Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pushing the US for deeper security support as the Biden administration seeks the two Gulf powers’ co-operation on everything from energy and the Ukraine crisis to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
The UAE has requested the US agree to a more “institutionalised security commitment” that would include enhanced intelligence sharing, more combined exercises and operations, two people briefed on Abu Dhabi’s position said.
Saudi Arabia is also seeking greater security commitments, including intelligence co-operation and operational support to counter threats from Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, who regularly launch missile and drone strikes into the kingdom, another person briefed on Riyadh’s position said.
Long considered vital US partners, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have strained relations with the Biden administration and have resisted US pressure to increase crude production to help damp high oil prices and take a tougher stance against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The kingdom warned this week it would not bear responsibility for global crude shortages in light of Houthi attacks on its oil infrastructure, seen as a message to the west that it wanted help on defence. People briefed on discussions said the Gulf states would be more willing to co-operate if President Joe Biden addressed their security concerns, particularly Iran and Iranian backed rebels in Yemen. They are also concerned about a possible revival of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, believing it would embolden the Islamic republic and its proxies.
“The message from the Saudis and the UAE is we will come back [to the US fold], if you come back bearing a plan, and that message has been delivered,” said one of the people briefed on the discussions. “They have seen the low in relations, but they are picking up a lot of signals that the Biden administration is getting the message. You’re going to see headway in diplomatic activity over the next few weeks.”
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have become increasingly disillusioned with what they consider Washington’s unpredictability and disengagement. The Gulf states have forged closer relations with Putin in recent years, and both co-operate with Russia on oil production levels in Opec+.
Relations between the UAE and Washington hit a low after what Abu Dhabi perceived to be the Biden administration’s tepid response to a string of Houthi missile and drone attacks this year. The US did deploy additional military assets to the UAE, part of the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015. But Abu Dhabi wants Washington to do more and reinstate a terrorist designation on the Houthis, lifted by Biden in 2021.
The UAE angered the US by abstaining on a UN Security Council vote in February condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a public display of its frustration with the Biden administration. It also upset Washington by hosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad last week, the first Arab state to do so since he launched a brutal war to crush the 2011 popular uprising.
Saudi Arabia has been frustrated by Biden’s criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record, his decision to end US support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis and his decision not to engage directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s day-to-day ruler.
Biden also ordered the release of a US intelligence report that concluded that Prince Mohammed must have authorised the 2018 operation in which Saudi agents murdered veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
A senior Biden administration official told the Financial Times that when Biden spoke to King Salman last month “they set forth an affirmative bilateral agenda from climate, to security, to energy co-operation”. Since then, “our teams have been engaged at every level,” the official said, adding that they were “committed to working together to help the Saudis strengthen their defences”. The US has recently greenlighted the transfer of interceptor missiles for Saudi Arabia’s Patriot air defence systems from regional countries to help the kingdom replenish its diminished stocks.
Washington has described reports that Prince Mohammed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE’s de facto leader, refused to take Biden’s calls as inaccurate. “No one has asked for that [a call with between Biden and Prince Mohammed]. It is not an active debate. If the Saudis came to the administration and said that the Feb 9 call should be with the crown prince and not the king, we would have done it with the crown prince,” said a person familiar with the administration’s thinking.
Another person familiar with the situation said the UK was encouraging rapprochement between the US and Saudi Arabia, where British prime minister Boris Johnson held talks with Prince Mohammed last week.
“You need the Saudis on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, on energy and on Iran with the nuclear talks,” the person said. “Rapprochement between the US and Saudi Arabia could have a really positive effect.” However, the person added that while the US understood this politically, “it’s very difficult for Biden to completely reverse course”.
Senior British officials said they were confident that Saudi and the UAE would pump more oil. “Mohammed bin Salman was very keen to be helpful,” said one. “He wants the prime minister’s help to rebuild relations with the US.”
An official in the Gulf said that Riyadh considers the crisis a moment to gain more leverage on the US and move “beyond the Khashoggi killing”.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator familiar with the leadership’s thinking, said Saudi Arabia was interested in a good relationship with America “but it wants to be treated with respect”.
Additional reporting by George Parker in London and Felicia Schwartz in Washington