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March 3, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1561

Concern In Saudi Arabia And Gulf States That Biden Administration's Policy Of Appeasing Iran Will Come At Their Expense

March 3, 2021 | By B. Chernitsky
Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1561

Introduction

With President Joe Biden's election, the Gulf states -  especially in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain - are concerned that this administration will revive the Obama administration's lenient policy towards Iran and its proxies in the region, and will reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, from which Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew.[1] From the Gulf states' perspective, the main problem with this deal is that it ignored the issues of Iran's ballistic missiles and its interference in the countries of the region. They fear that the Biden administration will reinstate the deal without expanding it to include these issues, despite declarations by Biden and by State Secretary Antony Blinken that these issues will be addressed.[2] Furthermore, in the recent weeks the Gulf states have demanded to be included in the nuclear talks with Iran, should they be renewed. According to reports, Qatar is mediating between the U.S. and Iran, perhaps with the silent consent of Saudi Arabia, which recently ended the boycott of Qatar. Voices in the Gulf media are also urging the U.S. not to lift the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran unless it changes its policy in the region.

The Gulf states regard Iran as an existential threat. Saudi Arabia has been suffering frequent rocket and armed drone attacks on vital targets within its borders by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen and, according to some reports, also by Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Pro-Iranian forces have recently threatened to target the UAE as well, especially Dubai, and Iran is believed to be behind the attempted attack on the UAE embassy in Ethiopia in early February 2021[3] Since the advent of the new American administration the rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia have intensified, apparently in an attempt to  pressure it into lifting the sanctions on Iran and resuming the nuclear deal. The administration's moves towards renewing the negotiations with Iran despite its escalating violence is perceived by the Gulf states as capitulation to the Iranian terrorism, and intensifies their concern that, under the new deal, Iran will manage to manufacture a nuclear weapon and thus become a permanent threat to their existence.

The concern regarding Biden's Iran policy intensified even further in light of his appointments, especially the appointment of Antony Blinken, who was deputy state secretary under Obama, as secretary of state, and of Robert Malley, who was a senior Obama advisor and is considered one of the architects of nuclear deal, as the U.S. special representative for Iran. Articles in the Gulf press warned that, given these appointments, the new nuclear deal is likely to be a replica of the original one.

Yet another move of the new administration that sparked apprehension in the Gulf is the freezing of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, which is part of its Abraham Accords with Israel and the U.S.[4] While Saudi Arabia has not officially responded to this decision, the UAE expressed fury over it. Emirati Ambassador to Washington  Yousef Al-'Otaiba stressed the importance of these jets to his country as a strategic defense measure against Iran, and an article in an Emirati daily warned that this move could be perceived as an American act of betrayal.

Another source of concern is Biden's recent announcement on Yemen, where a Saudi-led Arab coalition is fighting the Houthis in a bid to restore the rule of the UN-recognized government. In a February 4, 2021 speech, Biden said that, although the U.S. recognizes Saudi Arabia's right to defend its land and its sovereignty, it will end all support for offensive operations in Yemen, including arms sales.  He also announced the appointment of Tim Lenderking as the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, tasked with pursuing a peaceful solution there.[5] In addition, State Secretary Blinken  announced on February 12 that the U.S. had revoked the designations of the Houthi Ansar Allah organization as a terrorist organization on the grounds that this designation exacerbates the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.[6]

Although these moves by the Biden administration are a sore blow for the Saudi policy on Yemen, responses by Saudi officials were restrained and diplomatic. An official Saudi statement thanked Biden for his commitment to maintaining the kingdom's security and noted that both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. favor a peaceful solution in Yemen - while conspicuously ignoring the U.S. decisions to end the support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition and to remove the Houthis from the terror list.[7] Only after the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia increased did Saudi Arabia's UN ambassador, 'Abdallah Al-Mu'alimi, implicitly criticize the U.S. decision to revoke their terror designation when he noted that his country does regard the Houthis as a terror organization.[8] In contrast to the restrained tone of the official responses, articles in the Saudi and UAE press stated that the U.S. decisions on Yemen were a hypocritical act of abandoning Saudi Arabia and making concessions to Iran.[9]   

