Dr. Salem Alketbi
Dr. Salem AlketbiCourtesy

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst

Since World War II, American foreign policy in the Gulf region has revolved around safeguarding Washington’s interests in this crucial area, which holds immense geostrategic capabilities (in terms of location and energy resources) that catch the eye of competing powers striving for global dominance.

Over the last two decades, a new approach has been taking shape across successive American administrations (both Democrats and Republicans) with a focus on what policymakers in Washington view as a strategic Chinese threat. This shift in direction began in the 1990s but gained momentum in 2012 when former President Barack Obama introduced the “Asia First” strategy, which redirected the US’ attention and military presence from Europe to Asia.

Even though the new American strategy laid stress on working towards securing the Gulf by thwarting Iran’s nuclear capabilities and countering their destabilizing actions, it was President Obama himself who put this strategic vision into action, deeming it a “turning point” for the US.

He achieved this by entering into a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015, firmly believing it would ensure the Gulf’s security and stability. However, unintentionally, this agreement flung open the door for the expansion of Iranian influence and regional ambitions.

Despite the withdrawal of the Trump administration from the agreement, their isolationist policies hindered a complete dedication to the principles of the existing partnership/alliance between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the US.

As a result, American policy towards the Gulf region has further weakened during Joe Biden’s current presidency, with uncertainty clouding his dedication to the obligations of this partnership/alliance. US officials were satisfied with merely repeating statements about the security of Gulf partners but failed to take concrete actions to uphold these commitments, especially concerning the attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE by the Houthi group in Yemen. The American response was weak, delayed, and marked by empty rhetoric, lacking any follow-through in deeds.

Throughout the recent period, the US did not openly abandon its security commitments to its Gulf Cooperation Council partners. Instead, it shifted towards the idea of pluralism and collective action with its allies.

This notion began to take shape during the Trump era when discussions arose about Washington’s inability to tackle existing challenges all by itself. During the Biden era, the political discourse shifted towards prioritizing diplomacy as the primary tool, using economic and cyber warfare (cyber wars) as deterrence measures instead of relying solely on force. The American role towards its allies was limited to boosting their self-defense capabilities and exchanging information, rather than getting directly involved in wars on their behalf or alongside them. From time to time, there were mentions of the idea instilled by Trump in American political thought—the allies’ responsibility to shoulder the cost of protection and security, though with different approaches between Democrats and Republicans.

The reality shows that the Biden administration has come to realize, following its allies’ stances regarding the Ukraine war, that the US’ support for these allies comes at a steep price.

Consequently, there are efforts to revamp the American policy pursued by the White House in recent years concerning the Gulf region, where the countries have turned towards other competing partners, especially China and Russia, instead of relying solely on Washington. These endeavors to change the American approach shed light on the recurring news and reports about American directives to deploy advanced fighter jets like the F-35 and F-16, as well as sophisticated warships near the Gulf, as part of the US Central Command’s responsibilities. This move aims to safeguard American interests and ensure the freedom of navigation in the Gulf waters in response to Iran’s recent “troubling activities” in the Strait of Hormuz.

I believe this abrupt shift in American policy is largely driven by an attempt to curb the increasing trend of military cooperation between the Gulf countries and Iran.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries have discovered that one of their options to counter Iranian threats is to team up with the very same source of threat. This choice arises from the weak, hesitant, or absent deterrence stance of the US against Iranian threats in the Gulf.

Another explanation, as reported by an American newspaper, suggests that American federal prosecutors are unable to sell around 800,000 barrels of Iranian oil held on a Greek tanker off the coast of Texas. The reason being, American companies refuse to unload it due to their fear of “Iranian retaliation.” They don’t want to buy the oil, as they want to avoid becoming the next target of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz. This demonstrates a shift in distrust in the American protection capabilities from Gulf partners to the US proper. This lack of trust has resulted in the failure of implementing the sanctions policy against Iran.

A third explanation for the bolstering of American military capabilities lies in Washington’s intention to send a crystal-clear message to the Iranians about defining American interests in the region. This becomes even more important with the hardening Iranian rhetoric, demanding an end to the American military presence in the Gulf region. Additionally, the aim could be to put pressure on Tehran to secure concessions in the ongoing indirect negotiations, facilitated by the Sultanate of Oman.

The recent actions taken to strengthen the American military presence for safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz might indicate a relative change in American thinking. However, it’s hard to determine whether this change is an urgent necessity or a genuine reflection of shifts in beliefs, strategies, and adjustments in priorities.