Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron paid a whirlwind visit to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In the UAE, he came away with a $19 billion order for 80 Rafale fighter jets and 12 military helicopters.
No such luck for the United States, after the UAE last week suspended its separate sale for $23 billion worth of weapons.
Then, Macron was on to Saudi Arabia, where he became one of the first Western leaders to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that MBS is alleged to have approved, an allegation MBS has consistently denied.
Macron defended the visit, telling reporters in Dubai: How can we “preserve peace and stability in the Middle East if we say, ‘We’re not going to speak to Saudi Arabia, the most populated and most powerful country in the Gulf?'” reported news site France24.
Of course, for nearly a century, it’s been the US that was the supreme ally and partner across the Arabian peninsula — from Saudi Arabia itself, through Kuwait, which America liberated after Saddam Hussein seized it in 1990, to the Emirates, with its vast oil and gas wealth and where US naval ships have berthed for decades.
Now, faced with new threats, this region is looking for new allies, or at least friends. It didn’t have to be that way. The hope in much of the world was that US President Joe Biden would prove to be a sharp break from his predecessor, Donald Trump — a return to a time when America could be counted on for consistency, reliability and above all a protection from the region’s most malevolent forces.
All is not lost, of course. But time is running short as events of recent weeks are dramatically showing.
It’s time — indeed nearly past time — the US showed flexibility and reliability in dealing with those nations whose friendship it wants to maintain. At the same time, the US needs to demonstrate a deeper sensitivity to issues that could be calculated to alienate countries that are profoundly sensitive towards the behavior of foreign partners.
This clearly applies to longtime close allies like France but equally to countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, with sensitivities that cut across cultural, religious and social lines.
But it’s the backstories that are more revealing today of the dramatic turn that may be in store for traditional alliances and alignments across this region and beyond.
Recall the $90 billion contract for French submarines that Australia had signed — until the United States and United Kingdom in September torpedoed it with a nuclear-powered submarine deal of their own. There is a broader perception among this trio of English-speaking maritime powers that France was not prepared to assume the same tough stance against China on the world stage.
The surprise AUKUS defense pact left the French government furious and bruised, though that seemed to be papered over by conciliatory words from Biden to Macron when the pair met ahead of the G-20 in October.
Weeks later, France’s multi-billion-dollar fighter jets deal with the Emirates has all the hallmarks of “don’t get mad, get even.”
Indeed, in a marathon, 90-minute prime-time interview on France’s TF-1 Wednesday evening, the AUKUS submarine affair was the one foreign policy issue that Macron dealt with. “We have responded in the strongest way,” Macron shrugged, adding that “over time” the American action would be fully addressed.
Macron’s comments come against the backdrop of an Iran nuclear deal in tatters and growing fears from regional powers — including the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — of being held hostage to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The Biden administration’s failure to restore restraints over Iranian activities following Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 has done little to bolster US standing.
Now, the American nuclear umbrella that for decades appeared to be a sufficient guarantee is suddenly looking increasingly flimsy.
Such a perception has only been intensified by the sudden withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, which in turn followed American withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, suggesting to many in the region that they are indeed on their own.
Meanwhile several Gulf States are looking beyond the US for new friends. The UAE has long embarked on an expanded relationship with China. And when the United States insisted on major guarantees that the UAE would segregate its American-supplied weapons from any Chinese probing, the Emirates felt that was a step too far in terms of infringement on their “sovereignty.”
Saudi Arabia is also looking increasingly to China, which is already one of the Saudis’ largest trading partners. Most recently, this has meant a sixth mammoth desalination facility being built in the kingdom by a Saudi-China-Spanish consortium and other arms sales.
An understanding of the priorities and especially the fears of America’s longtime allies throughout the region and beyond are essential if the United States is not to find itself marginalized in a part of the world where it once played a central role.