As US elections near, GCC states chart middle course between US and China

Former Vice President and Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden's previous statement to make Saudi Arabia a 'pariah' hangs over the region.

al-monitor US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) participates in a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in New York, Sept. 28, 2018. Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 12, 2020

At the intersection of US power and China's growing global role, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could be uniquely positioned to take advantage of what some experts call a new cold war raging between the world's two largest economies.

Saood Al Suwaidi is an Emirati business student at the National University of Singapore. He told Al-Monitor that the United Arab Emirates's (UAE) relationship with China complements existing ties with the United States, offering further access to technologies and research and developments.

“Our relationship with China is also an opportunity for the UAE to gain exposure to a different culture, language, political system, mindset and discover new trade terms, legislations and ways of handling government,” Suwaidi said.

China is now the primary importer of the Gulf’s oil productions, and between 2016 and 2020 it invested more than $50 billion in GCC countries — much of that as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, primarily to strengthen a Chinese network of infrastructures connecting Asia, Africa and Europe.

Yet the United States remains a key strategic, military, economic, financial and technologic partner for the region. “The Gulf will benefit immensely from any dealing with America,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science, told Al-Monitor. 

He believes the region is “smart enough” not to take a side on the question of China and said the Gulf-US relationship extends far beyond oil trade, adding, “You don't give up on the Gulf just because you are not in need of oil as you were 20 years ago.”

Abdullah noted, “If America wants to disengage, they are foolish."

From US patronage to independence?

The emergence of GCC nations as the Middle East’s new political, economic and financial powerhouses has marked the last few decades. Abdulla said Riyad and Abu Dhabi have now become “the place to call on” to connect with the broader region.

Yet Gulf rulers still view the US security architecture in the region and arms deals with Washington worth billions of dollars as a vital protection against Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions — Qatar is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East.

“I would say during the 1990s, the 2000s and 2010s, the Gulf countries were predominantly utilized and allied with for the removal of administrations and governments in the region that were not aligned with international laws, human rights or the United States”, Sarah Elzeini, CEO of the strategic advisory and lobbying firm SMZ International, told Al-Monitor.

From an economic perspective, the era of US-Gulf economic interdependence is gone — US import of crude oil from Saudi Arabia reduced threefold between 2008 and 2019 — and fears of a broader American disengagement intensified following the US support to the so-called Arab Spring, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Barack Obama’s "pivot toward Asia."

Elzeini said that US President Donald Trump believes that GCC states should now “be for themselves” as long as they are not “too much influenced by Russia and China” and continue to serve a key interest of the United States in whichever domain that may be.

US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie drew a "red line" after the UAE and Saudi Arabia bought Chinese armed unmanned aerial vehicles. “We don’t want them turning to China; we don’t want them turning to Russia to buy those systems,” he said.

Saudi-Emirati decision to isolate Qatar

Politically, a younger generation of Gulf leaders incarnated by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman favors aggressive policies over dialogue. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, accusing the emirate of backing Islamist radicals and Iran. Doha denied the charges.

“I think it is not true that President Trump has anything to do with greenlighting the initial Saudi-Emirati decision to isolate Qatar, but he probably contributed to an environment of support for those two countries’ regional policies,” Marc Sievers, former US ambassador to Oman and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al-Monitor.

Trump’s initial support to the blockade — in 2017, he said “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level” — soon gave way to a renewed commitment by Trump to the US-Qatar realtionship, and repeated and yet unsuccessful attempts to end the crisis.

Following the death of Kuwait’s former emir, he called on Gulf nations to “work toward the cooperative future” the late ruler envisioned.

According to Elzeini, a religious fault line has emerged in the greater Islamic World and played out in the Gulf, where countries like Qatar, Kuwait and Oman believe Islam was hijacked by extremists but in its nature is peaceful and does not need reform, versus a Saudi-UAE-Bahrain narrative that believes greater reforms are necessary.

“I believe this is the new divide in the region,” the Washington-based lobbyist said.

A bridge to attract Silicon Valley’s interest

Across the Gulf, youth believe a genuine spirit of mutual benefits should be the main driver of the US-Gulf relationship. Qatari artist Fatima Mohammed welcomed the openness of galleries to Arab artists in US art hubs. “2021 will be the Qatar-US Year of Culture, I think this helps to connect more with the cultural aspect,” she told Al-Monitor.

As oil demand is expected to dry up faster than expected, disrupting hydrocarbon-dependent GCC economies and forcing the region to reinvent its socio-economic development model, economic aspects of the US-Gulf relationship are likely to gain momentum.

Speaking from Oman, Sievers said the region should "get out the message that they are open to business and inform American investors about what the opportunities are."

In September, the UAE and Bahrain formally inked US-mediated normalization deals with Israel, and the former US diplomat said Gulf entrepreneurs could use Israel’s deep connection to the American high-tech sector as a bridge to attract Silicon Valley’s interest.

“More collaborations with the United States in the field of entrepreneurship, technology and research and development would be a huge step forward for us,” Suwaidi said. The Emirati student believes the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce could also help to forge such ties with US entities.

Biden: Make Saudi Arabia a "pariah"

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, however, an abysmal human rights record has hampered the kingdom’s quest to gain global respectability.

Following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Prince Mohammed faced a torrent of international condemnations.

“We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden warned, expressing a willingness to reenter the Iran nuclear deal and end US support for a Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen.

Ahead of the US election, scheduled for Nov. 3, those in the Gulf region fear being "abandoned" by a Biden administration and question whether Washington is still a reliable protector against Iran. “Immensely wealthy [Middle Eastern states] wouldn't last a week [without US protection]," Trump once said.