It should be noted that the issue of Saudi Arabia's human rights record is another source of strain in America's relations with this country, and especially with its crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), whom the U.S. administration holds responsible for many human rights violations in the kingdom, including the murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.[10] Even before his election, Biden expressed harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia's conduct in this affair and stated that "Jamal [Khashoggi]'s death will not be in vain, and we owe it to his memory to fight for a more just and free world."[11] White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden intends to make human rights a key issue in the relations with Saudi Arabia, and that the U.S. expects Saudi Arabia to release human rights activists, especially women's rights activists.[12] The kingdom has already taken some measures to improve its human rights image in the eyes of the Biden administration and win its trust. It released two Saudi activists with U.S. citizenship who had been imprisoned since February 2019 - Bader Ibrahim, a journalist and epidemiologist, and Salah Haidar, a media commentator and the son of human rights activist 'Aziza Al-Yousuf[13] - as well as women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who had been detained for nearly three years without trial.[14]  It also commuted the death penalty of three Shi'ite Saudis.[15] It also announced an intention to reform the personal status laws.[16]  However, the Biden administration is unlikely to suffice with these measures and will probably continue pressing the kingdom on this front.

In addition, the U.S. recently published a secret intelligence report that assessed that MBS had approved the operation that killed Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.[17] Ahead of the report's publication, Biden departed from the policy of the Trump White House and began dealing directly with Saudi King Salman, rather than with his son MBS, and in a February 25 phone call with the king he even stressed the importance the U.S. ascribes to the issue of human rights.[18] 

In light of these statements and actions – which increased the concern that the Biden administration would take a lenient policy toward Iran that would threaten the interests of the Gulf states – writers in the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini press suggested practical measures that should be taken. Among these measures were forming an Arab lobby in the U.S., similar to the Iranian lobby there; finding alternative sources for weapons purchases, instead of the U.S.; and even launching a Gulf nuclear program to deter Iran.

This report reviews the concerns of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states regarding Biden's Iran policy, their criticism of this policy, and the suggestions made in the Gulf press for dealing with this issue.  

Appointment Of Obama-Era Officials Sparks Concern That New Nuclear Deal Will Be Similar To Old One

The appointment of Antony Blinken as state secretary and Robert Malley as U.S. special representative for Iran aroused concern in Saudi Arabia and among its allies in the Gulf. They are especially worried that the appointment of Malley, whom they regard as an ally of Iran, indicates that the U.S. intends to reinstate the old deal with Iran even though this country continues to display violence towards its neighbors and interfere in their internal affairs. This concern was also expressed in articles in the Saudi and Gulf press. Najat Al-Saeed, a columnist for the UAE daily Al-Ittihad, wrote: "The appointment of someone like Malley, a sympathizer of the Iranian regime, creates the impression that the [nuclear] negotiations will produce bad [results] and that the U.S. will make concessions and may [even] reinstate the useless [old] deal. The Biden administration has created a situation that takes us back to square one."[19]     

Journalist Khairallah Khairallah wrote in a similar vein in the UAE-owned London-based daily Al-Arab: "Giving the Iran portfolio to someone like Malley will not help to turn Iran into a normal country that cares for its people instead of exporting its crises beyond its borders. This appointment… makes us wonder about the Biden administration's conduct and its ability to capitalize on the Trump administration's achievements… The coming days and weeks will tell whether the Biden administration has a clear policy on the Middle East and the Gulf, or is a helpless administration… Does it realize that neither Malley nor anyone else can change Iran's behavior?"[20]

