Washington must fundamentally rethink its approach to the Middle East as the United States enters into a new era of great power competition with Russia and China.
No such mutual defense pact exists between the United States and these Middle East countries as it does between America and its formal treaty allies in Europe and East Asia. Undoubtedly, the main reason these states desire a more formal commitment is that, if codified into law, unwavering U.S. support would be guaranteed regardless of which political party is in power in Washington. Further, such support would persist despite America’s “pivot” to Europe and East Asia.
Yet, such a commitment is certainly not in the best interests of the United States. Not only does it risk entrapping the United States in these countries’ behavior, but such a commitment would formalize America’s commitment to the underlying source of instability in the Middle East: the authoritarian status quo.
Washington must fundamentally rethink its approach to the Middle East as the United States enters into a new era of great power competition with Russia and China. Instead of an authentic risk that these countries are turning to Moscow or Beijing as their primary security guarantors or turning against the United States, what we are witnessing is the manipulation of great power politics by these actors in the hopes of gaining concessions by exploiting Washington’s fears of losing its relative position to Russia or China. A formalized security commitment is the ultimate concession they could obtain. Moreover, the United States must recognize that its historic support for these autocratic actors has been dramatically counterproductive to its own interests, allowing these states to act with impunity at home and abroad.
The Middle East, Autocracy, and Great Power Competition
The return of great power competition to the Middle East—and the reemergence of global multipolarity more generally—is now one of the most commonly cited reasons why the United States must remain deeply engaged in the region. The Pentagon has raised concern over China and Russia’s expanding presence in the Middle East, and Washington has increasingly pressured its regional partners over their engagements with Beijing and Moscow, albeit to little avail. Brett McGurk, the current White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, argues that these partnerships provide the United States with a “unique comparative advantage” compared to its great power competitors in the region.
These officials’ messaging strikes a common theme: the more the United States pulls away from the Middle East and its regional partners, the more Russia and China will seek to fill the void. America’s regional partners have expressed a similar sentiment, arguing that continued strong support from the United States allows Washington to offshore much of its “regional burden” while seeking to strategically pivot away from the Middle East, while simultaneously threatening to “turn elsewhere” if such support is jeopardized.
It is within this broader context that the actions of these regional actors following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—arguably the most significant conflict thus far in the newest era of great power competition—must be situated. The actions of our Middle East partners since the invasion have been telling. First was the decision by the United Arab Emirates to abstain—alongside China and India—from a UN Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Anwar Gargash, former minister of state for Foreign Affairs and current advisor to Emirati leadership, explained that the UAE will not take sides in the conflict, stating that it would “only lead to more violence.” In return for their abstention, Russia joined with the UAE in a UNSC vote to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organization.
Shortly following Abu Dhabi’s abstention, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted its strong relationship with the UAE. During a visit to Moscow, the UAE’s foreign minister expressed his desire to continue cooperating with Russia on energy-related matters. Additionally, as Russia’s many oligarchs are facing waves of sanctions coming from the West, they have increasingly attempted to shift their money and assets to the UAE in order to avoid such sanctions.
Russian officials and businessmen close to Vladimir Putin already maintain considerable assets in the UAE, which has so far refused to enforce sanctions and has experienced record housing sales driven in part by Russian demand.
Yet, despite claims that America has increasingly “abandoned“ the region, U.S. Middle East policy under Biden has been one rooted in continuity, not change. Biden refused to hold Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi despite the released CIA report directly implicating MbS in his murder; has continued to support Saudi Arabia and the UAE amidst their disastrous military campaign in Yemen and plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis; and has refused to hold states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and others responsible for their prolific use of surveillance and hacking technology on their own populations as well as dissidents, journalists, and politicians abroad.
The Biden administration has also continued to pour military aid and advanced weaponry into the region, announcing that it intended to proceed with the $23 billion weapons sale (including the F-35 fighter jet) to the UAE that was initially approved under the Trump administration in return for Abu Dhabi normalizing relations with Israel; approving a $650 million arms package to Saudi Arabia; transferring a significant number of Patriot anti-missile systems to Saudi Arabia; authorizing an additional $2.5 billion in arms sales to Egypt; and approving a weapons package worth nearly $5 billion to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This is in addition to deploying F-22 fighter jets and a naval destroyer to the UAE following a recent missile attack launched by the Houthi movement in Yemen.
In the period following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has continued to reassure these actors of Washington’s support for their security; Secretary of State Antony Blinken apologized to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed for America’s response to the Houthis’ attacks on the Emirates; the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with MbS to “repair ties”; and a new multinational naval task force was established to patrol the strategic waterways surrounding Yemen, designed in part to cut off weapons supplies to the Houthis.
However, such staunch support undermines U.S. interests on a broader, global scale as well. The authoritarian regimes in the Middle East share a similar autocratic ethos with Russia and China. This has been evidenced by the various ways in which U.S. regional partners have supported Moscow and Beijing in some of their most nefarious activities, from funding
The fallout between the United States and its “partners” in the Middle East following the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted decades of failed American policies in the region. It is imperative for the United States to fundamentally rethink these relationships, recognizing how these actors seek to manipulate the return of great power competition to advance their own strategic imperatives which are not in harmony with America’s own. Many American lawmakers appear to agree: a recent letter signed by thirty members of Congress and addressed to Secretary of State Blinken targeted Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia specifically. Signed by the heads of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, and the House Rules Committee, the letter calls for a “recalibration” of America’s partnership with Saudi Arabia while highlighting how continued support for the Saudi monarchy runs counter to U.S. interests and values.
Moving forward, there are two ongoing developments to watch closely. First, many of these Arab autocracies in the region have been strengthening their ties with Israel, building off of the so-called “Abraham Accords“ that were ratified under the Trump administration. Strong relations with Israel, which is engaging in its own balancing act following the Ukraine crisis, are viewed by these governments as a lucrative mechanism through which to maintain strong ties with Washington.
Second is the possibility of Donald Trump’s return in 2024. The Trump administration emphatically embraced these autocratic actors, and he was the one to advertise for a “NATO+ME” and a more institutionalized commitment to the region. Trump granted these actors numerous concessions while in office (bypassing Congress on arms sales, providing sensitive nuclear technology, etc.). Individuals within the Trump administration maintained close personal ties with many actors and have continued to do so after leaving the White House, evidenced most recently by the news of a Saudi investment fund—led by MbS—investing $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s private equity firm.
Jon Hoffman is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam. Follow him on Twitter @Hoffman8Jon