The gulf with the Gulf
Yesterday was Gulf day. I spent part of the morning reading Christopher Davidson, who thinks the Gulf monarchies are headed for collapse due to internal challenges, their need for Western support, Iran’s growing power and their own disunity. Then I turned to Greg Gause, who attributes their resilience to the oil-greased coalitions and external networks they have created to support their rule. He predicts their survival.
At lunch I ambled across the way to CSIS’s new mansion to hear Abdullah al Shayji, chair of political science at Kuwait University and unofficial Gulf spokeperson, who was much exorcised over America’s response to Iran’s “charm offensive,” which he said could not have come at a worse time. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was already at odds with the US. The Gulf was not warned or consulted about the phone call between Iranian President Rouhani and President Obama. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to occupy the UN Security Council seat it fought hard to get was a signal of displeasure. The divergences between the GCC and the US range across the Middle East: Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine, in addition to Iran.
On top of this, US oil and gas production is increasing. China is now a bigger oil importer than the US and gets a lot more of its supplies from the Gulf. Washington is increasingly seen as dysfunctional because of its partisan bickering. Its budget problems seem insoluble. American credibility is declining. The Gulf views the US as unreliable.
This makes for enormous anxiety in the GCC, which regards the US Administration as naive, especially about Egypt (where Gulf states are replacing US aid) and about Iran. But the Gulf’s biggest near-term complaint is about Syria. Why is the US not more aggressive about decapitating the Asad regime? Why has it limited its concerns to chemical weapons? Why has it taken such a soft, detached approach when so much is at stake?
On Iran, what the Gulf wants is for the US to consult with its allies and raise issues other than the nuclear program: spying, terrorism, sectarianism and Tehran’s intervention in Syria and Lebanon. The US should insist not only that Iran give up its nuclear program but also that it behave responsibly toward its neighbors. The Gulf fears US passivity on these broader issues will give Iran free reign to re-establish itself as a hegemon in the region. Any accord with Iran should satisfy GCC needs as well as America’s.
Failure of the US to be more responsive to the Gulf will push the GCC in three directions, al Shayji said: to work harder on Gulf unity (possibly a strategic alliance), to pivot toward Asia (as the US itself is trying to do), and to reduce arms purchases from the US. But the professor was at pains to underline that this was a family feud. There is no question of taking a second wife. The Gulf will remain monogamous and wedded to the US but wants to be treated better. The question is whether the US prefers Iran to the GCC.
If I read the room correctly, the Americans listening to this sometimes harsh diatribe were somewhere between bemused and appalled. They noted that the GCC countries have maintained not only a dialogue with Iran but also embassies in Tehran. They asked whether the GCC really prefers the alternatives to a nuclear deal, which are either a nuclear Iran or war. They questioned whether a nuclear deal wasn’t the first and necessary step to a broader improvement of Iranian behavior. They pointed out that the other issues the Gulf wants considered have long been on the American agenda and that bipartisan Congressional pressure will keep them there. They wondered who really is feeding sectarianism in Syria. They suggested that greater GCC unity, a pivot towards its customers in Asia and reduced arms purchases would not necessarily be bad things from the American perspective.
I really don’t know whether Greg Gause or Christopher Davidson is right about whether the Gulf monarchies will survive. Wait and see. But I would hope that the GCC could see its way to less strident denunciation of the Americans, whose taxpayers shell out something close to $100 billion/year to protect Gulf oil flows. We might even like the idea of broadening our discussions with the Iranians to other issues, if it were suggested in a more constructive spirit.