international analysis and commentary

US relations with the Gulf monarchies, beyond oil and Iran

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The United States and the monarchies of the GCC have often been portrayed as strange bedfellows. On the one side is the presumed “leader of the free world”, a society that stands for liberty, opportunity, and inclusiveness; on the other, countries where the right to vote, if any, is at the discretion of the ruler, and where intolerance and abuse of human rights is too often the norm. At the heart of the dissonant relationship, the narrative asserts, is oil – a commodity for which Americans have paid dearly, in currency, but also in long lines at gas stations when the rulers of these monarchies decided to use it as a weapon of economic warfare in 1973, or when its revenue indirectly funded the most devastating terror attacks on the US mainland in 2001. In its interaction with the potentates of the Gulf, the United States, it seems, has rarely been less true to its principles. With energy independence looming on the American horizon, a reset in relationships is bound to happen. Free from the bondage of oil, the United States may finally be able to disengage from this conflicted relationship.

The preceding narrative is accepted by two very different constituencies. In the United States, it informs a well-rooted popular animosity towards the Gulf, the Middle East, and the Islamic world in general. This attitude adopts tough political postures against the region and severely questions attempts at accommodating its interests. The 2006 Dubai Ports World controversy – which saw this UAE corporation pressured to relinquish its newly-acquired subsidiary, formerly a British ports management entity in charge of numerous US facilities – illustrates the potency of the impact of this interest group. The narrative’s second constituency is the decision-making circles in the Gulf region itself. Fully cognizant of the potentially disruptive use of their region’s image in the United States, Gulf leaders have gently re-oriented their international policies towards a dilution of the primacy of their partnership with Washington.

Image questions notwithstanding, GCC countries have served as strategic allies of the United States – housing its Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain); hosting the forward headquarters of the US Central Command, the US Air Forces Central, and other US military assets (in Qatar); helping stabilize oil markets; injecting considerable amounts into the US economy in capital and weapon purchases; and, through their sovereign funds, defending the US currency against undue volatility. In exchange, the states of the GCC have reaped three main benefits from their deep relationship with the USA.

The first benefit is naturally the local prosperity that this relationship has fostered. The paternalistic model of development espoused by the GCC monarchies has relied in particular on US public and private expertise, transmitted through direct involvement, training and education, as well as the osmosis resulting from the presence of Americans in the Gulf. To put it most simply, American quality of life is today the standard towards which much of the Gulf still aspires.

The second benefit from this relation has been the creation of a US-led security framework protecting Gulf nations against both foreign and domestic threats. In 1991, the United States went to war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, and in 2003 it essentially removed Iraq as a direct threat to the Gulf. The primary external challenge has since been Iran, which, through its hegemonic tendencies, has turned into the main strategic threat to GCC interests. For both Bahrain, where Iranian meddling has exacerbated the monarchy’s mishandling of the peaceful protest of its population, and Saudi Arabia, where Iranian ties to the unrest in the oil-rich Eastern Province are continuously uncovered, the threat is even beyond strategic; it is existential. The dependence of the GCC regimes on the US to balance Iran has been the cornerstone of their engagement with Washington in the past decade. Beyond Iran, at the local level, the Gulf has so far largely averted the threat of terrorism through close intelligence cooperation with US agencies.

The less evident, but equally crucial, benefit from the relationship with the United States is the mitigation of internal GCC differences. In fact, much of the region is conditioned by nested rivalries (Abu Dhabi versus Dubai, within the UAE; UAE versus Qatar; UAE and Qatar versus Saudi Arabia; etc.), and divergent interests and ideological orientations. For example, Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood movement across the Middle East is viewed with suspicion and animosity in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Through its focus on strategic alignment, the United States has served as an agent of synchronization, if not outright mediation, between the tactically divergent interests of GCC members.

Prosperity, security, stability: with such benefits, it is clear that there is no imminent danger of a demotion in the rank of the United States in Gulf capitals. However, three elements of the Obama administration foreign policy have created serious concern in these capitals.

Washington’s “Pivot to Asia”, in this and subsequent designations, was understood across the Middle East as not really focused on Asia; it is instead a “Pivot away from the Middle East”, a motion to complete the US abdication of its prior commitments in the wider region. Such a shift has been detected in the transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, as well in the uncertain reaction to the “Arab Spring” (when long time US allies were eventually abandoned) scenes, and in the little effort made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While proven, in some of its aspects, either untenable or over-stated, the withdrawal policy of the Obama administration was all too real in Iraq, leaving the precarious country vulnerable to consolidated Iranian control, to the detriment of both US and Gulf interests. An opinion circulating across the region thus assigns to the Obama administration the willingness to sacrifice objective interests if needed or suitable for domestic US considerations.

Far more damaging than the fear of growing US indifference in international affairs is the nagging suggestion that the Obama administration is willing to engage in a “Grand Bargain” with Iran, through which its role as the region’s hegemon would be effectively recognized in exchange for a less hostile posture and an abandonment of its military nuclear ambitions. Despite the repeated assertions of Gulf leaders, the White House, it seems, is unconvinced that Iran would default on its part of such a bargain, and is still unrealistically engaged in a stick-and-carrot approach to presumably steer Tehran in a suitable direction. While generally not in favor of an outright strike – leading to unintended and unexpected consequences – Gulf leaders have advocated, so far unsuccessfully, a further increase of pressure on Iran, while deploring Washington’s seeming willingness to explore dialogue with the new Iranian leadership

Nowhere is the disagreement with the Obama administration more visible than on the Syrian question. Gulf capitals have realized that the United States does not share their sense of urgency in ending the festering of a crisis that is incubating region-wide threats. In what is assessed as a preventive action, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have dedicated massive funds to counter the Iranian commitment to insure as much longevity for the Damascus regime. While this investment has so far failed in yielding the desired result, it has itself empowered radical militants with dire implications for the whole region.

The fact is, however, that GCC decision makers lack any meaningful alternative to their strategic reliance on Washington, and that the US “formula” of mutual benefits remains valid. Even if Europe, East Asia, or China, were able to elevate their association with the Gulf to maintain its development trajectory, no international power is in a position to offer the security and stability that the United States has and continues to deliver. It is a position of strategic dependence that many in the Gulf are vocally lamenting. In reality, for all the significant changes currently underway, the security framework has not completely changed, and in fact to assume otherwise would lead to dangerous decisions on all sides.

The United States may indeed achieve the promised energy independence, and may even, jointly with Canada, outpace the Middle East as an energy exporter. This, however, will take time to achieve. From a Gulf perspective, the growing US indifference seems to suggest that Washington is acting as if energy independence is a current reality, and that the Gulf is of little strategic consequence. It may indeed be argued that President Obama is merely applying his cautious calculus of the cost of the various options, and has not abandoned the long-standing US commitment to the Gulf. The lack of convincing clarity on Iran and Syria, however, has encouraged Gulf powers to engage in tactical adventurism – in their support of questionable elements – to balance what they see as a regional order tilting against their favor. Only the United States, in actions as well as in words, is in a position to convince them otherwise.