Blinken picks up the phone to firm up alliances — except with most Gulf countries

Blinken picks up the phone to firm up alliances — except with most Gulf countries
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A new administration, a new diplomatic A-list. Or so it would seem. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Florida Republicans push Biden to implement Trump order on Venezuela Intelligence official says Khashoggi report 'obviously' will challenge Saudi relationship MORE has been calling his counterparts across the world. But there are some notable omissions, for example, Egypt, where President Sisi was Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator.” And of the Gulf countries, as of Feb. 4, only the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has had the conversation. Across the cocktails and canapes — which, in the COVID-19 era are more proverbial than real — there is a mixture of discreet muttering and even glee.

As of Feb. 4, Secretary Blinken’s tally of calls was 31, mostly foreign ministers but also the chairperson of the African Union and the NATO secretary-general. Unsurprisingly, the order started with Canada, Mexico and Japan. Middle East-watchers are contrasting this with President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE’s decision to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit.

Blinken’s calls, as memorialized on the State Department website, are mostly boilerplate — i.e., he “emphasized the importance of continuing the strong political and economic relations” (with Swiss President Parmelin). But there were special angles to explain several inclusions and positions in the league table. Switzerland is the Protecting Power for the U.S. in Iran, and in the past an important back-channel. Pakistan is on the cusp of releasing the terrorist responsible for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.


President Biden's speech at the State Department yesterday put some flesh on the bones of his foreign policy. Middle East-wise, his announcement of the end of U.S. support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen was the major news. It reinforced the point made by Blinken in the interview he gave to Andrea Mitchell, broadcast on MSNBC on Feb. 1.

When asked whether he would be going to Iran or North Korea, Blinken replied: “I think I’d first be landing in a plane probably in Europe and in Asia with our closest allies and partners, and I hope that day comes soon.” No mention there of the Middle East. And when he was given the chance to criticize Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — “[He] has been judged by our intelligence agencies as having ordered the brutal murder of [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi; can relations with Saudi Arabia be predicated on some responsibility?” — Blinken went straight for the jugular: “The murder of Mr. Khashoggi was an outrageous act against a journalist, against someone resident in the United States. It was abhorrent, and I think it shocked the conscience of the world.”

He continued: “When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for us in counterterrorism, in trying to advance regional stability and deal with regional aggression.  But we also have to make sure that that partnership is being conducted in a way that’s consistent with our interests and also with our values. And so the president has asked that we review the relationship to make sure it is doing just that, and that’s exactly what’s happening now.”

In the State Department, one can almost hear the hallelujahs in the corridors at the return to “the normal order” of the process of review and consultation to form policy. And mere notification is no substitute for consultation: The pre-inauguration signing of a deal at 11 a.m. on Jan. 20 to sell F-35s to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) still rankles. The Near East bureau must be doubly honored that it has a leading role in two issues central to the Biden administration’s foreign policy concerns — Iran and Yemen. But now there is a different focus from just a couple of weeks ago: freezing Iran’s nuclear moves and de-escalating, while also stopping the war in Yemen to prevent an incipient humanitarian disaster, rather than simply designating the Houthis as terrorists.

Even the readout of Blinken's call with the UAE foreign minister had an implied edge: "Working together ... to end conflicts." The State Department has been annoyed that the UAE has been funding Russian forces in Libya to confront Turkey. 


Diplomacy often appears to be just smiles and handshakes, so how much of the apparent “arm’s length” attitude is deliberate can be fudged. COVID-19 is forcing a change in diplomatic style. Those who want to fly to Washington for face-to-face chats — the preferred Gulf way of diplomacy — are being told to use phone calls or secure video links. In the circumstances, this may only add to a Gulf sense that they are being kept at a distance and their views will not be taken adequately into account on the Iran nuclear issue.

As yet, the Gulf countries have not responded publicly to this change in the diplomatic atmosphere. When the calls start coming from the secretary’s office, an added challenge for Foggy Bottom will be to get the order right. It will be a spectator sport. Despite the end of the intra-Gulf rift with Qatar, rivalries remain. It might have been a dispute within the Gulf family, but domestic disputes often linger and can be violent.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.