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Engineers work at an oil plant in eastern Saudi Arabi. File photo: AFP

As US reassures Gulf allies, China reaches out to Middle East amid rising oil prices

  • Since Biden took office, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have lost confidence in US security guarantees, including support to deal with Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen
  • But even as China seizes its chance to seek closer economic ties with Gulf states, in the case of oil supplies, it is reliant on the security umbrella provided by the US, an analyst says
Middle East
As the United States scrambles to smooth over ties with its key Gulf allies following Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) refusal to join its alliance against Russia and China, Beijing has sought to increase its influence in the region at a time of spiking oil prices.
Since President Joe Biden took office, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have lost confidence in US security guarantees amid perceptions the Middle East has been “overlooked”.

Last year, the US suspended sales of offensive weapons to both Gulf states, which would have been deployed against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen. Washington also withdrew advanced air defence batteries from Saudi Arabia as part of a broader drawdown of American forces from the region.

Qatar and Saudi decry lack of attention to Middle East conflicts

The limited deployment of US military assets in response to the most recent Houthi attacks this January was viewed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as underwhelming, even as Washington has sought to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew the US from it in 2018.

“After becoming president, Biden has followed policies which make his regional partners feel overlooked,” said Guy Burton, adjunct professor at Vesalius College in Brussels.

These underlying diplomatic tensions came to the fore when the US, EU and Britain pressured Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join their diplomatic alliance against Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February.

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The two Gulf states – the Middle East’s top oil exporters – flatly refused to break their Opec-plus agreement with Moscow or boost oil production to bring down spiking prices. Instead, both said they would continue pursuing multipolar foreign policies.

The crack in relations has stoked concerns in the Biden administration that Saudi Arabia and the UAE could turn “more to China and Russia at the expense of Washington’s influence in the region”, said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based political risk consultancy.

In recent weeks, senior American officials have sought to rebuild trust with both allies.

US VP Kamala Harris shakes hands with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, on May 16, 2022. Photo: AP
When the UAE’s President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan died earlier this month, US Vice-President Kamala Harris led a high-level delegation – which included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, CIA director William Burns, and ranking members of the White House National Security Council’s Middle East team – to Abu Dhabi on May 16 to offer condolences and underline Washington’s commitment to the security of the Gulf Arab states.

Harris hailed “the strength of the US’ partnership with the UAE and the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to deepening ties” after she met Khalifa’s successor and half-brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

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That same week, the Biden administration hosted Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman at a meeting of the US-Saudi strategic joint planning committee, during which Washington “reaffirmed President Biden’s commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself”.

The White House is reportedly also seeking a meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, possibly at a planned summit with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a grouping that consists of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

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“The White House is working to mend fences with the Saudis and Emiratis and to fix problems in both bilateral relationships which have worsened throughout Biden’s presidency,” Cafiero said.

US VP offers her condolences to the Advisor to the UAE President Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Khalifa al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi on May 16, 2022. Photo: AFP

Differences in the Gulf monarchies and the West’s reactions to the Russia-Ukraine war echoed the UAE’s rejection last year of US pressure to scale back its economic relationship with China.

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The UAE had balked at Washington’s demand that it replace the Huawei 5G network activated last year with Western-approved internet infrastructure.

It was also shocked by a report published in November by The Wall Street Journal, which cited US defence officials as saying that Washington had uncovered evidence Beijing was building a military facility at the container terminal of China’s state-owned Cosco Shipping at Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE dismissed the report as “completely false”.

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The report aroused new suspicions in Abu Dhabi about Washington’s intentions and, according to many observers, likely contributed to the UAE’s decision to suspend talks with the US last December to acquire advanced F-35 warplanes as part of a US$23 billion arms sale.

China and Saudi Arabia reaffirm energy ties as Ukraine war pushes up prices

Amid the cooling ties between the Gulf states and the US, Beijing seized the opportunity to deepen its own economic ties with the region in January when it hosted the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain by pressing for a China-GCC strategic partnership and free-trade agreements.

Saudi Arabia is slated to host the first summit-level meeting between China and the 22-member League of Arab States later this year.

But Burton, the academic in Brussels, described Beijing’s moves as “ironic” because China and the US had common energy interests in the Gulf.

China’s economic interests in the region were reliant on the security umbrella provided by the US, he said.

“Although the Chinese are portrayed as at odds with the US, in the case of oil supplies, they are both on the same page,” said Burton, author of the book China and Middle East Conflicts. “Beijing would … welcome more production to keep oil prices down.”

US oil thirst forcing Biden to pivot back to Saudis. Will MBS play along?

The European Union has also sought to reach out to the region as the energy crisis arising from the Ukraine war refocuses its attention on its ties with the GCC.

EU member states had between 2019 and 2021 suspended sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of anger over the deaths of Yemeni civilians.

On May 18, EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell unveiled plans for growing the bloc’s ties with the GCC into a fully-fledged strategic partnership.

“We need to work more closely together on stability in the Gulf and the Middle East, on global security threats, energy security, climate change and the green transition, digitalisation, trade and investment,” Borrell said.

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Biden bans all Russian oil imports and warns of costs for Americans

Biden bans all Russian oil imports and warns of costs for Americans

Meanwhile, Harris’ visit appears to have set the stage for a rapprochement between Abu Dhabi and Washington, according to influential Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

The strength of the US delegation convinced the Emirati leaders that the US “takes its relationship with the UAE seriously and is keen to strengthen it”, said Abdulkhaleq, a retired professor of political science and a confidant of the new Emirati president.

But Gulf State Analytics’ Cafiero said it was “difficult to imagine” the Biden administration solving many of the causes of the tensions in Washington’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

For one, the relationship between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed remains mired in acrimony over the brutal October 2019 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by security agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence agencies have said the crown prince probably authorised the killing.

“So long as Biden remains in the White House my view is that we can expect officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to remain nervous about this administration’s commitment to their security,” Cafiero said.

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