from Yemen on fuel tankers in Abu Dhabi, killing three civilians.

Relatively common against Saudi Arabia, the rare strike against the Emiratis — whose direct involvement in the Saudi-led war against the Houthis ended several years ago — was the beginning of weeks of similar attacks, all but the first intercepted by U.S.-provided missiles from Patriot and THAAD air defense systems. In response, the UAE appealed to the United States for more interceptors, more intelligence on Houthi movements, and the U.S. re-designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a measure that would open those dealing with them to criminal penalties.

Donald Trump had imposed the designation the day before leaving office, a move that led to harsh criticism from humanitarian groups that the action was an impediment to aid shipments for suffering civilians. In response, Biden lifted the measure.

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The recent attacks heightened the Emiratis’ sense of vulnerability over the pending Iran nuclear deal, and they found the U.S. response lacking, according to the people familiar with exchanges between the two.

Compounding their ire were reports that the administration is considering lifting its designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, as part of the nuclear negotiations. An IRGC delegation showed up at a defense show last week in Doha, Qatar — a regional rival for U.S. affections. Qatar insisted it had invited only Iran’s defense ministry, and didn’t know the IRGC was coming. The State Department released a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed and troubled” by the appearance.

But the Arab states and others in the region share a concern about U.S. priorities regarding Tehran, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador who served as the Trump administration’s envoy to defeat the Islamic State. Calling on the administration to take steps that would prove to gulf allies that Biden is willing to embrace more than harsh rhetoric about Iran, Jeffrey described the action as “a football game where your team never scores any points and keeps on losing the ball, but the coach keeps yelling” that the team can win.

In response to the UAE appeals for more weapons, U.S. officials — juggling demands for Patriots and other interceptors from Saudi Arabia and European allies on NATO’s eastern flank — note that UAE stockpiles are far from depleted. The Emiratis already have more advanced U.S.-made weaponry than many American partners, including the THAAD system, which was first used in combat in response to the Houthi attacks.

The administration, which had cut off all but defensive assistance to the Saudis in the Yemen war, said it had no access to the high-altitude surveillance of the Houthis the Emiratis wanted, something the UAE didn’t believe, several people familiar with the situation said. The Houthis are undoubtedly a terrorist organization, but the administration considers re-designation complicated, not necessarily because of the lobbying of humanitarian groups but because U.S. and international banks would refuse to facilitate aid and transport to Yemen for fear of criminal charges.

But none of these disputes appeared to mean as much to the UAE — or to more exasperate the Americans — as the failure to publicly show up in the Emirati hour of need. While both sides agree that there were many high-level telephone calls, a U.S. statement denouncing the Houthis, and visits in February by Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., then head of the U.S. Central Command, and Brett McGurk, the senior Middle East official on the National Security Council, it was not seen as enough by a country that has participated with U.S. forces in conflicts from Kosovo to Afghanistan.

When Biden finally called bin Zayed last month, he was told that the time was not right, and promises from both sides to reschedule have so far come to naught.

Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official who is director of the defense and security program of the Middle East Institute, said that gulf nations didn’t seem to fully grasp the slow workings of U.S. bureaucracy. “Even with our closest NATO allies we can’t instantly send our senior emissaries and deploy military equipment to support them,” he said. “It may just be that the gulf states’ expectations of the United States are too high, which is causing much of this disappointment.”

In recent weeks, the breach has worsened. A week after Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Dubai this month, and joined his public call for the world to stop isolating Moscow-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the UAE hosted Assad for a visit.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia declined U.S. appeals to increase their oil output to make up for market shortfalls during the Ukraine crisis, and the Emiratis abstained in a U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council vote condemning Russia.

Explaining the U.N. vote, the UAE’s representative said the outcome — failure because of a Russian veto — was a foregone conclusion. Others familiar with the situation said that the abstention was a trade-off for Russia not to veto an upcoming resolution sanctioning the Houthis. But while the Emiratis later voted in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Russians in Ukraine, the lack of support was noticed.

Speaking Tuesday at the annual World Government Summit in Dubai, oil ministers from both countries said they had no regrets about restraining production. Their focus, they said, is on the “sustainability” of world energy supplies, and they said they tried never to mix politics and oil.

“I’ve been at this for the last 35 years, and I know how we manage to compartmentalize our political issues to what is for the common good for all of us,” Saudi Minister Suhail bin Mohamed al Mazrouei said.

John Hudson in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.