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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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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.

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