'Abdullah bin Bijad Al-'Otaibi, a columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, also felt that the new appointments do not bode well, and that their effect is already apparent in Iran's threats. He wrote: "The makeup of the American team tasked with handling the Iranian dossier is beginning to clarify, and it is in no way reassuring for [Iran's] rivals in the region… It is easy to see that Iran's declarations, positions and policy have rapidly changed since the turnover of administrations in the U.S. It has resumed boasting and threatening, and the terror in Iraq and Yemen has intensified. The Iranian regime… is pinning its hopes in the positions of some officials [in the Biden administration]. It knows them personally and well, and has experience working with them and achieving its goals." 'Otaibi added that the Iranian nuclear program is "completely military" and therefore "any concessions by the superpowers to Iran will have tragic consequences for the region and the world."[21] 


Cartoon in UAE-owned daily: Over-lenient policy will not be effective with Iran (Al-Arab, London, March 3, 2021)

Saudi Arabia And Gulf Countries Call To Maintain Sanctions On Iran

In addition to expressing fear that Biden's appointments in the Iranian context will produce a new deal similar to the old one,  many columnists called on the Biden administration to maintain Trump's sanction regime on Iran as a bargaining lever in the negotiations with it, and to adopt a harsh policy towards it so as to deter it from harming other countries in the region and the world.

'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, a senior Saudi journalist and former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: "If these sanctions [on Iran] are lifted, Biden will not have any more bargaining chips to push for any amendments in the deal, as he promised… The question here is, how will Biden impose his new vision without resorting to force or economic sanctions? In my opinion, the situation will continue to escalate and tensions will mount even if Biden takes no action. This inaction will weaken Biden’s position and affirm the region’s presumption of him as a weak president, which, in turn, will trigger a series of unfavorable events that may become unmanageable in the future."[22] In another article, Al-Rashed wrote: "Biden can build on Trump's gains and propose an end to the confrontation and wars with Iran by amending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), i.e. the Iran nuclear deal, to prevent Iranian expansion beyond its borders and nuclear armament. The danger is that Iran sees Biden as a weak president and thinks that his Democratic administration shies away from challenge and confrontation, which will spur Tehran not to concede… [But] if the administration maintains this pressure and upholds the sanctions, the Iranians will come to the table more prepared for a reasonable solution."[23]

Yahya Al-Amir, a columnist for the Saudi daily 'Okaz, wrote that the only way to influence Iran is through heavy pressure that will not only cause it to change its behavior but will "completely transform the structure of its regime."[24] 'Abd Al-Wahhab Faiz, of the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, wrote: "The new administration does not understand that Iran is the source of the problems in the region… If Biden reinstates the 'carrot' policy towards Iran while waving the Iranian stick at the Gulf states, we may see it as tantamount to a declaration of war on us, [for] we regard Iran as an existential threat."[25] 


Cartoon in UAE-owned daily: "Biden's Plan for Iran": the "Middle East" hopes for sticks, while "Iran" hopes for goodies (Al-Arab, London, January 28, 2021)

Gulf Officials: Gulf Countries Must Be Party To Nuclear Deal With Iran And To Talks About Its Regional Involvement

The Gulf countries are concerned not only about Iran's nuclear program but also about its ballistic missiles and its involvement in Arab countries. Therefore,  alongside their demand to maintain the sanctions on Iran, they have repeatedly demanded to be included in any future nuclear talks with it, unlike their exclusion from the negotiations on the 2015 deal.[26] Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said on December 5, 2020: "We and our allies in the region except to be fully consulted on everything related to the negotiations with Iran."[27] On another occasion he said: "The countries most affected by Iran's threats [i.e., its neighbors in the Gulf] must be a major party in any international negotiations with the Iranian regime on its nuclear program and other actions that threaten regional security."[28]

This demand was also voiced in the Gulf press. The deputy secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 'Abdel 'Aziz Aluwaisheg, wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The participation of the GCC countries in the talks [with Iran] must not [even] be a matter for debate. They deserve this more than anyone else, since they are the countries most harmed by Iran's nuclear and missile programs and by its interference in the region. Their participation in the talks will help to fix the flaws of the previous deal."[29] Senior Saudi journalist and former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tarek Al-Homayed, wrote in a similar vein: "The Saudi claim that it is vitally important for Saudi Arabia to be represented in any deal [with Iran] is a wise political move… Whoever is absent from the negotiation table… will be most harmed. Nobody can negotiate on our behalf, for [we] are the ones who remain in the region."[30]


