In many ways, the diplomatic doldrums of the Biden administration’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are now spreading to other parts of the MENA region, which might explain the whistle stop visit to both Morocco and Algeria after Israel by his top envoy, Anthony Blinken.
If we were in any doubt as to how poor relations are between Washington and two key GCC players – Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – the Ukraine war and the spike in oil prices put that into sharp focus.
President Joe Biden’s attempts to personally call Saudi and Emirati leaders to discuss oil production in recent days were rebuffed, claims the Wall Street Journal. This left Biden, according to Bloomberg, mulling the idea of releasing180 million barrels in reserve over several months to tackle rising fuel prices head on.
The news, in part, cooled oil prices, which dipped to 101 USD at the time of writing. However, the dip also correlated with the Russian announcement that its military forces would withdraw from operations in Kyiv and Chernigiv following some progress in the peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv in Istanbul.
Biden not able to call on GCC countries when the US needs them.
Not only is Biden not part of those important talks – which are being brokered by President Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s firebrand leader – but he is also not able to call on GCC countries when the US needs them. The message from leaders like Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed is clear: they are not confident that Biden will be able to secure a second term. Therefore, it makes sense to look toward Russia as a new partner in the much talked about emerging “new world order” while still maintaining cordial relations with Washington. The UAE even abstained from voting for a withdrawal of Russian troops at the UN, which shocked some pundits who see the country as the US’s key ally in the region.
These decisions can be traced back to Biden, who, from the moment he took office, sought to deconstruct former president Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords. As a sweetener for UAE-Israel relations, Trump had sugar-coated the declaration with a deal involving US-made F-35 fighter jets – which was later blocked by Biden.
Biden’s distinct lack of élan with respect to the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis is now forcing him to draw down the US’s own oil reserves while Blinken tries to shore up relations with both Algeria and Morocco.”
Trump gave Morocco a gift: US recognition of its sovereign claims over the territory of Western Sahara.
Traditionally, Morocco has always had a warmer relation with the democrats than republicans. And yet, it was Trump’s eleventh-hour decree – made during his last days in office – which gave Morocco a gift: US recognition of its sovereign claims over the controversial and disputed territory of Western Sahara. This acknowledgment now forms the very basis of Blinken’s conundrum with respect to the two countries.
On the one hand, Blinken would very much like Algeria to provide Europe with more oil and gas as a way of punishing Putin and lessening EU’s dependency on Russian energy. However, on the other, the Trump subterfuge which recognized Western Sahara as Morocco’s – which Algeria fiercely opposes, of course – stands in the way. How can Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy and ”diplo talk” assure the Algerians that the US won’t support Morocco’s objective of pushing for a semi-autonomous solution (via the UN) for the disputed territory while convincing Algiers to re-open its gas pipeline to Morocco? Algeria had closed the pipeline, which had transported natural gas through Morocco to Spain, in November 2021.
It’s hard to see how Blinken could even begin to win the hearts of the Algerians and find an energy solution for Europe via Algeria, without simultaneously alienating Morocco and creating a new rift between Rabat and Washington. If Blinken could pull off such a Herculean task, he might earn the respect of GCC countries, which could cut the Biden administration some slack and offer it more cooperation regarding oil production.
Geopolitics is also an issue. The irony is that as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi look more east and warm their relations with both Russia and its regional partners (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently visited the UAE), Morocco is staying within close proximity to the US with both its arms procurement and special relationship. While the UAE and Turkeyboth offer their countries as safe havens to Russian oligarchs, it is Abu Dhabi that is edging away from its total dependency on American arms and is looking to France, Israel, and South Korea for help. The UAE is anxious that US-made Patriot missiles cannot be exclusively relied upon against Houthi attacks. These concerns were recently validated by the Houthi-claimed oil refinery attack in Jeddah, which threatened to halt the Saudi Arabia-hosted Formula One race.
The UAE is anxious that US-made Patriot missiles cannot be exclusively relied upon against Houthi attacks.
Some might also argue that Biden’s failure to convince the Houthis to negotiate has led to this impasse. The stalemate throws a spotlight on how inadequate the Patriot system is, and how vulnerable Saudi Arabia is, as a consequence of both countries running very low on the missiles. The UAE doesn’t want to wait and find out what will happen once they do. Instead, it is rapidly diversifying its arms procurement and may even consider Russian arms. Last year, Moscow announced it was working on developing relations with Abu Dhabi, specifically regarding the production of arms in the UAE.
Biden couldn’t deliver on his promise to end the war in Yemen, which is at the heart of his lack of respect from GCC leaders. However, some analysts argue that this is not entirely his fault.
“The problem is not that Biden has failed to fulfil this promise to end war in Yemen,” explained editor-in-chief of International Interest and foreign policy adviser Sami Hamdi to Inside Arabia. “Rather, it is that as he has tried to do so, he has come to the shocking realization that it is not Saudi Arabia that is prolonging the war, but the Houthis.”
But attempts to fix the Algeria-Morocco dispute – which sank to a new low last year when in August Algeria completely broke off all relations with Morocco – will be harder than merely blocking an arms deal to the UAE or meddling in the internal politics of Ukraine. In reality, Biden has been doing both since 2014.
Blinken’s swift arrival in the Maghreb is a sign of desperation from the Biden administration.
Blinken’s swift arrival in the Maghreb is a sign of desperation from the Biden administration which might believe that the row between these two North African countries can be fixed by dabbling in shuttle diplomacy and talking the talk. But it won’t.
Rabat, for its part, is playing the long game and has been dealt a body blow by the Ukraine invasion. Russia’s assault has made Morocco’s claims for the Western Sahara harder for the UN to process as it gets swept up in the furor of the Russian invasion and falls over itself to iconize Zelensky.
Spain’s recent support of Morocco’s “autonomy plan” for the Western Sahara is a trifling diplomatic victory compared to what Rabat will face. While Morocco’s hopes of the world’s powers accepting occupations seemed to be an idea worth clinging onto before Ukraine, China will likely end up being its new partner with regards to the Western Sahara dossier anyway, as Obama’s fad of “soft diplomacy” by the US shifts to an even higher gear under Joe Biden and his interminable “ability to f*** things up.”
Asking Algeria to consider breaking ties with Russia is an indication how far removed Blinken and his colleagues are from reality, which hardly bodes well for any solution that aims to boost Biden’s waning credibility both in his perception as an erudite negotiator in Ukraine or in the Arab world. Yet is it likely that relations with Algiers will improve, which, by definition, will only irk Rabat more, leaving the chances of developing solutions for the gas pipeline and Western Sahara even more unlikely.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Inside Arabia.