Yesterday’s announcement by Saudi Arabia to form an anti-terror campaign globally against ISIS and affiliated terror groups might have shown what happens when American allies act to address their own challenges. But the announcement, made Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman to the Saudi Press Agency, signals a shift in foreign policy for the long-in-the-shadows US ally in the Middle East. Rather than game changing what is already happening, a robust Saudi support policy for rebels fighting against Assad and leader of an anti-terror campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, it is the fork-in-the-road for Riyadh to assert regional and global leadership in the absence of the United States.
According to a report from the Center of New American Security, as the United States role as a balancing superpower diminishes and the balance of power in the Middle East is upended in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war has created a power vacuum currently being filled by the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen), principally Saudi Arabia. The loss of Egypt and Iraq as guarantors of regional stability between powers like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia has left an opening for Saudis to pursue a strong union of the Gulf States and Arabian peninsula, a policy the Saudi Royal Family has pursued since 2011. Syria is regionalizing the conflict, drawing a weakened Iran and Turkey into the conflict, the ability of the Saudis to gain greater flexibility in leadership in the region, overturning decades of Middle Eastern stability. The formation of a “Gulf Union” would not only change the balance of power in the region, but would reverse nearly a century of history to create a new Middle East, dominated by a Pan-Arab power to the detriment of US foreign policy and national interest.
The emergence of a Gulf Union is possible through external and internal security forces, of which the following are paramount:
- The Gulf States are a largely homogenous body with common economic interests, especially on energy and economic development.
- The Gulf States see Iran a principal threat, and the with a neutralized Iraq (or Iranian leaning Iraq), it cannot overcome Iranian (or potentially resurgent Turkey) alone.
- Climate Security will affect water and agricultural resources, and clean energy.
- The perceived retreat of the United States from regional leadership in the Middle East.
Unity through Fear
The concept of supranational states is still relatively new, drawing from Europe’s experience with economic union and the borderless policies, such as the Schengen Agreements. However, the Gulf States are approaching a Gulf Union from a perspective of regional security, driven by changes in the regional balance of power and economic interconnectivity. The GCC has a more homogenous security interest, principally the containment of Iran and the preservation of their energy economy through transition to clean energy. They are more likely to reach consensus on common issues regarding their economic well-being.
Open discussions regarding tighter integration among GCC members was the main subject at the recent GCC Summit in Riyadh, led by the King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh meeting established, among other issues like action against Islamophobia and the future of Syria, that the GCC would establish a borderless union, unified economic and trade union, and a regional defense shield or military force. Saudi Arabia has pushed for a union since 2013, when it first proposed creating a 100,000 man army, along with a common currency. Even before the Arab Spring, this has been a priority of the Royal Family, who has sought unity and integration based on principles of common security. These views in 2013 were not shared by Qatar or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who defend their independence and individual wealth. Oman has always resisted stronger union with the Saudis, seeking an independent path to addressing its foreign policy goals, especially regarding its friendly relations with Iran.
Ultimately, the primary movement behind a Gulf Union is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The foundation of GCC, according to William Allen of the US Center for International Maritime Security is built on Arab insecurity of a strong Iran, which influences regional politics through countries like Syria and Yemen, and groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis.The Arab Spring in Bahrain was the only Gulf monarchy that experienced protests, specifically by a predominantly Shia majority among the protesters. The Saudis intervened through military force and restored order, but later proposed that the Kingdom and Bahraini Emirate agree to a formal union. This action drew fierce condemnation from Iran, who sees any Gulf Union as a Saudi bid to threaten Iranian interests in the Gulf. Both countries have taken proactive military roles in carrying out their agenda. Saudi Arabia today announced it, along with other countries, had signed an agreement to fight global terror, from which a number of countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen (all countries with strong Iranian proxies) are active. Mohammed Bin Salmen called for “vigilance” against terrorists threats at a press conference on Monday, declaring that we will destroy them wherever they appear in front of us.” The true motive is to contain Iran and the prospect of the Shia Crescent, which the Saudis will be poised to do by uniting the gulf and other Islamic states under its banner before Tehran can do so.
The Climate and Resource Scarcity
Climate Change is a major external factor that influences the need for close cooperation between GCC states. They view national programs to address climate change as mitigation programs, in order to stave off the decline of fossil fuel economies in favor of clean energy and low-carbon emission policies worldwide. As spare capacity of oil dissipates and the energy independence of major powers like the United States and China grows, the Gulf states lose revenues vital to national economic development, including transition to renewable energy resources. Furthermore, the increasing periods of droughts and scarcity of water is endangering the long-term growth and standard of living of the people living in the most water stressed regions in the world. As heat waves become longer and average temperatures rise, they will make in cities dangerous to live in. All the GCC states share these environmental concerns and will have to fund the infrastructural development in cities to cope with rising temperatures and lack of water. Cooperation on sustainability projects, desalination facilities, and solar investments are part of the wide web of regional cooperation initiatives between the GCC members. But there actions are geared to maintain control of global energy markets, and ultimately play a role in the clean energy revolution.
The Calculus of Power
A stronger economic union and security arrangement among the gulf states is dangerous to US leadership in the region, and ultimately tilts the balance of power in favor of the Gulf Union. It runs contrary to the American objectives, which are 1) being a global balancer between regional powers, and 2) halting the spread of terrorism that is still an arm of foreign policy by three of the principal members. It would only hasten Iranian ambitions to create the Shia Crescent across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, complicating the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, and creating a Middle Eastern Cold War. With Turkey at the throats of Russia, it reduces the potential to balance the existing Saudi-Iranian rivalry that would only intensify as a result of stronger Arab union. The end result is that US policymakers lose all remaining flexibility on vital national interests in the region, and would be forced to sacrifice its freedom action beyond the high seas. A bipolar division of the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia would create future conflicts abroad, where both powers engage in proxy wars and export terrorism as a means to fight them. Such battlefields not only include Palestine, but also Egypt, the rest of North and East Africa and South Asia.
With US resources spread thin, a pragmatic approach is necessary to preserve the balance of power int he Middle East. In the event of a union, the United States should attempt rapprochement with Egypt, plucking it from the Saudi-orbit, and strengthen relations with the regime. The failure of liberal democracy in Egypt has cost the United States valuable political capital, but a new administration might possess the energy and capital necessary for new security partnerships in the Arabian Sea. Second, the US should press for peace in Syria along a Dayton-style peace and reconciliation agreement that divides the country between the various armed parties within a reunited Syria. Finally, policymakers should seek to strengthen ties and cooperating with Qatar and Oman, and supporting their national interests to keep them detached from the Saudis. Most of these will require a vigorous new administration and a congress that is willing to make tough decisions about their history with Saudi Arabia, and whether or not they are willing to make sacrifices to restore a balance with new, untested partners. This includes Russia, whose seat at the table cannot discounted or discriminated by events in Eastern Europe, or in its current diplomatic war with Turkey.