MIDDLE EAST: Gulf states see a future with US
If you really want to see where relations between the Gulf states East and the West are going, lift up your eyes and look to the future – a future, you will see, in which Middle Eastern leaders have placed America center stage.
It is not the future one might imagine, given the diet of non-stop anti-Americanism fed to the people of Europe, the Middle East, and indeed America itself. In fact though, the leaders of the conservative Arab Gulf states have decided, with little fanfare, that the United States is the country of their future.
Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman have made an explicit choice; Saudi Arabia has decided differently, or perhaps, through inertia, has just not decided anything. These states have become close allies of the United States, not least in enabling the US-led coalition to operate effectively against Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This year they were equally crucial in the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein"s regime in Iraq.
The Gulf sheikhdoms are just the latest pillars in America"s Middle East network, filling the gap left by Iran under the late Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and by Saudi Arabia, whose relationship with the US was questioned after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Many Gulf states have loose ties with the US going back several decades. However, the solidifying event was probably the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq in 1991, when the US established semi-permanent military facilities on their territories.
Of course, the main reason why the US has strategic interests in the Gulf has been and will continue to be the fact that the region contains two-thirds of the world"s oil supply. The six Arab Gulf states together hold nearly half the world"s total oil reserves, with Saudi Arabia accounting for nearly a quarter. Although the US is not directly dependent on Gulf oil, the rest of the world is. Any interruption or restriction of supply would quickly result in much higher prices worldwide, with a consequent negative impact on all national economies.
The politics of oil are just as important for the countries of the Middle East as for the West. Just as Iraq"s Baath regime was perceived as a threat to the West, so too was it a source of fear to the Arab Gulf states. And they are now fearful of Iran.
Although the Gulf states spend vast sums of money on the latest military hardware, the effectiveness of their armies is dubious at best. On their own, they would have little hope of deterring, let alone countering, Iranian military might, which rests on the largest conventional force of any state in the region. Hence, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states have been pleased to accept a continuing US security presence in their vicinity.
In choosing to go with the US, the majority of the Gulf states are explicitly avoiding being neutral and implicitly avoiding other suitors, such as Russia and France. Moscow and Paris are clearly not perceived to be the regional players of the moment – or indeed any time soon.
So what are the pitfalls for the US in this new regional lineup? For a start, the sheikhdoms are a cautious group. They must be considering the implications of their links with America, as well as the potential consequences if Washington decides to scale down its commitment to them. Even before Saddam"s overthrow, these states preferred to remain America"s friends rather than its firm allies. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the word "friend" may even be overstating Riyadh"s warmth for Washington. In short, the Americans might have to tolerate some public distance in these relationships.
In Washington"s eyes, Saudi Arabia"s fall from grace offers a bonus, enabling the US to begin persuading the Gulf sheikhdoms to abandon their traditional fence-sitting postures, especially with regard to Tehran. As a consequence of this, the demise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), nominally a group of equals but in reality Saudi-led, is a likelihood. At the very least, the GCC will be increasingly moribund.
Some particular domestic dangers face Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Aging and ailing leaders are a concern in social environments where personal slights, both deliberate and unintentional, can have crucial significance. The United States has already used its Gulf presence to see through one transition in Bahrain. This role might need to be repeated.
Washington will also have to cope with a measure of persistent confusion by some of these regimes, which claim support for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process while also backing Palestinian rejectionists. Qatar and Oman already have relations with Israel that have endured despite occasional official statements to the contrary. Perhaps the Gulf sheikhdoms have an ability to compartmentalize their views. Palestinians in general, and their leader Yasser Arafat in particular, should perhaps interpret this in the context of these countries" not letting relations with the Palestinians get in the way of their new alliances with the US.
Within this context, it is difficult to subscribe to deterministic notions that hatred of the United States will inexorably increase in the Middle East, and that the Americans will soon have to exit the region. If one had to chart the shifting fortunes in the region since Saddam"s statue fell in Baghdad last April, the Americans and the Gulf sheikhdoms, minus Saudi Arabia, would surely move upwards. Of course, one cannot dismiss the power of Islamic militancy, however, it is a problem faced by Middle Eastern governments as well as the United States. Remember that the US led the West in halting and then destroying communism, and that Western economies expanded and prospered during the process.
Statistics clearly indicate that with respect to numerous social and economic indicators, the Middle East is bumping along the bottom globally, with only Africa performing worse. The Arab Gulf states, some of which have economic indicators that many would metaphorically die for, have decided where their future lies. Contrary to a mind-set all too prevalent in the Middle East, they have decided that their destiny is with Washington.
Simon Henderson is a London-based associate of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which recently published his The New Pillar: Conservative Arab Gulf States and US Strategy.