Cartoon in Saudi daily: Iran insincerity in nuclear negotiations flummoxes U.S. (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 9, 2021)

There are indications that Qatar is mediating, alongside Oman, between Iran and the U.S. and perhaps also between Iran and the Gulf states. Qatari Foreign Minister Muhammad bin 'Abd Al-Rahman offered Qatar's services in mediating between the three sides, and on another occasion he stressed that his country is constantly in contact with Iran and the U.S. and that it hopes to assist in renewing the nuclear talks.[31] It cannot be ruled out that the Qatari mediation proposal was made with the consent of the Biden administration. This move conforms to the position of Iran, which opposes including Saudi Arabia in the nuclear talks but is willing to hold talks with it and with the rest of the Gulf states.[32] Furthermore, the reconciliation between the Gulf states and Qatar, announced at the January 5, 2021 GCC summit in Saudi Arabia, may be aimed at facilitating dialogue between the Gulf and Iran with Qatari mediation.[33]

Saudi, Emirati Writers: Biden's Policy In Yemen Is Misguided, Reflects Lack Of Understanding

The decisions of the Biden administration to end U.S. support for the Arab coalition in Yemen and to remove the Houthis from the list of terror organizations enraged many writers in the Gulf press, especially in Saudi Arabia.  They warned that the U.S. is mistaken, because the Houthis, who are agents of Iran, are responsible for the war in Yemen and because this move will only encourage Iran to persist in its aggressive policy. Journalist Amal 'Abdallah Al-Haddabi  wrote in the Emirati website Al-ain.com that, if the removal of the Houthis from the terror list is meant to be "a kind of gift for Iran, with the aim of encouraging it to return to the nuclear deal," then this is just "a repetition of the Obama administration's mistakes." She warned that the move might "prompt Iran to order the Houthis to increase their attacks, so as to increase the pressure on Biden and cause him to lift the Trump administration's sanctions [on Iran]."[34]

Yahya Al-Talidy wrote on the same website that, six years after the outbreak of the war in Yemen, some have apparently "forgotten that the main reason [for its outbreak] was the coup perpetrated by the [Houthi] terrorist movement against the legitimate government, [and that this movement] threatened Yemen's security and stability and rejected every political initiative to resolve the crisis."[35]

Pointed criticism of the Biden administration's Yemen policy was also expressed by former Jordanian information minister Saleh Al-Qallab in his column in the liberal Saudi website Elaph: "The new Democratic administration has proved that it knows nothing about Yemen, otherwise it would not have removed the Houthis from the terror list as its very first step. Had Biden studied the situation in Yemen in depth, he would have discovered that [the Houthis] are an Iranian militia subordinate to [Iran's Islamic] Revolutionary Guards [Corps], that its political - and some would say religious - source of authority is the [ruling] jurisprudent, [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei, and that its patron is Hizbullah… The new tenant in the White House has exonerated the Houthis of charges of terror, when they are [actually] steeped to the neck [in terrorism], without consulting America's friends in the region… This causes many of us to cry sincere tears over [the departure of] Donald Trump. Many people in the region were pleased when he left the White House, but today they weep in regret when they see that his successor [Biden] fails to understand that the only [force] he recognizes in Yemen [i.e., the Houthis] are murderers."[36]


Cartoon in UAE-owned  daily: The policies of the "Biden administration" are hatching. One of them is the "removal of Houthis from terror list" (Al-Arab, London, February 9, 2021)


Cartoon in Saudi daily: "Iran" holds "Middle East" at gun-point as part of its strategy in "negotiations" with the U.S. (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 18, 2021)

Saudi Writers: U.S. Commitment To Saudi Arabia Insincere; We Will Defend Ourselves

Several Saudi journalists accused the U.S. and the West of hypocrisy and double standard in their relations with Saudi Arabia: they vow to defend it but at the same time they deny it weapons for self-defense and help its enemies, the Houthis, who serve Iran and fire rockets into its territory. The journalists warned that Saudi Arabia will not stand idly by and will not hesitate to defend itself.

