Will Biden’s Regional Tour Revamp Declining Ties with Arab States?

The fast-moving transition of the world from unipolar order in which the US has economic and political dominance to the decline of the Western civilization and rise of a multipolar order caused many countries in the last decade to move to renew the regional and international alliances in line with rapid dynamics of the international order.

Governor of Mecca, Prince Khaled al-Faisal al-Saud receives U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Though late, the Persian Gulf Arab countries have taken steps towards adjustment to the major changes of the international order, with the main example being the boost of their partnership with the emerging world powers like China, Russia, and India. The trade exchanges between China and the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council members have increased to $92 billion in 2010 and at least to $350 billion in 2020 from $6 billion in 2002.

Still, analysts suggest that the key driving force behind the US President Joe Biden’s current tour in the region and arranging a summit with (P) GCC plus Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan is gaining assurances about continuation of strategic cooperation of these countries with Washington and their avoidance of sliding into China-Russia camp.

Here is a question: Can Biden’s tour rebuild the badly damaged trust between the US and the Arab world?

The fact is that the divisive factors outweigh the uniting ones between Washington and the Arab states.

The US decline: No longer the world’s cop

After World War II, the US tried to establish its foothold around the globe by strengthening its military. Today, the Pentagon controls about 750 military bases in about 80 countries and foreign territories.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once haughtily said: « We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future… During this period, the American officials’ presumption of playing the world policeman role has been that were not for the US military, the world would be a lawless and dangerous place. »

She seems to have referred to a common law according to which the US military has the self-granted mandate to deploy forces to any point in the world and set up military bases wherever it wishes.

But just as the murder of the African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a police officer during arrest exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy for the American police at home, Trump’s presidency also stirred a crisis for the world’s most powerful military, as it was no longer able to demonstrate its ability to play the role of global policeman.

Disgraceful withdrawal from Afghanistan, fruitless presence in Syria in terms of equations on the ground, receiving blows from Axis of Resistance regional bloc, and the European drift to an independent defense mechanism build a belief in the Arab world that the US will cut its military in West Asia. Although Washington wants to show that in the absence of its forces on the ground, air power, especially drones, can provide support for the allies, the Arab countries are confident that its security guarantees are not as reassuring as in the past.

China, a rising economic superpower

The essential and key factor driving the White House push to stop growing Arab partnership with the American global rivals is economy. China is increasingly expanding its presence and economic partnership with regional states. As the 21st century is called the « century of Asia, » the rapid strengthening of China’s position in the world economy has led experts to suggest that Beijing will unseat Washington as the world economic leader sooner than predicted.

Just one aspect of China’s importance for the Coordination Council is its oil consumption growth rate which is currently 5.7— seven times faster than that of the US. The number of cars in China in 2010 was 90 time larger than in 1990 and it is predicted to outnumber the US in 2030. The car sales growth rate in China is 19 percent annually. The Asian power is resolved to copy South Korea and Taiwan economic and industrial growth models— indeed a domesticated model— to devise creative and sustainable growth as part of a tech-propelled economy. China’s growing demand for oil is a determining factor in its foreign policy. According to statistics, its need for oil in 2010 was between 4.5 to 7 million barrels and in 2020 between 8.6 to 9.10 million per day with a growth rate of 9.7 percent.

Furthermore, Chinese relations and exchanges with the Persian Gulf states goes beyond oil. China, for example, is the main destination of Saudi non-oil exports, especially plastic and petrochemical products. Chinese companies have a large presence in the Persian Gulf, especially in Dubai. Now, with the increasing global acceptance of participation in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, Persian Gulf Arab states are striving for a share to not fall behind.

US interventionist policies

It should be known that the difference of political systems of the Persian Gulf Arab states with the Western countries and particularly the US has always been a disruptive factor in the ostensibly strategic relationship between the two sides. When facing questions from public opinion, support for democratization and human rights makes the main foreign policy pillars of the US justification of cooperation and alliance with largely suppressive and authoritarian Arab dictatorships. Despite sham and biased pro-rights advocacy of Washington, some criticism occasionally fray the ties with the Arab monarchies. An example is Biden’s raising of Khashoggi murder case during visit to Saudi Arabia. Jamal Khashoggi was a vocal Saudi critic of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and was assassinated by a Saudi death squad in his country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Also, the dictation of policy by the US to the Arab countries sometimes causes difficult conditions for Arab rulers. For instance, the Arab states are pressed by Biden during his visit to normalize with the Israeli regime and scale down all-out cooperation with China, and even to increase their oil output to fill the market void amid Ukraine war. These pressures do not exist in Arab relations with such powers as China and Russia and this is an encouraging factor for them to lean to Beijing and Moscow for sustainable economic and military cooperation.

Increasing distrust in the US

And finally, the diminishing Arab trust in the American military, security, and political support is a teaching result of fate of actors that involved in military and security challenges with their hopes set to Western support but received no assistance in the times of need. Ukraine and Afghanistan governments and Syrian Kurds are good examples of such frustrated actors. The distrust is also a result of the damaging experience of the US plans in the region, like invasion of Iraq, and decline to fulfill security promises when their security is endangered. After Yemeni retaliatory missile and drone strikes on Aramco oil facilities in 2019, Riyadh expected direct American engagement in a response but was let down by Washington inaction.

In their view of ties to the US, the Arab countries find return to the past status impossible, and, keeping up with the rapid international developments, they bolster relations with other important global powers.

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