A combination of economic, political and security factors have diminished American influence in the Gulf region during the last decade. As a result, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are not on the same page with their traditional security guarantor, the United States, and its policies. Naturally, the GCC countries are considering alternative scenarios, which some consider as a real strategic shift occurring in the region.
The following statements and developments reinforce this assertion.
Frustrated by the impasse in the Arab-Israeli conflict even before 9/11, then Crown Prince Abdullah instructed the Saudi ambassador to the United States to deliver the following message to Washington: “From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America’s interests lie in the region.”
In a more diplomatic suggestion, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal said in 2004 that guarantees for Gulf security cannot be provided unilaterally “even by the only superpower in the world”. The region requires guarantees “provided by the collective will of the international community.”
Similarly, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani said in 2007 that “the major conflicts in the world have become too big for one single power to handle them on its own.”
More recently, while most knew the determination of the GCC countries to rein in Iran, what was uncertain was how many were willing to ‘openly’ back military action against it. Wikileaks revelations suggested that majority of the GCC countries aggressively pushed for US action against Iran. Washington’s inaction reflected its confidence, or lack of it, to use force in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq fiascos. This, in turn, strengthened Tehran’s calculations that Washington would not risk any misadventure, thereby weakening the GCC countries’ case.
If Iran and Iraq exposed Washington’s capacity or lack of it to deal with the region’s problems, the tumultuous ‘Arab Revolutions’ exposed its credibility or lack of it, especially after the US role in Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, which was contrary to Saudi advice. The confusion thereafter has contributed to the Syrian impasse, which underscores Washington’s capacity and credibility factors.
Since 2011, the GCC region has made more pointed attempts to look beyond the United States. For example, Saudi Arabia rallied Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran. Reiterating that the United States should not be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia also approached Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central Asian states (and India too) to lend diplomatic support, and even military assistance, to stem the Bahrain crisis.
Add to this, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal’s call for a “joint Gulf army” acquiring nuclear might to counter Iran; and his statement that “there will be disastrous consequences for US-Saudi relations if Washington vetoes UN recognition of a Palestinian state…and opportunities for friendship between the Muslim world and West could vanish.”
The sharpest nail was hammered by Saudi strategic analyst Nawaf Obaid: “Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities…In some issues…the Saudis will continue to be a strong US partner. In areas in which Saudi strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda…(given the regional changes), there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired…The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable Middle East can be born.”
If these were indications of the region’s fatigue with the United States, Washington’s fatigue with the region was evident in its ‘Asia pivot’ announcement. This shift could be linked to at least two recent observations by American authors.
First, Michael Mandelbaum’s “The Frugal Superpower” argues that the propensity to induce budget cuts, including in the foreign policy arena, is bound to restrict Washington’s power and influence externally. Second, Robert Kaplan notes that the future in “Monsoon Asia” will be one of “greater integration” in which the United States will have little or no role.
In this milieu, the GCC countries are seeking alternatives and exploring the idea of incorporating several international actors who could act as guarantors in a collective security arrangement. Among them are Asian countries, which are “regional plus” powers, whose political weight extends beyond their geographical borders, but without nurturing global ambitions. This gives the GCC countries a stake in developing a multi-polar world that could resist any one country’s diktats. Such a strategy needs to be developed sooner rather than later, and must be encouraged even by Washington if it is keen to shore up its influence.
Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst, honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK, and author of “Boom amid Gloom – The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org