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The United States Doesn’t Need to Recommit to the Middle East

The Biden administration is reportedly considering a formal defense agreement with the UAE. Here’s why it shouldn’t.

By , a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam.
The six men stand in a line holding hands with crossed arms, forming a chain of hand-holding.
The six men stand in a line holding hands with crossed arms, forming a chain of hand-holding.
From left to right, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan pose for a group photo following their Negev meeting in the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker on March 28. JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Reports indicate that Washington is presenting the United Arab Emirates with a formal defense agreement containing U.S. security guarantees for Abu Dhabi. If true, it would be the first of its kind for the region—and a step back for U.S. interests.

The Biden administration has reportedly already sent a draft agreement to the UAE, accompanied by a visit from White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, to discuss the subject. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic and former advisor to the UAE’s leadership, recently stated that the two countries are close to signing a “comprehensive and binding” partnership that “no country in the region has obtained so far.”

Analysts and experts in Washington have also begun arguing for increased U.S. security guarantees for Saudi Arabia, and the United States is attempting to facilitate a more integrated and formalized regional air defense network with Israel and various Arab states. Far from being an isolated occurrence, the treaty with the UAE appears to be a possible step toward a broader series of U.S. commitments to the Middle East.

Reports indicate that Washington is presenting the United Arab Emirates with a formal defense agreement containing U.S. security guarantees for Abu Dhabi. If true, it would be the first of its kind for the region—and a step back for U.S. interests.

The Biden administration has reportedly already sent a draft agreement to the UAE, accompanied by a visit from White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, to discuss the subject. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic and former advisor to the UAE’s leadership, recently stated that the two countries are close to signing a “comprehensive and binding” partnership that “no country in the region has obtained so far.”

Analysts and experts in Washington have also begun arguing for increased U.S. security guarantees for Saudi Arabia, and the United States is attempting to facilitate a more integrated and formalized regional air defense network with Israel and various Arab states. Far from being an isolated occurrence, the treaty with the UAE appears to be a possible step toward a broader series of U.S. commitments to the Middle East.

The pact with the UAE appears to have been spearheaded unilaterally by U.S. President Joe Biden and his team, leaving not only the American people in the dark but Congress as well. Only Congress has the authority to ratify treaties, and as a senior Democratic Senate aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity ​​because they were not authorized to speak to the press on this issue, told FP: “Offering security guarantees on behalf of the American people is a serious undertaking—one that requires the engagement with, and approval of, the people’s representatives in Congress. I’m not aware of any such engagement thus far.”

U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar have both introduced amendments to next year’s defense spending authorization bill that would slow or block any such agreements and require Congress to weigh in.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment when asked about the content and status of the agreement.

An increase in U.S. security commitments to the Middle East would not only violate existing U.S. laws designed to prevent the country from providing security assistance and guarantees to governments with abysmal human rights records, but it would also be strategically nonsensical in that it would advance the interests of actors that are contrary to Washington’s.


The subject of the United States’ commitment to the Middle East has received new impetus following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Washington’s regional partners, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have used the return of great-power competition to advance their strategic imperatives and gain concessions from their primary security guarantor, the United States. These actors have also taken advantage of Washington’s anxiety about losing its position relative to Russia or China despite neither being capable or willing to fill a U.S. void in the region, resulting in a type of “reverse leverage.”

This has included Saudi Arabia and the UAE refusing to considerably increase oil output to offset high prices, the UAE abstaining from a United Nations Security Council draft resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Saudi and Emirati leaders reportedly declining phone calls from Biden, and the Emirates serving as a safe haven for the money and assets of Russian oligarchs seeking to evade sanctions.

These actions were coupled with a litany of analyses arguing that the United States must “recommit” to the Middle East. This culminated with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in March requesting a formal defense treaty with the United States. At the time, the UAE is reported to have pushed for an “institutionalised security commitment” from the United States. Israel was also pushing the case for a formal U.S. defense treaty with the Persian Gulf states in Washington.

The result seems to be an emerging formal regional coalition buttressed by U.S. security guarantees. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently confirmed that Israel is building a U.S.-sponsored regional air defense network called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD). Not much is known about MEAD, but news of the alliance comes after reports of high-level cooperation among Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to create such a mechanism, and there have been efforts to bring Saudi Arabia in as well.

