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Saudi Arabia Moves to Confront Regional Rivals

Disarray in the Persian Gulf reflects White House Middle East policy.

11:49 AM, Mar 24, 2014 • By HUSSAIN ABDUL-HUSSAIN
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Kuwait City
The Gulf Cooperation Council, consisting of Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and led by Persian Gulf superpower Saudi Arabia, has fallen into disarray. After the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar two weeks ago, they are planning to turn the heat up further on this GCC spoiler. In addition, they’ve also decided to raise the stakes on Iran by backing forces, like the Yemeni military and the Syrian rebels, squared off against Iranian proxies.

The view here from Kuwait City, which is hosting the 25th Annual Arab summit this week, is that without a turnaround in the White House’s Iran policy, there’s not much anyone can do to change the equation. Kuwait has tried its hand at GCC reconciliation, but the emirate often referred to as "everybody's friend" has had little success. Saudi Arabia believes it is under existential threat with uprisings across the region threatening the status quo order and Qatar is helping to undermine it. And most dauntingly, Riyadh sees the United States reaching out to Iran for a deal that the Saudis fear will come at their expense.

If Gulf watchers believed that the appointment of 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani to replace his father Hamad as the emir of Qatar last June would moderate Doha’s adventurist foreign policy, those assessments have been proven wrong. Saudi Arabia is furious with Qatar for continuing to fund Islamist groups in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere since the Saudis consider the Islamists a threat to their own rule. Further, Qatar's infamous Al-Jazeera TV has raised Saudi ire with its bombastic broadcasts and "revolutionary" overtones. Perhaps most dangerously, Qatar had tried to seek its own advantage by playing Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other. In Syria, for example, Qatar has stood with Saudi Arabia by demanding that Bashar al-Assad step down. Yet at the same time, Qatar has sponsored radical Islamists, who in turn have fought the more moderate Saudi-sponsored factions. As the U.S. designation last month of an Iranian al-Qaeda network showed, many of the al-Qaeda elements fighting in Syria have come via Iran, and many Gulf officials believe that their brutality has alienated many Syrians and reinforced the regime's narrative depicting all rebels as terrorists. 

After several warnings to Qatar, Saudi Arabia was moving to take more aggressive steps against Doha when Kuwait intervened and attempted to mediate. In November, the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, took Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani to meet the King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud in Riyadh, where the new Qatari emir promised the elder Saudi sovereign that Doha would fall in line behind the GCC leader. 

At first, Kuwaiti efforts bore fruit. In December, Kuwait hosted the annual GCC summit where the Saudis had hoped that the council would announce steps toward GCC unity that would bar the Iranians from encroaching on Gulf affairs. Two of the key concerns were Bahrain, where the Iranians are believed to be sponsoring the violent part of political unrest, and Yemen, where Tehran funds and trains the rebellious Houthis in the north.

Another issue was Oman, which the Obama administration had been using as a back channel to negotiate with Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective, the role that Tehran and the White House had carved out for Oman undermined Gulf unity. Kuwait’s 84-year old sovereign counseled patience and compelled Qatar's Prince Tamim to keep his promises, which they now believe he has broken. According to sources involved in the Kuwaiti reconciliation effort, UAE's Vice President Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum is angered that Tamim "lied" to him.

Amidst the internal squabbling, the raging civil war in Syria, the turbulence in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, and Iran’s march toward to nuclear weapons program, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain drew a line in the sand. They decided not only to cut off Qatar but also to confront Iran. The Yemeni army will receive substantial support to beat the Houthis, and so will Syria's rebels. If the rebels cannot topple Assad, they will at least bog down his forces and strain Iranian resources in an endless war of attrition. Sympathizers with Iran or Hezbollah will lose their high-paying jobs and will be ejected from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

Kuwait again tried its hand with mediation as it prepared to host the Arab Summit. But this time Saudi leaders told their Kuwaiti counterparts that while they value their friendship, they were not in the mood for reconciliation with Qatar, Oman or Iraq, effectively under Iranian tutelage now thanks to the divisive sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman, who came to Kuwait City in December for the Gulf summit, will likely be skipping the Arab summit. UAE's Sheikh Mohamed and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa, who both participated in December, have already announced their decision not to attend. 

To avoid offending the host country and keep the Kuwaitis from losing face, the Saudis leaked through their official media that Gulf mediation would resume after the summit. However, according to sources here, there will be no rapprochement between the Saudis and the Qataris. Moreover, Riyadh is planning to further escalate against Doha by closing airspace to Qatari overflights and outbidding the Qataris in Syria and Egypt in order to shut down the Islamists—and Qatar’s adventurist regional policy.

It is against this background of internal GCC dissension that Obama will arrive in Riyadh later this week to meet King Abdullah. Sources on both sides explain that Obama will "assure" the Saudis that the alliance between the two countries remains strong, and that the administration is committed to the security of Saudi Arabia against any foreign aggression and that Riyadh should not fear that US-Iranian negotiations will come at Saudi’s expense.

The Saudis will listen, but with reservations. From their perspective, Obama has scrapped most of America's past arrangements with the Saudi kingdom, arrangements first forged when President Roosevelt met with the founder of modern Saudi Arabia King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake in 1944.  The deal was that in exchange for holding the balance of power of the world's oil reservoir, the United States would protect the Saudis against all comers. Now Riyadh feels that it is on its own, and the Saudis are not in the mood for the empty promises that the Obama White House calls diplomacy. Instead, the Saudis are moving aggressively to confront adversaries, from GCC rivals like Qatar to Gulf revolutionaries like Iran.

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