The Gulf crisis that pit Saudi-led coalition against Qatar has indicated the eroding basis of regional security and stability. In general, the crisis was construed as a component of escalating Saudi-Iranian confrontation. It also highlighted the resurgent great power rivalry in the Middle East, which brought the global dynamics of Russia-led anti-Westernism into play. The retrenched American security assurances has not only emboldened the anti-Western front but also created a political void. The ensuing geostrategic conflicts further undermined the crumbling pillars of regional order.
Yet beyond structural factors, the Gulf crisis was intrinsically a local crisis and a product of Gulf politics. The conflicting agendas of domestic and regional stability, the lessening role of political leadership over Islam related popular demands, the contradictions of post–2011 Gulf security, and competing ideological alternatives undid the quest for Gulf unity and the Saudi claims for Arab leadership. We argue that absent a Gulf consensus on the basis of regional order, the recurrence of crises is inevitable and the ability of Gulf countries to steer clear of regional conflicts is more likely to be a pipe-dream.
The Gulf states are under pressure from below, sideways and above. The growing uncertainties about single-resource economies alongside the “youth bulge” and the depressing need for job creation have put much strain on the Gulf Arab monarchies. The GCC nations might have weathered the Arab uprisings thanks to their massive forex accounts and military activism. Yet, as has been indicated by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) recent moves, the choice between change or crisis appears imminent.
In addition to economic reforms, the Saudi leadership prioritized the need for Islamic reform even if through initial changes. While the former has to confront the social contract of clientelism, the latter implies broader repercussions for the role of Islam in politics and social life. With the emergence of multiple contenders from political Islamists to radical jihadists, the ideological leadership claims of Saudi Arabia as pro-Western Salafists appear more and more irrelevant in the Islamic countries. Yet still Saudi Arabia has a unique role in Gulf politics, whereby the challenges of failure or resistance to change particularly in the Saudi case run the risk of unraveling the broader Gulf political order.
The House of Saud’s response to this call for change has been inconsistent and mostly reactive. Facing innate vulnerabilities on both ideological and political fronts, Saudi Arabia has prioritized domestic and, to a lesser degree, regional stability at any cost. Domestic transition via royal succession was a major step to ensure keeping the Saudi house in order. Even if King Salman’s rule started with a wobbling attitude towards royal succession, the indisputable empowerment of MBS later on invalidated any doubts about where the ship was heading. On MBS’s watch, the Saudi leadership has espoused an iron-fist policy against political alternatives at home hand-in-hand with a flag-bearer role for leading the call for change in the region. The contradictions that rise thereof and the questions about the sincerity and feasibility of leading change notwithstanding, MBS has been given a certain leeway to implement his policy of economic reform and religious moderation. In any case, the top-down reform process would prove consequential for the viability of the Saudi state.
On a broader note, the Saudi Kingdom is a status quo power that aims to perpetuate the post–colonial order in the Middle East, which has assigned the al-Saud dynasty economic, security and spiritual leverage. Building on these advantages, the Saudi foreign policy rests on American security umbrella, petrodollars, and the royal family’s role as the custodian of Holy Cities of Islam. Hence, the regime pursues a pro-Western line as a means to preserve the political map of the region and conduct foreign-policy activism against revisionist contenders.
The Arab Spring was essentially a blow to these conventional pillars of Saudi foreign policy. First, the ability to sustain the American security shield has become dubious with Obama’s reticent commitment to the Middle Eastern order. Beyond financial bottlenecks emerging with lower oil prices, the fall of fellow strongmen not only signaled the end of an era but also the inevitability of change particularly with more and more doubtful U.S. backing. This entailed putting their own house in order, which was construed by the Saudi leadership as the need to defy political and ideological alternatives for survival. Such an existential reading of events brought about unwavering Saudi confrontation against the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.
The Saudi response to the Arab Spring was thus three-pronged. In its early phase, the Arab Spring was above all a domestic security problem for Saudi Arabia. The 2011–2012 Shiite riots in the Eastern Province have shown the need to contain spillover from neighboring sheikhdoms, vindicating military action by the Saudis to repress the demonstrations in Bahrain. The Saudis espoused a Monroe-doctrine type “non-intervention” in Gulf affairs and defied the threat of revolutionary Shiite insurgency.
These interrelated challenges also highlighted “the Iranian threat,” in a way projecting Tehran as the instigator of conflict. In general, the Iranian threat has been instrumental to deflect attention from domestic challenges and the vital need for uniformity. Standing against the Iranians empowers the Saudi leadership at home vis-à-vis Islamists groups grieving for the rollback of Sunni sphere of influence from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Even if there was a strong sectarian element in the Saudi-Iranian confrontation, political expediency played its part in putting Saudi Arabia at loggerheads with Iran after the Arab Spring. Yet the Iranian threat also has had a dual use in approximating Saudi foreign policy with the United States and pro-Western axis in the Middle East, namely UAE, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain in the name of counterrevolutionary alliance.
Taking action against the early domestic and immediate external threats, the Saudi establishment has moved to strike Iran’s regional assets in the second phase. Yet despite military activism and confrontational proxy wars, the Saudi kingdom failed to decouple the Iranian link to the Mediterranean to exhaust the Shiite presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. Under current conditions, the regional balances certainly do not favor the Saudis, which in turn works to further augment the Iranian threat.
With the dominance of the military-intelligence apparatus in Egyptian politics and the Israeli anxieties about Islamism of any sort, Saudi Arabia did not have to convince Western partners to stay silent against the military takeover, which was thought to reinstitute the ascendancy of the pro-Western Saudi bloc in the regional balance of power. As a result, the muted Western reaction in Egypt worked to repair the shaken but unbroken link between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia and the UAE came out in full support of the Sisi regime, providing vital financial and political support. Meanwhile, earlier Saudi attempts towards rapprochement with Russia and China did not yield concrete returns, demonstrating the limits of substituting for the American security shield.
The Saudi Kingdom strategized to maintain the balance of power in its favor by securing like-minded regimes in traditional allies like Egypt and Yemen, and by countering Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony in Syria. To that end, it unleashed the sectarian card, believing its vast financial resources would stem the tide of change. Saudi Arabia’s regional projections heavily rely on a securitized perception of authoritarian survival at home. Riyadh has been successful in preserving the integrity of its own borders, and keeping the transforming impact of the Arab Spring away. However, the cost and durability of its broad-based game plan has indicated a clear overstretch in Saudi policy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The Pitfalls of Saudi Policy Responses
The rejectionist Saudi response against calls for change not unsurprisingly engendered pitfalls before the ultimate Saudi goals for security and stability. The inability to co-opt alternative forces undermined the moves for Sunni unity. Without sustained and consistent American support, the GCC lost its semblance of uniformity and, even worse, turned against itself. The Saudi policy of keeping the regional fire away still kept the fire aflame and ran the risk of turning into a structural threat against pro-Western Arab monarchies. Above all, the helter-skelter attempts to manage change and the test of royal succession put the country into a risky trajectory of domestic uncertainty complemented with foreign adventurism.
The Saudi-led attempts to stem the prevalence of political Islam and seemingly an idea of moderation towards electoral modes of government undid a possible route to reinvigorate the political legitimacy of the Arab regimes. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood movements appeared disorganized, far from inclusive and displayed authoritarian and repressive traits in government, they could have evolved into a third way between the defunct regimes of Arab strongmen and the reactionary alternative of radical extremism. While the Saudis managed to accommodate this dichotomy at home by co-opting the Islamists for Saudi causes, particularly after the coronation of King Salman in January 2015, they have been less cautious in handling political challenges in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere. The resultant disorder put further strain on Saudi Arabia’s regional commitments and has been far from exemplary in empowering the Saudi case for regional stability.
Overall, rival sources of Islamism continue to be the foremost challenge against the Gulf political regimes. Having suffocated the political alternatives, the Saudi-led Gulf political order—likewise the Islamic world as a whole—would have to face the radical and radicalized movements. The rise of the Islamic State might have been initially welcomed by certain Saudi circles because of the anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite worldview, but it quickly became clear to the Saudi administration that they posed even a more immediate threat than Al Qaeda. First, the Islamic State did not make a differentiation between the near enemy and far enemy. Therefore, they prioritized “conquering” the Islamic lands and categorically delegitimized the rule of pro-Western Arab monarchies. Second, the ideological tone and purist message of Islamic State, which again defied modernism of any sort beyond the traditional sources of Islam, has proven to have an appeal across the Arab countries, especially in the Gulf countries. In extrapolation, the siphoning off of the extremists to war zones does in no way guarantee the end of extremist challenge in the Gulf countries. Third, the Islamic State’s call to fight for the Sunni rights and military activism has offered an alternative route to address Sunni disenfranchisement even if doomed to failure from the beginning. All in all, the rise of the Islamic State pointed to the void in the Islamic world—even if the Islamic States fell far from qualified to fill it—for popular, indigenous, religious, legitimate, and independent source of political power to tackle Muslim grievances.
Beyond ideological concerns, the assumed Gulf unity against common challenges has been a delusion. Indeed, the Saudi relations with GCC countries were far from smooth and conflicts rose particularly from territorial disputes and political divergences. After decolonization, territorial disputes and border skirmishes became occasional with Saudi Arabia’s quest to have the upper hand in Gulf geopolitics, which was seen as its backyard. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s relative size and economic largesse as well as its key partnership with the United States fed into a self-assigned flag-bearer role for Gulf unity. Yet this did not stop countries like Qatar, Oman and up to a degree the UAE from seeking their independent course.
Again, the main issue driving a wedge between the GCC countries was dissensus on regional order. Qatar played a leading role in seeking an alternative role to advocate political Islam, even after the fall of Morsi in Egypt and subsequent royal succession in Doha. The problem with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood movements and its overreach with involvement from Syria to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan and Sudan was seen by the Saudis and more aggressively by the Emiratis as stealing the show. Qatar’s Iran policy, even if magnified to put more pressure, was in any case more lenient and bendable as was seen in Qatar’s participation in the Yemen war against the Iran-backed Houthis. To Saudi Arabia, Qatar was far from a partner that should be consulted about regional developments, rather a juvenile that should be disciplined for disruptive behavior. For Qatar, it was, to all intents and purposes, independent foreign policy. On the other hand, Oman traditionally had a more pro-Iranian line, while Kuwait tried to uphold its role as an honest broker.
The UAE’s rising role to get support for its definitive goal to roll back political Islam stemmed largely from its double game vis-a-vis the Western powers and Saudi Arabia. In that, a major concern for the UAE was to neutralize the Qatari influence and its ties with Muslim Brotherhood movements from Egypt to Libya, Syria, Sudan and Somalia. As a result, the UAE unleashed a comprehensive campaign to name and shame Qatar in regional and global fora. The Gulf crisis in itself symbolized an Emirati coup de grace to bring Doha into line or otherwise suffocate its interests. In a more controversial approach, the UAE claimed to lead a secular and pro-Western front against the Qatari case for inclusion of political Islamists into mainstream politics. Moreover, the UAE military bases from Somaliland to Eritrea and Yemen, as well as its participation in military operations in Libya together with Egyptian forces, underlined a broader claim to manage regional developments. Overall, the UAE goal to isolate regional rivals, i.e. Qatar and Turkey, pointed to an overstretch given the mismatch between its relatively miniscule geopolitical power and its inflated moves to shape regional politics. Even the UAE’s recently vocal adversity to Iran to garner support for its regional goals sounds equivocal given its massive trade links with Iran, particularly the Emirate of Dubai’s special ties with Iran and Iranians.
King Salman made an attempt to overcome this lack of unity with a broader Islamic (Sunni) solidarity. Bringing together initially thirty-four Islamic nations, he established the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). Even while the declared goal was to fight terrorism and coordination between Islamic countries, the exclusion of Iran underlined the Saudi goal to isolate its regional foe. An implicit motive was to stave off growing criticisms about the lack of Sunni powers’ commitment to fight back the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. On a balance sheet, the so-called “alliance” has shown both the ability of the Saudis to bring Sunni countries together and the inability to orient them towards common action.
The end of the Obama era was a relief for the Saudi concerns about U.S. concessions to Iranian expansionism. Saudi Arabia rebuked the Obaman idea of reintegrating Iran into regional “equilibrium” via the nuclear deal. This was largely because the missing element in the deal was that Iranians did not commit themselves to respect regional balance of power from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Lebanon. Rather the Iranians utilized the negotiation window to maximize their gains in Syria and beyond, while America’s hands were tied to finalize “Obama’s legacy.” Even worse, Obama was expecting the Saudi-led Sunni powers to fight back the Islamic State and assume responsibility for the instability in Iraq and Syria. In a twist of the facts, the Americans were now dumping the ripple effects of 2003 Iraq operation on Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.
Against this background, the election of President Trump was more than welcome for the Saudi-led coalition to win back Washington’s favor in support of their cause to roll back Iran and political Islam. The U.S. president’s first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia was unprecedented and symbolic, and mainly an anti-thesis of Obaman vision for the Middle East. Trump’s speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit during the visit underscored the U.S. call for the Arab nations taking the lead against terrorism and extremism, while the U.S. president tried to appease the Arab leaders against disruptive regime change and underscored “security through stability.” Trump was also vociferous against Iran, which he singled out as “responsible for so much instability in the region.”
