It has now been two months since President Joe Biden entered the Oval Office. However, it is still remarkably unclear what the new president’s long-awaited Middle East policy will actually look like. Although Biden and his team have a different approach to the conduct of foreign policy than his predecessor, President Donald Trump, they will most likely preserve its overarching form while trying to enrich its substance, focusing mainly on diplomacy and engagement. The new administration has already started to fill its Middle East team with experts, which gives hope that professional diplomacy will be able to reach sustainable results in Biden’s term. Russia, which has a similar interest in Middle Eastern peace, will likely support President Biden’s diplomatic efforts in Yemen and Iran, even as the two nations differ elsewhere.
While the Biden administration has been formulating its approach to the region and to the GCC in particular, Russia has lost no time. On March 8, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went on a diplomatic tour to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – all U.S. allies – to discuss bilateral relations and the regional agenda. Over the past six years, Moscow has managed to significantly improve its ties with the GCC states in many areas. Bilateral trade is rising, including sales of military and agricultural products. Joint projects and investments have begun development, and diplomatic and intelligence interaction on regional issues and security challenges is progressing. In recent years, Russia-GCC ties have strengthened, partly due to regional discontent over America’s inconsistent foreign policy. During the presidency of Barack Obama, in which Biden was second-in-command, the United States supported the Arab Spring uprisings – but was regarded by several of the GCC states as having abandoned two long-time allies, Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, in their time of need.
Later, in 2015, the United States (along with the other members of the P5+1) negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran, which the majority of the GCC states viewed negatively. This pushed regional countries to diversify their relations, developing ties with Russia as a convenient counterbalance to the United States. In exchange, the Gulf countries have become useful partners for Russia in many areas where their ties with the West have become problematic due to the Ukraine-related sanctions. Further progress in Russia-GCC relations will depend on how the U.S. approaches its regional partners, and whether it gives Moscow and the GCC states the opportunity and space to grow these ties. For this reason, Russia looks attentively at how the new U.S. administration will deal with the region.
The Middle East is No Longer America’s Top Priority
Usually, expectations about America’s foreign policy towards the Middle East are centered around two polarized expectations: either the United States will increase its presence and role in the region, or it will try to disengage from it altogether. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Over the past decade, U.S. foreign policy in the region has been conducted along the lines of limited engagement, the fight against terrorism, and the support of its allies in the region. In other words, Washington aims to optimize its resources in the Middle East, while preserving its military operational capabilities.
At the same time, it must be noted that, in general, the Middle East is losing its previous strategic importance for Washington. It is clear that the United States will not leave the region for the foreseeable future, but it is already becoming increasingly reluctant to spend time and resources dealing with regional problems.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, America’s shale revolution in the early 2010s led to a sharp increase in its domestic oil production. Since 2008, U.S. oil output rose from 5,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 12,000 bpd in 2019, while oil imports fell by 24% from 13,000 bpd to 7,800 bpd (see Figure 1). Oil imports from the Gulf region dropped threefold during this period, making the U.S. less reliant on oil supplies from the region and clearly reducing its strategic importance to Washington. Meanwhile, increased American energy independence and U.S. oil production and exports have brought Moscow and Riyadh closer together, and led to the emergence of OPEC+ to coordinate the two nations’ oil production and export.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2020
Second, domestic unrest has grown significantly in the United States over the past decade, leading to a preoccupation with America’s own internal problems – polarized domestic politics, economic issues, the consequences of COVID-19 and the problematic response to it, and so on. These problems will inevitably take much of the focus of the new administration, leading it to de-emphasize efforts to solve challenges in the Middle East.
Third, the United States has increasingly felt the need to deal with challenges coming from China and Russia, and, especially under Democratic administrations, has tried to improve its ties with Europe. These ties are seen as more important for America’s grand strategy than the Middle East, and prioritizing them will likely take a share of its attention and resources away from the Gulf.
Finally, there is escalating domestic opposition to America’s warm relations with some Gulf and Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. These states have reputedly engaged in numerous human rights violations, both domestically and internationally.
With that said, the recent announcements made by President Biden regarding the U.S. approach to Saudi Arabia illustrate a lack of desire to fundamentally reconsider its relations with Riyadh – even after the publication of the investigative report about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Despite Biden’s insistence while campaigning that Saudi Arabia would become a “pariah” state, the U.S. ultimately accommodated a far softer stance on the Kingdom than was expected. Such approach underlines how the U.S. is reluctant to pay more attention to such a problematic and controversial region, especially given its long-time partnerships with regional actors.
