Obama and the Gulf: there's far more to worry about than Iran

This week’s meeting at Camp David between President Obama and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council is still being described as a “summit”, though it has already slithered some way down from the mountain top. The Sultan of Oman and the president of the UAE are both too ill to attend and will be sending representatives instead. The kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have pulled out too, in a move that is seen as a snub to President Obama. That leaves only Kuwait and Qatar to be represented by their heads of state.

In the US, even before it happens, the meeting has opened up a space for anti-Obama stirring from the political right, especially among opponents of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. For the purposes of bad-mouthing Obama, the Gulf’s bumbling monarchs are presented as good guys – “determined to take the initiative” in “confronting Iran’s regional expansion” (to quote a briefing paper from the Orient Advisory Group) – against a US president with “a regional policy that no one can define or even understand”.

So the big question – indeed, the only question as far as some commentators are concerned – is what the US can do to reassure the Gulf’s plutocrats that it is still committed to their security. 

The irony is that it ought to be the other way round. Given the spread of jihadist activity in the region and beyond, Obama should (but probably won’t) be asking the emirs and their stand-ins for more evidence of a commitment to other countries’ security. It’s all very well to thank them for resisting ISIS and supporting counterterrorism efforts at an international level by sharing intelligence, but in the current situation that is simply not enough. It’s time to start reversing the damage they have caused in the minds of many Muslims.

They should stop promoting sectarian politics and consider how their actions legitimise religious intolerance: the laws that prescribe punishment for apostasy, blasphemy and other kinds of nonconformity, the policies that treat the followers of different faiths (and even different branches of Islam) as inferior beings – in fact, anything that leads people to think it’s right to impose religion by force. Obama should tell them that until they take such a stand, no matter how many bombs they drop, there is virtually no hope of putting an end to jihadist violence.

But don’t hold your breath. It’s far more likely the Americans will send them home with assurances about Iran and arms deals in their pockets. “The Obama administration,” an article for Foreign Policy says, “is preparing to assuage scepticism toward the potential nuclear agreement with Iran by focusing on new security arrangements and billions of dollars in weapons that the United States may offer to sell to the Gulf states”.

But the US should go further, the article suggests. It goes on to propose “more aggressive joint covert actions” and other skullduggery in order to “expose Iranian operatives and embarrass Iran when it pursues irresponsible destabilising policies in the Middle East”.

Such a move would no doubt delight Gulf regimes because it suits their propaganda narrative. But it’s important to distinguish between genuine security concerns about Iran and the anti-Iranian hysteria that’s constantly whipped up by Gulf rulers, not to mention Israeli and American Iranophobes, for their own political purposes.

Trying to be assertive

There has been much talk recently about the Gulf states becoming more "muscular" and "assertive", with the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen as a prime example. Viewed from Washington, greater assertiveness might be a welcome development if it meant GCC states taking charge of their own security and allowing the US to step back from the region. But the nature of the Camp David meeting calls that into question: while the GCC states may strive to be more assertive their ability to do so hinges almost entirely on American (and, to some extent, British) weaponry.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has spent about $500 billion on military equipment during the last 20 years and around three-quarters of that has been spent in the United States, according to a report in the New York Times:

“Decades of cooperation and billions of dollars in weapons contracts have left the Gulf nations deeply entwined with the United States and Britain in ways that cannot be quickly undone, analysts say. Qatar hosts the largest United States air base in the region, and Bahrain is the home port of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. And their efforts to make reliable military partners of fellow Muslim nations like Pakistan and Egypt have met little success, despite tens of billions of dollars in aid.”

Such is their dependency that without western spare parts, maintenance and training expertise, plus fresh ammunition, operations such as that in Yemen would come to a halt very quickly, the paper notes.

The other side of the coin is that arms sales to the Gulf are extremely lucrative, with the result that the US and Britain have become heavily reliant on them too. This, obviously, makes it more difficult to adopt a robust approach when Gulf states use their new-found assertiveness irresponsibly.

The problem here is that in the Gulf, as in most of the Middle East, national security tends to be equated with regime security. Military power is about maintaining the status quo to the regimes’ advantage. It’s about holding back much-needed change, rather than managing it. In the long run that cannot be good for the region, or the rest of the world.

Fearing a tsunami

If we ask why Gulf states are becoming more assertive now, the answer is not that they are brimming with confidence in their ability to manage their own destiny. In fact, it’s the opposite. They are nervous and fear being overwhelmed. Furthermore, Iran is only one of their many problems. Following a recent visit to Dubai, Rami Khouri, a columnist for the Lebanese Daily Star, described a sense of alarm sweeping through the Gulf:

"Seen from Riyadh, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, the world around the mostly wealthy oil-producing GCC states has been turned on its head in the last four years. Every major geo-strategic potential threat or fear that they have quietly harboured for years has started to materialise – virtually simultaneously."

