By James M. Dorsey
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US President Joe Biden’s controversial pilgrimage to Jeddah is part of a broader and more complex geopolitical puzzle with multiple Gulf and Red Sea littoral states attempting to hedge their bets and play rival global and regional powers against one another.
Widely seen as a knee fall after the president refused, since coming to office, to interact with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mr. Biden’s visit is likely to prove a double-edged sword for the United States.
Mr. Bin Salman and other regional leaders will have welcomed Mr. Biden’s reassurance that the United States, with tens of thousands of troops in the region, would not abandon the Middle East and allow Iran to become a nuclear power.
The problem is the reassurance comes from a man who may not be in office three years from now and from a country whose credibility and authority have been weakened, not least by Mr. Biden’s Saudi knee fall.
Even so, attempts to hedge bets and enhance leverage will seek to increase the region’s relevance to the international community, particularly the United States, rather than supplant the US as the region’s foremost security guarantor.
Maneuvering will also heighten regional rivalries, notably in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, that figured prominently in a joint statement issued by the United States and Saudi Arabia during Mr. Biden’s visit to the kingdom. Some 30 per cent of the world’s container traffic passes each year through those waterways.
The statement stressed the importance of preserving the free flow of commerce through strategic international waterways like the Bab al-Mandab and the Strait of Hormuz.
It noted that a recently established maritime unit, Combined Task Force 153, would focus on enhancing security in the Bab-al Mandab and intercepting smuggling into war-torn Yemen. In addition, the statement welcomed Saudi Arabia’s assumption of the command of a similar unit, Combined Task Force 150, that operates in the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea.
From Mr. Biden’s perspective, projecting enhanced security cooperation with regional players was boosted by reports that Russian efforts to establish a naval base, Russia’s first in Africa, at Sudan’s Red Sea city of Port Sudan, were faltering because of differences among the African country’s military leadership.
So far, so good.
More problematic from Mr. Biden’s perspective is that Gulf states cooperate closely with China, which has acquired stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where the People’s Republic has a military base.
The environment becomes more complex in light of stepped-up competition among US allies for regional influence and Iranian enhancement of the Islamic republic’s naval capabilities.
Regarding ports, Mr. Bin Salman plans to turn his kingdom into a transportation and logistics hub that connects continents and replaces the UAE and Qatar as the Middle East’s go-to addresses.
Saudi Arabia is a latecomer to the global port control game in which Dubai’s DP World and China are major players. DP World operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, and crucially, Dubai’s central Jebel Ali port.
Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, is initially targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports, such as food.
“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” said RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe.
Last year, the PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT. The Chinese investment fits into China’s Belt and Road strategy, which included the acquisition of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.
The United Arab Emirates halted in late 2020 construction at a Chinese port project near Abu Dhabi after US officials asserted that China intended to use the site for military purposes.
While Saudi port plans have yet to move beyond modernising Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port and bolstering its crane capacity, Abu Dhabi Ports agreed to develop, operate, and manage a terminal at Safaga Port on Egypt’s east coast as a part of a consortium.
Safaga, south of Hurghada, a Red Sea resort town, exports phosphates and hosts a ferry for Hajj pilgrims to Duba in Saudi Arabia.
The UAE potentially is more ruthless in its competition for control of the region’s waterways. A pro-Houthi Yemeni news agency asserted that the UAE was seeking to change the demography in its favour of the strategic Yemeni Indian Ocean island of Socotra.
The agency, Hodhod, said the UAE police was recruiting Socotra Yemenis in large numbers and transferring them off the island. It claimed that Emiratis willing to move to Socotra were awarded 100,000 dirhams (US$27,200). However, it was not clear why significant numbers of Emiratis would want to leave the hypermodern UAE for a forsaken island.
The UAE appeared to be playing both ends against the middle as Iranian state television trumpeted that the Islamic republic had welcomed Mr. Biden’s visit by enhancing its capability to put armed drones on warships in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
The US and its allies see as a major threat Iranian drones that Iran and its allies have used to target critical infrastructure, including oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and shipping in the Gulf.
Forging its own path, the UAE distanced itself from the security-focused anti-Iranian tenor of Mr. Biden’s meetings with Mr. Bin Salman and the leaders of the other Gulf countries and Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
“We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeted at any other country in the region, and I specifically mention Iran… We have to find solutions, and we have also to use economic cooperation in various areas,” said Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to UAE president Mohammed bin Zayed.
With Mr. Biden still in the region, Mr. Gargash disclosed that the UAE was seeking to return its ambassador to Iran for the first time since 2016. The UAE downgraded its diplomatic ties after a mob attacked Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran in protest against the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.
With the UAE staking out its own position and states like Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Iraq unlikely to, at this point, adopt confrontational policies towards Iran, Mr. Biden’s main anti-Iranian regional pillars are Saudi Arabia, its appendage Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.
That left Mr. Biden little choice but to eat humble pie by making his way to Jeddah. That was all the truer given the president’s inclination to bolster approaches that have not solved any of the Middle East’s multiple problems rather than build them into broader and bolder policies that could prove more effective.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.