I once spent five months doing all that with a light-infantry platoon in the heat of the Kuwaiti desert and … well, it’s not always fun. The sun sucks, the sand sucks, and you’re trying to keep a bunch of teenagers focused in 100-degree heat. I get it. Getting shot by the enemy, though, is less fun, and along the border with Yemen, Saudi ground forces in particular have proved largely incapable of closing with and engaging the enemy—which is the entire point of possessing ground-maneuver forces.
The failure of Saudi and allied ground forces has contributed to their overreliance on air forces, which have spent most of the past few decades practicing air-to-air combat (which they’re still not very good at, if we’re not grading on a curve) and were largely unprepared for what they were asked to do over Yemen—as lots of Yemeni civilians sadly discovered.
The silver lining to all this bad news is that none of our Gulf partners looks ready to challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge anytime soon, individually or collectively, and we retain some leverage over our partners so long as they remain reliant on us for their collective defense.
The good news, meanwhile, is that some of our partners in the region—not many, but some—have developed real and formidable military capabilities. Our Emirati partners, for example, are able to conduct truly independent military operations, and their air forces and special forces are capable of operating alongside ours. They have done so, in fact, over the past decade—including in Afghanistan.
Indeed, one of the things that’s missing from the spate of recent articles bemoaning the influence of the United Arab Emirates in Washington is the real value proposition that the Emiratis bring to the table. The reason U.S. military officers, especially, fall in love with their Emirati counterparts is because the Emirati crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed, has invested in actual capabilities and has military forces the Americans can treat as peers.
Of course, the danger of helping your partners create independent military capabilities is that, if you succeed, you’ve helped your partners create independent military capabilities. They may use their newfound capabilities—from Yemen to Libya—in support of strategic aims that diverge from your own. (In Yemen, our Emirati friends have discovered something that we ourselves were reminded of in Iraq and Afghanistan: Operational excellence alone is often not enough to realize strategic victory.)
So why does the current administration fight so hard to keep arming our partners in the Gulf? I don’t think it’s as simple as the need to support the U.S. military industrial base, though that is a concern I’m sure it has. Some U.S. strategists genuinely fear that if we do not arm our partners, our Russian or Chinese rivals will. They can’t cite that fear to justify the “emergency” that allows us to continue arming the Saudis and Emiratis over congressional objections, because it’s more of a strategic concern, but based on my conversations with U.S., Saudi, and Emirati officials, it’s a major driver of American policy.