One significant outcome from last month’s Jeddah summit — attended by US President Joe Biden, Gulf Cooperation Council members, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq — was the reaffirmation that America’s regional allies would approach the region’s burning issues by putting their interests above Washington’s. This is an important milestone in US-Arab ties dating to the late 1940s.
The new approach reflects a new understanding of geopolitical realities, one that has been evident in Arab allies’ reaction to the war in Ukraine, which triggered a new cold war between Russia and the US-led West. Usually, Arab allies do not take sides or get sucked into the vortex of an economic and military confrontation that is disrupting global trade, igniting inflationary tremors across continents and raising the spectre of a third world war.
Pragmatism has replaced the decades-old policy of compliance, subordination and dependency. It is coupled with the realisation that polarisation in an emerging multipolar world is a self-defeating policy. The Arab reaction to the war in Ukraine reflected a commitment to the rules of international law but no blind backing for the US in its faceoff with Russia.
Dialogue with Iran
The same could be said about the proposal to form a US-led regional anti-Iran alliance. The suggestion was brushed aside with statements opposing Tehran’s unchecked nuclear activities while extending the hand of friendship to Iran as a neighbour and key regional player. A direct and frank dialogue between Iran and its neighbours is critical in resolving regional conflicts peacefully. No one in the Arab camp is keen to pour oil on burning conflicts.
This was clear in Arab countries’ response to President Biden’s declaration that the US is returning to the region and remains committed to defending its allies. Such commitment was welcomed. Most GCC countries have close military and economic ties with the US and Europe. Certainly, there is no desire to upset these ties. And while America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan had sent a wrong message to Arab allies, it was up to Washington to reset the ties.
The same sober position was adopted by key oil-producing countries that attended the Jeddah summit. There was no clear commitment to unilaterally increase oil production to help the US and Europe deal with an energy backlash created by their policies. The interests of oil-producing countries come first, and the unity of Opec Plus is paramount. Washington’s Arab allies refuse to take orders that could hurt their welfare.
America’s interests in the region can never be overplayed or come at the expense of its local partners. Key countries in the region are increasingly adopting a foreign policy approach that is neutral or non-aligned when it comes to multipolar relations or confrontations. While the US presence in the region is welcome, this would not come at the expense of growing ties with Russia, China, India or Iran.
US policymakers, purportedly on ideological grounds, have issues with Moscow and Beijing. This had become apparent under former president Donald Trump in his scathing attacks on China and the controversial and unwarranted visit by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan.
US Arab allies have no problem dealing with Moscow and Beijing on equal footing. These countries are not interested in America’s current tussle with China, a major economic partner for several Gulf countries.
Arab countries have also become frustrated with the one-sided US foreign policy for the region. If the US wants to endear itself to the peoples of the region, it must opt for a more balanced approach to the region’s long-standing issues and developing challenges.
The US has a troubling track record in dealing with the region’s endemic problems and conflicts. From Iraq to Libya and Yemen to Palestine, Washington’s interventions have failed to resolve disputes.
At the end of his Middle East tour, President Biden sought to assure Arab friends that “America will not walk away from the Middle East”. That is a double-edged statement. While the region needs a balanced and responsible US, it does not want to become a satellite or a mere follower of Washington. These countries have come of age and are embracing policies that serve their interests.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.