It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

What Is Biden’s Policy in the Persian Gulf?

Talk of security guarantees for the UAE and a thaw in Washington-Riyadh relations could enhance—or weaken—U.S. standing in the region.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces during the Union Fortress 8 military demonstration in Dubai, on March 5.
Fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces during the Union Fortress 8 military demonstration in Dubai, on March 5.
Fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces during the Union Fortress 8 military demonstration in Dubai, on March 5. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, how are things? Are you back from Europe yet?

Matthew Kroenig: Not yet. Now I am at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, listening to Volodymyr Zelensky and Barack Obama. I think the organizers made an error and added me to the agenda. I hope the assembled crowd doesn’t get bored and walk out during my panel.

How are things back in Washington and in the rest of the world?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, how are things? Are you back from Europe yet?

Matthew Kroenig: Not yet. Now I am at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, listening to Volodymyr Zelensky and Barack Obama. I think the organizers made an error and added me to the agenda. I hope the assembled crowd doesn’t get bored and walk out during my panel.

How are things back in Washington and in the rest of the world?

EA: I mean, I’m glad you’re getting to enjoy your summer of revenge travel, but I’m also a little bitter about being stuck in the office. Oh, wait, you meant international affairs.

Perhaps the most surprising development is that Washington finally seems to have the bandwidth to talk about something other than Europe. We’ve got controversies over Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a lot of discontent about gas prices, and the Chinese building a secret military base in Cambodia.

MK: There is certainly much to discuss. Should we start in the Middle East? Not only do we have heated debates over President Joe Biden’s policy toward U.S. Gulf partners, but Iran is also ever closer to having the bomb. And, of course, these things are linked.

Do you want to explain the controversy?

EA: And that doesn’t even mention the controversy over Gulf funding in D.C. think tanks! But let’s stick with the foreign-policy ones here. First, we’ve got the president apparently considering a visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mohammed bin Salman. This would be a radical shift for Biden, who has openly described the crown prince’s country as a “pariah” and previously refused to meet with him.

The rumors are that this all has to do with Saudi Arabia’s sudden willingness to increase OPEC oil production caps. But I find that explanation less than satisfying; after all, the increases we’re talking about are quite moderate: A roughly 648,000 barrel a day increase is a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about a world that consumes almost 100 million barrels of oil a day. Biden can meet with Mohammed bin Salman if he wants, but it won’t bring down gas prices at home. In fact, with China rebounding from COVID-19 lockdowns, and Russian supply poised to fall further, it’s not a surprise that oil prices actually rose—not fell!—in the aftermath of this tepid OPEC announcement.

MK: I am happy to see Biden flip-flop on this one. His policy toward the Gulf was misguided from the start. As our readers know, I am all for aligning with democratic friends and crushing autocratic rivals, but what to do about friendly autocrats is a harder problem. To be sure, Gulf countries need to improve on human rights, but they otherwise support U.S. security and economic interests. It was a mistake to isolate them.

I was in the Gulf this past fall, and the perception was not that Washington was abandoning the region but that it had already left. Russia and China exploited the perceived power vacuum, and Gulf states increased their economic, technology, and security ties with these U.S. enemies. There were even reports of the UAE allowing Beijing to build a naval base before Washington stepped in and quashed it.

It may be too little too late, but I am glad to see Biden reverse course and attempt to preserve U.S. influence in this geopolitically important region.

If the UAE supports U.S. security and economic interests, then why would it offer to let China build a naval base?

EA: If the UAE supports U.S. security and economic interests, then why would it offer to let China build a naval base? I don’t find this a convincing argument. In recent years, the Gulf states have pursued foreign-policy objectives that are often profoundly at odds with Washington’s own interests—funding extremists in Syria, for example—and they have dramatically increased their economic ties with Asian states. In fact, most of these states’ oil now travels east toward Asia, not West toward Europe or America. The security and economic interests of these states and those of the United States have been diverging for some time.

