by Eldar Mamedov
In the aftermath of the implementation of the nuclear agreement with Iran, there has been abundant commentary on the need to reassure the Gulf allies of the West. The fear is that a richer Iran, unshackled from sanctions and isolation, will pose a threat to the stability and security of the Gulf states. Yet the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are far from presenting a united front against Iran.
At the anti-Iranian extreme lies Saudi Arabia. Opposing Iran has indeed become an organizing principle of Saudi foreign policy. Saudi officials depict Iran as a revolutionary cause, not a state, determined to replace the existing states in the region with militias under its control and supporting terrorism to this end. Riyadh is particularly incensed at the increasing focus of the international community, especially in Europe, on the Saudi war in Yemen and on human rights practices in the Kingdom. As one Saudi official quipped, it’s “only Europe and Iran who criticize our actions in Yemen”.
Bahrain echoes such views as well, which is not surprising considering the almost total dependence of the Bahraini regime on Saudi military presence for its survival. The United Arab Emirates and, to some extent, Kuwait are also members of this chorus. But elsewhere, other voices can be heard.
Cracks in the GCC
Qatar is a case in point. Qatar’s views on Iran are best understood in a broader framework of its foreign policy. Unlike their Saudi Wahhabi cousins, Qataris base their policies much more on pragmatism than ideology.
For example, Doha’s staunch support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the wake of the Arab Spring, which so angered Saudis and Emiratis, was based on a pragmatic assessment of the political Islamists as an ascending force in the region. Hence, throwing weight behind them would allow Qataris to ride the tide of the future and maximize their own influence, so the thinking went. As the political fortunes of the MB have declined and Saudi pressure on Qatar has increased—including, at one point, a withdrawal of Saudi ambassador from Doha and a Saudi-orchestrated campaign to isolate Qatar within the GCC—Doha has adjusted its course accordingly. Under the new emir, it treads much more carefully, but MB members still lead rather comfortable lives in Doha, biding their time.
Qatar’s attitude toward Iran reflects the same pragmatism. Although publicly it joins Saudi denunciations of “Iranian interference,” its real policies are somewhat more nuanced. Qatar does not see Iran as an existential threat the way Saudi Arabia does. Rather, it sees Iran as an inescapable regional power. It undoubtedly helps that Qatar and Iran share access to the South Pars natural gas field, the largest source of wealth for Qataris. Doha recognizes that some Iranian policies are inimical to its interests, like Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Nevertheless, it accepts the need to work with Iran the way it is. So, while Qatar has sought to mend fences with Saudi Arabia under the new emir, there is no U-turn in its policies, including on Iran.
Another example of a more independent approach is Oman. Western diplomats highly appreciated the sultanate’s backchannel role that paved the way for formal negotiations between the US and Iran on the nuclear issue. Saudis and Emiratis, by contrast, were angered by Oman’s failure to inform them about the secret talks, seeing in it a betrayal by Muscat of its GCC partners. But Omanis, of course, were very well aware that informing Saudis would kill the process. And they decided that their long-standing policies of pursuing good relations with all of their neighbors, including Iran, were more important than pleasing the Saudis. Oman also resisted Saudi attempts to more tightly integrate the GCC foreign and security policies, seeing in it Riyadh’s hegemonic tendencies.
Even in the UAE there seems to be a split between the hawkish political-security leadership in Abu Dhabi and a more pragmatically oriented Dubai eager to capitalize on new trade opportunities with Iran.
Such differences have led some local observers to go so far as to suggest that the GCC is not a union, but a fiction. The Council, they believe, serves as a cover for the diverging security interests and policies of its member states and, at times, even within these states. Whether the GCC is a fiction or not, the differences seem indeed substantial enough to conclude that the Saudi efforts to forge a united anti-Iran block are unlikely to succeed. Smaller Gulf states distrust Saudi Arabia almost as much as Iran.
Another factor that makes them think twice about allying too closely with Riyadh is the perception that Saudi Arabia itself is on the cusp of a serious crisis, due to low oil prices, mounting social and economic challenges, and military misadventures in Yemen and Syria. There’s also the simmering discontent within the royal family with what are seen as the reckless policies of Mohammed Bin Salman, the regime’s strongman.
Although no one expects the state to collapse in Iran, many Saudis continue to keep this possibility alive.. In this context, hedging their bets and trying to find a modus vivendi with Iran would offer a better insurance to Gulf rulers than joining the Saudi-promoted front against Iran.
Photo: Arrival of foreign ministers for 30th GCC Foreign Ministers Council meeting
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.