Traditional Arab hospitality has always been famous. Gulf countries, on the other hand, have brought Arab hospitality to the top in foreign statesman visits, especially if the visitor is an American minister or president. However, during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s recent visit to Saudi Arabia aimed at repairing strained relations, the traditional Saudi hospitality seemed to be absent. Throughout Blinken’s visit, there were no smiling faces, and his presence as an American minister did not receive significant coverage in government-affiliated newspapers, even as the transfer of Karim Benzema from Real Madrid to Al Ittihad dominated the headlines. The words of Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, during the joint press conference with Antony Blinken captured the essence of the visit: “While we have differing opinions, we are actively working on finding mechanisms to facilitate collaboration between us.”
Indeed, it should have been anticipated by Blinken that such a reception awaited him. Prior to his visit, Saudi Arabia has unilaterally decided to reduce its oil production by 1 million barrels per day in order to prevent a decline in oil prices, disregarding the warnings issued by the United States. Furthermore, the Saudis, in conjunction with Russia, had made decisions that disregarded the demands of the US and resulted in increased oil prices in international markets. Additionally, preceding the arrival of the American senior diplomat, Saudi Arabia hosted the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a figure who is viewed unfavorably by the United States. To compound matters, the concurrent establishment of diplomatic missions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, following years of estrangement, mediated by China, occurred during these same days.
Indeed, Secretary of State Blinken was not the first senior American official to visit Saudi Arabia in the past month. National security adviser Jake Sullivan had visited Riyadh on May 7. However, it appears that Sullivan’s visit alone was insufficient to fully restore the strained relations between the two countries, leading to the Foreign Minister’s extended visit to Saudi Arabia a month later. Overall, the current state of US-Saudi Arabian relations is a far cry from their once illustrious stature.
The relations of the USA not only with Saudi Arabia but also with all other Gulf Arabs are far from their golden years these days. For example, the United Arab Emirates, one of the most loyal US allies in the region, announced on 1 June that it had ceased to join the maritime security force led by the US 5th Fleet, after Iran seized 2 tankers in the Persian Gulf. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have recently been disappointed with Iran’s acting like a gendarme in the Persian Gulf and the silence of the United States.
Similarly amidst the Yemeni Civil War, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE faced a barrage of missile and drone attacks. In light of these hostile actions, they held expectations for intervention from the United States to mitigate these assaults. However, their appeals were met with refusal from Washington.
In many cases, it is seen that the US does not seem willing to follow its old active policies in the Middle East, which naturally does not meet the expectations of the regional states, especially the Gulf Arabs. Few follow a leader who isn’t leading toward the promise of security, stability and prosperity. It is difficult to maintain a relationship that does not bear fruit and benefits. If the states of the region cannot see a role in establishing and maintaining the order from the US, if they cannot find a contribution to their security from the American leadership, they will of course have to look for other possible partners.
“A DROP OF BLOOD FOR A DROP OF OIL” YEARS
When oil was discovered in the Middle East, the region was sparsely populated, with a predominantly uneducated and impoverished population. It consisted of vast deserts and wastelands. Although the local inhabitants had been aware of the existence of oil since ancient times, they had no knowledge of its industrial use, extraction methods, or how to market it. A famous quote often attributed to Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France during World War I, and Winston Churchill, a former British Prime Minister, captures the essence: “A drop of oil is worth a drop of blood.” This succinctly describes the politics pursued by Britain and France during that era.
As soon as Britain recognized that oil would supersede coal in ships and industries, it spared no effort to secure territories such as present-day Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and their surrounding areas. Every drop of oil extracted came at the cost of bloodshed and tears. The borders of the regional states were determined based on the oil reserves they possessed. Prior to World War I, independent states emerged from what were once provinces and towns of the Ottoman Empire. These formations were not based on ethnic or religious distinctions but rather on agreements struck with local tribal leaders. In fact, some areas were transformed into political entities solely because they held oil fields beneath their soil. Consequently, the region’s natural resources began to supply European industries at the lowest possible cost.
The state traditions of most of the regional states that emerged after the First World War and some of which remained as colonies until the 1970s were almost non-existent, and especially in the first years, the governments took their legitimacy from the agreements made with the UK rather than the people. When the World Wars weakened the UK’s Middle East hegemony, the Americans took over the British role.
