By Riad Kahwaji
Recent statements and actions by the oil-rich Arab Gulf states grouped in an alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have indicated that they were no-longer willing to bend backward to accommodate U.S. policies in the region, especially on issues related to Iran and Middle East peace policy. However, many experts do not believe the strategic ties between these countries and the United States would be undermined simply because there is too much at stake for all concerned parties. Even though the two sides differ now on policies and approaches, nevertheless they do share the same foes and regional problems. Both regard Al-Qaeda as the number one enemy of the state and consider Iran as a growing threat. A wave of unprecedented public uprisings sweeping the region – known as the Arab Spring – has toppled a couple of regimes and are shaking others. They also have strong economic links.
The GCC members – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – have solidified their alliance as a result of the Arab Spring and due to consecutive successes for Iran in the ongoing regional Cold War between Tehran and Riyadh. Ever since Washington launched its global war on terror following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington D.C., Iran’s influence in the region has grown substantially and its military capabilities have considerably increased and its nuclear program has more-or-less reached the point of no-return with a self-sufficient uranium-enrichment program. Although GCC leaders may differ in view as to why Washington failed to check Iran’s increased regional influence and capabilities, however, they agree on the need to take matters in their own hands and stop following the U.S. lead on ways to confront Tehran. The measured approach by Washington in dealing with Iran aims at avoiding escalation that could trigger a war, and does not seem to be supported any longer by the GCC, which is now using strong language and bold actions in response to what they regard as Tehran’s provocative policies or statements.
The first strong unilateral action out of step with U.S. policy was the GCC intervention in Bahrain to quell an uprising Arab Gulf leaders felt was being instigated and managed by Iran with the objective of toppling the Arab Sunni monarchy there and replacing it with a Shiite Islamic Republic allied with Tehran. Another action out of step with Washington was related to Syria where GCC leaders have unleashed the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya and Doha-based Al-Jazeera pan-Arab news channels against the Iranian-allied Baath Party regime in Damascus that has been trying for nearly three months to brutally crush an uprising by a largely Sunni population. GCC officials were upset to see Washington quickly give up support to its long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and back the Egyptian revolution to oust him, while it has so far refrained from taking serious action and call for the ouster of its presumed foe Syrian leader Bashar Assad despite the fact over 1,000 Syrians have been killed and thousands detained and injured in the ongoing onslaught by Syrian Republican Guards units against unarmed civilians. Many in the region believe Washington is protecting the interests of Israel that do not want to see Assad toppled for fear of a Muslim extremist government replacing him. The GCC leadership also blames weak and inconsistent U.S. policies for what they see as Iranian political gains in the arenas of Iraq and Lebanon, and have decided to develop their own policies there.
Another factor driving GCC leaders to more solo efforts is a growing belief that the U.S. is a declining power, and over the next decade or two new superpowers will emerge in the East, like China, Japan, India and South Korea. Hence there has been a noticeable increase in contacts and major business deals between many GCC states and the emerging Eastern powers. Also, logic dictates that since Eastern powers rely on oil and gas from the GCC region more than the West does, they would be more inclined to rush to the GCC’s aide if they ever come under threat from Iran or another power. However, present reality does not make it possible, and only the United States has serious power projection capabilities that can send out strong forces to counter any military threats against U.S. interests worldwide, including the Arabian Gulf region. Moreover, GCC states wish to be strongly armed in order to be able to defend themselves and not rely on the democracies of the West for military support because the latter is often restricted by domestic politics that do not usually favor options that could lead to wars. For now, the West, especially the U.S., possesses the best state-of-the-art military technology that the GCC militaries need.
Therefore many regional analysts believe the strong military relations between GCC and the United States, and Washington’s continued military commitment to the region through the deployment of large forces in the Arabian Gulf will keep the strategic ties between the two sides strong and immune to political differences. But this reality is likely to change with time. The Arab Spring is empowering public opinion in the region which opposes U.S. foreign policies on many issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Failure by the U.S. to address this issue effectively and decisively will eventually undermine U.S. strategic ties with the GCC, especially if efforts to add Jordan – that is on Israeli borders and directly linked to the Palestinian issue – and Morocco to the GCC succeed. Also, efforts by China and India to build stronger blue water navies will give these two Asian powers better power projection capabilities in a decade or so, which could offer an alternative to GCC states for a more reliable strategic ally. So although GCC-U.S. strategic relations remain solid for now due to military-related factors, nevertheless new emerging realities now and in the mid-term future could lead to the breakup of this strategic pact if Washington does not realize changing realities regionally and internationally and does not develop long-term strategic plans that go beyond the four-year intervals that separate U.S. presidential elections.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA