The US-Arab Gulf relationship is going through a turbulent phase, but the fundamentals of this 60-year-old-plus alliance are as strong and as healthy as ever.
This curious “marriage of convenience” has been through rough times before and it survived many odds and is not in for a break-up. Indeed, America is here to stay and its visibly angry and frustrated Gulf allies know that the US is irreplaceable for the architecture of Gulf security for the time being.
The 2013 year-end review of the state of US-Arab Gulf relationship shows a mixture of good and bad news. First the good news: Despite the current tensions and mistrust, the alliance is not in any imminent danger.
The two sides still see eye to eye on many critical regional and global issues, engage in regular deep strategic dialogue, several key components of the relationship are even thriving like never before and above all the roots of this special relationship look fundamentally solid and unshakable. So no one on either side of the island is contemplating a break-up any time soon.
The few hawkish voices of frustrations on the Gulf side are apparently not representative of the mainstream thinking. This six-decade-old strategic partnership has gone through the roof and down the alleys many times, but has eventually settled down and survived the odds.
The two partners in this relationship are stuck with each other for good and bad. The frustrated six Arab Gulf states understand that even a vacillating and confused America is still an indispensable insurance company for Gulf security and for their survival in this extremely dangerous and volatile neighbourhood.
Admittedly, the quality of the ‘protection services’ are not at their best, but it is the only one around. As for the US, which is becoming increasingly energy independent, the Gulf remains a vital region and its stability is fundamental to international peace and security as much as it is essential to American and global economic order. “I assure our Gulf partners we are not going anywhere”, said US Secretary for Defence, Chuck Hagel, at the Manama Dialogue last week.
But aside from its resilience, there are more bad news than good news in the US-Gulf relation at the end of 2013. The 2013 version of the relationship is not looking very pretty. There are lots of bad feelings, plenty of confusions and endless frustrations and accusations on both sides. The current rift is alarming and the challenges ahead for US-Arab relations are deep-seated.
From the upset Gulf capitals’ perspective, the naive and confused Washington is solely responsible for the current malaise in the once-prosperous alliance. The complain that Washington does not listen to its allies has been amply confirmed by the avalanche of sudden moves and shocking shifts of direction. The Gulf partners are bombarded with mixed and confusing signals coming out of Washington.
The feelings on this side of the island are that the Gulf states are dealing with a very confused America. Washington seems to be full of confusions, confused politicians and led by a very confusing president.
A confused Washington is a dangerous Washington that cannot be trusted. At a time when the Arab Gulf states are looking for clarity and decisiveness, all they are getting is a flip flopping partner.
This of course raises the ultimate question of trust and credibility. Hence, mistrust of America is loudly heard throughout the region. It is the key word that best describes the current mood in most Gulf capitals, especially Riyadh, who said it is ready for a full-fledged divorce.
The big question being pondered these days by Gulf decision-makers: Is this about a passive and naive President Barack Obama or is this a much deeper trend associated with a politically divided and visibly exhausted America that is growing increasingly inward-looking with a new set of global priorities in which the Gulf region does not measure as prominently as before?
Mistrust has been building since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but has reached new heights due to recent regional developments, especially the rift over Syria. If there is one case that qualifies as a turning point in US-Gulf relationship, it is Syria — not the Iran nuclear deal or any issue related to the handling of the Arab Spring.
The way the US is attending to the Syrian uprising has complicated the relationship. Washington has not been as forthcoming on this issue as was expected, but worst is Obama’s sudden U-turn on his own ultimatum on the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Al Assad.
This single instance of inaction was a shattering experience and a huge letdown. It rattled the very foundations of the trusted relationship. America failed miserably in Iraq and failed again in Syria. In both cases, America’s leadership was at stake and it took a huge tumble.
From a Gulf perspective, the Syria mishandling is a watershed event and the relationship is not going to be the same anymore. There is no way on earth the Arab Gulf states can trust America as they used to during the past six decades.
It is no longer business as usual, no matter what Hagel says.These regional developments come at a time when the Arab Gulf states are acting more assertive and independent than ever before. This is, after all, the Gulf moment in contemporary Arab history, which simply means that the six Gulf states are emerging as the new regional centres.
The rise of the Gulf moment comes at a time when America is in retreat — both regionally and globally. As things stand right now, the Gulf states look strategically an inch taller, whereas the US is looking strategically a foot shorter.
There is a whole new dynamic in the once-imbalanced US-Gulf relationship. It is no longer a one-way street alliance. America is not as powerful as it was in 2003 and the six Arab Gulf States are not as weak as they were just ten years ago.
These deep structural changes need to be recognised to get over the current tensions and keep the US Gulf relationship healthy and move it to a new level of mature engagement in the years to come.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of Political Science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE