top of page
  • Writer's pictureMH

Washington approach poses obstacles to expanding regional cooperation in the Persian Gulf

Mehran Haghirian

Stimson Center

August 9, 2023

The United States is preparing for a new peace agreement in the Middle East, this time between Saudi Arabia and Israel, with serious implications for the Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli issues as well as the broader geopolitics of the region.

In exchange for Riyadh establishing normal ties with Israel, Washington is reportedly contemplating offering a NATO-level mutual security treaty to Saudi Arabia, supporting a Saudi nuclear energy program, and providing more advanced American weaponry. The underlying assumption is that enhanced cooperation between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will serve as a deterrent to Chinese influence in the region. Saudi Arabia is supposed to provide assurances that China will not build military bases in the Kingdom, the U.S. dollar will not be replaced by other currencies in the oil market, and limits will be imposed on the use of technology developed by Chinese companies. Saudi normalization with Israel is expected to trigger similar moves from other Arab and Muslim countries, thereby further bolstering Israel and containing Iran.

A similar case was made for a U.S.-Saudi “strategic compact” before President Joe Biden’s trip to Riyadh and Tel Aviv in 2022. The proposal aimed to establish a new regional security framework with countering Iran as the shared objective. Middle East analysts Steven Cook and Martin Indyk argued that Biden should “borrow from the Taiwan Relations Act and commit to treating an attack on Saudi Arabia as a threat to the peace and security of the Gulf,” “enter into a strategic framework agreement with Saudi Arabia as it has done with Singapore,” “commit to making available the necessary arms to enable Saudi Arabia to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities,” and even “consider extending a nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia.”

To operationalize these policies and build on the foundation laid by the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, the State Department appointed a new senior adviser for regional integration in the Middle East, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. As the “Abraham Accords Ambassador,” Shapiro’s primary focus will be to encourage the Saudis and other Arabs to normalize relations with Israel through the so-called Negev Forum. The new ambassador aims to “support U.S. efforts to advance a more peaceful and interconnected region,” according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, though it is apparent that this vision of interconnectedness mostly encompasses regional interactions involving Israel.

The Negev Forum, established by the United States and Israel in 2022, includes Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. Its stated purpose is to promote political, security, and economic ties among the participating states with the ultimate goal of achieving regional integration. Nevertheless, statements and proposals still indicate a continued focus on opposing Iran. For instance, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid argued that the main intention of the format is to construct a new security architecture primarily aimed at intimidating and deterring “our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies.”

However, this perspective has not garnered support from participating Arab states, and no anti-Iran initiative has been openly embraced. Furthermore, the volatile political climate in Israel in recent months led to the postponement of the next scheduled Negev Forum meeting in Morocco, and no other Arab country has joined the process since last year. The Saudi Crown Prince has reportedly told his advisers that he is in “no rush” to reach an agreement with Israel, considering that it is unclear what concessions the Israeli government is willing to make to the Palestinians.

The tepid results of the Negev format can be attributed in part to its resemblance to past failed U.S.-led initiatives that focused primarily on countering Iran rather than fostering genuine regional integration. Initiatives such as the Trump-era Warsaw Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East and the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or smaller initiatives like the Middle East Air Defense Alliance and the Combined Maritime Forces in the Gulf— from which the U.A.E. recently withdrew participation, were all centered on countering and isolating Iran.

While the threat posed by Iran to regional countries has hardly diminished, and Iran will continue to remain at the top of their strategic calculations, the regional approach to mitigating those threats is changing. Diplomatic reconciliation has become a prevailing trend in recent years as has a growing trend toward multilateralism when it comes to great power competition in the Middle East.

Except for Bahrain, all the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an organization created after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah to blunt the export of Iran’s Islamic revolution, have reestablished diplomatic and economic ties with Iran. Other Arab countries including Egypt and Jordan, are in talks about détente with Tehran. More than two years after a summit that ended the Saudi and Emirati-led blockade on Qatar, all GCC states have restored their relations as well. Today, these countries are leveraging their relations with the United States, China, Russia, and Israel, seeking to prevent a new conflict in the region, especially with Iran.

At the same time, China is leveraging its economic clout by building on diplomacy that led to rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March and is planning a summit with regional players before the end of the year. The European Union is also expanding its regional footprint by appointing its own Special Adviser for the Gulf and increasing diplomatic and economic representation around the region, and supporting initiatives such as the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership that has met in 2021 and 2022, and is scheduled to meet again later this year. Russia, India, South Korea, and Japan are also seeking to strengthen their roles.

President Biden, recognizing that the region is “coming together through diplomacy and cooperation— rather than coming apart through conflict,” emphasized the benefits of “a more secure and integrated Middle East” in an article in May 2023. The shuttle diplomacy taking place in and around the Persian Gulf region since 2021, which has accelerated following the Beijing Agreement, exemplifies how the region is “coming together.”

Despite Biden’s remarks, however, U.S. policies continue to hinder expanding regional cooperation. Most notably, continued U.S. sanctions on Iran, a recent increase in the American military presence in the Persian Gulf, and the focus in Washington on normalization of Arab ties with Israel are obstacles to achieving integration in the Persian Gulf region.

While Washington is considering the contours of an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it has been excluded from recent and upcoming major regional gatherings. This underscores the importance for the U.S. to reevaluate and recalibrate its approach to the Middle East. Moving forward, it is imperative for the United States to take into account the new geopolitical developments, including the growing presence of other external powers and players in the region. Otherwise, regional tensions and conflicts will escalate again.

Photo Credit: The Cradle.

3 views0 comments


Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page