Understanding the Gulf States

Why the monarchies of the Persian Gulf fall out and get back together—and why it matters for the region and the world.

By F. Gregory Gause, III

Tagged Foreign PolicyMiddle East

On November 16, 2014, Arab news outlets flashed a picture of the young ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, kissing the forehead of the then-aged monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. That kiss, a common gesture in the Arabian Peninsula of respect by the young for their elders, supposedly sealed a reconciliation between Qatar and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the club of monarchical energy producers in the Persian Gulf that, in addition to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, includes Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman. Qatar had fallen out with GCC members over its maverick policy of supporting Islamist groups, encouraging a freer press through its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera satellite television network, and generally putting itself forward as an independent voice in regional foreign-policy issues.

While this erstwhile monarchical spat had important personal and local elements behind it of little concern to the wider world, there were significant policy implications to the Gulf rift. During a time of enormous regional upheaval, the richest players in the Middle East political game were, in many cases, working at cross purposes. Qatar was the major source of aid for the Muslim Brotherhood government that ruled Egypt in 2012-13. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait were and remain the chief funders of the other side—the military regime of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew the elected Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 and had himself elected president in May 2014. Qatar’s foes have accused it of supplying the Islamist forces that form the Libyan government that sits in Tripoli, while the UAE air force has flown missions to support the rival Libyan government in Tobruk, as the two sides fight for control of Benghazi and the country’s oil wealth. While the Qataris and the Saudis would both like to see Bashar al-Assad out of power in Syria, they have backed rival groups in the opposition, encouraging divisions that have bolstered the so-called Islamic State. American officials have publicly charged Qatar with allowing private citizens and residents of the country to raise money to support the Islamic State.

Differences among the GCC states have consequences beyond the region, and can also affect the ability of the United States to conduct policy there. For better or worse, the Gulf monarchies are now America’s closest allies in the Arab world. The U.S. military infrastructure in the region is centered on bases in these states. The Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is headquartered in Bahrain and has access to facilities in other GCC states. U.S. troops going back into Iraq are supplied from Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Al-Udeid air base in Qatar is the largest U.S. air base in the region, supporting the missions against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and against the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. warplanes also have access to air bases in Oman and the UAE. While the Pentagon will not publicly identify the bases from which airstrikes are launched against the Islamic State, there is no doubt that some of these Gulf bases are part of the campaign. Access to Saudi Arabia’s airspace is essential to the deployment of U.S. air power in the region, and intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia is a key element in the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and other Sunni Islamist groups. Any U.S. military pressure on Iran, if the current talks with Tehran were to fail, would rely on the cooperation of the Gulf states.

The Gulf monarchies are also important to the world economy. They produce a little over 20 percent of the world’s oil and possess about 30 percent of its oil reserves. Moreover, they hold most of the world’s spare oil-production capacity—that is, they have the ability to raise production quickly. The recent Saudi decision not to reduce production in the face of falling prices, backed by the UAE and Kuwait in OPEC councils, accelerated the recent collapse in oil prices. Their treasuries disperse billions of dollars to simpatico regimes and movements in the region, and their sovereign wealth funds dispose of hundreds of billions of dollars in world capital markets.

The Saudi-Qatari reconciliation in November allowed the GCC to hold its annual summit in Doha, Qatar’s capital, the following month. The summit produced modest results, including cooperation agreements on naval and police issues. Qatar agreed to a summit declaration that seemed like a retreat on a number of fronts, backing Sisi’s regime in Egypt and the Libyan government in Tobruk. Meanwhile, over the course of 2014, Qatar had been keeping a lower profile in Syria, leaving the Saudis as the major Gulf player there. And at the end of December, Al Jazeera closed its channel devoted to Egyptian news, which had been critical of the Sisi government and supportive of its Muslim Brotherhood foes. But while some of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had found a home in exile in Qatar left the country amid the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation, other prominent figures remain there. A senior Qatari official told The New York Times after the Gulf summit that its declaration was simply a “press release” of little significance. Given the opacity of policy-making in the Gulf states, it is hard to tell just how far Qatar has backed away from its previous policies and reconciled with its Gulf neighbors.

