by Emile Nakhleh
The ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the devastating Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, the bellicose rhetoric towards Iran, the fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the regional involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war, are all increasing the probability of regional war.
This conflict may pit Gulf Sunni states against each other, or Saudi Arabia and the United States against Iran.
It is time for Riyadh to rein in the rashness of its new Saudi Crown Prince and walk back from the precipice. Similarly, Washington must act now to re-examine its unproductive war hysteria rhetoric.
American policymakers should articulate a persuasive argument in favour of convincing Gulf Arab allies to resolve their tensions and to end the illegal siege of Qatar.
Continued instability and tribal feuds in the Gulf undermine American ability to design a long-term counter-terrorism strategy. This is made even more urgent by the expected defeat of the Islamic State and the inevitable search for a post-IS regional architecture. Engaging Iran, particularly over Yemen and Syria, would help outline a more visionary approach.
Citizens of the Arab world have suffered much in the past half-decade, and another war would be the last straw in the worsening devastation of the region. The Yemen war, the Saudi economic and political aggression against Qatar, and the ensuing regional instability have severely undermined the Arab world’s hopeful plans for economic growth, innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation.
As young Arabs become more digitally connected, their aspirations for a hopeful future become more vocal, and their disappointment with autocratic rulers and their sycophantic kleptocrats more pronounced. Arab regimes are rapidly losing their legitimacy, and youth unemployment is dangerously high.
The combination of repression, kleptocracy and unemployment will surely push them onto the streets for another, perhaps more violent Arab Spring.
The aspirations set out in the 2016 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) remain a dream. Even the three “deficits” of freedom, women empowerment and knowledge, which were identified in the 2002 AHDR, have yet to be closed.
Pushing its tiny neighbour Qatar around, Saudi Arabia is instead contributing to the unending misery of the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi invest huge sums in armaments but not in entrepreneurial starts-ups, useful education, innovation or job-creating technologies.
They deny their youth the freedom to innovate, to explore, and to seek funding for creative start-ups. High unemployment, under-employment, poverty, and regime disinterest in these issues are hampering Arab societies – especially young people – from attaining their potential.
In fact, in the period between the first AHDR in 2002 and the most recent 2016 report, repression, human rights abuses, and poverty have dramatically increased in most Arab countries, including in Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The so-called Saudi-driven Sunni alliance has destroyed Yemen under the fake claim of fighting the Houthis and Iran.
With Arab youth unemployment (in the 15-29 cohort) ranging from 15-70 percent, autocratic regimes, which are supposedly partnering with the United States in the “fight against terrorism”, must realize that investing in their young people could be an effective antidote to radicalization, extremist ideology and even violent extremism.
The Iran Nuclear Deal
Should the American-Saudi bellicose rhetoric directed towards Iran result in an escalation of tension – or indeed, military conflict – regime change and the abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal could be on the cards.
At the very least, such aggression would weaken President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate agenda and embolden the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Cops (IRGC), with dire consequences for Iranians and the region as a whole.
Two years ago, the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany announced a historic nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The P5+1 deal has been, arguably, the only diplomatic bright spot in the region in the past decade. Despite the feverish lobbying by Saudi Arabia and Israel in Washington to defeat the deal, the concluded agreement has enhanced American national security and has opened the way for Iran to re-join the international community as a responsible state actor.
The JCPOA was supported across much of the political spectrum in Washington because it was negotiated with the direct involvement of the American Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and his nuclear scientists at the nation’s nuclear laboratories, including Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The deal was a crowning success for diplomacy. The alternative would have been no deal, continued military and sectarian conflicts, and possibly war. Iran would have pursued its nuclear program despite the sanctions, and would have reached the status of a nuclear capable state within a relatively short time.
The agreement has put in place strong detection mechanisms and an intrusive verification regime. It prohibits Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon by blocking the plutonium path and serious uranium enrichment at the Natanz and Fordow facilities for 15 years.
The agreement should allow Washington to pursue a sustained policy of engagement with Iran on a host of regional conflicts, including Yemen, Syria, and terrorism.
Under Obama, Washington had hoped that the P5+1 arrangement would create an environment conducive to Saudi-Iranian collaboration. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the deal would enhance the security of the region and the world and particularly the national security of the United States and its allies.
Recent Impediments to the Deal
Saudi Arabia has rejected the nuclear deal with Iran due to its visceral hatred of Shia Islam, and innate inferiority complex vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic.
Muhammad bin Salman, the young Saudi minister of defense and more recently the Crown Prince, has elected to flex Saudi military muscle and assert Riyadh’s posture toward Iran, and dominance within the GCC. Lamentably, the sensible policies of engagement have fallen by the wayside.
Bin Salman has viewed Trump’s support as a reaffirmation of dangerous Saudi gamesmanship. As the two theocracies battle for hegemony, in the long-run Saudi Arabia will inevitably end up on the losing end.
Iran is more of a genuine state than Saudi Arabia with larger territory and population. It boasts rich traditions and culture that precede Islam, a vibrant society, a dynamic middle class of professionals and merchants and a global reach. The rule by the Ayatollahs notwithstanding, Iran has had several relatively free presidential elections, and young Iranians are active, global digital citizens.
Despite Iran’s continued support for the Houthis in Yemen, the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and Hizballah in Lebanon, under the right circumstances Tehran and Washington could become effective partners in the fight against terrorism.
If the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are serious about fighting violent extremism beyond their narrow self-interest, they should reach out to Iran through such Arab intermediaries as Oman and Kuwait.
Washington by now should realize that the current policy of coddling dictators and spending billions “fighting terrorism” has failed to bring stability, end terrorism, or improve the quality of life in the region.
The time has come for a new set of partnerships to be contemplated between the United States and Middle East states – including Iran – and between regimes and their peoples, based on a bold and inclusive social contract.
For its part, Riyadh should pursue long-term Gulf security through Arab-Iranian rapprochement, not continued proxy wars and blockades of smaller neighbors.
Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab. Photo: Donald Trump on his visit to Saudi Arabia.