During the Cold War in the Middle East, the main functions of the American leadership were to ensure the safe flow of oil to the West, to protect the regimes of oil-producing countries from communism and other internal currents, and to protect Israel’s existence. Despite the destructive popular movements and external movements such as communism, the Gulf states, which were extremely fragile, relied heavily on the United States for their security. The relationship of loyalty between the oil-producing Arab regimes and the United States became so famous that the perception that these states could not have an independent foreign policy on their own settled all over the world. For this reason, Arab regimes have often been criticized for being the puppet regimes of the US or for maintaining their power by betraying their own people. As a matter of fact, these criticisms were unjustified, because the states mentioned were weak in many ways, they had not yet formed a strong state tradition. The manpower of their country was extremely limited. Moreover, the oil in their hands was so valuable that it whetted the appetite of many greedy enemies from within and without.
THE BIRTH AND RISE OF A REGION
In 1939, the collective population of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf did not surpass 10 million. Even when including Iran in this count, the Gulf’s population remained below 25 million. By 1989, at the conclusion of the Cold War, the combined population of the Gulf Arab states still fell short of 35 million.
However, by 2023, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf had undergone significant transformations, no longer resembling sparsely populated and desolate regions. In that year alone, the combined population of the Persian Gulf countries exceeded 176 million people. The overall population of the Middle East in 2023 reached 560 million, surpassing the population of the European Union by 120 million.
The Middle East is not only densely populated, but also represents a substantial market. The total GDP of Middle Eastern countries exceeds $5 trillion, surpassing the $4.4 trillion GDP of Japan, which is the world’s third-largest economy. The region ranks among the world’s largest importers and exporters. Moreover, these figures are derived despite years of conflict and warfare. In summary, the Middle East has undergone significant changes and has become too complex to be governed by traditional rules and norms.
NEW ISOLATIONISM AND ITS DEVASTATING CONSEQUENCES
As the Cold War drew to a close, the United States failed to accurately comprehend the social and economic transformations unfolding in the Middle East, instead attempting to preserve the status quo. Nevertheless, due to the absence of viable alternatives, regional regimes continued to rely on American support for a time. During the 1990s, the US stood as the sole global superpower, even regarded by some as a hyperpower. In those years, it was unthinkable for Saudi Arabia or the UAE to question, let alone challenge, the US. However, the United States committed such grave errors in the Middle East that it inadvertently undermined its own hegemony. In fact, the US’s own missteps resulted in a violation of its own principles and rules, ultimately leading to the destruction of the order it had established. The events of 9/11 further complicated matters, leaving an infuriated and bewildered America in its aftermath. Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein‘s regime had no connection to 9/11 and military intervention lacked the necessary approval from the United Nations, American soldiers faced such harrowing experiences in Iraq that the damage incurred can only be compared to the trauma of the Vietnam War. In fact, the impact of Iraq on America’s national psyche and economy far exceeds that of Vietnam. The defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted a New Isolationism within Washington DC, causing the United States to shy away from direct involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. Even in operations against ISIS, local forces were supported, and the number of American troops deployed on the ground was minimized.
The emergence of American New Isolationism has had disastrous consequences for American leadership in the Middle East, resulting in a significant power vacuum. As Russia endeavors to fill this void in countries like Syria and Libya, regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey seek to exert greater influence within their respective spheres of influence. For a period, the US overlooked the more assertive local powers and failed to recognize the need for urgent intervention. Consequently, the relations between the US and the region’s states deteriorated almost universally. When Donald Trump assumed the presidency, he regarded the Middle East primarily as a market for weapons and other goods, pressuring Arab states aggressively to establish peace with Israel. However, Trump‘s trade-oriented Middle East policy failed to resolve any underlying issues or restore American leadership in the region. The confrontational language employed by Trump towards the regional states might have pleased his domestic supporters, but it generated lasting resentments in the Middle East, which would surface later on.
The rupture between the United States and Saudi Arabia occurred following the brutal murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was residing in the USA, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Turkey’s investigation revealed compelling evidence suggesting that the dissident journalist was slain by Saudi state officials following a chain of command. The United States, in turn, held Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, accountable for the murder. The strained relations between the two nations were further exacerbated by the ascension of President Biden in 2021. US intelligence reports implicated the Saudi Prince in the journalist’s killing, and President Biden promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state and consistently issued threats of repercussions against him for his actions. Three years after Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”, he had to step back and visit Saudi Arabia and ask the Arabs to help lower oil prices. However, as expected, there were no smiling faces waiting for him in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, Biden was received not as a US President but as an ordinary president, perhaps a pariah head of state. Biden’s visit to 2022 marked one of the bottom points in US-Saudi Arabian relations.
