For the United States, there’s no good outcome here: it can deepen its involvement in Middle Eastern security (something which goes against its grand strategic imperatives); deepen the crisis of confidence between Mohammed bin Salman and Biden; or cut its losses and strike a deal with Iran, with the understanding that if Iranian oil is allowed into the global market, Tehran will halt IRGC attacks on oil installations.

Finally, let’s zoom out a bit and look at the scale of the disaster Saudi Arabia and the UAE have created for themselves here. They seem to have thought that U.S. weapons and training could give them the same strategic advantage as the United States when fighting their wars. But when the United States tires of a foreign conflict, it can just withdraw, as it did from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Yemen will always be next to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It’s a country of 30 million people, almost all of whom are Yemeni, compared to the UAE’s 1 million citizens and Saudi Arabia’s 22 million citizens. And it’s now roiling in trauma and grievance. It will be a crisis – their crisis – for the next generation, perhaps for even longer.

If Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the midst of a slow-burning strategic decision to re-orient themselves away from the United States, due to the latter’s partial disengagement from the Middle East, does this mean that they aren’t interested in trying to wring long-term concessions from Washington?

El-Baghdadi: What kind of long-term concessions? And more importantly, with what leverage? What would be meaningful is if they accept the United States’ need to draw back its commitments in the region, and proactively arrange a new regional security infrastructure in collaboration with the Americans. That’s what Obama was, in a way, calling for when he said that the region must look after its own security. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, we see the rise of a new, undeclared Saudi-Emirati-Israeli axis that seems focused not only on containing Iran but also on maintaining counter-revolutionary pressure across the Middle East and North Africa. While the United States appears to be attracted to the prospect of Arab-Israeli co-operation, the current situation portends more instability, not less. Despite the fluff and the spin, the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli axis is an aggressive actor, not a force for peace and stability.

Composite image: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mohammed bin Salman (photo: picture-alliance and Khamenei Presidential Office)
Iran's strategic thinking: the Houthi attacks and their targets (oil installations) revealed much about their strategic thinking – or rather, Iran’s. … Consider what attacking oil installations at this point does for the IRGC. To begin with, if the attack is damaging enough to interrupt production, it deprives Saudi Arabia of some of its own oil supply. Second, it deepens the supply crunch that is driving the need to get Iranian oil on the market. Third, it deepens the crisis of confidence between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The latter would find itself under pressure to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid despite the Saudis’ oil supply intransigence, and despite the Americans’ need for both Iranian oil and an Iran deal in order to disengage further from the region. Saudi Arabia would also be under pressure – to seek U.S. help while paradoxically waging an oil war on the United States

I’m also not sure that they’ve made a strategic decision to re-orient themselves away from the United States; they simply cannot afford to do such a thing. True, they’re trying to situate themselves within emerging great power politics. But the facts are that Putin’s Russia is a declining power and has an economy half the size of California’s; its only real leverage is nuclear weapons and gas. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s China is mercantilist, eschews far-off geopolitical complications, and won’t send its children to die defending Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed. Also, both China and Russia have close strategic relations with Iran.

It’s funny seeing the tail trying to wag the dog, but here the tail has decided to go its own way, and is using whatever leverage it has to get back at the dog. It’s even signalling to the dog that there are other dogs out there to which it can try attaching itself – witness the invitation to Xi to visit Riyadh. At Kawaakibi, we track all this and have noticed a lot of "If you lose us, you’ll lose" and "You need us – it’s not only us who need you" sort of thing. The sub-text is "Why don’t you want us as much as before? Please want us as much as we want you".

The bottom line is that the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ strategic thinking vis-a-vis the United States doesn’t seem to be about long-term sustainability, but short-term pressure. They are trying to bend the United States to their will as they did during the Trump years, when they tried to use the administration against Iran, Qatar, and their internal opposition. But even with maximum pressure, this had limited results and did not decisively turn the tide. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they succeed in twisting Biden’s arm this time. What’s their long-term plan? Where do they see themselves in ten years? In 20 years?

Ultimately, we’re left with the realisation that America’s relationship with its favourite petrostates used to be institutional and is now transactional. It used to be about long-term alignment but is now about short-term demands. It used to be about trust; now it’s about distrust and one-upmanship. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of Arab oil reserves – but Arab dictators shouldn’t underestimate the resentment they’re engendering in the hearts and minds of the average Americans and Europeans. And they certainly shouldn’t underestimate the numerous unsustainable policies of theirs that will explode over the next 20 years.

Interview conducted by Rayyan Al-Shawaf

© Carnegie Middle East Center 2022

More on this topic