Washington was pressing for that reconciliation to occur, so it was a win, no matter how small, for the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy—a rare event in recent years. Whether the task is confronting radical Islamists, dealing with Iran, responding to the tragic events in Syria, or managing the world oil market, U.S. interests in the region are better served when these states sing from the same hymnal—the American hymnal. The good news is that there are excellent reasons for them to stick together. Moreover, they all depend on the United States for their security, so we have the leverage to help keep them together. Managing our Gulf relations is not the most difficult job Washington has in the Middle East, but it is a necessary foundation for successful approaches to harder tasks in the region.

The Personal and the Political in the Gulf

Gulf leaders do not have many constraints on their freedom to maneuver. Kuwait became independent from Great Britain in 1961, the other smaller states in 1971. Their historic ties with London were of decreasing value as Britain receded from a world role, so they did not have a decades-long relationship with a great power to anchor their foreign policies, as Saudi Arabia has had with the United States since the 1930s. Foreign-policy-making is also not particularly bureaucratized in these states. None of the leaders (with the partial exception of Kuwait) has to face an elected parliament with real powers, or a free press. Strong lobbies on foreign-policy issues do not exist; public opinion is a minimal constraint. Since the 1990-91 Gulf War, the United States has effectively ensured the external security of the small Gulf states by building military bases in them (though the facilities are not officially called that). Behind the shield of American guarantees, these states are free to pursue pretty much whatever regional policy they choose—and Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait have the money to conduct an activist policy.

All these factors combine to give the individual monarchs enormous latitude in foreign policy. Thus, personnel changes can lead to dramatically different directions. Within the confines of a continued security relationship with the United States, the “national interest” is pretty much what the leader says it is, even if that is significantly different from what came before.

The intense media interest in the recent leadership transition in Saudi Arabia is a reflection of the importance of the personal in Gulf politics. The late King Abdullah is often portrayed as a reformer in the Saudi context. He did expand the very limited scope for women to play a role in Saudi public life, but was generally conservative at home. He maintained the strong Saudi-American relationship, despite the crises of the September 11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the Arab Spring. He was a risk-taker in regional politics, attempting (without success) to roll back Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, and confronting (with more success) the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Egypt. While the new King Salman has been part of the Saudi ruling elite for decades, and thus is very likely to continue the broad outlines of Saudi policy on oil and relations with the United States, we do not know if he is going to renew Abdullah’s more aggressive efforts to counter Iranian regional influence and continue the Saudi campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, or adopt a more cautious regional policy.

Qatar, on the other hand, is the perfect example of how changes at the top of a Gulf monarchy can produce dramatic changes in foreign policy. From independence in the 1970s through the mid-’90s, Qatar was the most loyal ally of Saudi Arabia within the GCC. The ruler, Sheikh Khalifa, had no particular ambitions beyond his borders. Qatar kept a very low profile. After Khalifa was deposed by his son Sheikh Hamad in 1995, Qatari policy shifted dramatically. Qatar under Hamad was all about the global brand, from Al Jazeera to the successful World Cup bid to the establishment in Doha of “Education City,” home to branch campuses of a number of American universities (including my institution, Texas A&M). Qatar went from being Saudi Arabia’s closest Gulf ally to a thorn in the Saudi side, asserting its independence from Riyadh on a series of issues, the most important of which was Hamad’s support for populist, Islamist groups throughout the Arab world, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudis during this period were becoming estranged from the Brotherhood, with whom they had been allied against secular Arab nationalism and leftism during the Cold War. The Brotherhood had mostly stood against Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1990-91, seeing the massive American military presence in the region as more threatening than Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. As Brotherhood parties in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia, and elsewhere began to accept (if only for tactical purposes, as some charge) electoral politics as a route to power, they challenged the Saudi contention that Islam was incompatible with democratic thought.

Hamad, however, saw the rise of populist Islam as the wave of the Arab future, and hitched Qatar’s regional ambitions to close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. He gave Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an intellectual leader of the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood, Qatari citizenship and his own show on Al Jazeera. Qatar maintained close relations with the Hamas government in Gaza, with Hamad paying the equivalent of a state visit to Gaza in 2012. Under Hamad, Qatar also gave extensive aid to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government and became a strong supporter of Islamist opposition groups in the Syrian civil war.

Was Qatar’s “national interest” better served by Hamad’s ambitious global branding and support for Islamists, or by his father’s low profile and pro-Saudi stance? Hard to say. But what is absolutely clear is that the man at the top in Qatar has enormous leeway to determine the state’s foreign policy. That is why so much attention was focused on the new ruler, Sheikh Tamim, when he came to power in the summer of 2013. Little is known of Tamim’s own policy views. He rules in the shadow of his father, who voluntarily abdicated (in all likelihood to secure a stable transition, after three consecutive leadership changes by palace coup). Moving too far away from Hamad’s policies risks alienation from the man who made him the ruler. His Gulf neighbors, tired of Hamad’s independent line, put heavy pressure on Tamim to return to the Saudi-led fold, culminating in the November 2014 “reconciliation.” But the bottom line is that no one really knows what Qatar’s foreign policy is going to be in the future. Any commitment to walking back his father’s independent policy will last only as long as Tamim wants it to last.

In the UAE, changes in leadership have also substantially shifted foreign-policy stances. The founding ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, quietly used Abu Dhabi’s immense oil wealth to cement the confederation with six other small emirates, including global economic player Dubai, and to promote efforts to reconcile feuding Arab countries. The driving force in Emirati foreign policy now is Zayed’s son Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander of the UAE armed forces. Mohammed has developed the Emirati armed forces into a power-projection force, bombing targets in Libya and participating in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and in the air campaign against the Islamic State. Unlike Zayed, who tolerated a small Muslim Brotherhood presence in the UAE and kept the country aloof from inter-Arab disputes, the current UAE leadership has organized a regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, branding it a transnational threat to the Emirates’ domestic and regional security. The UAE is a harsh critic of Islamist movements across the region and a major financial supporter of governments, like Sisi’s Egypt, seen as enemies of Islamists.

Why do Qatar and the UAE have such divergent positions on the Muslim Brotherhood? It is hard to attribute it to anything but the personal preferences of the leaders. The states themselves are very similar in all sorts of respects—governing systems, social makeup, geopolitical position. But the leaders view the region differently, seeing different opportunities and different threats. In the Gulf, the personal is the political, particularly in foreign policy. This means that, in the absence of institutionalized foreign-policy procedures and domestic constraints, agreements and “reconciliations” are only as reliable as the leaders who make them.

Fundamentals of Regime Security

Given the vast latitude that the rulers of the Gulf states have in making foreign policy, it is not surprising that the history of the GCC has been characterized by tensions among its members. All of them have a checkered history with Saudi Arabia. At one time or another during the first half of the twentieth century, Saudi Arabia pressured each of them to, in essence, become part of the expanding Saudi state. Only British protection kept the smaller states out of Riyadh’s control, as London made them protectorates to guard the approaches to India and safeguard regional oil interests. British colonial policy bequeathed them their borders and their independence.

Some of the more suspicious leaders see current Saudi calls for GCC “unity” as simply the old Saudi hegemonic plan under a new guise. Pushing back against Saudi dominance is a regular feature of ambitious GCC leaders’ foreign policies. There are territorial disputes along almost every shared border among the GCC states. Geography and demographics dictate that the smaller states will have different orientations toward their other Gulf neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Kuwait historically fears Iraqi irredentism more than Iranian power. Bahrain, with a Sunni ruling family and a Shia majority population, worries more about Iran than Iraq. The UAE and Iran have an ongoing dispute over control of a number of islands in the Persian Gulf. Oman, which shares management of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, has maintained a businesslike relationship with Tehran under both the regime of the shah and the Islamic Republic.

