Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conveyes his condolences to UAE's new President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan over the death of President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on May 17, 2022.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conveyes his condolences to UAE's new President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan over the death of President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on May 17, 2022. Ministry of Presidential Affairs/Anadolu Agency via Getty Image

Could Ukraine Offer a Template for Better US-Gulf Security Relations?

The outpouring of aid to Kyiv shows that a formal defense alliance is inessential to effective wartime assistance.

Relations between Washington and some of its traditional Gulf Arab partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are at their lowest point in history, which is why the Biden administration on Monday sent a high-level delegation to Abu Dhabi: specifically to pay respects upon the death of former UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and to congratulate his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, but more generally to try to heal those ties. 

There are grievances on both sides. Washington, long concerned about human rights violations during the Saudi-led war in Yemen, is freshly disappointed with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for refusing to consider a U.S. demand to increase oil production to reduce soaring international prices and financially undercut Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Saudi and Emirati officials are disappointed with American leaders for, they say, doing too little to protect them from Iran.

This impasse can be overcome—though trust won’t be restored overnight and not all problems in the relationship will be solved—if Riyadh and Abu Dhabi agree to pump more oil, even if temporarily, and if Washington comes up with more effective ways to help defend Saudi Arabia and the UAE against missile and drone attacks by Iran and its proxies across the region.

The challenge is to identify what’s politically feasible for the Biden administration and what practical tools it can use to keep its side of this potential bargain. Formal U.S. security guarantees—which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are asking for—are off the table for a host of strategic and political reasons. But perhaps U.S. military assistance to Ukraine can offer a partial model. One major lesson from Russia’s invasion is that a formal defense pact with the United States is not required to be a recipient of generous, effective, and immediate U.S. security assistance during a military crisis.

Indeed, Ukraine is not a U.S. treaty ally and yet Washington has provided Kyiv with lots of arms, both offensive and defensive, including anti-tank Javelins, anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, helicopters, sophisticated radars, armored personnel carriers, and unmanned aerial systems, all with unprecedented speed.

And it’s not just equipment Washington has shared with Ukraine, it’s also training and real-time intelligence. These have helped the Ukrainian military, for example, kill many Russian generals and sink a major ship in Russia’s Black Sea fleet. (The U.S. government says it has not passed intelligence to Ukraine for the purpose of targeting senior Russian military personnel.)

In April, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby underscored the critical and historic nature of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, saying it has “never been done that fast.” Even the large aid and security cooperation programs the United States executed over the past two decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa do not match the scope and speed of what’s been given to Ukraine in such a short amount of time.

Washington has been able to support and sustain Ukraine’s military effort so quickly and effectively because of a little-known presidential authority called the Drawdown Authorities, as provided by Section 506 of the Foreign Assistance Act. It means that the president can execute rapid assistance in a crisis for requirements the United States cannot otherwise meet under Arms Export Control Act programs like Foreign Military Sales, or FMS.

Normally, Drawdown assistance is capped at $100 million, but the president has already authorized $3.5 billion in transfers and the 2022 Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act provided funding to replace U.S. stocks depleted over the course of eight drawdowns. This authority differs from other U.S. security cooperation programs because the president himself must direct the drawdown of defense articles, services, and training—and because the Defense Department doesn’t keep spare weapons for its partners, meaning the equipment comes directly from U.S. units.

Unlike FMS, where most major systems requests must go through contracting, procurement, production, and a congressional-notification waiting period, drawing down directly from U.S. stocks makes it an unusually fast way to equip partners in crisis. In the case of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, though, unlike Ukraine, they would be able and expected to reimburse the United States for any potential Section 506-based U.S. assistance.

Aside from this financial difference, there are other more substantive ones between Ukraine and the Gulf Arab states, which might affect the possibility of further U.S. military assistance to the latter.

First, the threat posed by Iran to the Gulf Arabs does not compare to the widespread destruction to which Ukraine has been subjected since February. Iran is highly unlikely to roll its tanks into any Gulf Arab capital—as Saddam Hussein did in 1990-91 to seize Kuwait—to expand its influence beyond its borders. The Iranian threat is more hybrid and nuanced, combining both conventional and unconventional elements and focusing on political subversion and exploitation rather than direct political control.

Second, the United States is far more worried about a revanchist nuclear-armed Russia that poses a strategic threat to Europe than it is about a non-nuclear Iran in the Middle East. Should the war in Ukraine dramatically escalate, the United States and NATO could get into a direct military confrontation with Russia that could witness a nuclear exchange. No such risks are present in the Middle East, because Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons (at least not yet) and is vastly inferior to its adversaries in conventional terms.

Third, Ukraine has displayed an impressive will and ability to defend itself, something that Washington hasn’t seen sufficiently in most of its Arab partners. The concern among American officials is that giving the Arab partners more weapons might still not be enough to assuage their security concerns or incentivize them to put more skin in the game.

But this doesn’t mean that all the Gulf Arab partners have no will to fight, that they’re not worthy of such assistance, or that the Iranian threat is insignificant. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have caused death and destruction across the region for decades by continuing to cultivate local proxies – like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq – that have employed terrorism and other forms of violence against both Arabs and Americans and have had no regard for the rules and sovereignty of the countries in which they’re operating. In recent years, Iran and its proxies have increased their hostilities by striking civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE including airports and oil installations with missiles and drones.

Admittedly, drawing down and transferring finite quantities of U.S. military equipment to Ukrainian fighters on the front lines is more palatable than using these same authorities to address a more complex threat from Iran. Solutions to Iranian drones and missiles cost a lot more, too (for example, the sale of Theater High Altitude Defense to Saudi Arabia came in at an estimated price of $15 billion). And lastly, effective air and missile defense requires multiple layered systems, training, integration, munitions, and sustainment.

Therefore, a more appropriate use of reimbursable drawdown authorities in the case of Saudi Arabi and the UAE would be to fulfill their urgent requirements for critically low munitions like interceptor missiles, while using other security cooperation programs to continue to deliberately build their self-defense capabilities and share real-time intelligence with them on potential attacks by Iran and the Houthis. There should be nothing controversial about more U.S. help in an inherently defensive domain, which is air and missile defense.

Despite all the concerns of the Gulf Arab states about U.S. policy, they keep coming back to Washington asking for more, not less. That’s because they recognize, quite pragmatically and perhaps grudgingly, that there is no credible substitute for the security relationship with the United States, not even China and Russia combined (do Riyadh and Abu Dhabi really want to partner with Moscow, whose combat performance against a much weaker Ukraine has been dreadful, or with Beijing, whose strategic cooperation agreement with Tehran throws a significant economic lifeline to Iran?)

Yet as compelling as this reality is, by itself it is not sufficient to get both sides to recommit to each other. Ironically, the oil-for-security bargain of the past is still relevant, although today it looks different in at least one crucial aspect: this time the United States is not coming to the rescue like it did in Operation Desert Storm and generally playing the role of sole guardian. Rather, it is seeking to help its regional partners step up and fend for themselves. Elements of the Ukraine model could be useful to achieve that objective.

Melissa Horvath is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Institute (MEI) and director of the International Trade Group at Commonwealth Trading Partners. Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow with MEI and a former senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Defense.