US President Joe Biden sent a high-powered delegation to the United Arab Emirates on Monday to offer condolences after the death of its ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in what experts say appears to be a bid to step up efforts to repair frayed ties with Gulf allies.
Since last Friday, world leaders have descended on Abu Dhabi to pay respects to new leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on the death of his half-brother.
French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have already arrived in the UAE, while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was heading there on Monday, as was Iran’s foreign minister.
US Vice President Kamala Harris landed in the Emirati capital where she is expected to stay for around three hours.
She heads a delegation that includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Central Intelligence agency director William Burns, and climate envoy John Kerry, in addition to Biden’s top national security aides and other high-ranking White House officials.
The make-up of the delegation reflects Washington’s desire to show its commitment to the region, and also appears to show an intent to issue a new approach to diplomacy with Abu Dhabi, given the broad depth of the delegation, experts told Middle East Eye.
“I think it’s no secret that American diplomacy so far hasn’t really been getting the results that I imagine both sides would like to see in the relationship,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“We’re in a period where we’re really renegotiating these long-standing ties of oil for security,” Diwan told MEE.
Since entering office, analysts say the Biden administration has largely shifted away from US engagement in the Middle East, with Washington’s primary focus on addressing competition from China. And since February, US foreign policy has been dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the midst of this, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have both held issues with the Biden administration, and Abu Dhabi has been frustrated by what it views as a lack of unequivocal support following missile attacks in January by Yemen’s Houthis.
But the US’s desire to improve ties with its Gulf partners has gained renewed urgency following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, which highlighted the strategic importance of Gulf oil producers as Europe looks to cut its energy dependence on Moscow.
A source familiar with the UAE’s thinking told Reuters that the “seniority and size of the US delegation is a very telling signal and will be meaningful to Sheikh Mohammed and the UAE leadership”.
“Whether or not it resolves any of the underlying issues, which perhaps includes the UAE’s position towards Russia and its increasing relationship with China, is probably another matter,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East, told MEE.
“But at least in terms of surface-level politics, it’s a statement.”
The UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia, has meanwhile been frustrated by conditions on US weapons sales. In December, the UAE said it would suspend talks on purchases of US-made F-35 fighter jets because of conditions related to the sale.