Anger at America
The US’s refusal to stand by the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the face of Arab Spring protests was taken badly in the Gulf. If America can break one multi-decade relationship, the Gulf states fear, perhaps America would, if protests erupted, break their own long relationship.
President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ rhetoric amplified and drove home these concerns; here was proof of the US’s focus shifting away. And theObama-led decision to engage with Iran has been greeted with a mixture of scorn and horror as the sum of all their fears – a so-called ‘Grand Bargain’ with Iran – begins, for some, to materialise.
Indeed for years the Gulf states, like a jealous partner fearful of being spurned for another, has fretted that America might seek to come to a widespread accommodation with Iran at their expense. The logic runs that in return for a complete halt to Iran’s questionable nuclear programme, America would somehow defer to Iran’s interests in the Gulf region at the expense of its Sunni Gulf allies. An extra advantage and motivating factor of this ruse would be that Israel’s security would be bolstered without a theoretical Iranian nuclear threat, and thus the US could disengage from the region.
While such a series of events has a certain logic to it, the reality is somewhat different.
Explicitly implicit guarantees
The fact is that the US will be the prime security guarantor for the region for the foreseeable future – decades at least.
The US has constructed for itself or otherwise has the run of a litany of huge and important military bases around the Gulf region that will remain central to US power projection throughout the wider Middle East region.
Though the US may no longer be hooked on Gulf oil as it once was, its own supplies of unconventional hydrocarbons coming increasingly on-line in recent years, the Gulf region remains the linchpin of world hydrocarbon production and as such is of central and critical importance to the world’s economy.
As the state with the largest open economy in the world, America’s interest in securing a broad peace in this region is unshakable and America’s self-image as the world’s indispensable nation also behoves it to quite explicitly provide for the region’s stability.
Indeed, this is another curious aspect of this whole issue. Several Gulf leaders have gone to America to lobby Mr Obama for a greater US role in the region. They would ideally like explicit, formalised US guarantees of protection for their states.
Such explicit guarantees are entirely off the table, but, whether through existing arrangements or the region’s pivotal importance to the world’s economy, America remains – no matter Mr Obama’s preferences – deeply intertwined in the region. It is the same with the UK.
For example, whatever bilateral defensive or security agreements are or are not signed and sealed with Qatar are irrelevant. If something catastrophic happens in the Gulf state, Britain is obliged to send the cavalry if we are to keep the lights on. Qatar’s liquefied natural gas, arriving multiple times per week in the UK via tanker, is crucial in the UK’s energy mix.
Moreover, America has sold tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms to the Gulf states in recent years. This kind of investment is far from a one-time deal: you do not just fly over an F-16, C-130, or Apache helicopter, park it at the airbase and wave goodbye: the necessities of through-life maintenance, upgrades, supplying, and training for such equipment spans decades and is yet another facet of almost inseparable US-Gulf interaction.
This is not to deny some level of US lowering its focus on the Gulf. But after leading two wars in three decades in the Gulf, the latter of which cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and is widely seen as a failure, a US drawdown is an obvious necessity.
But any domestic rhetoric exhorting the US to leave the region, a fiscally-led preference to drawdown resources, or even a presidential preference to disengage America where possible can all be trumped by the realities on the ground.
Careful what you wish for
The status quo has, therefore, not really changed. America under Mr Obama has shifted its focus away from the Gulf, but remains deeply entangled in the region.
There is an element of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and other Gulf-led unilateral military strikes in recent months that appear to be not-so-subtly aimed at America. “If you won’t secure the region, we will,” seems to be the Gulf retort.
While regional states stepping up and taking more control in their own security affairs may be greeted hopefully in the White House, Mr Obama should be careful what he wishes for.
The Saudi-led seven week bombing campaign in Yemen meandered along being far more effective at causing humanitarian suffering than halting the Houthi advances, with a barely-believable 15.9 million people – 61 per cent of Yemenis – needing humanitarian assistance, according to the World Health Organisation. Indeed, the realisation is dawning that beyond bombing whatever targets it can find, Saudi Arabia really does not seem to have any kind of strategic plan.
The Gulf states are far from wreaking upon the wider Middle East the kind of peace that the US brought to Iraq when it upended and hollowed out the state leaving a brittle, weak state from which no functioning government emerged. But their efforts to forge a coherent, effective opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or to counter the Houthis in Yemen do not bode well.