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Source: The Hill

Jul 28, 2023

Biden must protect our Gulf allies


In recent weeks, the Biden administration has announced a series of new military deployments to the Middle East, including thousands of Marines and additional forces, F-35 and F-16 fighter jets, and the USS Thomas Hudner guided-missile destroyer. The deployments, which follow recent attempted Iranian shipping seizures, are meant to “further safeguard the free flow of international commerce and uphold the rules-based international order,” according to Commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla of U.S. Central Command.

Although the deployment is officially in response to Iran’s increasingly aggressive activities in Gulf waters, the Biden administration is likely hoping that they will also fulfill another strategic imperative: reassuring Gulf allies. For years, U.S. partners in the Gulf have been complaining about Washington’s “strategic re-engagement” in the region and America’s refocusing on great power competition. American commitment to Gulf states’ security has always been a lynchpin in their relationship with us, and decisions like pulling missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia — amid continued attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis — have called into question Washington’s commitment to its allies and friends.

While the deployments may come as a relief to some in the Middle East, many are asking: Is it too little, too late?

More and more, U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have taken their security into their own hands by both reducing tensions with Iran and seeking to broaden their alliances. The most obvious examples of this are a China-brokered agreement to restore ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, followed by Tehran reopening its embassy in Riyadh after seven years of estrangement.

As for the UAE, Iran hosted Emirati Minister of State Khalifa Shaheen Al-Marar, and the two nations reinstated their ambassadors after more than six years of troubled diplomatic relations. But there have been other, albeit less obvious, moves as well. The UAE surprised many when it announced that it was withdrawing from a U.S.-led naval coalition focused on countering Iranian maritime activity amid the aforementioned heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran in Gulf waters. And both Saudi and the Emirates have expanded not only foreign sources for their military equipment, but focused financial and other support into developing their own defense industrial base for technology and military capability in an effort to reduce their reliance on the U.S.

The fact is, Saudi and the UAE’s efforts to hedge with Iran has stemmed from Gulf states’ fears of a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Israel against Iran, which would put the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and their neighbors at heightened risk — particularly amid doubts that the U.S. would provide necessary defense guarantees should Iran strike its Gulf neighbors first. And at a time when Washington’s Middle East allies are concerned about U.S. commitment to their security, they’re willing to do almost anything to reduce tensions with the Iranian regime. Especially when the threat of Iranian attacks could seriously threaten vital foreign investment and tourism as they reduce their economic reliance on oil.

Even as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reassured Gulf powers that he was committed to their safekeeping while on a diplomatic tour of the region last month, the Gulf nations question to what lengths the U.S. will actually go to in order to protect them. After all, a little over a year ago it was Blinken himself who reportedly apologized to then–UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan for an inadequate response to Houthi cross-border attacks, some of which even targeted a base housing U.S. and French forces. Moreover, the lesson from America’s disastrous departure from Afghanistan — from a Gulf point of view, the chaotic abandonment not only of allies, but of stranded U.S. citizens, for political expediency — still figures prominently in regional discussions about American commitment to the region.

It’s also important to note that waning U.S. assurances to its Middle Eastern allies have come at a time when they are increasingly willing to assert their strategic autonomy — even if its allies in Washington disagree. China’s desire for a military relationship with both the UAE and Saudi is of U.S. concern. In the past year, we’ve also seen Riyadh and Abu Dhabi willing to break away from the U.S. to take part in mediation efforts in Sudan, Ukraine, and help Syria reintegrate into the Arab League. Economically, several of the region’s countries have made increasing overtures to both Beijing and Moscow in an attempt to balance their relationships and broaden support in an increasingly multipolar world.

The Biden administration needs to realize that in order to achieve their goal of reducing involvement in the Middle East, they must first shore up support among the region’s heavyweights. And in order to do so, America must do more than just protect vital international waterways and actually extend meaningful protections to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Emily Milliken is the Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC. Mary Beth Long is the founder of Askari Associates, LLC with nearly two decades of experience in government and intelligence. She previously served as assistant defense secretary for international security affairs and chair of NATO’s High Level Group.

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