Khalid Suleiman wrote in his column in the daily 'Okaz: "The Houthi militia attacks airports and cities in Saudi Arabia, yet the international [community] does not respond, except to condemn their aggression in the media and demand that the attacked party restrain itself…  This proves the double standards of the superpowers, [who] want to realize their interests while depriving others of their rights… Worse, the U.S. administration removed the Houthi Ansar Allah movement from the terror list just hours after it targeted Saudi Arabia's [Abha] civilian airport and hit a commercial plane. What message are the Houthis receiving, and what message is the U.S. administration trying to convey?

"The U.S. and the countries of Europe committed to defend Saudi Arabia's security and sovereignty over its land, but at the same time they freeze arms deals and limit Saudi Arabia's ability to defend itself. [So] what commitment are they talking about?! The West understands that the Houthis are just a tool of terrorism in the hands of Iran, similar to Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Hashd Al-Sha'bi organizations in Iraq. All these organizations act in the service of Iran at the expense of the interests of the people of those countries. Despite this, the West keeps repeating the mistakes it made in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria: instead of weakening the Houthis and besieging them, it is strengthening them and propping them up. The Saudis, who for years have been observing the events in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, understand that their security and sovereignty must not be held hostage by the West. Condemnations in the media will not defend Saudi Arabia's borders or the security of its people. International law, which grants it the right to defend itself, cannot be selective!"[37]

In another column, Suleiman wrote: "We no longer know which side the U.S. supports in this region - the side of its friends and partners who have cooperated with it for decades in a bid to achieve stability, fight terror and [safeguard] mutual trade interests, or the side of the enemy that has been brandishing the slogan of 'death [to America]' for 40 years?! Maybe America's friends in the region must become its enemies so that [the U.S.] will respect their interests!"[38] 

Another 'Okaz columnist, Hamoud Abu Taleb, wrote in a similar vein: "The claim [of the U.S. administration] that it is determined to defend the security of the [Saudi] kingdom… and to adopt a peaceful resolution [to the crisis in Yemen]… stands in stark contradiction to its failure to take a firm stance towards the Houthis' defiance of this [peaceful solution]… The [Saudi] kingdom has suffered ongoing Houthi-Iranian provocations, but it will not continue to watch this absurdity from the sidelines for much longer. The U.S. and its Western partners will burn what is left of Yemen out of their personal considerations, which have so far led [them] to nurture the Houthi militia and support it."[39] 

Gulf Press: We Need An Arab Lobby In U.S. To Offset The Influence Of The Iranian Lobby

In light of the disappointment with the Biden administration's policy on Iran and Yemen, and the fear that it means to reinstate the old nuclear deal with Iran, columnists in the Saudi and Bahraini press also stressed the need for an Arab lobby in the U.S. that will influence the latter's policy and counterbalance the influence of the Iranian lobby. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Sam Mansa wrote that the Arab countries must "establish an Arab lobby that will begin acting immediately vis-à-vis the new [U.S.] administration, so as to coordinate positions on the [U.S.] return to the [nuclear] deal and its implications… We must clearly convey to the U.S. the perspective of the Arabs, who are well aware of Iran's real intentions and goals… This is [also] vital for the U.S. [itself], in order to form a new and up-to-date perception of the region…"[40]

Bahraini journalist Al-Sayyid Zahra wrote in his January 26, 2021 column in the Akhbar Al-Khalij daily: "While the Iranian lobby… is making great efforts to influence Biden's policy towards Iran, the Arab voice is conspicuously absent from the American arena. That is, the Arabs are making no organized effort to present their positions and perceptions on the Iranian issue, as the Iranian lobby is doing…" Two days later he wrote: "We must understand that the expected U.S.-Iranian negotiations and their outcomes will create a new reality in the region… The Biden administration's promise to consult with its allies and consider their position provides the Arabs with a chance to have an impact on, and a say about, this new reality. But for this to happen, the Arabs must first of all have a unified position on Iran and the negotiations [with it]. They must also have a clear and definite idea of what they want and what they demand. Hence, it is paramount that the Arab countries immediately form a joint team to phrase the Arab position and demands, so as to present them to the U.S. during the negotiations."[41]

Calls To Establish Balance Of Fear Vis-à-vis Iran By Launching Gulf Nuclear Program

Expressing fear that the appeasing American and European policy towards Iran will allow it to become a threshold nuclear state, several articles in Saudi and Emirati press urged the Gulf countries to launch a nuclear program of their own, which will establish a balance of fear vis-à-vis Iran and can be used as a lever in negotiations with it. The articles rely on statements by Saudi Crown Prince Muhamad bin Salman, who said during his March 2018 visit to the U.S. that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons Saudi Arabi will too.[42]  

Columnist Muhammad Ahl Al-Sheikh wrote in the Saudi Al-Jazirah daily: "Intimidation should be met with intimidation… I don’t believe the superpowers want to prevent Iran from having [nuclear] weapons, for if they did, they could have toppled this loathsome cancerous regime. In principle, I am an advocate of peace and detest the [notion of] a nuclear [arms] race, but the reality in the region means that, if we have to, we must acquire a nuclear weapon to confront the Iranian threat."[43]

Saudi columnist Ahmad 'Oud stated that, even if Biden refuses to make concessions to Iran, its advances in the nuclear program still pose a real danger, and therefore "the Gulf states must launch a join nuclear program to confront these [Iranian] madmen, who have found Western countries willing to make a truce with their madness."[44]

In the UAE-owned daily Al-Arab, Iraqi journalist 'Ali Sarraf wrote that "Saudi Arabia, a regional power and one of the world's 20 largest economies, cannot place its security in the hands of any foreign element, not even a loyal ally. Therefore, when Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state, the only appropriate response will be [for Saudi Arabia] to become a nuclear power as well, so as to protect its security and that of the GCC states… The Arab Gulf states can assure the rest of the world that their joint nuclear program will not threaten anyone… [Our] nuclear bomb will be [intended] for the peaceful purpose of creating a strategic balance vis-à-vis the brutal Iranian aggression." Sarraf questioned the use of an alliance with the West if the latter does not understand the magnitude of the threat posed by Iran to the Gulf: "There is no need to express distrust of allies and friends, but as long as they fail to understand the nature of the threat [we are facing], their friendship will not help [us] and the alliance with then could [even] be harmful… The Gulf states possess the necessary expertise and technology, [whether] local or imported. They also have no shortage of money, so they will be able to build up nuclear might at record speed. Nobody can condemn them for choosing to do so, except hypocrites."[45]

Gulf Writers: American Suspension Of Arms Sales Is Betrayal; We'll Purchase Weapons From Other Countries

Upon assuming office, President Biden paused weapons sales to Gulf allies pending a review of the deals, including deals with Saudi Arabia and the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE. The UAE regards the F-35 deal, which is anchored in its recent peace agreement with Israel and the U.S., as a strategic one, intended to deter attacks on it by Iran and its proxies in the region. This position was expressed in a series of tweets by Emirati ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al-'Otaiba, who stressed that, "like the U.S., [the F-35 deal] will allow the UAE to maintain a strong deterrent to aggression. In parallel with the new dialogue and security cooperation, it helps to reassure regional partners."[46]


One of Al-'Otaiba's tweets

The responses in the Emirati and Saudi press to the freezing of the F-35 deal were fierce. In an especially harsh article, Haitham Al-Zubaidi, editor of the Emirati-owned Al-Arab daily, wrote that canceling the sale would be a Judas-like act of betrayal against the UAE: "The reason for the UAE's eagerness to purchase this unique fighter jet, the F-35, is clear… Deterrence is a basic [principle]. The drone and cruise missile attack on the facilities of Saudi Arabia's [Aramco] oil company in Abqaiq, which was not intercepted by the Saudi air defense, demonstrated that a large part of the Gulf is vulnerable, regardless of whether it was Iran that launched the missiles or its allies in Yemen and Iraq… The UAE is one of America's closest allies in the region, and its sense of security is of vital importance. It faces Iran, which does not miss any opportunity to intimidate, terrorize and even [attack] those it sees as its enemies. 

