Gulf anger at US leads to lack of aid for energy supplies, Ukraine
But in both cases, the sources of estrangement are much deeper. Gulf officials describe a mix of complaints that have caused them to doubt U.S. security assurances, including what they see as the administration’s failure to respond vigorously enough to ongoing missile attacks on their country by the 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 disrespect from a longtime ally. “It goes beyond politics,” said Jeffrey Feltman, who for years served as one of the top US diplomats in the region and the UN’s undersecretary for political affairs. “It goes to the staff.”
President Biden, who described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state during his campaign, has yet to meet or even have a conversation with Saudi de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bin Salman’s Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, was reportedly livid as weeks passed without a high-level US visit or an immediately positive response to demands for more air defense supplies after the first in a series of Houthi missile attacks. in the United Arab Emirates on January 17, according to people familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
In a bid to get relations back on track, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met the Emirati Crown Prince in Morocco on Tuesday. Blinken was enthusiastic as they shook hands for the cameras, saying he was ‘grateful for the weather today, and indeed I’m grateful for the weather every day, because the partnership between our countries matters. really for the United States”. The UAE, he said, was “a leader in the region, increasingly a leader in the world.”
Bin Zayed was laconic. It was a “significant opportunity”, he said. “I’m sure we have a lot to discuss, especially between our bilateral relations.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Blinken said he had “made it very clear to him…that the United States is a true partner of the United Arab Emirates,” but offered few details. He said they weren’t focusing on energy supply.
The administration, according to people familiar with the divide, has little patience with their complaints and views the resentments as common business in the region. With many crises to resolve and pressure within the Democratic Party and beyond to take a tougher line against the Persian Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Biden has had little wiggle room. US, 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 US resident Jamal Khashoggi – would be problematic for Biden’s already tenuous relationship with many members of Congress, where the crown prince is regularly denounced. Biden was open to meeting him at last year’s Group of 20 conference in Rome or at the climate summit in Scotland, but bin Salman refused to attend the rallies. The White House would not have objected, people close to the 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 the move away are more diffuse, including US delays in the sale of F-35 fighter jets and negotiations with Iran. But those irritants pale in comparison to what the Emiratis see as a lukewarm US response to Houthi attacks when the first missiles fell from Yemen on oil tankers in Abu Dhabi, killing three civilians.
Relatively common against Saudi Arabia, the rare strike against the Emiratis – whose direct involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis ended several years ago – has been the start of weeks of similar attacks, all but the first intercepted by US-supplied 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 United States’ redesignation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a move that would expose those who deal with them face criminal penalties.
Donald Trump had imposed the designation the day before he left, a move that led to strong criticism from aid groups that the action was an obstacle to aid shipments to suffering civilians. In response, Biden lifted the measure.
The recent attacks have heightened the Emiratis’ sense of vulnerability over the pending Iran nuclear deal, and they have found the US response lacking, according to people familiar with the exchanges between the two.
Their anger was compounded by reports that the administration was considering lifting its designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, as part of nuclear talks. An IRGC delegation showed up at a defense fair last week in Doha, Qatar – a regional rival for American affections. Qatar insisted it had only invited the Iranian Defense Ministry and did not know the IRGC would come. The State Department released a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed and disturbed” by the appearance.
But Arab states and others in the region share concern about US priorities on Tehran, said James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador who served as the Trump administration’s envoy to defeat Islamic State. Calling on the administration to take action that would prove to Gulf allies that Biden is willing to adopt more than harsh rhetoric on Iran, Jeffrey described the action as “a game of football where your team never scores. points and keeps losing the ball, but the coach keeps shouting ‘that the team can win.
In response to UAE calls for more weapons, US officials – juggling demands for Patriots and other interceptors from Saudi Arabia and European allies on NATO’s eastern flank – note that stockpiles of the UAE are far from exhausted. The Emiratis already have more advanced US-made weapons than many US partners, including the THAAD system, which was first used in combat in response to Houthi attacks.
The administration, which had cut off all but defensive aid to the Saudis during the war in Yemen, said it did not have access to the high-altitude surveillance of the Houthis that the Emiratis wanted, which the UAE did not believe. several people familiar with the situation said. The Houthis are undoubtedly a terrorist organization, but the administration considers the new designation complicated, not necessarily because of lobbying by aid groups but because US and international banks are reportedly refusing to facilitate aid and transport to the Yemen for fear of criminal charges.
But none of those disputes seemed to mean as much to the UAE — or further infuriate Americans — as failing to come forward publicly in the Emirati’s hour of need. While both sides agree there were numerous high-level phone calls, a US statement denouncing the Houthis, and visits in February by Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., then head of US Central Command, and Brett McGurk, the top Eastern official on the National Security Council, that was not considered enough by a country that has participated with US forces in conflicts from Kosovo to Afghanistan.
When Biden finally called bin Zayed last month, he was told the time was not right, and promises from both sides to reschedule have so far come to nothing.
Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official who is director of the Middle East Institute’s defense and security program, said the Gulf countries did not seem to fully grasp the slow functioning of the US bureaucracy. “Even with our closest NATO allies, we cannot instantly dispatch our senior envoys and deploy military hardware to support them,” he said. “It may just be that the Gulf States’ expectations of the United States are too high, which is driving much of this disappointment.”
In recent weeks, the breach has worsened. A week after Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Dubai this month, and joined his public call for the world to stop isolating the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported by Moscow, the United Arab Emirates welcomed Assad for a visit.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have rejected calls from the United States to increase oil production to offset market shortages during the Ukraine crisis, and the Emiratis abstained in a Security Council vote of US-backed UN condemning Russia.
Explaining the UN vote, the UAE representative said the outcome – failure due to a Russian veto – was a foregone conclusion. Others close to the situation said the abstention was a compromise for Russia not to veto an upcoming resolution sanctioning the Houthis. But as the Emiratis then voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russians in Ukraine, the lack of support was noted.
Speaking at the annual summit of world governments in Dubai on Tuesday, oil ministers from both countries said they had no regrets about the production curtailment. Their goal, they said, is the “sustainability” of global energy supplies, and they said they never try to mix politics and oil.
“I have been in this field for 35 years and I know how we manage to compartmentalize our political issues to what is for the common good of all,” Saudi Minister Suhail bin Mohamed al Mazrouei said.
John Hudson in Rabat, Morocco contributed to this report.