August 22, 2022

IntelBrief: Cooperation with Key Gulf States Still Halting

Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • President Biden’s July trip to Saudi Arabia marginally eased recent strains in U.S. relations with the Kingdom and its key partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • The United States is fulfilling its commitment to help the Kingdom and the UAE defend against Iran’s increasingly capable missile arsenal.
  • The Gulf states are adding modest amounts of crude oil to global energy markets strained by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • Human rights violations in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to generate U.S. criticism and cloud relations with the United States.

In July, after meetings in Israel, President Biden visited Saudi Arabia, where he met Saudi leaders, including de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), as well as UAE president Mohammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan (MBZ) and other Persian Gulf and Arab leaders. The visit was intended to assuage doubts on the part of the Gulf leaders - particularly MBS and MBZ - that the United States remains committed to deterring and defending against the threat from Iran. President Biden sought to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Gulf security by pledging to resume the sales of advanced U.S. military systems to the Gulf states, particularly missile defense equipment. In 2021, the United States suspended new sales of precision-guided munitions to the Kingdom and the UAE in response to criticism, including from many Members of the U.S. Congress, that their military operations against the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen were causing large numbers of civilian casualties and humanitarian disaster.  Saudi and Emirati support for a ceasefire in the Yemen conflict, which began in early April and has been extended several times since, contributed to President Biden’s decision to proceed with the July trip. Many critics had urged President Biden to isolate the Kingdom, which he had earlier termed a “pariah,” as a response to Saudi human rights abuses, including the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In the weeks after the Biden trip, U.S. officials sought to implement their pledges by announcing a major new U.S. arms sale to the two Gulf states. On August 2, the U.S. Department of State (DoS) approved the sale of additional missiles for Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-supplied Patriot anti-missile system, with an estimated sale value of over $3 billion. Simultaneously, DoS announced a sale of missiles and related equipment for the UAE’s U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems, at an estimated cost of nearly $2.5 billion. The stated justification for the sales is to help the Kingdom and the Emirates defend against missile attacks by the Houthis, who have used Iran-supplied short-range ballistic missiles and armed drones to attack the Kingdom as well as the UAE. The Patriot and THAAD are also useful against missiles fired by Iran itself. U.S. officials sought to pre-empt criticism of the sales by asserting that the Patriot and THAAD are for purely defensive purposes and cannot be used to strike civilian or other targets in Yemen.

For their part, the same week as the U.S. arms sales were announced, Saudi Arabia and the UAE responded modestly to U.S. efforts to persuade them to add crude oil to global markets to relieve the upward pressure that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exerted on energy prices. During meetings in Saudi Arabia, the two Gulf states had made vague and heavily qualified pledges to President Biden that they would increase oil supply. In early August, the “OPEC+” forum of OPEC and non-OPEC oil exporters, which includes Russia, announced that it would increase crude oil production by only 100,000 barrels per day as of September. Most of that increase will come from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as perhaps small amounts from other producers such as Kuwait. In the wake of criticism that the small size of the production increase represented a “rebuff” to President Biden, MBS signaled that the Kingdom was reserving much of its spare capacity to help alleviate a possible supply shortage later in 2022, when European and U.S. efforts to cripple Russian oil sales takes full effect. On the other hand, the modest production increase seemingly corroborated the analysis of many global energy experts that Saudi Arabia and the UAE might have only a fraction of the 1 million barrels per day in spare capacity that their energy officials claim.

Even though the United States and the two Gulf states sought to reset relations by honoring at least some of their pledges, the same human rights practices that caused critics to oppose the trip have resurfaced. U.S. officials expressed resentment at MBS contradicted President Biden’s assertion that he had raised the Khashoggi killing in his meetings with MBS and other Saudi leaders. Within two days of President Biden’s return, the UAE arrested and sentenced lawyer Asim Ghafoor, a U.S. citizen who formerly represented Khashoggi and his fiancé, to three years in prison on charges of money laundering and tax evasion. Although U.S. and UAE officials denied that the prosecution represented UAE support for MBS, critics in the United States and the region clearly drew that connection. The UAE has consistently supported MBS’ contention that he played no role, despite some evidence made public by the United States that MBS approved the Khashoggi killing. UAE courts overturned the conviction a few weeks later, partly mitigating any lasting harm to U.S.-UAE relations. In mid-August, human rights groups escalated their criticism of the U.S. “reset” with Saudi Arabia after a Saudi court increased the prison sentence of women’s rights campaigner Salma al-Shehab to 34 years, from 6 years. She was convicted in late 2021 of “publishing false and tendentious rumors [about the Saudi government and officials] on Twitter.” Shehab is an ally of another Saudi female dissident, Loujain al-Hathloul, who was jailed during 2018-2021 for leading the campaign to legalize driving for women in Saudi Arabia. The several weeks since the presidential trip to Saudi Arabia have illustrated that strains with both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates continue, but that the imperative of preserving Gulf security and countering an increasingly strong Iran keeps the fundamental pillars of the U.S.-Gulf partnership in place.