President Obama is going to have his hands full when he visits Saudi Arabia later this month, a trip widely billed as a mission to repair his fraying relationship with Riyadh. His chief task will be to convince King Abdullah that he’s not planning to betray the longstanding alliance between the Saudis and the United States to reach his goal of cutting a deal with the Iranians on their nuclear program.
Then he’s going to have to settle an intramural squabble among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member. Two weeks ago, the Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, announced they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar, citing Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. They also asked the Qataris to stop using their lavishly funded broadcast network, Al Jazeera, to criticize members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and specifically to get rid of tele-preacher and Brotherhood mouthpiece Yussuf al-Qaradawi, who has been sharply critical of the other Gulf states for backing the anti-Brotherhood military government in Egypt.
Dissension in the Gulf is the last thing this White House wants right now. Indeed, it has lately prioritized strengthening the GCC—which also includes Kuwait and Oman—in order to start handing over some of the burden of providing for Persian Gulf security. In December, for example, Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel announced that the United States would begin selling arms to the GCC as a bloc. “We would like to expand our security cooperation with partners in the region by working in a coordinated way with the GCC,” he said at the time. “This is a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration.”
But that is going to be difficult as long as the GCC is acting like a collection of feuding petro-monarchies rather than a coherent political unit. The problem for the White House is that the crucial factor in achieving that goal is American hand-holding—the one thing Obama doesn’t want to promise. Without it, the GCC states will remain at each other’s throats—and incapable of providing any real counterweight to a newly emboldened Iran.
Like other similar cooperation arrangements and multilateral organizations around the world, the GCC is designed to function with American involvement. American weapons and missile-defense agreements alone aren’t enough to keep the GCC stable, because its members simply can’t, or won’t, cohere without Washington’s steadying influence. And no matter how much Obama tries to reassure the GCC, its member heads of state imagine they’re watching a repeat of the 1971 British withdrawal from the region—an event they in most cases remember vividly. What’s worse this time around is that there’s no Great Power next in line waiting to swoop in and offer protection as Washington was four decades ago.
What’s unfolding in the Gulf is a version of what we’re seeing around the rest of the world, from Ukraine and Eastern Europe to Asia and the Middle East, as the United States shrinks from the roles it’s taken on in two decades as a global hegemon. America is the foundation of the international system and the guarantor of global order. When a tired and—as Obama so often says—“war weary” United States decides to stay at home, its absence is felt around the world.
At the heart of the GCC crisis is a family quarrel. Most of the GCC’s ruling families come from large tribes originating in the Nejd, in the center of modern-day Saudi Arabia, and came to rule the Gulf only in the last 250 years. Great Britain was the Great Power in the Gulf for roughly a century until it ran out money and announced it was withdrawing its position in the late 1960s. Unlike other Arab countries once under colonial tutelage—for instance, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—the Gulf states were in no hurry to get rid of their European overlords. Without Western protection, the Gulf states—of geopolitical importance solely because they sit on enormous reserves of gas and oil within easy reach of sea ports—feared not only the depredations of outside powers, but also what they might do to each other. These kingdoms and tiny sheikhdoms have been subject to both internal power struggles as well as the destabilizing influence of their Bedouin neighbors. If Saudi Arabia’s chief concern right now is Iran and its nuclear weapons program, everyone else in the GCC is customarily most concerned about Saudi, their very large and rich big brother, which often bullies the other GCC states.
Qatar, which once had a border dispute with Riyadh, has been the most active in its efforts to deter, and annoy, the Saudis. The emirs in Doha have been shameless about using Al Jazeera to tweak Riyadh in front of the world; most recently, Riyadh was displeased with the network’s coverage of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising that toppled Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi, and U.S., ally. Al Jazeera was quick to promote the Muslim Brotherhood as a worthy successor, and Qatar backed up its PR campaign with some $8 billion in aid to keep Mohamed Morsi’s government afloat.
Qatar’s continued support of the Brotherhood simply reflects how the tiny, gas-rich emirate understands its role. It’s a small power that tries to keep everyone, except for the Saudis, happy by playing both sides. For instance, Doha backs Hamas while simultaneously enjoying relations with Israel and hosts Centcom, a key American military installation, while sharing the world’s largest natural gas field, South Pars, with Iran. As far as Qatar is concerned, the financial cost of supporting the Brotherhood is negligible, while the strategic investment in deterring the Saudis is entirely rational. Moreover, funding the Brotherhood is an insurance policy if, or when, it returns to popular political prominence in the region. And given the White House’s regional policies, you can hardly blame the Qataris, or any of the GCC states, for shrewdly covering their bets.
In engaging the Iranians, the White House used another GCC state, Oman—the weakest of the group—as a back channel. Last week Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Muscat, his first official trip to an Arab capital. The Omanis are thrilled at the prospect of all sorts of joint ventures, like a causeway connecting their two sides of the Straits of Hormuz, and a gas deal. But from Riyadh’s perspective, in using a GCC state as bait to win over the Iranians, Obama looks to be playing the Arabs off of each other and creating a dangerous wedge.
The White House’s policy of engaging Iran has—intentionally or not—backed the rest of the GCC into the same corner as the Israelis, who spent last week frantically showing off a cache of Iranian-made weapons seized from a ship bound for Gaza in an effort to remind Washington that Tehran remains ruthlessly committed to maintaining the regional arms race. Now there’s talk in the region of secret meetings and other cooperation between Riyadh and Jerusalem. In his speech at AIPAC’s policy conference earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even hinted at the possibility of an open partnership at some point in the future. “The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship,” said Netanyahu, “could catapult the entire region forward.”
Obama is sending messages to both Israel and the GCC that change is coming to the region, and whether they like it or not, they’d better get with the program. As Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg recently, “I think change is always scary.” Even the Israelis, among the savviest Washington power players, are having a hard time getting the White House’s attention. Netanyahu, at least, has the comfort of knowing that if Israel decides to take matters into its own hands and launch a unilateral attack Iranian nuclear facilities, it will likely have the Saudis’ quiet support—if not an outright agreement to turn off their military radar as Israeli jets fly over.
But from Riyadh’s perspective, the future looks a lot like the past. Specifically, it looks like a re-run of a very unhappy moment in their recent history—the early 1970s, when the Nixon Administration adopted the “twin pillars” policy to manage the Persian Gulf and push back against radical Middle East regimes like Nasser’s Egypt. The idea was conceived not in Washington, but in London, on the eve of Great Britain’s withdrawal. In 1967, explains historian Roham Alvandi in his 2012 article “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The Origins of Iranian Primacy in the Persian Gulf,” the British Foreign Office prepared a report on Britain’s longterm policy in the Gulf, which was to “encourage an indigenous balance of power which does not require our military presence.” This balance of power, the report explained, would depend above all on Saudi Arabia and Iran—which is exactly what Obama wants, too.
As Obama has explained now to several journalists, his goal is to establish a “geopolitical equilibrium” in the Middle East by balancing traditional American Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia against Iran. But when the White House says it wants to strengthen the GCC, what the GCC hears is that it’s getting a downgrade while Iran is getting an upgrade. Whatever Obama winds up saying to the Saudis is immaterial because his actions are telling them something else—the Americans are on their way out, and happy to let Tehran rush in.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).