By Bilal Y. Saab – It is no secret that the Arab Gulf States have a problem with the style and substance of the US diplomatic approach toward Iran (or rapprochement, as viewed from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and other Arab Gulf capitals). As allies, they feel they should have been consulted prior to Washington “opening up” to a historical foe such as Tehran, and their primary concern is that talks could amount to a nuclear deal that would threaten their security and sanction the emergence of Iran as power broker and policeman of the region.
But Arab Gulf concerns are not limited to the Iran issue, they are rooted in the belief that the Obama administration “simply doesn’t get it and is jeopardizing the alliance,” as one senior Saudi diplomat recently told me. A profound lack of trust currently characterizes relations between the United States and its Gulf allies. “The gulf is there, whether we like it or not,” one UAE former senior official said to me last summer.
Many in the US policymaking community have argued that the Arab Gulf States’ concerns are inflated and do not reflect reality. This line of reasoning, however, serves no useful purpose. While fears and emotions can sometimes be irrational (especially when you are in a vulnerable position), in this case, however, they are hardly baseless. It is highly unlikely that the Obama administration would abandon its Gulf allies in favor of a new relationship with Iran, but it has however mishandled almost every crisis in the Middle East, leaving friends and enemies alike wondering if this is a case of ineptitude or disengagement. With such a poor US policy record, the Arab Gulf States have every reason to worry that by reaching out to Tehran, Washington, not out of malicious intent but out of incompetence, could hurt their interests. Misplaced or not, the Arab Gulf States’ concerns should be addressed with a greater sense of urgency and seriousness for one simple reason: they are America’s allies in a strategically vital and energy-rich region.
As I wrote in the National Interest on June 20, 2013, the most effective antidote to this turbulence in relations is a brutally honest dialogue that addresses the tough policy issues affecting the future of the region and lays out mechanisms for increased cooperation and closer interaction. The two sides will disagree on many things, as they have clearly shown on Syria and Egypt, but differences can be managed and agendas can be brought closer together.
But a crucial question must be asked still: What if greater consultation, for whatever reason, does not produce desired results? This is an issue that should occupy the minds of Arab Gulf leaders. It is one thing for them to communicate their concerns to Washington (and no country has done it more bluntly than Saudi Arabia), but a different thing altogether to actually have a strategy for perceived continued US negligence or passivity. Anxiety is not a plan. As worrying as the current chasm with Washington is, it ironically presents an opportunity for the Arab Gulf States to smartly and carefully re-calibrate their relationship with the United States and adjust their expectations from the alliance. Turkey has done it with NATO, and nobody has vilified it for doing so.
To induce better US cooperation, the Arab Gulf States should first and foremost do a better job of making themselves heard, without making things worse with Washington or appearing like they are employing punitive measures. While Saudi Arabia’s rejection of a seat on the Security Council was loud and shocking, it is not clear if it will achieve the intended objective or benefit the Kingdom. All it does is deny it an influential voice in New York and a greater role in international diplomacy. Arab Gulf leaders’ complaints to their American counterparts have been mostly expressed in closed rooms and on bilateral levels. This is understandable, and there is merit in keeping at least some aspects of the conversation private. However, a collective and public response can also send a stronger message to Washington and immediately grab its attention. A joint statement coming out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that is robust but non-confrontational will show that the Arab Gulf States are united in their stand and share the same concerns about US policy in the region.
In the areas of trade and commerce, the Arab Gulf States have some leverage that they can intelligently exercise. While it would be self-defeating for the Arab Gulf States to reduce their level of trade with the United States (which totaled around $100 billion last year) to drive their point home, privileged access to the Arab Gulf market may no longer be granted to the United States. This essentially means that trade with China and other world powers would be boosted, inevitably at the expense of US economic interests.
With regard to defense procurement, the Arab Gulf States might want to further diversify their sources. While US weapons technology is undoubtedly the best in the world, Arab Gulf allies can pay closer attention to what France, India, South Korea, and even China have to offer, as a sign of displeasure with Washington (although issues of interoperability would have to be taken seriously if a decision to complement current arsenals with non-US systems is to be made). Every Arab Gulf penny spent on non-US military hardware is a penny not earned by the United States. Arab Gulf states buy arms from the United States not just to upgrade their defensive capabilities but also to strengthen the US-GCC partnership as a whole. And Washington knows it. If the Arab Gulf States start buying non-US weapons in greater quantities Washington may well come to understand that there is something deeply upsetting in the alliance and that more should be done to ease the worries of Arab Gulf allies.
Again, a more transparent dialogue and better communication between the United States and its Arab Gulf allies might render these proposed short-term actions unnecessary. However, even if trust is restored and regardless what happens on the diplomatic front with Iran, the Arab Gulf States ought to start thinking strategically beyond their US protector. This exercise should have been initiated a long time ago, but better late than never. No country living in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood can solely rely on external protection to ensure security, no matter how powerful and trustworthy the ally is. Also, no status-seeking country can pursue its national interests and aspirations without policies and strategies that are independent from its external ally. Just look at Israel, for example, and how its alliance with the United States – arguably the strongest in the world – has rarely prevented it from pursuing its own interests and engaging in unilateralism, sometimes at the expense of US objectives and interests. Lest there be no confusion: this is not about punishing the United States for falling short with its Gulf allies. It is about the Arab Gulf States rationally pursuing their own interests and taking some matters into their own hands.
A truly unified political and security alliance among GCC states is the best strategic option the Arab Gulf States have for assuming greater self-defense responsibilities in the future. It is also the most potent answer to the challenge of Iran. Indeed, the Arab Gulf States have to realize that together they stand a much better chance of containing Iran, whether or not it reaches a strategic understanding with the United States or acquires a nuclear weapon. Yet this framework also happens to be the most ambitious and difficult to achieve, knowing that at present relations among GCC states are plagued by distrust, petty politics, and rivalry. The ball is in the Arab Gulf States’ court. They can choose to maintain a healthy dose of competition amongst themselves but work much closer together to meet common security goals, or they can continue to go in separate ways and consequently leave themselves more vulnerable vis-à-vis Iran (even though the threat of Iran is not as severe as some Arab Gulf States think).
Despite the current uncertainty in relations between the Arab Gulf States and the United States, I still believe that the bond is too strong to be broken. But even when they kiss and make up, this tempestuous episode should serve as a catalyst for the Arab Gulf States to begin rethinking their future approach toward security because their ally has made it very clear that as it gets closer to being energy independent sometime within the next decade its engagement in that part of the world will further diminish.
Bilal Y. Saab is the Executive Director and Head of Research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. This article originally appeared in The National Interest on November 18, 2013.