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United States Launches Strategic Dialogues with UAE, Saudi Arabia
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launches the inaugural US-UAE Strategic Dialogue with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, October 20, 2020. (US State Department)

United States Launches Strategic Dialogues with UAE, Saudi Arabia

‘Abu Dhabi sees its moment, and they fight; Riyadh is worried about the oil market and the leftward trend of the Democratic Party,’ experts say

This week, the US State Department held its inaugural Strategic Dialogue with the United Arab Emirates, just days after doing the same with Saudi Arabia. It marked the rapid addition of two Gulf nations to the US Strategic Dialogue process, following Qatar and Iraq over the last two years.

How significant, though, are the talks with the Emiratis and the Saudis? They have long been strategic partners of the US, which carries with it constant dialogue. What weight does a formal Strategic Dialogue − encompassing discussions across defense, intelligence, economic, cultural and other platforms − carry?

“Once you have one of these dialogues going, it’s a statement: We are in a strategic relationship,” Steven Simon, a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington and a former US National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Media Line.

“And it’s a statement that’s never addressed to just one audience. The messages are almost always multivalent, addressing different constituencies. There generally aren’t earth-shattering outcomes or agendas that are produced. Diplomacy doesn’t work that way anymore,” said Simon.

But at least once, it did.

The US-Israeli model of strategic dialogue in the ’80s broke a precedent. The dialogue was largely resisted by the US military. [Then-president] Ronald Reagan led the first administration to really embrace the idea of Israel and of how military and strategic cooperation with them could further America’s interests

“The US-Israeli model of strategic dialogue in the ’80s broke a precedent,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department deputy special Middle East coordinator and senior adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations, told The Media Line.

“The dialogue was largely resisted by the US military. [Then-president] Ronald Reagan led the first administration to really embrace the idea of Israel and of how military and strategic cooperation with them could further America’s interests,” said Miller.

At the time, US military leaders believed a strategic dialogue with Israel would be seen as anti-Arab, back when American access to oil in the Arabian Peninsula was of paramount importance in containing the Soviets.

Israel is factoring into the picture once again.

Yes, the UAE is certainly hoping to use the new platform to attract US investment in fields like biotech and artificial intelligence.

“For the UAE, the economic side is really important. Their economy is in trouble and you can see their emphasis on this right now, Elana DeLozier, the Rubin Family Fellow in the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line. “They want the US more involved in infrastructure, innovation and entrepreneurship. The UAE is really focused on its space program, and while it isn’t talked about much, there is the potential for help from NASA,” she said.

But, the UAE also wants to expedite its purchase of the advanced F-35 stealth multirole combat aircraft – a controversial notion given America’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

Following the signing of last month’s Abraham Accords, which established normalized relations between Israel and the Emirates, the US is likely to leverage the new mechanisms with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to promote security and political ties between Israel and its Gulf neighbors, with an eye toward achieving fuller Arab recognition of the Jewish state and, of course, containing Iran. It is a new Middle East now, and America is looking for partners with staying power.

“There were three Arab states in the region that had competed for power: Iraq, Egypt and Syria. Then along came the Arab Spring,” said Miller. “The UAE got through it largely unaffected. The Saudis and the Emiratis emerged as consequential. It’s been the three non-Arab states in the region – Turkey, Iran and Israel − that have been viewed as the real states: influential, competent militarily, competent intelligence-wise.

The UAE wants to position itself as different from the Saudis. ‘Yes, we are authoritarian; there’s no freedom of press, we treat migrant works terribly, but, we are not the Saudis

“And now the UAE sees its moment. The Emirates are extremely competent, and they fight − unlike the Saudis. At the same time, neither of them serves as the tip of the American spear against Iran. Look at how Iran fired rockets at the Saudis’ oil facilities. Both are vulnerable,” Miller continued.

One might ask why, on the eve of an American presidential election that most political analysts believe will bring a new administration to the White House, would these partners agree that now is the time to begin the Strategic Dialogue process?

“The impetus for the Trump Administration is, ‘Well, why not?’” said Simon. “The administration sees itself as having presided over a new alignment and new security architecture in the Middle East. These arrangements are generally accompanied by Strategic Dialogues.”

“Part of the reason the UAE normalized ties with the Israelis was not just about F-35s, but to position itself with Washington either way, regardless of who wins the presidential election,” said Miller. “The UAE wants to position itself as different from the Saudis. ‘Yes, we are authoritarian; there’s no freedom of press, we treat migrant works terribly, but, we are not the Saudis.’ The UAE doesn’t participate in political assassinations, it’s the first Arab state with a space vehicle, it’s involved strategically in places like the Horn of Africa. It has a more rational policy,” he said.

“In terms of the Saudis, they are confused and apprehensive about signals coming from the [Democratic Party nominee Joe] Biden campaign,” said Simon. “There is an urgent priority for the Saudis to reassure themselves of US commitment to Saudi security and to remind the US of the presumed interest it has in Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis are worried about the restructuring of the oil market and, politically, the leftward trend of the Democratic Party that would put more of a focus on the Saudis’ human rights abuses and its hunting down of critics at home and abroad,” he said.

“The time has come [for the US] to reassess the Saudi relationship and I don’t think the Saudis would want to let that pass. One way to do that is to establish a Strategic Dialogue. It may sound counterintuitive, but these dialogues tend to take place when tensions creep in, and when questions arise about basis and utility of a relationship,” said Simon.

“A Biden administration would have a bottom-up review of the US-Saudi relationship. And they could use an ongoing Strategic Dialogue as a pressure point on the government. They will try to get something out of it,” said Simon.

The Saudis and Emiratis, meanwhile, may not end up being the prime beneficiaries of America’s Strategic Dialogues with its Gulf partners.

Despite Qatar’s refusal to normalize relations with Israel, its troubling connections with Iran and its resulting ongoing disputes with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, the US announced last month that it hopes to move ahead with plans to name Qatar as a major non-NATO ally, a status that provides foreign nations with benefits in defense trade and security cooperation with Washington, including preferential access to US military equipment and technology, expedited export processing and prioritized cooperation on training. This came days after the Americans and Qataris concluded their third Strategic Dialogue.

The Saudis and UAE would be incredibly upset to see Qatar [designated as a major non-NATO ally]. These dialogues have a way of showing where everyone stands

“The UAE is not a major non-NATO ally, and neither is Saudi Arabia,” said DeLozier. “Kuwait obtained the designation after backing the war against Iraq,” she said.

Bahrain, the other Gulf nation with this status, is the base of the US 5th Fleet which patrols the Persian Gulf and acted as an important air base during the 1991 Gulf War.

“The Saudis and UAE would be incredibly upset to see Qatar obtain that designation. These dialogues have a way of showing where everyone stands,” said DeLozier.

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