The US Search for a Junior Partner in the Gulf


MK Bhadrakumar

The Biden administration is in a persuasive mood, won’t take no for an answer. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan disclosed at a think tank conference in Washington on Thursday that he proposed to travel to Saudi Arabia on Saturday for talks with Saudi leaders.

The Saudi establishment daily Asharq al-Awsat, quoting from Bloombergreported 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.

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 in New Delhi on May 3-4.

Against the backdrop of Iran’s formal accession as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (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 that Indian National Security Advisor 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 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, 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.

For Russia and China, SCO’s importance as a regional security organzation 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 and so on.

Summing up the consensus at the SCO ministerial, the Chinese Foreign Ministry highlighted on Friday that “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 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 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 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 due to 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 Modi’s watch. The UAE investments in India last year touched a peak level of $12 billion.

With the SCO summit due to take place in less than two months, it will be the mother of all ironies if India were to gang up with the Biden White House in our 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.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.



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