ABU DHABI/DUBAI — A common sentiment in this country bleeds out of just about any conversation: The United States and the Biden administration have been a major disappointment.
During my weeklong visit (as part of a no-strings-attached reporting trip the United Arab Emirates government partly financed), that was the overall vibe — a deep feeling of abandonment by a supposed ally, of being a bit jilted.
That means President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him to hold onto a strongly anti-terrorist ally in a strategic region, one that took a big risk for Washington in signing the Abraham Accords to help build a new Mideast alliance with America and Israel.
And it’s going to take more than simply extending condolences for the death last Friday of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan by sending a high-powered delegation, led by Vice President Kamala Harris, to the Gulf in an attempt to mend the frayed relationship.
“This is a major charm offensive on the part of the Biden administration to repair relations,” Omer Taspinar, a Brookings Institute expert, told Reuters.
The only problem is that this administration lacks a) charm and b) sound foreign policy.
Emiratis lay a number of grievances at Biden’s feet. There’s his lack of public recognition of more than a dozen ballistic and cruise-missile attacks in January, a barrage for which Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis took credit. The assaults killed three civilians and injured six in Abu Dhabi.
Soon after taking office, Biden removed the Houthis from the US list of terrorist organizations. The UAE wants the separatist extremist group added back. “There is no ambiguity here,” the Emirati embassy said in March. “If you talk like a terrorist, act like a terrorist and kill like a terrorist, then you are a terrorist.”
Washington’s taken some steps: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced in February that he was sending the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole and some fifth-generation fighter aircraft to reinforce UAE defenses against Houthi missiles and drones.
But Biden’s slow-rolling of the $23 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets — an agreement made under the Trump administration — prompted the UAE to buy fighters from China for the first time ever. Biden reversing another Donald Trump move? Well, sort of: A year ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington was worried about Abu Dhabi’s growing ties with Beijing.
Indeed, Cinzia Bianco, a European Council on Foreign Relations research fellow, notes that the whole region is eyeing new allies: “The UAE and other Gulf monarchies are re-evaluating relations with the US who, in their strong view, reneged on its end of the bargain: providing security.”
And security in the region is of top concern.
After the UAE signed the Abraham Accords in August 2020 normalizing diplomatic relations between it and Israel — in 2021 it became the first Gulf country to open an Israeli embassy — Tehran told Abu Dhabi that the country was now a “legitimate target for the resistance.”
Iran, with its missiles and regional proxies and willingness to use them, is the Emirates’ main national-security threat. So Biden’s insistence on salvaging the nuke deal — despite pleas at home and abroad not to — is another slap in the face.
The UAE considers itself a US ally and wants to be a greater one, but with a seemingly noncommittal partner in Biden’s Washington, the Emirates feel pushed into the open arms of Russia and China. (They may be real friends to no one, but at least they don’t flip foreign policies as rapidly as Obama-Trump-Biden America has. Talk about whiplash.)
So Abu Dhabi categorically refuses to speak out against Moscow or Beijing. It even abstained on the US-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Anwar Gargash, the late president’s senior adviser, said taking sides “would only lead to more violence.” But the larger issue is clearly that Emiratis don’t feel like America is really on their side.
Ceremony and even warship patrols aren’t enough. What Abu Dhabi needs is to be sure of US security promises, with clear parameters for what the UAE-US relationship looks like going forward. If Biden wants to keep a valuable ally in the Middle East, he better get it sorted out quickly. We can’t let China win more.