Does White House want to reset Washington’s Gulf strategy?

10:10 08.05.2023 •

Quite obviously, the Biden Administration is in panic, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan disclosed at a think tank conference in Washington that he proposed to travel to Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi leaders. The Saudi establishment daily Asharq al-Awsat, quoting from Bloomberg, reported that Sullivan will 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 will 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.

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 Organisation in New Delhi on May 3-4.

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

Iran’s National Security Advisor 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 and the regional security in the Gulf region is phenomenally transforming.

Equally, Sullivan was well aware that as he was speaking in Washington, the foreign ministers of Russia and China — Sergey 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 NATO 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.

Photo: Washington Institute

For Russia and China, SCO’s importance as a regional security organisation has sharply risen. Qin Gang 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.

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 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 Gulf states but that ploy won’t work anymore. The Gulf states 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 normalisation 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 after a meeting in Amman that ties with Damascus will 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 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. The Biden administration’s 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.

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 Modi’s watch. The UAE investments in India last year touched a peak level of $12 billion.

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, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar.


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