Washington's Limits in the Gulf

The United States has tried for years to unify the Gulf states.
But what Washington couldn’t do, maybe Tehran can. A response
to F. Gregory Gause, III.

By Geneive Abdo

Tagged Foreign PolicyMiddle East

In “Understanding the Gulf States” [Issue #36], F. Gregory Gause, III chronicles the personal nature of leadership in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and how individual rulers have shaped regional and foreign policies over the last several decades. Personality politics, he argues, have also served as a factor in determining which members of the GCC—comprised of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—are squabbling at any given time and when and how they reconcile. Despite this long history of tension, he writes, two common interests override their differences: their common identity as monarchies and their reliance on the United States to ensure their security. Thus, he says, the time is ripe for the United States to present the GCC with a grand initiative that would unify member states, guarantee their endorsement of U.S. policy on key issues such as the wars in Iraq and Syria, and enable them to make peace with one another for the foreseeable future.

While this geopolitical analysis may have characterized Gulf power plays and the GCC’s relations with the United States in years past, the turmoil in the Middle East, the collapse of some nation-states, and the shifting dynamics between Shia and Sunni states cry out for a new analysis that includes less involvement from Washington. Two events in recent months have made the status quo no longer tenable: the nuclear framework agreement between Iran and world powers, which seemed, as these words were written, likely to lead to a full agreement; and the Shia-led revolt in Yemen, which has overturned a Sunni-led government. These two developments are proving to unify GCC states around an anti-Shia strategy, which trumps their historic squabbling and has limited Washington’s capability and credibility to act as a power broker in the Arab Gulf.

Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the first Shia Islamic republic was established in the modern world, the states now in the GCC have viewed Iran as a mortal threat—so much so that this is partially the reason the GCC was established. This threat has never appeared more real than today. In the view of governments in the Gulf and other Sunni-led states, Iran’s dominance in the Arab world, either directly or through its Shia-led proxies and militias, has made unity a vital necessity and U.S. involvement far less relevant. In fact, in the view of some, Washington is part of the problem. After all, it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as Sunni leaders see it, that led to two successive Shia governments taking power in Baghdad. Lack of U.S. military action in Syria has kept President Bashar al-Assad in power and Hezbollah strong in Lebanon, and now a nuclear agreement could make Iran more empowered militarily, if sanctions are lifted as part of a long-term deal. In order to address the concerns of GCC leaders, President Obama held a summit at Camp David in May. However, despite the upbeat tone from Gulf leaders when the meeting ended, whether GCC leaders will change their views and decision-making without Washington still depends upon the terms of an accord with Iran.

Commentaries and cartoons tell the story of how Arab states and societies view the Iranian threat. Shortly after the framework nuclear deal was agreed upon in early April between Iran and the P5+1, Al Jazeera published a cartoon that expressed Arab attitudes precisely. It shows Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the foreground with his back toward a man who represents the Obama Administration. Khamenei is carrying a document under his arm, which could be considered a road map, that reads in Arabic, “The world of the Bedouins.” The word “Bedouin” is a tipoff—it alludes to a long-held Persian belief that theirs is a great civilization compared to the Arab world, which Persians see as a primitive land, one they should conquer in order to modernize it. The cartoon’s message is that while the Obama Administration cares only about getting a nuclear deal with Iran, Iran has greater ambitions: to conquer Arab territory.

The Gulf states fear that a nuclear agreement, if it happens, would fundamentally shift the geopolitical balance in the region in Iran’s favor. Moreover, they see Iran’s drive for regional dominance as being supported by the United States, a perception that endangers Washington’s relations with its Gulf allies. Driven by these fears, the Gulf states have come to believe that they need to resolve the differences among themselves in order to defend the Arab world against Iranian hegemony.

Gause predicts that the future will bring harmony between Qatar and the other GCC states. Most countries in the council had been at odds with Qatar over its support of Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which the other states view as a terrorist organization. They differed for years on other issues as well, such as the price of oil and relations with their own Islamists. Some Gulf states believed their neighbors were not cracking down hard enough on Islamists across the region.
Gause writes that Gulf states have become more united because of their reliance on the United States as “their ultimate guarantor of security.” He goes so far as to say that the Gulf monarchies are Washington’s closest Arab allies due to the United States’s military bases in those countries, such as the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

But Gause seems to misread the current state of play on the ground. Even before the nuclear deal seemed to be on track, Arab governments began asserting their independence from the United States and expressing outright fear of Iranian expansionism. While negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 were underway, Iran’s influence—direct or indirect—in the Arab world increased. This is one reason Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt are making strides toward an independent and assertive foreign policy without Washington. The most glaring evidence of this new tilt was the Saudi decision in late March to launch airstrikes against Iranian-backed factions in Yemen. Although it is unclear to what degree Iran is providing material support to the Houthis who took power in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September of last year, there is at least a Houthi affinity with Iran and Hezbollah. Gulf Arabs, particularly the Saudis, believe Iran crossed a red line by supporting the Houthis.

New Saudi King Salman has been working relentlessly to send the message to his own people that the Gulf countries are united. On April 1, the seventh day of the airstrikes in Yemen, King Salman gave a speech in Riyadh before a cheering crowd of Saudi ministers, former military leaders, princes of the kingdom, tribal leaders, and a number of dignitaries and citizens. While assuring the crowd that the kingdom was safe and stable, he added that the Gulf alliance was working “united as one team against the current turbulences in the region.” Such an alliance was successfully forged through recent diplomatic efforts between Salman and leaders of neighboring Gulf kingdoms, including Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Kuwait.

Gause argues that the “circumstances are ripe for an American initiative in the region.” But in fact, displays of Arab unity have occurred despite the United States’s involvement in the region, not because of it. Washington’s new overtures toward Iran are being perceived as a threat to Gulf states not only because of the nuclear agreement but also because of the Obama Administration’s decision not to heavily arm the Syrian rebels or launch airstrikes inside Syria at a decisive time in the war. Gulf leaders believe the Administration missed opportunities to oust Assad from power.

Gause also asserts that “the change in government in Baghdad opens up the possibility of bridging existing fissures both within Iraq and between Iraq and the Gulf states.” In fact, the change in government in Baghdad, which replaced one Shia-led government with another, is evidence in Arab eyes that the United States has shifted its policy from one that considers the Gulf states its primary allies in the region to one that favors Iran. Therefore, the United States might be serving as a unifying force among Gulf states, but not for the reasons Gause states. There is a determination now to be less reliant upon Washington, which no longer appears to share the Gulf states’ interest in keeping Iran isolated and weak.

The sectarian stance the Saudis have taken in leading the airstrike campaign in Yemen against Shia militias has also begun to chip away at another point of conflict among the GCC: the Muslim Brotherhood. There are growing signs that even the Saudis, who declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in March 2014 (even though they aided the movement at different points during the 1990s), are taking a more pragmatic stance. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking a political rehabilitation among Gulf states. The Brotherhood appears to want to position itself as a soldier in the fight against Shia expansionism by taking sides in the sectarian wars in the region, particularly in Yemen. It is important to note that the Brotherhood has been watching Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the region very closely and looks forward to being part of the new order, now that it has been banned in Egypt.

In the wake of Iran’s recent expansionist gestures and the framework nuclear agreement, all differences among the Gulf states have been put aside. Arab interests must trump Persian hegemony. Washington is well aware of the views among Gulf states and their new tendency to take action without U.S. backing. For now at least, the GCC will continue to protect its interests as it sees fit, and there is little the United States can do on issues where the interests of the Gulf and Washington no longer coincide.

Read more about Foreign PolicyMiddle East

Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Stimson Center's Middle East program as well as a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus