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Saudi Arabia and other oil rich Gulf countries don’t
want to live in the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Yet when the US embarks
on an agreement to prevent this very possibility, they fear it might lead to a
grand bargain that gives Iran carte blanche for expansionism in the Middle
Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist close to the Saudi ruling
family, is already speaking of the “inter-Muslim struggle of the century” and
Prince Turki al Faisal, former chief of Saudi intelligence and erstwhile
ambassador of his country to Washington, is travelling the conference circuit
warning that Saudi Arabia will strive to get a nuclear device should Iran do
To alleviate such fears US President Obama invited
leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Camp David on May 14. Besides
even more weapons, GCC leaders hoped for a formal defense treaty beyond the
informal guarantees that exist and in fact have materialised in the past, for
example during the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991.
However, the US has been disinclined
to enter into a formal agreement with potentially unstable autocratic states, as
it fears to be drawn into their domestic and regional policy agendas. In an
interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Obama argued
that the main threats to the stability of the Gulf states are not external, but
rather come from disaffection of youth and other domestic constituencies.
A lecture in liberal democracy was not what Gulf leaders
had hoped for. When it became clear that a formal agreement was not on the
table, King Salman of Saudi Arabia decided not to show up at Camp David in a
remarkable snub to the American hosts.
In an apparent move of solidarity, King Hamad of
Bahrain, whose restive country is dependent on Saudi aid and political
assurances, followed suit, preferring to watch a horse show with Queen
Elizabeth. Sheikh Khalifa of the UAE and Sultan Qaboos of Oman could not attend
due to ill health and thus underlined the approaching succession issues of the
region’s aging rulers.
Only Kuwait and Qatar sent their heads of state. The UAE
sent their de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad of Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia
also sent its Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is Minister of Interior,
besides Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the young son of the king and
Minister of Defense, a rising star in the royal family.
Instead of grander joint strategies and formal
agreements, the talks revolved around military technicalities, like cyber
warfare and missile defense systems—the very external threats Obama had
identified as secondary to Gulf security in his NYT interview.
For the Gulf countries, the disappointment of Camp David
is the latest in a series of events reflecting perceived US unreliability. They
see Iran’s support for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, the Assad regime
in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as aggressive expansionism
in the face of US indifference and naivety.
They fear US disengagement as a result of reduced
reliance on Middle East oil, in the wake of the shale boom and growing focus on
the Asian policy theatre. They have not forgotten how the US turned its back on
their fellow autocrat Mubarak when Egyptian street protests escalated, and how
it did not follow up on its self-declared red lines when the Assad regime used
chemical weapons against its own population.
As the Gulf countries realise that they cannot rely on
the US to pursue their foreign policy agendas in the Middle East, they have put
forward initiatives of their own. At times these have been adventurous and
shown the limits of petrodollar diplomacy and warfare by proxy. The UAE and
Egypt bombarded the strongholds of the Islamist rebels in Libya that Qatar
supported. More recently Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have decided to bury
their differences about the Muslim Brotherhood and have lent their concerted
support to a Syrian rebel coalition that was able to achieve territorial gains
in the north-west of the country, but also included Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat
Saudi Arabia’s initiative to build an alliance of ten
regional countries for intervention in Yemen is the largest and most daring
effort in that vein. In addition to the GCC countries (except Oman), the
alliance includes Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Sudan. Yet like the Camp
David snub, or Saudi declining a seat in the UN Security Council in 2013, the
Yemen intervention appears hasty and lacks strategy.
Airpower alone will not be able to overwhelm the Houthi
rebels—hardly an Iranian puppet, but a domestic party with their own agenda.
Material support from Iran is recent and marginal at best. The Houthis mainly
rely on US-supplied weaponry, which they have either captured or obtained from
their ally, former Yemeni President Saleh.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has
benefitted from the campaign against its Houthi adversaries and has been able
to take hold of the southern port city of Mukalla. Despite all differences, the
Houthis have also formed a buffer against AQAP. Gulf countries should be
careful what they wish for. They entered the Yemeni quagmire without a back up
plan, and their airstrikes have caused numerous civilian casualties and a
Pakistan has refused to provide ground troops and Egypt
is reluctant to do so, remembering well its disastrous Yemen intervention of
the 1960s. The Gulf countries themselves seem to be unable to put boots on the
ground. They are among the largest arms importers in the world and their
military expenditure is ten times higher than that of Iran, but they lack
training, maintenance and unit cohesion.
Like much of Gulf society, white-collar mentalities are
common: Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed has promised a Bentley to Saudi
pilots participating in the Yemen campaign. It is unlikely that such a military
could prevail in ground combat against tribal fighters in mountainous terrain. The
outcome of earlier border clashes with Houthi rebels in 2009 does not bode well
in that regard.
With the ill-conceived Yemen intervention and the
diplomatic snub of Camp David, the Saudis are involuntarily spilling the beans
and proving that Obama has a point: petrodollars and weapons cannot buy them
security unless they put their societies on a more equal and open footing.
Rather than arms expenditure their real competition with Iran will be about
economic diversification, educational achievements, military organisation and a
national sense of purpose.