The completion of US withdrawal efforts from Afghanistan has left Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Israel worried about the risks of more chaos spreading across the Middle East.
With less confidence in the US to serve as a credible security guarantor, GCC members and the Jewish state are further questioning Washington’s ability to maintain its commitments to regional allies and friends. In these Gulf monarchies and Israel, which have been closely tied to the US for many years, there is a growing belief that continued dependency on the US is too risky.
One day after the Taliban took Kabul, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political scientist, addressed how “the US withdrew from Afghanistan militarily and politically defeated, in a way unfit for the only superpower in the world.”
Regarding Washington’s “catastrophic” blunders, Dr. Abdulla argued that “it will be necessary for the Gulf states to learn lessons from them” and “reduce dependence on Washington in the strategic realm.”
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security’s Micky Aharonson, who previously served as a foreign policy director at Israel’s National Security Council, stated that “when the US is seen as weak, in the simplest terms, it’s bad for Israel.”
Like the UAE and other GCC states, Israel must contend with how badly US intelligence agencies misread Afghanistan’s situation this year despite the past 20 years of America occupying the country.
What kind of confidence can Washington’s allies and friends in the Middle East have in the US if it so vividly demonstrates its inability to understand a country where it spent roughly USD 2.26 trillion in a nation-building campaign?
In Arab Gulf sheikhdoms there are concerns that extremist forces will feel emboldened by recent developments in Afghanistan. One senior GCC official who spoke to The Guardian predicted that violent extremists in Africa would become increasingly confident because of the Taliban’s return to power.
Speaking off record, the official warned against believing any of the new Taliban administration’s promises of being more moderate compared to its previous period in power (1996-2001). He also called the situation in Afghanistan a “shattering earthquake [that’ll] stay with us for a very, very long time.”
When addressing whether the GCC states can count on the US security umbrella for the next two decades, he said, “I think this is very problematic right now – really very problematic.”
Such damage to the US’s credibility comes at a time when China and Russia are becoming increasingly confident in terms of their foreign policies in West Asia. Turkey and Iran are also working to fill some voids created by the relative decline of US hegemony.
Within this context, we are seeing GCC members recalibrate their foreign policies by moving closer to China and Russia. For example, last month the Saudis and Russians signed a military cooperation agreement, highlighting Riyadh and Moscow’s determination to continue building on their bilateral relationship that has been growing in recent years.
Such efforts on the Kremlin’s part to exploit friction in the US-Saudi partnership have been on display for years. When President Vladimir Putin responded to the Aramco attacks of September 2019, he asserted that Moscow is “ready to provide respective assistance to Saudi Arabia, and it would be enough for the political leadership of Saudi Arabia to make a wise government decision - as the leaders of Iran did in their time by purchasing S-300 and as [Turkish] President [Tayyip] Erdogan did by purchasing the latest S-400 ‘Triumph’ air defense systems from Russia.”
Moscow’s message is simple: Deeper defense ties with Russia will help the GCC states maintain their security.
Arguably, the UAE’s decision to engage Turkey and Qatar in 2021 after restoring diplomatic relations with Syria in 2019 underscores Abu Dhabi’s desire to mend ties with regional actors that the country was on negative terms with at earlier stages of the post-2011 period. Saudi Arabia’s reconciliation with Qatar in January plus Riyadh’s decision to engage the Iranians in talks in Iraq, Qatar, and Oman also point to the Saudi kingdom’s interests in improving ties with regional actors against the backdrop of growing uncertainty surrounding Washington’s long-term commitment to GCC security.
Prior to the recent US exit from Afghanistan, GCC states were growing increasingly nervous about counting so much on Washington for stability and security. Under President George W. Bush, the illegal, immoral, and disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 raised such concerns. Barack Obama’s “red lines” fiasco in Syria and Donald Trump’s lack of a response to the September 2019 Aramco attacks also contributed to doubt about the US’s ability to serve as a reliable and credible security guarantor in the Gulf.
That said, one could argue that Biden’s handling of Afghanistan will prompt GCC officials to consider the relative fall of US hegemony like never before.
Within this context, the chances are good that the Saudis and Emiratis will continue working to diversify their defense relationships and security partnerships due to their views of the US as a power in decline and retreat.
But, these Arabian powerhouses will have to contend with the fact that neither China nor Russia are showing any real desire to fully replace the US as a security guarantor in the Gulf. Also problematic for these GCC states when considering a major shift to either Beijing or Moscow is that neither capital are willing to support their postures against Iran to the extent that the US has since 1979.
With both China and Russia being Iran-friendly powers, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel will face serious dilemmas if they were to leave behind their security partnerships with Washington in favor of large-scale realignment toward Beijing or Moscow.