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The Persian Gulf Power Vacuum

America’s Middle East allies are getting ­nervous.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By LEE SMITH
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Despite the administration’s hype of President Obama’s “historic” 15-minute phone call with the ostensibly moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, the looming prospect of direct engagement with the regime in Tehran over its nuclear weapons program, and all the other symptoms of Rouhani fever gripping Washington, the White House says it won’t be suckered by the Iranians. American allies aren’t buying it.

Obama in Egypt

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his skepticism public in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly two weeks ago, when he argued that the way to deal with the Iranians and their nuclear program is to “distrust, dismantle, and verify.” America’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman—are playing it closer to their vests than the Israelis, sharing their grievances with the administration in much less public settings. They are, after all, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

“There are no public statements from the GCC states detailing their position,” Tariq al-Homayed, a columnist for Asharq al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned London-based pan-Arab daily, told me. “GCC officials are all very diplomatic, but when you talk to some of them, they say it clearly. They see the administration’s approach to Iran in light of its confusing Syria policy. I asked one senior GCC official what he thought about Obama’s Syria policy and he responded, ‘What day is it today, what hour? Because in half an hour the White House will have another position.’ With Iran, they’re worried about the administration falling into the [Tehran] regime’s game, and they’re watching it very nervously.” The prospect that Obama is taking Khamenei’s supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons seriously is patently absurd to Iran’s Arab neighbors.

American allies in the Middle East do not trust the Obama administration, but, says Brookings Institution scholar Michael Doran, “they are restrained in expressing it openly. Their fear is that if they show publicly how much they distrust the White House, they are likely to get even less of what they want. So whatever criticism we are hearing publicly, raise that to the power of 10 and you get a sense of where our allies are.”

Behind the scenes, the GCC is preparing for the possibility that, after 70 years of dominance, America may be bowing out of the Persian Gulf. The Arabs, like many Israeli officials, now assume that the United States is withdrawing from the region, at least for the time being, and perhaps permanently. Some Gulf states are taking matters into their own hands. “The idea is that we did it with Egypt,” explains Homayed, referring to the support and money the GCC states poured into Cairo after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Mohamed Morsi while the White House declined to stake out a position. “So why wait for Obama with Syria?” says Homayed.

Indeed, since taking over the Saudi National Security Council, Riyadh’s former ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been eager to assert Saudi interests. With the White House leaving a vacuum in Syria, Bandar has wrested control of the rebel forces from Qatar and lined up the UAE and Jordan as useful allies. This is precisely the sort of alliance building that, up until now, had been the role of the United States. 

If some in the administration, including the president, believe that these are positive developments, that it’s high time the Arabs learned to pull their own weight, the reality is the Arabs know they can’t go it alone, and so should the White House. The GCC could manage Egypt, as Homayed says, and is making a go of it in Syria, but with Iran it needs the United States. Without Washington, the Arabs are looking to hedge their bets. For instance, sources say that Kuwait has socked away several billion dollars as a future gift to ingratiate itself with either Iran or Russia, depending on who winds up winning the regional sweepstakes now that the White House doesn’t want to play.

Even Bandar seems to understand that there is a limit to what the Arabs can do on their own. His much-publicized recent visit to Moscow, where he offered to buy $15 billion worth of Russian arms if only Vladimir Putin would scale back his support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, was meant largely to get Obama’s attention. The Saudis recognize that even if Putin has managed to enhance his position at Obama’s expense, he doesn’t have the capacity, or the blue-water navy, to replace the United States. Moreover, with Russia helping advance Iranian interests in Syria, it is not likely to work against Tehran, and on behalf of Saudi interests, in the Persian Gulf.

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