US in a Panic Without a Dredible Gulf Strategy

US President Joe Biden’s administration is in a persuasive mood, and won’t take no for an answer. National security adviser Jake Sullivan disclosed at a think tank conference in Washington on May 4 that he proposed to travel to Saudi Arabia that Saturday for talks with Saudi leaders, which reports indicate he did. 

The Saudi establishment daily Asharq al-Awsat, quoting from Bloomberg, reported that Sullivan would be followed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken “in a new sign of the US administration’s determination to cement ties with the kingdom.” 

Meanwhile, Sullivan revealed that also going to Saudi Arabia would be representatives from India and the United Arab Emirates to discuss “new areas of cooperation between New Delhi and the Gulf as well as the United States and the rest of the region.” In essence, he claimed he is spearheading a White House initiative to reset Washington’s Gulf strategy. 

Sullivan has a way of creating misconceptions, and there are no signs that New Delhi is even aware of this White House initiative to integrate India into the Biden administration’s Gulf strategy.

The timing of Sullivan’s disclosure is interesting; it came soon after the India-Iran consultations in Tehran and on the eve of the foreign minister-level meeting Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in New Delhi on May 3-4. 

Against the backdrop of Iran’s formal accession as a member of the SCO at the summit meeting in India on July 3-4, there is renewed interest in New Delhi to re-energize India-Iran economic cooperation.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement said Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who visited Tehran last week, “stressed the necessity of putting in place a roadmap of cooperation between the two nations within the framework of a long-term partnership”; sought an early meeting of the joint economic commission in Tehran to “provide fresh momentum” in the relations; and “exchanged views over the joint work of Iran and India in Chabahar, bilateral banking issues, the sanctions removal talks and regional issues.”

Doval’s counterpart, Iranian National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani, reportedly proposed that conducting bilateral trade in the national currencies would “help the two countries to reach their economic objectives,” while President Ebrahim Raisi underscored that enhanced Iran-India economic partnership would enable the two countries to play a bigger role in the new world order. 

Unsurprisingly, Washington feels uneasy that India is strengthening its ties with Iran at a time when the Saudi-Iran detente has boosted Tehran’s regional standing while regional security in the Persian Gulf region is phenomenally transforming.

Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat (center), in Beijing on March 10, 2023, with counterparts Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban of Saudi Arabia and Ali Shamkhani of Iran. Image: China Daily

Equally, Sullivan was well aware that as he was speaking in Washington, the foreign ministers of Russia and China, Sergei Lavrov and Qin Gang, were heading for New Delhi to participate in the SCO ministerial on May 4-5. 

The SCO in its infancy was nicknamed as “Asian NATO.” That assumption proved wrong and, in fact, the original Brussels-based North Atlantic Treaty Organization is now itself migrating to Asia. Consequently, the SCO agenda is gearing up for deeper foreign policy coordination to counteract the West’s attempts to dominate the Asian power dynamic.

For Russia and China, the SCO’s importance as a regional security organization has risen sharply. Qin in his speech at the SCO ministerial made a five-point proposal, which gave primacy to the concept of adherence to strategic autonomy, solidarity and mutual trust, security cooperation, promotion of interconnected development and so on.

Summing up the consensus at the SCO ministerial, the Chinese Foreign Ministry highlighted on Friday, “All participating parties … agreed to advance cooperation in such fields as transportation, energy, finance, investment, free trade, and digital economy, promote regional connectivity,” among other things. 

From the Gulf security perspective, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE are about to join SCO-led cooperation efforts as dialogue partners (alongside Saudi Arabia). Clearly, the US is nervous that the SCO is poised to wet its feet in the Gulf waters, in an onward journey that may take it to Africa.

The traditional US approach has been to whip up Iranophobia to rally Arab Gulf states, but that ploy won’t work any more. The Arab monarchies are steadily expanding their strategic autonomy and pursuing independent foreign policies to advance their national interests and promote peace and reconciliation in the region. 

Arguably, they seem to make it a point to exclude Washington from their regional processes to resolve differences and reconcile contradictions in the inter-state relationships.

The lack of trust between Saudi Arabia and the US is palpable. Saudi Arabia and the UAE actually ignored the US protestations over their normalization and engagement with the Assad government in Syria. Thus it is widely expected that Syria’s return to the Arab League is possible before its upcoming summit in Riyadh on May 19. 

Again, the foreign ministers of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq said in a joint statement on Monday after a meeting in Amman that ties with Damascus would be established at the military and security level to “address security challenges.”

The statement called for an end to “foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs” and pledged to “support Syria and its institutions to establish control over all its territory and impose the rule of law” – de facto seeking the vacation of US occupation of one-third of Syrian territory.

Earlier, in a bilateral Saudi-Syrian statement at the foreign minister level, Riyadh agreed on the need to “support the institutions of the Syrian state to extend its control over its territories to end the presence of armed militias and external interference in the Syrian internal affairs.” 

Quite obviously, the Biden administration is in panic. Its estimation seems to be that given India’s concerns over the expansion of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region, it would make an ideal partner – and the added advantage is of course that India can also bring into the calculus its growing influence in the Gulf region.

The US had made an attempt two years ago to put together a Quad-like clique (I2U2) involving India, Israel and the UAE. But it turned out to be a non-starter because of the floundering of the Abraham Accord. 

How far New Delhi will want to get involved as a junior partner in Sullivan’s mission remains to be seen. India doesn’t need any American help to advance its interests in the Gulf region.

The relations with the Gulf states have dramatically strengthened during the recent years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch. The UAE’s investments in India last year touched a peak level of US$12 billion. 

With the SCO summit due to take place in less than two months, it would be the mother of all ironies if New Delhi were to gang up with the Biden White House in India’s extended neighborhood.

The conclusion one can draw out of the SCO ministerial is that the India-China relationship is set to acquire predictability and stability in a conceivable future and a resumption of bilateral cooperation may become possible. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

By M K Bhadrakumar
Source: Asia Times

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