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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.

The GCC states also recognize who else sees the region the way they do—Israel. When Netanyahu announced in his U.N. speech that if Israel has to stand alone to prevent a nuclear Iran, “we will be defending many, many -others,” he was referring to, among others, the GCC. Relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have never been warmer, with key, albeit unnamed, Arab officials reportedly visiting Jerusalem for high-level consultations on Iran. “Israel,” says Homayed, “is the most important player in the Middle East right now regarding Iran. They are capable of convincing Congress, and if anyone can convince Obama, it’s Israel. They drew the red line on Iran, and that makes everyone in the region happy.”

This strategic convergence has been a long time in the making. Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Israel’s former ambassador to the U.N., explains that Israel and GCC relations need to be seen in a larger context. “Going back to the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of Hamas,” says Gold. “Thirty years earlier, Saudi Arabia had provided sanctuary for Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing from Egypt and Syria. But by 2005, Iran had replaced Saudi Arabia as the primary funder of Hamas, and leading members of the royal family, like Prince Nayef, repudiated the Muslim Brotherhood. This represented a huge shift in Saudi policy, which narrowed the degree of conflict it had with Israel.” 

 

As the Iranian threat became even more apparent, Gold explains, Israeli and Arab interests further converged. “The GCC countries face a situation very similar to Israel,” says Gold, whose scholarly work has focused on Saudi Arabia. “Israel is encircled by Iranian-supported insurgencies—Hezbollah to the north, and Hamas to the south. In comparison, the GCC faces an Iranian-backed insurgency in Yemen, an Iranian-backed Shia government running Saudi Arabia’s northern neighbor Iraq, while Bahrain’s opposition is supported by Tehran, an arrangement that has implications for the Shia community in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province.”

The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, says Gold, marked an important turning point. “While large parts of the Muslim Brotherhood fervently supported Hezbollah, the Gulf states were either silent or opposed to what Hezbollah was doing.”

If some wags joke that Obama’s legacy in the Middle East will be to have driven Israel and the GCC into each other’s arms, the reality is that it’s not clear how durable this relationship can be. After all, the much-heralded strategic alliance between Turkey and Israel that was forged in the ’90s on the basis of military and security ties proved more fragile than was hoped, crashed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to lead the region.

To be sure, as Homayed explains, “the Israeli position and Arab position is one—Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” But it’s not clear what that means in practice. Even Homayed acknowledges that while Israel is the most important actor in the region right now, it still needs the White House on its side against Iran. Jerusalem’s significance, from his perspective, is that only Israel has the ability to make its case to Congress and the president—like the Arabs, Israel can’t do it alone.

“There are real limits to how far the GCC-Israel relationship can go,” says Doran, who was Middle East director in the George W. Bush White House. There are cultural limits as well as operational ones. “Saudi textbooks are filled with anti-Semitic material,” says Doran. “Whatever coordination that might exist must be clandestine because if it were in the open, Riyadh would come under attack regionally and domestically for making common cause with a people typically described as enemies of Islam.” Further, asks Doran, “what does cooperation look like? What can the Saudis give the Israelis that they don’t have already?”

Aside from perhaps granting Israeli jets tacit overflight rights on their way to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, and maybe money for various clandestine projects, it’s not obvious that the Saudis have anything Israel really needs. What Jerusalem wants above all, short of a U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, is the sort of political and diplomatic clout that only Washington can muster. However, by holding Rouhani in a close embrace as his partner in resolving the nuclear issue, Obama has effectively erected an antimissile defense system around Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Netanyahu gives the order to go, Israel isn’t just going without the United States, it’s also undermining an Obama priority.

Sure, it would be a bonus to have quiet support from the GCC in the event of a strike. But what happens after that? These two American allies have been forced together by a reality that hasn’t quite sunk in yet. A superpower they’ve counted on for decades has gone missing, perhaps never to return.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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