"An American delay of the approval of the F-35 deal is difficult to countenance. The idea that [the U.S. is doing this] as part of pressuring its regional allies to accept the nuclear deal [with Iran as it is], and to give up [their demand to expand it] to include the issues of the ballistic missiles and [Iran's regional] influence - this [too] is unacceptable. U.S. President Joe Biden is a devout Catholic. On his way from his home to the White House he stopped to pray in a church. Being so pious, he [surely] understands the danger of betraying an ally, and [the story of] Judas Iscariot is [surely] etched in his memory. We do not know how much money Iran will pay Biden to 'sell' an ally like the UAE or to compromise its security and the security of the region at large."[47]

Some of the articles called for the Gulf countries to purchase arms in countries other than the U.S.. 'Abd Al-Mun'im Ibrahim, editor of the Bahraini Akhbar Al-Khalij daily, wrote: "The new U.S. administration is not taking into account that the equations in the Middle East have changed considerably in the last decade, and that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and the other Gulf countries, as well as Egypt and Morocco, no longer regard the American arms industry as the only source of weapons. Instead, there is a significant tendency to diversify the sources and buy weapons in several markets around the world. The U.S. is the one with the most to lose from freezing the arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It will also lose the confidence of the Arab peoples and their governments if it resumes spreading revolutions, chaos and terror in their lands."[48] 

Former Emirati ambassador to Algeria Ahmad Al-Husni likewise wrote, in his column in the daily Al-Ittihad, that the Gulf states have alternative sources of weapons, and that the peace agreements with Israel have changed the situation in the Middle East so that the Gulf is no longer dependent exclusively on the U.S.: "Saudi Arabia and the UAE are [U.S.] allies, and these relations should not be exposed to any turbulence at this sensitive time. Both countries have considerable political clout in the Arab world… so their stability is vital for the [entire] world. Furthermore, the Biden administration [surely] understands that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have alternative [sources of weapons], such as Europe, Russia, China and South Korea. This is in addition to the added value [provided by] the signing of the Abraham Accords [with Israel] and the new reality they have imposed on the countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin…" [49]

 

* B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Concerns about the implications of a Biden win were expressed by Arab writers even prior to the U.S. elections. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8993 – Concern In Saudi Arabia: A Biden Win Will Mean A Return Of Obama's Destructive Policy, October 27, 2020.

[2] State.gov, February 1, 8, 2021.

[3] Nytimes.com,  February 15, 2021. An Iraqi militia called Alwiya Al-Wa'd Al-Haqq claimed responsibility for a January 23, 2021 rocket attack on Riyadh, and threatened to target the UAE and especially Dubai (Raialyoum.com, January 25, 2021). After on November 5, 2017, the Houthis fired a missile at the Saudi capital, the Iranian daily Kayhan published an article titled "The Next Target - Dubai." (Kayhan, Iran November 5, 2017).

[4] Washingtonpost.com, January 27, 2021.

[5] Whitehouse.gov, February 4, 2021. Among the possible implications of these announcements is the suspension of intelligence cooperation and other support for offensive operations in Yemen. It has also been reported that precision guided munition sales to Saudi Arabia, worth an estimated $760 million, have already been suspended (Defensenews.com, February 5, 2021). It should be mentioned, however, that the U.S. allows arms deals vital for Saudi Arabia's security to go forward, such as a Saudi agreement with U.S. contractor Lockheed Martin to form a joint venture dealing with aerial and maritime defense, among other areas. Makkah (Saudi Arabia),  February 21, 2021.    

[6] State.gov, February 11, 2021. Blinken said that the sanctions on Houthi leaders would remain in place.

