In one swoop, last month’s announcement by the OPEC+ cartel, led by ostensible U.S. partner Saudi Arabia, to cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day essentially ran counter to major American interests in two ways — exacerbating U.S. energy costs at a critical time and fueling Putin’s war on Ukraine. It’s yet another reminder of how often Saudi Arabia and another erstwhile U.S. partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), take actions that diverge from U.S. interests. And just days ago, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. intelligence community apparently found it necessary to produce a classified report outlining the UAE’s “extensive efforts to manipulate the American political system.”
The two instances are among the latest examples of why the United States must reassess these relationships. Both highlight decades of failed U.S. Middle East policy rooted in support for autocrats who repeatedly pursue policies contrary to not only American but universal values and interests.
American support for Middle East autocrats is objectionable from both moral and strategic perspectives. Washington’s Middle East partners are some of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, specifically, are engaged in widespread abuses at home, and support other autocrats throughout the region engaged in similar activities. Their leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, respectively, remain engaged in the war in Yemen, which has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the deaths of at least 377,000 people. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are rated below Russia in Freedom House’s index of political rights and civil liberties, with Riyadh also being ranked below China.
President Joe Biden’s overtures to these states have not resulted in any concrete movement on human rights. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: since his visit to Saudi Arabia in July, both the Saudi and Emirati governments have been emboldened. Saudi Arabia sentenced women’s rights activist and academic Salma al-Shehab to 34 years in prison, followed by a 34-year travel ban for the “crime” of posting tweets advocating for basic rights in the kingdom. Al-Shehab’s conviction adds to a number of lengthy sentences recently handed to other activists and critics of the Saudi regime. Two members of the Huwaitat tribe were given 50-year prison terms and 50-year travel bans after they refused to be displaced from their tribal homeland, where the $500-billion new city Neom is under construction, while Nourah al-Qahtani, an activist and mother of five, was given 45 years in prison for having an anonymous Twitter account critical of the Saudi government. Osama Khaled, a Saudi writer, translator, and computer programmer, was just sentenced to 32 years in prison, and a 72-year old Saudi-American was sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court to 16 years for tweets. Likewise, days after Biden met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Jeddah, the Emirates arbitrarily detained American lawyer Asim Ghafoor after convicting him in absentia of money laundering and tax evasion.
US Strategic Interests
The argument typically proffered in defense of the U.S. relationship with these rights abusers is that the ties advance U.S. strategic interests, such as hosting American military units, including missile defense systems; cooperation against terrorism; and containing Iran. To the contrary, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE actually destabilize the region and repeatedly pursue policies that are fundamentally at odds with American strategic interests. If U.S. interests are to be broadly conceived as the security and prosperity of the American people and its allies, how do these actors advance either? Genuine American interests in the Middle East – promoting regional stability, combatting terrorism, and guaranteeing the free flow of oil – are consistently undermined through the policies adopted by these and other U.S. “partners,” who continue to destabilize the region, fuel the grievances that lead to extremism, and weaponize oil in the pursuit of narrow regime interests.
U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East must be oriented toward establishing real and sustainable regional stability, not the false mirage presented by authoritarians and upheld only through fierce repression. Autocracies are inherently unstable due to the illegitimate nature of their rule, with no legitimate elections or freedoms. The authoritarian governments in the Middle East manipulate resources and institutions to further the interests of a narrow elite, rather than advancing the welfare of citizens. Worse yet, these autocrats have been emboldened in their belligerence by U.S. inaction in the face of even the most egregious acts, such as the 2018 assassination and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi – so confident are they that the United States will continue its policy of tolerance for human rights violations.
Further, U.S. “partners” in the Middle East continue to use the return of great-power competition as a form of reverse leverage against the United States, exploiting fears in Washington of losing ground relative to Russia or China in order to advance their own agendas. This manipulation of great-power competition occurs despite the fact that neither Russia nor China are capable or willing to fill the significant void that a U.S. withdrawal of support would leave. Moscow and Beijing remain incapable of expending the resources needed to uphold a political and security order in the Gulf centered around their interests in the Middle East due to their own domestic pressures, troubled economies, and more pressing geopolitical concerns in their immediate neighborhoods.
Similar to a lack of action on human rights, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia did not serve to alter the calculus of U.S. partners vis-à-vis Russia or China. Aside from the OPEC+ decision, Reuters reported recently that, at the height of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Co. invested heavily in Russian energy groups such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Lukoil, even as the same companies were being sanctioned by the United States and several other Western countries. Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, also just signed an agreement with Chinese oil giant Sinopec for further cooperation and the construction of a new manufacturing hub in eastern Saudi Arabia. Riyadh also recently reiterated its commitment to China as its “most reliable partner and supplier of crude oil” while also agreeing to cut oil prices for its Asian clients.
As for the Emirates, it has continued to serve as a safe haven for Russian oligarchs fleeing Western sanctions. And the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin following the OPEC+ announcement in order to reaffirm their “friendly relations” and “common interests.” Even within the United States, the UAE has undertaken efforts across “multiple U.S. administrations, to exploit the vulnerabilities in American governance, including its reliance on campaign contributions, susceptibility to powerful lobbying firms and lax enforcement of disclosure laws intended to guard against interference by foreign governments,” according to the new Washington Post report.
Undermining US Democracy and Security
Additionally, support for these actors has started to undermine democracy and security at home in the United States, with a staggering number of illegal hacking attempts and influence campaigns. In September 2021, three former U.S. intelligence operatives admitted to working as cyber spies for the United Arab Emirates and hacking into various computer networks in the United States. Likewise, two Twitter employees were found guilty for spying on accounts in the United States on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi man was arrested this year in New York for harassing and threatening dissidents and regime critics in the United States and Canada.
These autocrats are strategic liabilities for the United States, not strategic assets. The Biden administration should seize on the opportunity offered by recent legislation in the U.S. Congress to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and remove U.S. military personnel from these countries. Representatives Tom Malinowski, Sean Casten, and Susan Wild introduced legislation to remove U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to the “hostile act” taken by these countries against the United States, which they argue constitutes a “turning point” in the relationship. Additionally, Representative Ro Khanna and Senator Richard Blumenthal proposed legislation to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and “rebalance” the relationship with Riyadh, while Senator Chris Murphy called for the suspension of air-to-air missile sales to Saudi Arabia and redirecting these weapons to aid the Ukrainians.
These would be valuable steps, and the United States could magnify their effect by using resources such as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Mohammed accountable for their actions. Further, American foreign policy in the Middle East should focus on building relationships with civil society in these countries and uplifting the voices of activists, not coddling the rulers who repress them.
Of course, such a strategy reorientation will be complex and take time to put the pieces in place carefully, to avoid backfiring against the lives of those who challenge these authoritarian rulers. But the goal should be to end American complicity in their actions while helping the people of the Middle East strive toward a brighter future.
Support for autocratic actors who are only able to remain in power via fierce repression and selective cooptation is a recipe for instability. Any meaningful relationships and U.S. engagement in the Middle East should be based on more than transactional deals and arms sales; it should be based on a framework that reflects democratic values and strategic interests. In order to do so, it is necessary to end the false notion that allegedly “progressive,” or “reform-minded” Middle East autocrats – as both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed are regularly portrayed – represent a genuine solution to the region’s problems when in fact they are the problem.