General view of Riyadh city
A general view of Riyadh city, Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2022. Reuters / MOHAMMED BENMANSOUR

Ties between the U.S. and Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are clogged with distrust and tensions and mistrust between them have been laid bare in recent years.

The Gulf nations have diversified their economic and strategic ties, particularly banking on China and Russia, two U.S. rivals. Their investments in innovation, technology, and consumer brands have made their cities hubs of global trade and connectivity. They do not depend anymore on the U.S. for their economic survival.

The Gulf states and their sovereign wealth funds have been prime holders of American debt in U.S. treasuries and they pump money into all kinds of industries that the monarchies hope to grow in their backyard.

In the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring oil prices, and attacks on Saudi and Emirati territories by Iran-backed Houthis rebels in Yemen, it is clear that there will not be a return to the past in the ties between the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies.

Apparently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not taking heed to the wall of sanctions imposed by the U.S. to isolate Russia. Saudi-led OPEC has refused to increase oil production despite repeated pleas and warnings by the U.S. They have succinctly made it clear that they will stick to the OPEC Plus cooperation deal they agreed with Russia before the Ukraine invasion.

In the UN Security Council, which the UAE currently chairs, the Emirates abstained, along with China and India, on the resolution denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Saudi Arabia is playing neutral in the flare-up in East Europe.

The Biden administration announced Feb. 12 last year that it was reversing the designation of Yemen's Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, a signal that the U.S. was ignoring Iran's expansionist and military designs in Yemen. Soon after assuming office in 2020, Biden halted support for coalition operations and reviewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Snubbing U.S. President Joe Biden, the de facto rulers of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have refused to attend his phone calls.

President Biden last year released a CIA report pinning responsibility on Mohammed bin Salman, day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, for the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Since then Biden refuses to acknowledge Prince Mohammed and deals only with his aged father King Salman.

Mohammed bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the UAE, ignored a Biden phone call as he was indignant with the US president following missile attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Emirati targets last year.

China's no-strings diplomacy is finding takers in the Middle East. Beijing is doling out a simple deal before Riyadh: Give us oil and choose whatever military equipment from our stable. The aim is to stabilize the global energy markets in China's favor.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly rolling out a red carpet welcoming President Xi Jinping of China, which may not go well with the U.S.

This low point in the relationship did not occur all of a sudden. The mistrust started with the 2011 Arab uprisings when Gulf monarchs believed Washington was abandoning them.

The turning point in their ties with the U.S. was the September 2019 attack on the Aramco plant at Abqaiq, forcing Abu Dhabi to gradually withdraw from the Yemen war and Riyadh to open communication channels with arch-rival Iran. The UAE and Saudis resent the U.S. for curtailing arms supplies to support their eight-year-old war in Yemen.

The Houthis seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war to support Yemen's exiled government in March 2015. Years of inconclusive fighting have made the Arab world's poorest nation on the brink of famine.

But the U.S. does not want to give up on its declared allies on a fine morning. Faced with new geopolitical realities, and increasing Chinese presence in the Gulf, the efforts to mend the ties are on and the U.S. feels the best way is to engage more in the Yemen war.

On April 13, the U.S. Navy established a new multinational task force to curb arms smuggling in the waters around Yemen.

With the latest U.S. military response to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the U.S. can provide additional military support in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab, and the Gulf of Aden, said Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Fifth Fleet Commander.

The task force would comprise eight vessels and is part of the 34-nation Combined Maritime Forces, which Cooper commands.

The waters around Yemen are vital for global trade, including oil supplies, and the waters between Somalia, Djibouti, and Yemen are well-known smuggling paths for weapons that finally end up with the Houthis and Somalian pirates.

For now, Israel, another regional powerhouse, has not announced any plan to join the Combined Maritime Forces. Cooper also declined to answer whether Israel will be joining the joint command.

The task force was launched amid a two-month truce in the Yemen war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and uprooted millions.