The US And NATO Must Team Up In The Gulf – OpEd


By Bilal Y. Saab*

It is clear that the era of US hegemony in the Gulf, and the Middle East more broadly, is over. What is less certain is what security system will replace it and whether it will better serve regional security and US interests.

The Gulf is becoming a more crowded geopolitical space than ever, with external powers such as China, Russia and India increasing their involvement in the region to safeguard their economic interests, while local powers, most notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, are rising and pursuing a more independent foreign policy course.

This shift away from US guardianship and toward greater multilateralism is precisely what Washington has preached and sought for a decade and a half. When US regional partners are able and willing to step up, as several of them have in some areas, Washington feels more confident about drawing down and paying closer attention to the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.

Yet, as welcome as this structural transition in the Gulf is, the US should still shape it to secure its long-term interests. Washington has two major challenges in mind that could severely complicate this transition. The first is Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The second is China and Russia’s growing influence in the region.

With regard to the first challenge, the Gulf Arab states should be commended for seeking to gradually reconcile with their main adversary, Iran. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s latest rapprochement with Tehran, leading to the resumption of diplomatic ties, contributes to regional calm and has the potential to be transformative for the region.

But enhanced political relations between Tehran and its Gulf Arab neighbors does not, nor was it expected to, defuse the ticking time bomb that is Iran’s nuclear program. As Tehran inches closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon — the latest US assessment is that Iran could make the nuclear material for a bomb in about 12 days, if it wanted to — the possibility of Israel resorting to military force to arrest that process becomes higher.

An Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would undoubtedly lead to regional war. Tensions between Iran and Israel are already high given the latest cycle of violence between the two, which keeps escalating and expanding in geographical scope. In this combustible Iran-Israel dynamic, there is very little the Gulf states can do to pacify it.

Concerning the second challenge, greater Chinese and Russian influence in the Gulf gives these powers leverage in their global competition with the US. Washington cannot forbid the Gulf states from doing business with China and Russia, but it must try to prevent those economic exchanges from spilling over into the defense and security realm.

So, how can Washington continue to promote a less US-dependent security order in the Gulf while also addressing these two significant challenges? Helping regional partners develop their self-defense capabilities, as US Central Command has been busy doing, is critical, but it is not enough. This process is also going to take years before it generates bigger outcomes. The Iranian challenge is a lot more urgent.

A strategically sound and cost-effective approach would be for Washington to involve its long-standing transatlantic allies in the mission of Gulf security. Two of these allies — the UK and France — have shared values and interests with the US, as well as a military presence in the Gulf.

The idea is to transition from a US-controlled hub-and-spoke security system in the Gulf, which has been the format for decades, to a US-led alliance network that leans heavily on the British, who have a permanent naval base in Bahrain, and the French, who have military and intelligence facilities of their own in the UAE.

Burden-sharing is a desired goal that has been reiterated by successive US administrations. But Washington has not truly internalized the concept and embraced it as a real operating principle in its foreign and security policies, at least in the region. It should, however, because London and Paris, if properly incentivized, have much to offer. Not only do they have military capabilities in the Gulf, but they have deep concerns about Chinese and Russian intentions. Their leaders (especially the French) have good personal relations with Gulf monarchs. At a time of mistrust in US-Gulf relations, British and French good offices could be quite useful.

One existing mechanism through which greater integration within this trio of transatlantic allies on Gulf policy could be achieved, and through which more effective coordination between that Western bloc and the Gulf states could be realized, is NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. Created at the 2004 NATO Summit in Istanbul, this platform seeks to promote security and political cooperation on a bilateral basis between NATO and partner countries in the Middle East. The truth is that it has not been very effective because the most powerful member of NATO — the US — has not been involved.

Three important modifications could be made to the initiative to make it more successful. One, Washington would have to play a more active role, both as facilitator and enabler. Two, Saudi Arabia and Oman would have to join (right now, only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are members). Three, the interactions between NATO members and the Gulf states would have to include a multilateral format.

Like East Asia, the Gulf is as ripe for regional multilateralism as it is ripe for competition with China and Russia. The US could use more of the former and be better prepared for the latter. America’s physical presence in the Gulf is, and will remain, a critical component of Gulf security for years to come. But today’s threats require a more sophisticated and collective approach to regional security. There is no better way to pursue that approach than by Washington joining forces with its oldest and closest treaty allies that share its views, values and objectives on the future of the region.

  • Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security Program.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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