Are the Arab Gulf States disillusioned with the US?

The Arab Gulf States are reliant on the US for security and for the value of the US dollar, to which most currencies in the region are pegged. (Photo by Shutterstock) 
Will the estrangement between the US and Saudi Arabia push it to settle with Iran?  Ahmed Abdul-Rahman investigates.

As the Gulf Arab states lose faith in the US commitment to their security, they are trying to solve their problems with Tehran, Iran's capital, on their own, as shown by talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On Monday, April 25, Iran revealed that it had recently held a fifth round of talks with Saudi Arabia. "Negotiations between the two regional powers were positive," a spokesperson of Iran's Foreign Ministry said. 

Talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran highlight the issue of Hajj

"Talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran are underway regarding sending 40,000 Iranian pilgrims to perform Hajj in Mecca this year", the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

While the talks so far have focused on relatively minor issues such as the Hajj, and have been attended by intelligence-level officials, the prospect of including state department-level officials in upcoming talks may signal significant progress and a desire to settle some of the region's most difficult conflicts, a report by CNN said.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, severed relations with Tehran in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital after the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia.

Gulf States feel that the US has failed them

Frustrated by what they see as waning US interest in their security concerns, Gulf Arab states have recently begun to take matters into their own hands, reaching out to rivals and enemies to stave off conflicts that could wreak havoc on their economies.

Oil facilities in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have come under attack in recent years from elements believed to be backed by Iran, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In both cases, the Gulf States were frustrated with the US response, so they rethought a long-standing pillar of the US-Gulf relationship that ensures that Arab allies would consider US energy needs in exchange for US guarantees of security.

The clearest example of this reconsideration was the tepid reaction of the Gulf States to the Russian military operation in Ukraine. US allies have not publicly endorsed the Biden administration's position on Russia's military operation there, and regional officials have cited the conflict as a sign of change in the global order.

In addition, Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, according to 2020 figures, and the UAE have rejected US calls to increase oil production to lower the price of crude fueling the Russian offensive. The two countries chose, instead, to stick to an alliance with fellow exporter Russia to gradually increase production. Although more than 15 months have passed since his presidency, Joe Biden and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, have not talked to each other yet.

Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are mending their ties in the region. Over the past weeks, Saudi Arabia has de-escalated its war in Yemen with a rare truce. Saudi Arabia also began a rapprochement with Lebanon after an unprecedented rift in relations last year.

US refused to link the nuclear negotiations with the Iran-Saudi talks

The resumption of Saudi-Iranian talks also comes as negotiations between world powers and Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement reach an advanced stage. Gulf States are frustrated with the US for not addressing their concerns with Iran in the talks, believing that their influence on Tehran pales in comparison to that exercised by the US.

"The Gulf States believe that the US must be at the table for Iran to deliver on any promises made," said Ilham Fakhro, associate fellow at think tank Chatham House in London. Fakhro added that the Biden administration insisted that the talks with Iran and the Gulf States be separate.

Direct talks with Iran represent an attempt by the Gulf Arab states to do so, but analysts doubt their ability to produce results that can satisfy both sides.

"These talks are almost doomed to failure," said Muhammad al-Yahya, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative American think tank based in Washington. "The crux of the problem is not between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but between Iran and the US. Iran only attacks the Kingdom (Saudi Arabia) because it considers it a client state of an American imperial system."

However, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and professor at Princeton University, said: "Each country has enough leverage over the other to justify talks."

Mousavian added, "The main issue of the two countries is the mutual affirmation of a non-hegemonic regional agenda and security guarantees." He noted that Saudi Arabia enjoys the support of the US, while "Iran enjoys great popular influence in the countries of the region, as he put it, which could pose a long-term threat to the Saudis."

Nevertheless, talk of a large popular influence of Iran in the region seems exaggerated. More precisely, Iran has a wide network of Shiite militias in the Arab world that can cause problems for Saudi Arabia, as is happening in Yemen. This is the strength of Tehran in its negotiations with Saudi Arabia.

As for Saudi Arabia, it has the money with which it can alleviate the crises of countries under Iranian influence, such as Yemen and Lebanon.

Discontent with the US is so deep in the Gulf region that some see Washington's role in this region as a spoiler rather than a guarantor of stability.

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Saturday, 30 September 2023