The death last month of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, was an appropriate occasion to send a large American delegation to offer condolences and try to mend fences. The high-powered delegation was led by US Vice President Kamala Harris and included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and CIA Director Nicholas Burns.
Some observers saw this as an overkill since Sheikh Khalifa was only the nominal ruler of Abu Dhabi, the largest of the emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In poor health for many years, the day-to-day affairs were managed by his brother Muhammad bin Zayed (MbZ), who has now formally taken over as president.
America’s relations with the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia have been strained because of Joe Biden’s lack of attention to the region. The shift toward the Asia-Pacific region had started during Barack Obama’s presidency when Biden was his vice president but it has become much more pronounced since. Further, Biden has rubbed the Arabian potentates the wrong way by talking about human rights (he has done little about them). He even went so far as to call Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) a “pariah”.
MbS is much worse than a pariah; he is a psychopath and a murderer but the US has realized that it needs both MbS and MbZ if it wants to advance its policies especially vis-à-vis Russia and China. In light of the conflict in Ukraine and US-NATO attempts to block Russian oil and gas sales to Europe—not with much success, one might add—Washington wants both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pump more oil.
MbS and MbZ have been so miffed by US behavior that they refused to take Biden’s phone calls. The death of Abu Dhabi’s president afforded an opportunity for the Americans to make amends. They, however, went about it the wrong way.
For the Arabian potentates, optics matter. This is where the Yankees got it wrong. By sending Kamal Harris (of Indian and Jamaican origins) and Austin (African-American) as part of the delegation, the Americans misread what matters to the Emiratis and other Arabian rulers. Being extremely racist, they look down upon people of color.
Let us recall the late Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s infamous reference to Condoleezza Rice. He called her “that black woman”, regardless of her position in the American establishment.
Qaddafi was eccentric but the Emiratis are no less racists. They refer to Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and other people of color as “miskeen” (destitute). Workers from these countries are not only exploited by paying them slave wages, they are also abused and mistreated. If the Americans wanted to curry favour with the Emiratis, they should have sent some white women to amuse them (a few Playboy bunnies suitably (un)dressed might have been a more appealing choice!)
In the autumn of 2000, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the family patriarch, came to the US for medical treatment. As usual, he came with a huge entourage who occupied several hotels in Cleveland, Ohio. Sheikh Zayed enrolled at Cleveland’s Mayo Clinic for heart treatment. It has a reputation for being the top cardiac care clinic in the US.
It so happened that Mayo Clinic’s top cardiologist was of Pakistani origin. He knew the mentality of the Arabs so he called a meeting of his staff as well as the Clinic management and explained to them how to handle the Emirati sheikh. He proposed that his assistant—a white American—would act as the ‘top’ cardiologist while he (the Pakistani cardiologist) will act as his assistant.
Initially, the hospital management and other medical staff were reluctant since the Pakistani cardiologist was a very respected doctor but he was able to convince them of his scheme. He told them that if white doctors and nurses attended Sheikh Zayed, he would shower the Clinic with huge sums of money. That is exactly what happened.
In addition to paying his bills (that were already inflated), Sheikh Zayed gave tens of millions of dollars to Mayo Clinic in donation. In the end, everybody was happy: Sheikh Zayed and members of his entourage for being treated by a “white” heart specialist and his “white” nursing staff as well as the Mayo Clinic that was several million dollars richer! For the Bedouins, talent is linked with skin color.
Fast forward to today. Nothing has changed as far as the Bedouins’ obsession with skin color is concerned. So, the American delegation that descended on Abu Dhabi on May 16 failed the skin test. What the Americans wanted—but have not got so far—was to convince the Emiratis and the Saudis to pump more oil to make up for the Russian shortfall.
The Emiratis are looking for security but the Americans are not forthcoming. They have two overriding concerns: assurances about the protection of the regime and, help with the disastrous war in Yemen. Given the Americans’ obsession with containing Russia and China, they are not willing or able to give adequate assurances to satisfy Emirati and Saudi needs.
The Arabian regimes find Russia and China more reliable protectors. Russia is important for coordinating energy strategy and the amount of oil that needs to be pumped. For decades, the Arabian regimes pumped millions of barrels of extra oil daily to keep the price of oil low to satiate the Americans’ rapacious appetite for the black gold. It made no economic sense since they were subsidizing the US economy at their expense but given their dependence on Washington for survival, they had to pay protection money.
The global environment has changed radically. America’s humiliating defeat and disgraceful retreat from Afghanistan has altered perceptions about its military prowess. Further, the Arabian regimes are not willing to antagonize Russia over Ukraine. They see it as a distant fight in which they have no particular stake. Their concerns are more immediate but the Americans as usual have gone about redressing them the wrong way.
Next time, Biden and his advisors can try sending some white skinned ladies, preferably some attractive Hollywood actresses, that the Arabian potentates might find more appealing. They will definitely have much greater success convincing the Arabian dinosaurs than savvy diplomats or politicians with the wrong skin color!