[7] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), February 7, 2021. Saudi Arabia's state minister for foreign affairs, 'Adel Al-Jubeir, and deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, made similar statements on their Twitter accounts. Twitter.com/AdelAljubeir, February 5, 2021, twitter.com/kbsalsaud, February 5, 2021.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 13, 2021.

[9] The UAE denied any involvement in the war in Yemen. Its then minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Al-Gargash,  tweeted that his country ended its military intervention in Yemen in 2020, and that it has been "one of the greatest supporters of extending humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people." Twitter.com/AnwarGargash,  February 4, 2021.

[10] Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 18, 2021.

[11] Joebiden.com, October 2, 2020.

[12] Reuters.com, February 5, 2021.

[13] Reuters.com, February 5, 2021.  

[14] Twitter.com/LinaAlhathloul, February 10, 2021.

[15] Raialyoum.com, February 7, 2021.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 9, 2021.

[17] Following the publication of the intelligence report, State Secretary Blinken announced that sanctions would be imposed on 76 Saudis involved in threatening Saudi dissidents, including MBS associates Sa'ud Al-Qahtani and former deputy intelligence chief Ahmad Al-'Asiri. Sanctions have also been imposed on the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, which carried out Khashoggi's assassination, under the Global Magnitsky Act (State.gov, February 26, 2021).

[18] Whitehouse.gov, February 25, 2021.

[19] Al-Ittihad (UAE), January 30, 2021.

[20] Al-Arab (UAE), February 1, 2021.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 31, 2021.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat English edition (London), January 27, 2021. For further excerpts from this article, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9161, "Senior Saudi Journalist: Biden's Response To Iran's Provocations Will Determine Outcomes In Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon And Palestine," January 29, 2021.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat English edition (London), January 31, 2021.

[24] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 7, 2021.

[25] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), February 10, 2021.

[26] U.S. Secretary of State Blinken said that the administration means to consult with its allies over a long-term agreement with Iran (State.gov, January 27, February 8, 2021).

[27] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 5, 2020.

[28] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 9, 2021.

[29] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 10, 2021.

[30] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 10, 2020.

[31] Bloomberg.com, January 18, 2021; Al-Raya (Qatar), February 11, 2021. In addition, a report in an UAE-owned daily claimed that the U.S. had empowered Qatar to mediate in the Yemen crisis (Al-Arab, London, February 18, 2021).

[32] This position was recently expressed, for example, by the spokesman for the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian Majlis, Abolfazl Emoui. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rejected the option of renewing the nuclear talks at all, and certainly of including Saudi Arabia in them, but welcomed the notion of talks with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, January 30, 2021; isna.ir, February 7, 2021).  

[33] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1549 – The Gulf Reconciliation: A Resounding Qatari Victory, Or A Temporary Truce In The Gulf?, January 19, 2021.

[34] Al-ain.com, February 16, 2021.

[35] Al-ain.com, February 5, 2021.

[36] Elaph.com, February 8, 2021.

[37] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2021.

[38] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 23, 2021.

[39] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2021.

[40] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 21, 2020. Hamad Al-Majed, member of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights and board member of the King 'Abdallah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, also called to fight the Iranian lobby in the U.S. by establishing an Arab one (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 10, 2021).

[41] Akhbar Al-Khalij (Bahrain), January 26, 28, 2021. For further excerpts from these columns, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9172 - Bahraini Journalist: While Iran Has A Vociferous Lobby In The U.S., The Arab Voice Is Not Heard – February 8, 2021.

[42] Cbsnews.com, March 15, 2018.,

[43] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), December 22, 2020.

[44] Al-Madinah (Saudi Arabia), January 18, 2021.

[45] Al-Arab (London), December 5, 2020.

[46] Twitter.com/UAEEmbassyUS, January 27, 2021.

[47] Al-Arab (London), February 3, 2021.

[48] Akhbar Al-Khalij (Bahrain), February 1, 2021.

[49] Al-Ittihad (UAE), February 3, 2021.

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