U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during an event with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, in Washington, U.S., May 13, 2022.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during an event with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, in Washington, U.S., May 13, 2022. Reuters / ELIZABETH FRANTZ

President Joe Biden sent a high-powered U.S. delegation to the United Arab Emirates on Monday to offer condolences after the death of its ruler, in an apparent bid to step up efforts to repair frayed ties with Gulf Arab allies.

Washington's desire to improve ties with Gulf monarchies has gained renewed urgency following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which highlighted the relevance of Gulf oil producers as Europe looks to cut its energy dependence on Russia.

Gulf states have so far refused to take sides in the Ukraine conflict. OPEC heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE also resisted calls to hike output to help tame crude prices that have aggravated inflation worldwide.

Since the weekend, world leaders have visited Abu Dhabi to pay respects to new leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on the death of his half-brother. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman headed to the UAE on Monday to offer condolences, state media reported.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris landed in the Emirati capital where she is expected to stay for around three hours. She heads a delegation that includes nearly all of Biden's top national security aides, from the secretaries of state and defense and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency to high-ranking White House officials.

The make-up of the delegation reflects Washington's desire to show its commitment to the region, senior U.S. officials say.

Harris will emphasize the intent to deepen ties across areas ranging from security and climate to space, energy and commerce, they added.

"This is a major charm offensive on the part of the Biden administration to repair relations," said Omer Taspinar, a policy expert at the Brookings Institution think tank.

The Middle East had not been a priority for the Biden administration, whose primary focus had been on tackling the China challenge, and since February, the U.S. foreign policy agenda had been dominated by the Ukraine conflict.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia both hold grudges against the Biden administration.

Biden has so far refused to deal directly with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed as de facto ruler of the kingdom.

The Emiratis were frustrated by what they saw as lack of strong U.S. support in the aftermath of missile attacks in January by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthis on Abu Dhabi.

Reuters has reported that Biden upset Sheikh Mohammed by not calling swiftly after the attacks and not responding more forcefully.

"There is an attempt to put things back on track after UAE frustration with the United States by the absence of high-level visits in the aftermath of Houthi attacks," Taspinar added.

"The seniority and size of the U.S. delegation is a very telling signal and will be meaningful to Sheikh Mohammed and the UAE leadership," said a source familiar with Emirati thinking.

At a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed in Morocco in March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered assurances of Washington's commitment to the region.

Gulf states have chafed at perceived declining U.S. commitment to their security in the face of Iran's missile programme and network of regional proxies.

The UAE is at the same time engaging with Tehran to contain tension. Iran's foreign minister was due in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have also been frustrated by conditions on U.S. weapons sales. In December, the UAE said it would suspend talks on purchases of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets because of conditions related to the sale.

The UAE says the United States remains a strategic partner even as it deepens ties with China and Russia.

"There is progress, (but also) more to do. The UAE wants a closer and more clearly defined relationship with the U.S.," the UAE source said.