These latent differences among the Gulf states occasionally emerge into public view, as they did in March 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. This dispute had a basis in real policy differences—Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Other examples seem to be more driven by personal slights and amour-propre. In April 2012, Saudi Arabia prevented trucks from the UAE from crossing into Saudi territory for a number of days, resulting in a massive bottleneck at the border. Saudi officials were apparently miffed that the UAE had issued a map showing territory that the Saudis controlled as being part of the UAE. The personal became the political at various GCC summits in the past, when one ruler or another chose not to attend, sending lower-level representatives as a sign of his problems with the summit host. Various members of the group have fallen out in the recent past over tariff issues, a proposed common currency, appointment of the secretary general of the GCC, policy toward Iran and Iraq, and a host of other issues large and small.

Given the range of potential problems among the GCC states and the personal nature of their foreign policies, it’s remarkable that there are not more such flare-ups. Two overarching factors keep the states together. The first is their common monarchical identity. The leaders of these states know the history of their region. Some are even old enough to have witnessed the fall of fellow monarchs in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran. Whatever separates them, they know that the security of their regimes depends on maintaining a common monarchical front in times of crisis. It is no accident that, during the height of the Arab Spring, Saudi King Abdullah invited fellow monarchies Jordan and Morocco (but not Yemen, which is an Arabian Peninsula neighbor but a republic) to join the GCC. (With the recent takeover of Yemen’s capital by the pro-Iranian Houthis, the slim chance that Yemen would be invited to join the monarchical club just got even slimmer.)

The second factor knitting the Gulf states together is their common reliance on the United States as their ultimate guarantor of security. This is more than just coincidence. Like the United States, the Gulf monarchies are fundamentally status quo powers in the region. They benefit from strategic stability, in terms of their oil sales and domestic tranquility. Big ideas and revisionist powers that seek to change the regional map inevitably aim at their overthrow, from the Arab nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and ’60s to the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini to the current challenge of radical Salafi jihadism represented by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. They are linked to one another, and to the United States, by a profound fear of regional transformation. When Washington briefly abandoned its regional role as a status quo power in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Gulf states (with the exception of Kuwait) were very reluctant supporters, yet supporters nonetheless, because of the centrality of American protection for them. Now that the United States has more or less returned to its traditional status quo stance in the region, the Gulf monarchies will find it easier to follow the American lead. While Washington talks a good game about democracy in the Middle East, and even inclined that way a bit during the Arab Spring, the bottom line is that the United States values the stability of authoritarian Middle East allies more than the risky outcomes of democratic experiments in the region.

The strength of this profoundly conservative shared worldview is most evident in times of crisis, when the monarchical states put aside the real and imagined differences among themselves and stand together. Three particular periods of grave danger to the Gulf monarchies stand out:

  • The Gulf Cooperation Council was founded in 1981, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the onset of the Iraq-Iran War in September 1980. The twin threats of Islamic revolution and regional war led the smaller states to put aside their historic fears of Saudi hegemony on the Arabian Peninsula and accept membership in an organization that would inevitably be dominated by Saudi Arabia.
  • When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the other five states stood with Kuwait to recover its territory and restore its monarchical government. They opened their territories to U.S. and other international forces, despite the risk of both Iraqi retaliation and domestic discontent over the presence of foreign forces.
  • When the Arab Spring spread to Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, Oman in early 2011, the monarchies came together against the uprising. While Qatar egged on popular protests in other Arab states, Al Jazeera reported next to nothing on the demonstrations in Bahrain and Oman. Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops to Bahrain to support the regime, a move also backed by Qatar and Kuwait with token deployments. The richer states committed billions of dollars of aid to the relatively poorer monarchs in Bahrain and Oman. Despite tensions between Qatar and its GCC partners both before and after the Arab Spring, the Qataris fell in line during the height of the crisis.

When the GCC states do squabble, it is practically a signal that they are not facing any serious and immediate threats. Qatar’s challenge to GCC unity began in the late 1990s, with Saddam Hussein at bay, the Khatami regime in Iran playing down the revolutionary elements of its foreign policy, and the post-Cold War Pax Americana reigning in the region, reinforced by permanent U.S. military facilities in the Gulf states. If Qatar’s recent reconciliation with its Gulf partners is real, one can say that the Qatari challenge ended with the re-emergence of serious regional security threats—the Arab Spring, increased Iranian regional power, and the rise of the Islamic State. This seeming shift in Qatari policy coincided with a change at the top in Qatar. Maybe it is all just about the leader. But it could be that Hamad, who led the maverick turn in Qatari foreign policy, realized that changing times were not as conducive to his particular brand of diplomatic dealing, and saw 2013 as a good time to ensure the succession to his more cautious son.

This is not to say that things down the line will be all sweetness and light among the GCC states. Their underlying historical differences remain, the personal is still the political, and fallings-out among the leaders are inevitable. It is simply to point out that, when things get really serious, the Gulf monarchical regimes tend to hang together, for fear that if they do not, they will all hang separately.

U.S. Strategy, Regional Stability, and Syria

Differences among the Gulf states are hardly the most serious problem facing the United States in the Middle East. While the GCC states have argued over a number of issues, their basic alliance with the United States is not one of them. Qatar’s maverick foreign policy has on occasion irked Washington, to be sure: Neither the George W. Bush nor the Obama Administration liked Doha’s support for Hamas or its coziness with other Islamist groups. Very few Qataris think it was a coincidence that in the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the Al Jazeera bureau in each country was “accidentally” hit by American firepower. But in the end, the centrality of al-Udeid air base to U.S. military operations in the region was more important to Washington than Qatar’s pro-Islamist foreign policy, and relations continued on an even keel. Despite publicly expressed worries in the Gulf states about the Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran and cautious policy toward Syria, the fundamentals of America’s relations with the GCC remain intact.

Still, differences among the Gulf states and their uncertainty about American intentions have been an important element in the mess that the Obama Administration’s Syrian policy has become. Washington’s reticence to become deeply involved in the Syrian civil war is certainly understandable, given its recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. But without U.S. leadership on Syria, the Gulf states went their own, at times competing, ways. Qatar was an early supporter of more Islamist elements of the opposition, cooperating with the Erdogan government in Turkey to assist the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. In the fluid and disorganized early stages of the rebellion, aid from Qatar and Turkey undoubtedly reached more radical groups that are now part of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia was a later arrival to the Syrian game, at first supporting the more secular Free Syrian Army, then trying to organize its own Islamist clients into an effective force. It is now cooperating with the United States and Jordan in an effort to build a new opposition force from the ground up. All along, Qatar and Saudi Arabia jousted to have their clients take the lead in the Syrian opposition. The divisions among the Syrian forces opposed to the Assad regime are hardly the creations of outsiders, but Gulf state (and Turkish) support for competing groups helped to strengthen those divisions.

The events of the past few months provide an opportunity for the Obama Administration to get the Gulf states on the same page regarding the crisis that now spans the Syria-Iraq border. The summer 2014 offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq was a wake-up call to all the players in the Middle East game. Even Qatar joined the anti-Islamic State coalition put together by Washington, reportedly flying support missions during coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Falling oil prices, combined with reversals suffered by Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, seem to have led to a more cautious Qatari regional approach, culminating in the recent reconciliation. If this change proves enduring, it can be the opening for Washington to push for a joint Gulf approach to the complex of problems in the region: an effective political and military stand against the Islamic State, coupled with a new approach to the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi (which replaced the Nouri al-Maliki government, seen by many Gulf players as too pro-Iranian) and a new political-military initiative in Syria. U.S. influence in the Gulf states, despite the complaints one hears from them about Obama’s reticence on Syria, remains strong enough to encourage such an ambitious joint approach.

But before it can get the Gulf states on board, the Obama Administration will have to decide just what it wants to do in Syria and present a plausible road map to success there. Such a road map cannot rely solely on the quixotic notion that a few thousand opposition forces, trained by the United States and its Arab allies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, can change the balance of forces on the ground in Syria. Nor can it involve a major U.S. military commitment against the Assad regime, something that public opinion would not support and that the Administration is loath to consider. But it will require a creative approach to regional diplomacy that will have to engage Assad’s major allies in Moscow and Tehran if it is to have any hope of success. Here the falling oil prices that might have played a role in bringing Qatar around to a reconciliation with its neighbors might also make both the Russians and the Iranians more willing to consider political solutions to their (both financially and politically) expensive support for the Assad regime.