Trump’s visit was construed as embracing the Saudi goals in the region. As a result, the Saudis enticed by the Emiratis moved to subdue the Qataris. The Gulf crisis symbolized a Saudi-Emirati attempt to solidify the anti-Iranian coalition and to penalize dealignment in the Gulf. President Trump, who called Qatar “a crucial strategic partner” a few days ago, joined the Saudi-Emirati line to condemn Qatari support for “radical ideology.” Apparently, the Saudi-led coalition was emboldened by Trump’s malleability, which paved the way for MBS’s emergence as the mover and shaker in regional politics.
The sustainability of the U.S.-Saudi relations in the age of Trump has been dubious at best. From the Saudis’ perspective there has been a major fallacy that Americans are back for the good old days of “oil (petrodollars) for security” and U.S. hegemonic pretensions. A more realistic assessment should take into account the fact that the U.S. foreign policy has prioritized minimizing U.S. commitment to Mideast security and seeks burden-sharing from regional partners. Even if the American thinking is not as isolationist as “America first” sounds, it would surely be limited, target-based, and would not come without a price tag. On Iran, the Trump administration has proven its willingness to maximize pressure, but still U.S. readiness to assume the cost of attritional confrontation in various regional theaters is highly unlikely. Again, the cost of confrontation with Iran would be paid directly or indirectly by regional countries. On Israel, the close association of MBS with Israeli interests has undermined the assumed Saudi role as the protector of Sunni interests. As a result, King Salman recently came to out to reiterate the Saudi ownership of the Palestinian cause and the status of Jerusalem. On Yemen, the Saudi-led operation to support the internationally recognized Hadi government not only fell short of the goal of political transition but also brought international condemnation for civilian deaths and humanitarian disasters. Three years into the war, the spillover of the conflict deep into Saudi territories with continuous missile attacks from Yemen as well as the recent news about the growing divergences with the UAE on transitional goals indicate more trouble for the Saudi security objectives. There were also questions about the sustainability of the MBS’s reform agenda and foreign-policy activism in Washington, which ran the risk of further tarnishing the U.S. reputation in the region.
The Way Ahead
The inherent contradictions in Saudi policies to uphold domestic and regional stability appear as one of the main challenges before the contemporary Gulf order. While the Saudis have proven successful in stemming change during the Arab Spring even if at a great cost, the MBS-led transition to own the case for reform at home may the open regional Pandora’s box. There is an unfilled demand for change and most of the structural problems in the region continue to fester in the background. Therefore, the Saudi case for reform might bring about an unintended consequence of a new wave of regional instability. That instability will not just be in advocacy of reform but also in opposition to it from status quoist circles.
This is partly because Saudi leadership’s ability to own and sustain reform appears dubious at best. The delicate balances in the new Saudi alignment towards “moderate Islam” complemented by social and economic reforms are already loaded enough to keep the Saudi Kingdom entangled in a transitional process. Yet the Saudis also appear emboldened to assume foreign-policy activism, which is again predicated on the fragile pillars of American leadership, anti-Iranian sectarianism, and alliance with pro-Western regional actors including Israel. Without consensus, particularly among Gulf sheikhdoms, on the basis of regional order, the recurrence of crises is inevitable and the Gulf countries ability to steer clear of regional conflicts is more likely to be illusory.
The cracks in Gulf unity are reason enough to rethink the current approach of Saudi leadership, while regional and Islamic countries differ on ongoing conflicts in Syria to Yemen and beyond. The UAE-Qatar rivalry to prevail in Gulf politics has turned into a major setback for Gulf stability. The Gulf crisis in itself underlines the need to find common ground among GCC nations, which could only be the first step to project power in regional conflicts. Even the possibility of U.S.-enforced “cold peace” could not bring about the much-needed common action among the Gulf nations. The looming confrontation with Iran would have disastrous consequences for Gulf security in all three possible scenarios towards the Iranian bomb, regional war or regime change in Iran. Therefore, the GCC would better strive to minimize the Iranian spillover rather than fan the fire of confrontation.
The regional order has to accommodate the growing demands for security, welfare and dignity of the regional peoples. These goals entail integrating popular demands into political regimes as well as finding common ground among regional powers to establish a security community above all to root out radical extremism from the lands of Islam. In that, exclusion of Iran and alternative political ideologies of Islamism is a non-starter. Rather, a more comprehensive regional order would need to advocate political pluralism and moderation and provide enough room to integrate political grievances into mainstream Arab politics to isolate nonsystemic actors.