Bridging the Gulf

Cinzia Bianco, an analyst for the “Mediterranean and Gulf” programme at NATO Defence College Foundation whom I met on a recent visit to Rome, offers this guest post, based her “The Changing US Posture in the Gulf as an Opportunity for Regional Cooperation. The role of the EU,” paper presented at the Fifth Gulf Research Meeting (GRM), University of Cambridge, 25-28 August 2014. Her full paper will be published with others from the GRM by the Gerlach Press.

The commitment of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as Al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has silenced rumors about imminent American disengagement from the Gulf in order to pivot to the Asia Pacific. This commitment stems chiefly from the proliferation of terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa, which poses a threat to the US national security.

Nonetheless it has become clear that the US shows fatigue in managing unilaterally this ever-boiling, resource-consuming region. In favoring a “leading from behind” approach, the Obama administration has demonstrated a lack of coherent leadership in navigating the regional challenges, which include state failures in Syria, Yemen and Iraq as well as the consequences of a nuclear agreement with Iran. The US needs to find a way to prevent leaving a hazardous vacuum by relying on an ally to try and build a more stable, long-term strategic outlook in the Gulf. Despite all of its well-known weaknesses, that ally might be the European Union (EU).

The EU has the the potential and interests to step forward. Despite ups and downs, the EU has been involved for decades in direct dialogue with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), made a big commitment in post-war Iraq and has almost uninterruptedly maintained communication open with Iran. Conflicts in the Gulf would directly affect Europe, whose geographic proximity raises the stakes. Europe is much more dependent than the US on the Gulf for oil and gas supplies. Its trade and investments volume could be hugely disrupted, as Gulf ports are Europe’s gateways to Asia. EU-GCC investments are far more significant than that involving the US.

These motives should be sufficiently compelling to encourage the EU to take on a more proactive role in the region, which would also consolidate its place as a global strategic player.

The presence of a heavy-weighted American military umbrella has not sufficed to protect the region from the emergence of the unconventional threats that are tearing it apart. The regional problems are, at their roots, not military but political  and require courageous political responses. Since grievances and conflicts in the Gulf are mushrooming along sectarian fault lines – empowering Sunni and Shi’a extremism in a way that endangers internal as well as external stability of almost all regional countries–it is sectarianism that needs to be addressed head-on, by putting all Gulf countries around the same table. A truly effective dialogue on security in the Gulf needs active participation from Saudi Arabia, and cannot be built without or in spite of Iran and Iraq. Given the considerable distrust between the Sunni and Shi’a in the region, only the EU and the US together have enough political capital to entertain such a challenging enterprise.

The approach in the Gulf should start with limited cooperation on practical issues, in an incremental process of confidence-building focusing on many shared challenges and opportunities. All parties share critical resources, not only oil and gas fields but also water, whose management is strategic in such an arid region and needs to be coordinated. Joint patrolling of regional waters, under the umbrella of existing international initiatives, to fight the transnational criminal networks that engage in illicit trafficking and piracy, might be one step towards normalization.

Nothing can be done without a structured regional dialogue on the sociopolitical front, supporting existing fora of inter-sectarian dialogue and fighting extremist narratives. Tuning down the sectarian narrative at all levels, from leadership to population, might be the only way to prevent spillover from Syria, Iraq and Yemen into the broader region. The most concerned countries should in fact be Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Frameworks of this sort have failed to prosper in the past, but always in the presence of huge level of hostility between the US and Iran. The main GCC fear is that Iran always works to extend its influence in the Gulf, by playing the Shia communities against the Sunni rulers. Arguably, however, critical engagement rather than classic deterrence would the most effective approach to prevent this behavior.

As much as this idea may seem daunting, neglecting the challenge of sectarian-based extremism and allowing deep-seated conflicts to escalate would put national and international strategic interests at great risk. In order to return the Gulf to long-lost stability, bold steps are required, as well as the ability to adapt quickly to a changing strategic outlook, that might soon include the rehabilitation of Iran in the international arena. A visionary plan for a regional rapprochement based on shared challenges and shared opportunities might in the upcoming future become the best possible option.

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