Khouri went on to enumerate what, for the Gulf states, are terrifying developments: the street revolutions of 2011 that overthrew several Arab leaders (coupled, more generally, with growing popular aspirations towards democratic pluralism throughout the region), the rise of Muslim Brotherhood parties, the current turmoil in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen which has also spawned a plethora of jihadist groups and militias, the growing influence of Iran and concerns that the US is trying to disengage itself from the Middle East. 

Each of these is dangerous for Gulf rulers, Khouri says, but together they "take on the dimensions of a tsunami". 

Western complacency

Given that Gulf rulers themselves fear being overwhelmed, it seems odd not to consider the possibility that one day they may in fact be overwhelmed. But it’s something western policymakers are singularly reluctant to contemplate; they assume it will be business as usual for the foreseeable future, with Gulf regimes and their western partners locked together in a benign and mutually beneficial relationship – there is no Plan B.

Britain’s policy towards the GCC states was spelled out in just 150 words in a government document published at the end of 2012. It said:

“The six states of the Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – have the largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world, and are playing an increasingly important role in Middle Eastern politics.

“Relations with the Gulf States are of huge significance to the UK. Over 160,000 British nationals live and work the Gulf, and we export around £15 billion worth of goods and services to the Gulf, which is on a par with China and India combined. But this is mutually beneficial: investment from the Gulf in the UK economy totalled around $2.25 billion in 2011.

“The Arab Spring shows that long-term political and economic reform gives people a greater stake in their societies. The Gulf States have recognised this and the UK is working with them to support their own efforts and encouraging them to continue to play a positive role in the wider region.”

That section was headed “Reform in the Gulf states”, and claiming that Britain is helping them to reform is what makes dealing with these objectionable regimes more palatable politically. Of course, British diplomats generally take a very charitable view of what constitutes reform in the Gulf states but it’s usually possible to point to something that might, conceivably, be evidence of progress. Thus, for example, we had John Sawers, former head of Britain's secret intelligence service, writing in the Financial Times earlier this month about how changes in the pecking order among Saudi princes are a sign that the royal family is “becoming something of a meritocracy”.

The reality, though, is that what changes do occur are little more than tinkering around the edges. None of the GCC states is making any attempt at serious political reform.

Questions of money

Gulf rulers have a tried and trusted method of holding back pressure for change: with money. Early in 2011, alarmed by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Saudi king sought to buy off local opposition by announcing a SR500 billion ($133 billion) spending package which included more housing and medical facilities, more welfare benefits and bonuses for government employees. This also included an extra $53 million for the detested religious police, $133 million for religious institutions plus pay rises for the military and the creation of 60,000 new military jobs under the Interior Ministry.

In Kuwait during 2011, the government provided 17,000 new jobs in the public sector – double the figure for 2010 and more than at any time in the previous 10 years. In Oman, employment of expatriates (a group that don't cause trouble and can be thrown out of the country if they do) increased by 10%. Meanwhile, private sector employment in Oman fell by 4% to 170,000 (out of an estimated population of 2.5 million).

Buying support by creating government jobs is a familiar tactic in most of the Arab states, despite a recognition that there are already far too many government employees doing far too little work, and that this inhibits development in the private sector. Of course, some Gulf states do have very deep pockets – which is part of the problem. When everyone knows you are rich it becomes more difficult to resist the demands for hand-outs. 

Following his accession to the Saudi throne in January, King Salman sought to buy popularity by handing out a two-month bonus to government employees and pensioners. This was one reason why the central bank’s net foreign assets dropped by $36 billion – about 5% of the total – during February and March.

“Saudi Arabia is burning through foreign reserves at a record pace as the largesse of the new king and regional turmoil ratchet up pressure on public finances already hurt by the oil price slump,” Bloomberg reported.

Looking at the Gulf states more generally, in February a report from the British foreign policy thinktank, Chatham House, warned:

"The revenues from energy resources are not sufficient to sustain the current political-economic bargain in the medium to long term: three of the six GCC countries need oil at US$100 per barrel in order to balance their budgets, and, crucially, these 'break-even' prices are rising as population growth adds to public-sector wage and subsidy bills." It added that "in four of the GCC states, hydrocarbon resources will run out within the lifetime of citizens born today".

Bahrain and Oman are already feeling the pinch from declining oil revenues – which, as the Chatham House report noted, raises questions about their ability "to sustain the implicit bargain between society and the state". In Oman's case, the oil will be exhausted in 16 years at current levels of production.

Aside from domestic pressures on their finances, a more assertive foreign policy also means more spending commitments abroad. GCC states are currently bankrolling the Sisi regime in Egypt and when the conflicts in Syria and Yemen eventually begin to subside vast amounts of money will be needed there too. There is only one way that GCC can ensure Yemen remains in its sphere of influence and does not totally collapse, British-Yemeni journalist Abubakr al-Shamahi argued last month – and that is by "pumping hundreds of billions into Yemen and totally reconstructing the state and the military". 

It ought to be obvious that this cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually, something will have to give and resisting change now, with western connivance, will only make matters worse in the end.