US needs to credibly link energy with geo-politics in Gulf
Washington must not cater blindly to the argument of authoritarian stability – this narrative is already sold much more convincingly by China or Russia.
The fact that US President Joe Biden felt the need to write an op-ed in the Washington Post before going to Saudi Arabia shows under how much pressure the US administration is domestically.
Bipartisan lobbying in Washington for the president to honour his campaign promise to ostracise the Saudi Crown Prince for his involvement in the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, remain firm.
At the same time, the White House realises that Gulf partners and Saudi in particular, still matter as the centre of gravity for global energy geo-politics.
Global energy politics
The United States need to find a comprehensive approach to bolster energy security up and downstream while securing supply chains, which are inevitably linked to the energy power houses in the Gulf.
Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha will continue to look for ways to translate their energy wealth into political capital and influence. And while oil imports from the Gulf are far less important for the United States – an energy net exporter – than they were a few decades ago, especially in the area of gas and hydrogen, the region will remain key to US energy interests.
However, in a multipolar world Washington needs to understand that they are no longer the only great power on the block.
It is competing for influence with Russia and China whose geo-strategic synergies with the region are growing also thanks to a growing energy interconnectedness.
For this reason, Biden should not make this trip to Jeddah about increasing oil output quotas that will do little to sooth a multi-variable energy crisis that is driving up inflation in America.
Instead, the President needs to develop a long-term strategy for how to integrate the Gulf energy powers into a US-led partnership where energy and geo-politics are intrinsically linked, because there is no short-term solution to the current energy crisis.
Saudi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone do not have the spare capacity to drive down prices in an energy crisis that is about far more than just the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Equally, tapping into their strategic reserve capacity could backfire as it would make markets more anxious.
Further, the issue with undersupply at the moment is not just about the output of crude but about lacking downstream capacity. Thus, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be willing to tap into their spare capacity in return for some half-hearted commitments by a superpower that is ambiguous about what it stands for in the region.
Hence, Washington needs to use the opportunity to provide the region with an actual vision.
Sustainable roadmap needed
Biden’s op-ed in the Washington Post was littered with old narratives and assumptions from a bygone era.
Beyond just energy and supply chains, America needs to outline a sustainable and credible roadmap for addressing the key elephants in the room such as human rights, good governance, the Palestinian question and Iran.
The reason is that the Saudi and Emirati pivot away from the United States to Russia and China is as much driven by energy interdependencies that the US is unable to break, as it is driven by the absence of a clear, coherent and credible US position on key issues in the region.
While Qatar responded positively early on in January to US requests to help ease pressures on the gas market, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to do anything that would jeopardise the oil partnership with Russia.
The reason is that for both the UAE and Saudi, the energy partnership with Moscow and Beijing is underwritten by an ideological and geo-strategic partnership that is just about to expand.
It was no coincidence that the Kremlin’s unofficial Middle East envoy Kadyrov was hosted by MbS during his Hajj over Eid Al Adha just days before the Jeddah Summit.
If the US intends to counter these ideological and geo-strategic inroads Russia and China is making, the United States needs to be more transactional in its engagement with Gulf partners.
America needs to stand up for what it believes in and tie any further US commitment to the region to clear value- conditionalities.
Realpolitik also means that Washington must not cater blindly to the argument of authoritarian stability – this narrative is already sold much more convincingly by China or Russia.
Bridging the say-do-gap for the United States means that its partners are held to the same standards as their adversaries – that includes Israel.
It means the United States need to build energy partnerships and networks that involve countries such as Iran whose spare capacity could make a difference and might pressure Saudi and the UAE to actually engage constructively with Tehran.
A more comprehensive approach to energy security also means jointly developing infrastructure and supply chain resilience beyond just narratives of energy transition.
Like in the geo-strategic domain, rather than merely responding to pressures and impulses, the United States need to develop into a shaper making use of all its influence domains to ensure its partners act with US interests in mind.