The circumstances are ripe for an American initiative in the region. The nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Britain, China, Russia, and France) plus Germany—are on the knife’s edge, but an agreement would open up the possibility of a changed regional atmosphere. The Islamic State is a formidable enough threat to concentrate minds from Damascus to Tehran and Ankara to Riyadh. The change in government in Baghdad opens up the possibility of bridging existing fissures both within Iraq and between Iraq and the Gulf states. The Gulf states have the opportunity to put their differences behind them and present a unified front that can bring financial and diplomatic (though not so much military) power to bear in important ways, primarily through their ties with various elements of the Syrian opposition.

Success is not guaranteed here. But a strong American initiative could at least increase the chances that these changed regional circumstances could lead to a more stable Middle East. Such an initiative would have to be based on a political settlement of the Syrian civil war that includes the Assad regime and elements of the opposition outside of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, as well as both Russia and Iran, to push their ally Assad to the table. The alternative is continued mayhem, human suffering, and regional chaos that could spill over in dangerous ways.

There is one caveat that Washington needs to keep in mind as it encourages its Gulf allies to put their differences behind them and take a common position supporting regional stability. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the Brotherhood as a domestic as well as a regional threat, and they are trying to make an anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance the core of a common GCC policy. Distancing itself from the Brotherhood is the price that they are making Qatar pay for readmission into their good graces. The Brotherhood is no friend of the United States, and Washington seems to have made its peace with the military-coup regime of President Sisi in Egypt. But it would be a mistake to align U.S. policy directly with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on this issue.

If there is any hope for democratic reforms to come to the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamist political groups have to be a part of that equation. Tunisia, which in October elected a secular party, indicates that this is possible. Moreover, even within the GCC states themselves, Sunni Islamist groups like the Brotherhood play an important role in political life—they are represented in the Kuwaiti and Bahraini parliaments—and play a social role as well. The anti-Brotherhood campaign has been a pretext for closing down the very limited range of political freedoms in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

It would be counterproductive for the United States to make the Brotherhood issue a major element of its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and to push the other Gulf states to take such a vehement anti-Brotherhood position. Instead, it should use the opportunity its close relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi provide to counsel against the kind of polarizing policies that could have negative effects both regionally and domestically. Washington need not be a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it should not be leading the charge against it either.

Different Values, Mutual Interests

The Gulf monarchies have embraced the outward manifestations of Western modernity with a vengeance. Their capitals and major cities have spectacular high-rise buildings, eight-lane freeways, and glittering shopping malls with every Western luxury brand available. Their elites, though dressed in the style of their grandfathers and grandmothers, attend the best Western universities and speak the language of international business—both literally, in that their English is excellent, and stylistically, in that they talk like global entrepreneurs even if they are not. That can lead the first-time visitor to think that they’re just like us, except that they dress differently.

That thought would be wrong. The Gulf states are basically illiberal and authoritarian. The role of Islam is very strong as both state religion (particularly in Saudi Arabia) and social force. The United States and the Gulf monarchies have profoundly different views about political order, personal freedom, and gender relations. What links the two is not values, but interests. Those interests are substantial, and they have sustained a productive and mutually beneficial relationship for decades.

While the Gulf monarchies have their differences among themselves, they are bound together by profoundly important common characteristics and by their mutual dependence on their security ties with the United States. That relationship with Washington has its ups and downs, but it is enduring, and it gives American leaders considerable leverage. With the decline in oil prices, and its possible ameliorating effects on the aggressive policies of Russia and Iran, Washington has the opportunity to bring its Gulf allies, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey together in a common stance toward the Syrian crisis that could encourage a diplomatic solution to at least part of that war and redirect regional efforts against the Islamic State. It is far from a sure thing, but it is an effort very much worth making. Success on this front could reduce the sectarian tensions that are poisoning the politics of so many Middle Eastern states and encourage a larger, stabilizing Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.

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F. Gregory Gause, III is the John H. Lindsey '44 Chair and head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

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