This is why I find the Biden team’s sudden shift on the region to be perplexing. It’s not just the overtures to Saudi Arabia (in which the Saudis get something they desperately want, and Americans get nothing). It’s these rumors that the White House is considering offering the UAE a security guarantee of the type it offers NATO allies. We don’t really know what that would entail—the reporting suggests a “strategic framework” that might involve “certain U.S. security guarantees”—and we definitely don’t know what kind of benefits the United States would get. Is this a security guarantee against Iranian attack? To back the Gulf states in their war in Yemen? Placing them under the American nuclear umbrella? We simply don’t know, and these are not insignificant questions!

MK: The United States gets much from its partnerships with the Gulf states. The Pentagon has several major military bases in the region. Washington works with local partners to counter Iran and terrorism. Stability in the region ensures that energy resources flow to global markets, which is good for the U.S. and global economy. To your point on the exports going to Asia, as you know better than anyone (congrats on your new book on oil politics, by the way!), energy markets are global. Gulf energy exports to Asia help U.S. allies in the region. They also contribute to the global energy supply, keeping prices down everywhere, including in the United States.

EA: That’s true! I do have a new book out. Oil, the State, and War. It’s available wherever books are sold.

[Ed.: And you can read an excerpt—coming soon in Foreign Policy.]

EA: OK. You’re right that the Gulf states contribute to global energy markets, thereby keeping prices down. America may be increasingly able to rely on domestic oil and gas production to maintain its energy security, and it’s even a growing exporter of oil and gas. Just look at the potential impact of the liquefied natural gas terminal fire in Texas this week, which caused massive increases in European gas prices. But as part of those global markets, Americans are also subject to international pricing. That means supply shortfalls elsewhere still create price disruptions at home.

The Gulf states have strong incentives of their own to keep that production flowing to markets. So do the Chinese and Indians, who buy much of it. Thus far, though, the Saudis and Emiratis haven’t been willing to really try to help out the West with the oil market disruptions caused by Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Instead, they’ve continued to cooperate with Russia through OPEC+. Not much of a “partnership.”

Why should Gulf States help Washington, when Biden has been kicking them in the shins?

MK: Exactly. Why should they help, when Biden has been kicking them in the shins? His predecessor Donald Trump embraced America’s traditional partners in the region, and it brought about some new Arab-Israeli peace initiatives (in the form of the Abraham Accords). Biden ignored and denigrated them and pushed them right into the embrace of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. You can’t blame countries in the region for looking out for their interests, and if Washington won’t be there for them, then they will need to look elsewhere.

What works best is when Washington bear hugs its partners in the Middle East, even as it pressures them on human rights behind closed doors. I am glad Biden finally learned this lesson—even if it came a little late.

EA: I’m not all that keen to bear hug the Prince of Bone Saws. You might be surprised to hear me being the one making a human rights argument here, but I don’t think it’s unimportant. When the United States doesn’t have any major interests at stake, it should consider human rights concerns, and Biden’s treatment of Mohammed bin Salman has been appropriate considering his crimes and considering the dwindling importance of Saudi Arabia to direct U.S. interests.

Indeed, it’s important to remember that many of the reasons you cite for maintaining these partnerships—like those big military bases—are primarily there so that America can help protect the Gulf states. It’s circular logic. And while I don’t particularly want to see the Chinese as the dominant power in the Middle East, we are nowhere near that point right now. Instead, the United States is overcommitted to the region militarily, while the Chinese and Russians reap the economic benefits. It’s U.S. ships and planes that help to maintain freedom of navigation for oil transport, even though 65 percent of all Persian Gulf oil goes to Asia. Even Trump saw that problem clearly.

MK: I disagree. Yes, the Gulf states benefit from the U.S. military presence, but so does Washington. The Middle East is centrally located. Having forces there allows the Pentagon to deter and contain Iran, conduct counterterrorism operations in the region, and stabilize energy markets. It also allows the United States to project power globally. Much of the U.S. military force in Afghanistan, for example, flowed back and forth through Gulf bases. And, while I do think Washington should shift some of its force posture from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, it will need to maintain a significant presence, especially if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, which from the looks of things could be almost inevitable.