Recently, officials from the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, and Bahrain convened in Manama, Bahrain, to push forward with the establishment of the Negev Forum, designed to further integrate security cooperation in the region. Israeli officials told Axios that this is “the beginning of a regional alliance” and that the goal is to add Saudi Arabia, which will be a primary discussion when Biden visits the region this week. The topic of possible Saudi normalization with Israel is also expected to be at the forefront of conversations.

In Washington, bipartisan legislation was recently introduced in Congress calling for the U.S. Defense Department to present a strategy toward integrating such an air defense network in the Middle East that would, according to U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, “protect our partners in the region by building off the existing partnership of the Abraham Accords.”

Although this broader alliance may take time to materialize, the immediate matter that must be addressed is the agreement that has reportedly been presented to the UAE and may soon be extended to Saudi Arabia—and why Biden should abandon the idea.


Current levels of U.S. security assistance to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are already in direct contradiction with a number of U.S. laws.

First, the U.S. government is prohibited from providing security assistance or guarantees to actors engaged in gross human rights abuses. Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act states that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and emphasizes the United States’ duty to “promote and encourage increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the world without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

This is echoed by the Leahy law, two statutory provisions which, in the State Department’s own description, prohibit “the U.S. Government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the most autocratic governments in the world, both being rated below Russia by Freedom House. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are engaged in widespread human rights abuses at home and support a wide array of autocratic actors throughout the region engaged in similar abuses. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also declined to criticize China for the persecution of its Uyghur Muslim minority and remain engaged in a military offensive in Yemen that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. A recent investigation examining indiscriminate bombings by the Saudi-UAE coalition found that, since 2015, more than 300 airstrikes have “violated or appeared to violate international law.”

Critical too are the ways these actors have violated U.S. law within the country itself to advance their own agendas. Beginning with Saudi Arabia, two former Twitter employees were charged in 2019 for spying on behalf of the Saudi government within the United States. Additionally, it was just recently revealed that a federal court in New York has charged a Saudi individual for harassing and threatening dissidents and regime critics in the United States and Canada.

U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski spearheaded a letter this year to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, arguing that Washington is not adequately monitoring violations by its Middle East partners under Title 22 of U.S. Code Section 2756, which bars Washington from providing security assistance to countries engaged in a “consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment directed against individuals in the United States.” The letter discussed Saudi Arabia specifically, highlighting several previous instances of such behavior.

Regarding the UAE, in 2021, Thomas Barrack, the chairperson of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, was indicted for acting as an unregistered foreign agent who attempted to influence the Trump administration’s foreign-policy positions. U.S. prosecutors allege Barrack was directed by Emirati officials at the highest levels—including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—and Barrack pushed UAE-preferred candidates for cabinet-level positions in the new administration. Later that year, three former U.S. intelligence operatives admitted to working as cyber spies for the United Arab Emirates and hacking into various computer networks in the United States.

A formal security guarantee to such actors would serve to cement the existing illegalities already embedded in U.S. Middle East policy and the unlawful activities of our so-called partners within the United States.

Despite these legal issues, many experts have argued that the policies Biden is pursuing are ultimately rooted in “pragmatism” and “realism” designed to advance U.S. national interests. However, after closer inspection, doubling down on Washington’s existing approach to the region is strategically counterproductive.

From a strategic perspective, the move risks cementing Washington’s commitment to the primary underlying structural problem in the Middle East—the authoritarian status quo—while yielding virtually zero benefits for the United States, particularly as it pertains to high oil prices.

Autocracies are inherently unstable due to the illegitimate nature of their rule, and there is a great deal of academic literature demonstrating that authoritarian states build less reliable and durable alliances. Rules, treaties, and laws do not mean much when the authority of rulers is absolute.

Concerned solely with regime preservation and power projection (often used as a mechanism to buttress the former), the authoritarian governments in the Middle East are responsible for the region’s political, economic, and social underdevelopment due to the fact that they manipulate resources and institutions to further the interests of a narrow elite. Staunch support from the United States is what enables these governments to act with impunity both at home and abroad.

Such a security guarantee would only serve to formalize the United States’ commitment to the actors and structures that create widespread grievances and unrest. The move would likely embolden Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and other regional autocrats, demonstrating that bad behavior contrary to the interests and principles of the United States is actually rewarded by Washington, paving the way for other regional actors to pressure the United States into providing more formal commitments to the region.

Jon Hoffman is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University specializing in Middle East geopolitics and political Islam. Twitter: @Hoffman8Jon

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