It has been one month since U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-July. As several articles in China-US Focus and other sources have suggested, the visit was mediocre and embarrassing. The fundamental reason lies in America’s neglect of the concerns of Saudi Arabia and other major countries in the Middle East. A diminished United States can no longer push for its agenda as it likes without showing at least minimal respect for its audience.
It is true that after Biden’s visit security relations between the U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council countries will partly resume. As Arab News of Saudi reported on Aug. 3, the U.S. State Department had approved the potential sale of Patriot missiles and related equipment to Saudi Arabia in a deal valued at up to $3.05 billion, and the potential sale to the UAE of THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense systems in a $2.25 billion deal. For various reasons, the U.S. had suspended or had been reluctant to push for these arms deals during Biden’s first year in the White House, although they had been both symbol and substance of U.S.-GCC relations for a long time.
Besides these, no evidence indicates that Saudi Arabia and GCC countries have actively echoed Biden’s various requests. Saudi Arabia and other major oil suppliers symbolically raised oil production before and after the July visit. Saudi and other GCC countries did not suggest getting the kind of air defense system proposed by the U.S. based on Israel’s Iron Dome. No substantial evidence indicated that Saudi Arabia will budge on its position to normalize relations with Israel, as pushed by the United States. No evidence indicated that GCC+3 would form a kind of Middle East version of NATO. And no country in the region bought Biden’s propaganda against China during the summit.
GCC countries holding oil resources have gained new weight within the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, while the U.S. is struggling to maintain its influence in different parts of the world, from Eastern Europe to the Asia-Pacific. This new scenario has enhanced GCC countries’ bargaining position with the U.S.
Beyond that, America’s neglect of the legitimate concerns of GCC countries may be the reason behind their reluctance in a changed world. While the sense of being neglected had always stayed beneath the public face of the U.S.-GCC alliance, this factor could grow in the context of America’s decline.
To be more specific, the problem actually appears in three ways. The first is America’s neglect of Saudi dignity. All countries cherish their dignity, and Saudi is no exception. The U.S. has long criticized Saudi Arabia for its human rights issues and political system. Saudi, like any other country in the world, including the U.S., has problems in human rights, but no one expects the leadership to be directly criticized by a visitor. Biden did it while meeting with leaders of Saudi Arabia, and he was naturally rebuffed by a Saudi leader who mentioned Abu Ghraib.
The U.S. is no exception and even has more problems in the human rights arena. For instance, more than a million people have died in the U.S. because of its poor management of COVID-19 and many, including innocent children, have been killed in gun rampages. This is the truth, but any criticism of Biden to his face could be regarded as an offense against dignity.
Second, the U.S. is neglecting Saudi Arabia’s aspiration to lead the Muslim world. Saudi is not only a leading exporter of oil but also one of the major leaders of Islam, as it claims to be the inheritor of the ancient Arab Empire and the guardian of the two holy mosques, which determines the political position of the kingdom within Islam.
To lead the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia will have to uphold its support for Palestine’s legitimate cause of nationhood based on the religious ideology that Muslims worldwide are brothers. Although the push for a Palestinian state has been weakened on the global agenda, the principle remains uniformly accepted in the Muslin world. Any neglect of the Palestine issue by Saudi Arabia could undermine its reputation in the Muslim community and the political legitimacy of the monarch.
While Saudi Arabia might be engaged in under-the-table cooperation with Israel, and normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel will be the general trend, it is too early for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations before the issue of Palestinian nationhood is properly settled. Biden’s push for Saudi-Israel normalization means that Americans do not understand how the issue is relevant to Saudi Arabia’s aspiration to lead the Muslim world.
Third, America has neglected GCC’s real concern of having an independent foreign policy. The last couple of years have seen the U.S. pushing Saudi and other countries to side with it in competition with China. But Saudi and GCC countries were reluctant to take sides. In several workshops with GCC think tanks, experts and scholars have almost uniformly said that GCC countries will not take sides in a potential U.S.-China confrontation but rather would take positions by calculating their own interests.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden personally delivered anti-China propaganda. But it seems that none of the GCC and other Arab countries bought it. In fact, various GCC countries expressed their intent to develop their own political and economic relations with China. Biden certainly underestimated the wisdom and judgment of Arab countries and their desire to set independent policies.
All in all, the failure of Biden’s GCC visit could largely be attributed to America’s neglect of the legitimate concerns of GCC countries. That neglect is actually a reflection of America’s attaching importance to its own agenda while ignoring the needs of others.
Being a hegemonic power for too long, the U.S. is accustomed to pressuring others in its own interest while being deaf to their concerns. The world has changed. It now features not only America’s decline but also GCC countries growing more confident. Yet, the U.S. has not changed its mind or way of pressing its own agenda.
It is true that GCC countries will continue to depend on the U.S. for security resources. But recent events suggest that they expect to get security along with respect. They will not sacrifice their dignity to achieve security. That is the latest change in U.S.-GCC relations.