In a Search for Increased Oil Production, the United States Turns to its Gulf Allies

Three weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its allies have imposed severe, economy-damaging sanctions on Russia. The West’s concern is that oil prices will continue to rise exponentially due to market disruptions. The United States and its European allies avoided targeting Russia’s energy supplies, yet the crushing sanctions threaten to push the world into recession. Now, the West must look for alternatives to prevent gas prices from reaching astronomical levels. U.S. President Joe Biden is now looking to two of America’s closest Gulf allies at a time where strained ties exist to offset the ever increasing gas prices.

The Gulf Allies Are Not as Inclined to Help the West

Biden’s requests to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – two traditionally close allies fully capable of pumping out more oil  – are largely falling on deaf ears. Saudi Arabia has mostly refused to even entertain the idea of raising oil production while the UAE initially noted that the country “favored production increases” and would work to persuade the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Saudi-led oil cartel, to consider the request.

Instead, within a few hours, the Emirates announced that the UAE and its close ally, Saudi Arabia, were sticking with a deal with OPEC+, a loose alliance of oil-producing states that includes Russia. Further complicating the U.S. request is fact that the two Gulf monarchies are less inclined to meet the request – as evidenced by the leaders of both countries not taking President Biden’s recent calls – because of lingering bitterness toward the United States.   

Deeper than Oil

The tensions extend beyond oil. In fact, the mistrust between the between the United States and its oil-producing Gulf allies dates back to the Arab Spring more than ten years ago. Both countries were appalled at how the Obama administration, in their eyes, abandoned its longstanding ally in Egypt. Relations between the United States and the Gulf allies seemingly improved during the Trump administration who took Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s side during a regional dispute with Qatar and withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which drew skepticism from the Arab allies. Former President Trump even took his first foreign trip to Riyadh, cementing the importance of ties with Saudi Arabia to the Trump presidency.

Despite the mostly warm relations, the Trump administration’s reticent reaction to a 2019 Iranian drone and missile strike in Saudi Arabia shook the two Gulf states’ trust in the United States. Above all, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s main frustrations with the United States lie in a fear that the United States will not protect its oil-producing Gulf allies.

Saudi and Emirate Grievances

According to the Saudis, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States during the Biden administration are waning. During his candidacy in 2020, Mr. Biden said the kingdom deserved to be treated as a “pariah” state. Mr. Biden has kept his distance from the young crown prince, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, as a result of the murder of a U.S.-resident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, killed in 2018 and other human rights abuses. In early 2021, the Biden administrated released a CIA report that named the Crown Prince as the responsible party for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, ordering hitmen to end the journalist’s life at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. As a result, Mr. Biden refuses to work with the Crown Price and insists on speaking only with his father, King Salman. To the Saudis, relations with the U.S. during the Biden administration are tense.

The Biden administration’s relations with the UAE are not fairing much better. Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirate ambassador to Washington recently noted U.S.-UAE ties to be strained. “It’s like any relationship,” the ambassador recently observed. “It has strong days where the relationship is very healthy and days where the relationship is under question. Today, we’re going through a stress test, but I am confident that we will get out of it and get to a better place.” Their frustration with the Biden administration is rooted in a restrained response on the part of the United States in January 2022 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels hit targets in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To the Emirates, the American response to the attacks was insufficient, leading to the current strained status.

The Protracted War in Yemen as a Point of Contention

Saudi Arabia and the UAE both hold a grudge toward their American ally over what they view as insufficient support in the Saudi-led, Emirate-backed war in Yemen where the two countries are leading a protracted fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Biden came into office with a promise of ending the U.S. role. “This war has to end” Biden stated when giving his first foreign policy speech at the State Department in February 2021, calling the conflict a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” as the war has failed to remove the Houthis from power and pushed the country deeper into chaos.

Early into his presidency, Biden announced a review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that were  approved by the prior administration. The review – through which Washington checked on whether American weapons were being used in the war in Yemen – included the sale of precision-guided munitions as to Riyadh and F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi, approved as part of the Abraham Accords during which the UAE formalized relations with Israel. As a result of the review, the United States suspended the sale of some offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. Conversely, the Biden administration approved the $23 billion arms sale to the UAE, including F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones. While the Saudis and Emirates acknowledged the normalcy behind policy reviews when new administrations come to office, the war in Yemen is a point of contention between the United States and its Gulf allies.

We’re Your Friends, Right?

Equally frustrating for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and related to the Yemen war, is the Biden administration’s approach to Iran. For one, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi feel that Biden continuously criticizes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two traditional regional allies, while being more tolerant of Iran, a perpetual. adversary. Specifically, the Gulf allies have watched the talks on the Iran nuclear deal – form which the Trump administration withdrew the United States in 2018 – with concern, primarily concerned with Iran’s proxy wars in the region and the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missiles instead of the nuclear program.

Part of the nuclear deal included reduced Western sanctions in return for limits on the nuclear program. As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also fear that the money back in Iran’s hands as a result of reduced sanctions will fund their proxies around the region, which the 2015 nuclear deal did not address. This fear is further compounded by the perception that U.S. protection is no longer a guarantee, one that began during the Trump administration and continues under the Biden administration. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s concerns over the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, the root of the frustration lies more at the prospect of the United States not being as reliable an ally as expected.

What’s Next?

Tensions between the United States and its oil-producing Gulf Arab allies are strained under the Biden administration. From the United States pulling back in supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen to the U.S. efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal to Biden’s refusal to engage with the Saudi Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia and the UAE feel slighted by the United States. Likewise, the United States finds itself frustrated with its Gulf allies, especially at a time when the United States and its European allies need the two countries to dramatically ramp up oil output to counteract rising gas prices. The Biden administration came into office in January 2021 with justified criticism about the Yemen war and human rights violations. However, recent events have forced the United States to rethink its approach to its Gulf allies, showing how interests and ideals often conflict in foreign policy.

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