There is no denying that US relations with the Gulf countries and other Arab states it considers “strategic partners” have been strained for some time. The sources of tension are well known. A major one at present is the Russian-Ukranian war, into which the US has invested its full diplomatic, political, economic and military weight, recruiting its allies in Europe and Asia. The Gulf and Arab positions have run counter to US expectations. This applied to their stances on UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and the views expressed by Arab officials and in the Arab media.
At a more serious level, the Arabs refused to be dragged into the energy war the US has declared on Russia. In fact, they were more sympathetic to the Russian and Chinese positions on this, and could see no justification for violating the law of supply and demand in the energy market or increasing oil production outside the framework of rules and quotas agreed on by OPEC nations.
Iran had been a source of controversy for much longer. While the US is currently seeking to reenter the nuclear accord with Tehran, the Gulf and Arab countries perceive Iran as a threat and an aggressor. A personal and ideological factor enters the equations of tension as well: Biden and his administration are essentially a third term of the Obama presidency.
As always in such cases there are conflicting narratives. But even in Washington, officials and intellectuals have different views on the causes of tension. Many US diplomats who have served in the Gulf attribute the problem to an Atlantic-Gulf “misunderstanding”. They tend to cite cultural differences or deep historical roots in this context, and to propose dialogue as the solution for old time’s sake.
Another group of experts in Washington view the issue from the perspective of immediate US interests. In the context of a Russian-US confrontation and a heightened global polarisation that has brought the world to the threshold of a new cold war with hot elements in the heart of Europe, they feel there is no choice but to solicit help from the US’s historical partners who can exert widespread influence through cultural means or energy leverages. The US had acquired many global and strategic advantages in the world that emerged after the end of the Cold War when the US became the sole superpower and the global regulator. To keep these advantages it can not afford to alienate friends in an international climate riddled with uncertainty.
A third trend approaches the question from the opposite angle. They see the US’s liberal sun rising over the world, which Washington has divided between democrats and authoritarians and in which a battle between the two sides has erupted and is unfolding most visibly on Ukrainian territory. They maintain that whoever does not stand with Washington in this battle is effectively against it and a renegade.
All three views overlook three crucial facts: one, the US and its international status have changed; two, Arab countries in the Gulf and elsewhere have also changed; and, three, the world has changed. I have discussed these three facts with varying degrees of detail in this column. The upshot is that the sway of the US and the Western alliance in general has declined during the past two decades.
The fact is, America’s uncontested universal hegemony did not last more than a decade. That was in the 1990s when Washington managed the world with an awareness of the limits of the power with which it had intervened militarily in the Middle East and Europe, then left. However, since the beginning of this century and through four administrations - George Bush Jr, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden - the US lost sight of the global balance of power and it lost its wisdom and foresight in the ways it utilised its own power and treated its allies.
Now, after a decade of revolution, upheaval, civil warfare, terrorist violence and anarchy, the Arab world and the Gulf have at last managed to set themselves on course to sweeping reform, radically changing the economic, social and political realities in the nation states of this region. It is only natural that such changes should necessitate a process of redefining geopolitical interests, reassessing strategic threats and reevaluating friends and allies.
These processes, in turn, closely interrelate with the relevant countries’ dealings in a global environment that has also changed dramatically as a consequence of the revisionism of the post-Cold War order which has led to a decline in the Western camp due to Brexit in Europe and related developments in the US and to the exciting rise of China and Russia, whether separately or combined.
One of the main impacts of all those changes combined was on Arab national security policies and concepts. The US exit from Afghanistan and retreat from Syria clearly had a role to play in this regard as did direct attacks against vital targets in the Gulf. Nor was it possible to ignore the results of American “democratization” experiments in the region.
As we know, the one in Afghanistan culminated in the collapse of the state, the flight of the political leadership in Kabul and the handover of power to the Taliban who now rule the country exactly as they did before. The US experiment in Iraq fared little better. It yielded government paralysis. The state is unable to perform its protective and developmental functions and, for a long time after elections, could not choose a head of state or a cabinet to run the country. The American modernising mission abroad totally ignored the American experience and how long that took to mature and the fact that it is still struggling to evolve two centuries after it was established.
The current administration in Washington has not shown the slightest interest in the reform underway in the Gulf and other Arab countries. It has little knowledge of the efforts to diversify sources of income and to assimilate women and religious and ethnic minorities in national institutional structures. It has also failed to appreciate the concrete results of intensive mutual reliance between Washington and Beijing, and Europe and Russia, a blindspot that conflicts with the tasks of building and expanding alliances in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.
In short, the US approaches the world through a globalisation lens as premised on the dissemination of Western-defined moral and material value systems. It is simultaneously acting as a global hegemon and is therefore pushing such geo-strategic goals as restricting and laying siege to emergent rivals like Russia and China.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.