EA: I’ll come back to Iran. But first—your mention of the former president also suggests to me another reason why the Biden White House should be wary: The UAE has been involved in some pretty shady lobbying efforts around U.S. elections, and it has made no secret of the fact that it would prefer to see Trump back in office. So even if only for domestic political reasons, Biden should seriously rethink that potential offer of a security guarantee.

MK: Yes, Middle Eastern partners preferred Trump, just as Western European allies made no secret that they preferred Biden. The article you link to reports that an American broke the law by failing to register as a foreign agent. It doesn’t say the UAE broke any U.S. laws.

I kind of like the idea of a security guarantee for the UAE. If Abu Dhabi knows that it can rely on the United States, then it will have less need to turn to Russia and China. With China signing new security deals with the Solomon Islands, Cambodia, and another new country every week, Washington needs to compete in this space and at least keep its historic partners. This move will also help to deter Iran’s malign activities—such as its missile attack on the Abu Dhabi airport (just a few days after I was there, I might add). Moreover, France has already signed a security pact with the UAE. It is the 21st, not the 19th, century; it should be Washington, not Paris, playing the role of superpower security provider in the Middle East.

The United States went through the whole Cold War without offering a concrete security guarantee to the Saudis.

EA: Who’s going to deter the UAE from malign activities? After all, the U.S. Department of Justice described the case this way: “unlawful efforts to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the United States at the direction of senior UAE official.” That sounds pretty malign to me. Or how about the time the UAE hired a bunch of former National Security Agency employees to spy on dissidents and journalists, including American citizens?

Your basic argument seems to be that if Biden doesn’t offer a security guarantee, someone else might. But that doesn’t actually address the question of whether it’s in Washington’s interest to do so. The United States went through the whole Cold War without offering a concrete security guarantee to the Saudis, for example, and you could make a much stronger argument that they were intrinsically important to the U.S. economy during that period. If America doesn’t make a security guarantee to the UAE, oil will continue to flow into world markets, the Middle East security situation will continue much as it has, and the growing ties between Israel and the Gulf states will persist. Nothing changes.

MK: A—if not the—central pillar of U.S. foreign policy since 1945 has been to prevent hostile states from dominating important geopolitical regions. This is in the U.S. interest for clear security and economic reasons. Remember Pearl Harbor? The Middle East is an important geopolitical region. It is contested, with Moscow and Beijing moving in. Washington has been the leading state in the region since at least the 1970s. It should not cede that influence and the security and prosperity that it brings to the American people for no reason whatsoever. So, yes, I think the United States should maintain meaningful military, diplomatic, and economic engagement in the region. What is your argument for evacuation?

EA: Well, we should definitely think of a counterpart to Godwin’s Law for foreign policy. Godwin’s Law says that the first person in an argument to mention Adolf Hitler automatically loses. I think the first person to use Pearl Harbor to justify their foreign-policy views should suffer a similar penalty.

And your history is wrong. Washington and the Soviet Union vied for influence in the Middle East during the Cold War. The United States had almost no troops present in the region until 1980, and even then, relatively few—mostly naval—bases until after the 1990 Gulf War. Washington spent most of the Cold War successfully maintaining its position in the region through offshore balancing: without a substantial military presence, and without offering security guarantees to most regional states. It could do the same again with regard to China.

Washington has been the leading state in the region since the 1970s. It should not cede that influence and the security and prosperity that it brings to the American people. 

MK: You are correct that Washington and Moscow vied for influence, but then Washington undercut Soviet economic influence and ousted Moscow from the region with the Camp David Accords in 1978. It was a masterstroke, but the cost has been tens of billions of dollars of aid to Egypt that continues to this day. A similar bold move could help to prevent America’s great-power enemies from penetrating the region today.

But, I think we have run out of space before we have run out of arguments. Is it now time to watch online as the crowds stream out of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit during my panel?

EA: Can you blame them? I’m sorry to say you can’t compete with Zelensky, either in oratory or in tacti-cool fashion sense.

MK: Thanks for the inspiration! I’ll ditch my suit and speak in a fitted olive green T-shirt.

EA: If you think it will help! Let’s continue this next time. And then you can explain to me why the United States should be focusing all its energy on the Middle East while China is building bases in Cambodia.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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