For these reasons, the United States is unlikely to break the trend and initiate a “return” to the Middle East or re-activate its relations with its Gulf allies. However, Biden’s actions so far suggest that the U.S. will not disengage from the Middle East altogether, as it is still important for the U.S. and its military stance in the region is quite solid.
Why the U.S. Cannot Leave Yet
There are several reasons that the United States does not appear likely to withdraw from the Middle East. First, despite Washington’s drawdown in military presence and capabilities, it has maintained its ability to exert political and economic influence vis-à-vis regional states. Although the U.S. significantly cut its military presence in the Middle East between 2008 and 2020, this was mostly because of a military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. presence in the Middle East decreased from a 2008 peak of 187,000 personnel, primarily in Iraq (148,000) and Afghanistan (39,000), to roughly 2,500 today in Iraq, 2,500 in Afghanistan, and a lot more than 200 in Syria. At the same time, the number of personnel sent to support those forces in 2019 – that is, units and forces operating outside of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – was about 76,000, which is a smaller number in comparison to 2008 but is still significant.
Another important indicator of the U.S. engagement to the Middle East is its Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, conventionally known as the “war budget.” OCO is intended to fund America’s military operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and does not count toward military budget caps – making it a useful tool to increase the funding if needed. After the U.S. pulled out the majority of its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, its military presence in the region remained relatively unchanged, and the OCO funding remained at roughly 10% ($60-70 bn) of the Pentagon’s overall budget. In addition, the U.S. State Department and USAID have their own OCO funding (which added on average another $11 bn per year since 2012), and U.S. foreign assistance to the MENA countries is higher than to any other region ($6-8 bn annually over the last five years). Another $5 bn goes annually to the Middle East through Foreign Military Financing. Despite a drawdown in its actual military presence in the region, the U.S. has preserved its military capabilities in the Gulf, providing security to its regional partners through its military bases and facilities in the region.
Additionally, the U.S. has remained in the region due to a widespread inability of regional states to provide security for themselves. In most cases, all regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Turkey (a NATO member), excessively rely on external military assistance. The fragmented nature of the Arab world and the often-conflicting security interests therein prevent the countries from creating a meaningful security alliance which could decrease their dependence on the US. This dependence makes it unlikely that the United States will withdraw from the region during Biden’s term in office.
Finally, the Middle East is the fastest growing arms market in the world, and the most attractive and lucrative to developed arms manufacturers such as Russia and the United States. The countries of the Middle East imported 33% of all arms imports worldwide in 2016-20. It attracts major arms producers, and the competition is fierce there. From 2016 to 2020, Russia increased its arms sales to the region to 13% of the region’s imports (up from 10% in 2014-18), while the U.S. share decreased from 54% (in 2014-18) to 52% (in 2016-20). Therefore, it is clear that the competition for the regional arms market is quite fierce, and Washington does not want to lose its market share by alienating its best customers.
Biden’s Future Priorities
In his recent speech, “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken formulated the new administration’s main foreign policy principles. One of these principles was that American leadership and engagement matter: “Whether we like it or not, the world does not organize itself. When the U.S. pulls back, one of two things is likely to happen: either another country tries to take our place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values; or, maybe just as bad, no one steps up, and then we get chaos and all the dangers it creates. Either way, that’s not good for America.” This statement clearly signals that the U.S. does not intend to disengage from the Middle East, especially given ongoing conflicts, unresolved issues, instability, and the threat of renewed terrorist activity.
Thus, if the Biden administration continues its Middle East policy along the general lines of the two previous administrations, but adding more diplomatic engagement, it is unlikely to significantly influence Russian foreign policy in the region. Moscow understands that it is only a partner for the GCC and for other regional states, and it is wishful thinking to hope that any country in the region realigns itself away from Washington and towards Moscow, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat realigned his country from Moscow to Washington in the 1970s. The regional states are so deeply dependent on the U.S. that they cannot afford to depart from their strategic ally. At the same time, however, Washington will likely continue to make small steps toward withdrawal, urging its regional partners to take more responsibility for the region’s well-being. As the states of the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, become more independent and self-reliant, Moscow will be presented with additional opportunities for influence.
Alexey Khlebnikov is a Strategic Risk Consultant and MENA Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), and a Research Fellow at the Eurasian Strategies Research Unit.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.