The recent high oil prices have been one of the heaviest burdens on US-Gulf relations. In the past, whenever the US wanted to stop the rise in oil prices, the Saudis would increase oil production to keep prices stable. Thanks to the Saudis, the European and American industry grew rapidly for many years, and inflation remained low. But in recent years, the Riyadh administration has sided with Russia rather than the United States on oil production, even ignoring President Biden‘s personal request. The efforts of the Saudis to keep oil prices high is the clearest indication that the basic character of relations between the US and the region has changed. Oil producing countries, which cannot receive the services they expect from the US, do not want to give what is expected of them in return for free.
The Gulf countries, along with the rest of the Middle East, showcased a notable deviation from Western policies through their indifferent stance on the Ukraine War. Iran and Syria openly aligned themselves with Russia in this conflict, whereas Turkey assumed the role of mediator between Ukraine and Russia. While the other regional states did not endorse the invasion of Ukraine, they refrained from actively assisting Ukraine like Europe did and made a conscious effort to remain uninvolved in the war. The Middle Eastern states conveyed a message of detachment by maintaining their silence, as if to say, “This war does not concern us.” In short, it had been a long time since even the Gulf states gave up their policy of following the United States in all matters without questioning it.
DISAPPOINTMENTS AND SEEKING ALTERNATIVES
Ever since the US withdrew from Iraq, Gulf Arabs have been greatly disappointed. Because the US withdrew, leaving Iraq to Iran’s influence. Since then, the Gulf regimes have encountered numerous disillusionments, leading them to realize that the United States will not come to the assistance of the Arab nations in times of peril. As mentioned above when Saudi Arabia and the UAE were attacked with missiles and drones during the Yemen War, the US did not want to get involved and left the Arabs to themselves. Thus, the American leadership remained dysfunctional in the region. As such, the Arabs decided to solve their problems directly with their local counterparts and wanted to get in direct contact with Iran. China saw the power vacuum left by the US in time and made good use of it. Thanks to the mediation of China, the two sides of the Gulf reached an agreement, and years later, Saudi Arabia and Iran reopened their embassies. The UAE, on the other hand, preferred direct contact with Iran over US protection regarding Gulf security.
The examples from the Iraq War up until the present demonstrate that the United States is no longer capable of bringing wars to an end, establishing peace, and, most importantly, establishing order in the Middle East. In fact, Syria’s reemergence as a recognized state in the international arena was made possible through diplomatic efforts led by the Arab League, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite strong objections from the US. It is likely that Russia also played a role in facilitating the normalization process with Syria. The relative stability achieved in Syria today, with a cessation of hostilities, cannot be attributed to the USA. Similarly, when weapons fall silent and agreements are reached in Yemen, the United States does not play a significant role in establishing peace. The primary factor that contributed to peace in Yemen was the improving relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, mediated by China.
China acts as a mediator, reconciling adversaries in the region and effectively bringing an end to conflicts. In contrast to the United States, Beijing refrains from imposing political conditions on Middle Eastern nations during reconciliation efforts. While China has always prioritized economic engagement in the Middle East, the Sino-Arab Summit held in late 2022 marked an official entry of China into the region. Over the past six months, China has established enduring economic and technical agreements, forging strong bonds with the Gulf Arabs. If these agreements proceed smoothly, China stands to receive substantial investments and import payments, amounting to hundreds of billions of Gulf petro-dollars. Notably, the Arab investments in China, particularly in petrochemicals, are spearheaded by Aramco. Additionally, as the region’s primary trading partner, China is set to share its expertise in critical sectors such as nuclear technology and space exploration, areas that the Arabs desire but are unable to obtain from the US. While it would be inaccurate to claim that China has replaced the US in the Middle East, China’s actions challenge the established regional order established by the US, marking a significant shift in dynamics.
The United States had long neglected the Middle East, resulting in a significant power vacuum. It was only when China made a flamboyant entrance into the region that the US perhaps realized the gravity of its mistake. However, Washington now faces a much more challenging task. The US no longer instills the same level of fear in regional states as it once did, and its ability to offer meaningful contributions to the region is severely limited. When American officials discuss the Middle East, their focus primarily revolves around “Israel’s security” and the demand for Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that we are not living in the 1960s. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the most crucial concerns extend beyond normalizing relations with Israel. Even without US intervention, these states could have swiftly normalized their ties with Israel. Consequently, the United States must offer something more than just a focus on Israel to gain the trust and cooperation of other states in the region. Failure to do so may result in a permanent decline of American influence in the region, as it gets overshadowed by the balancing policies of major powers and regional actors.