The Wheatley Institution

The Gulf: Regional Rivalries & Regional Security

Edward Gnehm
February 26, 2015

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I am going to speak a little bit. I am taking some notes out of some other lectures that I have given, so I will pace. And I will admit immediately that a number of the things that I may talk about—I am going to talk very simplistically, meaning I am going to go through them rather swiftly. Other grounds: it is just difficult to cover all of the issues that I would like to cover in the detail that I would like to do. So if you want that, you are going to have to come to GW and join the course and pay the outrageous tuition that they ask you to pay.

Let me begin by just saying that the US interest in the Persian Gulf has been clearly enunciated through the years by a number of different presidents, and at this point, in reality the U.S. really is in the position of being guardian of the Gulf, a terminology that was coined some years ago. We are very, very central to coordinating and providing a Gulf security regime. It has not always been the case—this has been an evolution over time—but in every case it has been derivative, and I would say a consequence of what the U.S. has in fact defined as its national interests. What are they? Well, I would begin, and I think because one needs to be entirely honest in this: oil. Three letters put together in the right order: oil. That is because 60%, if not 65%, of the proven oil reserves in the countries that touch the waters of the Persian Gulf. Also, 40% of the natural gas reserves in the entire world are located in the same geographic waters. With that kind of knowledge, then you go immediately to the question of why Persian Gulf oil is so important to a country like the United States that produces so much oil and in fact buys most of its oil from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria—you haven’t heard me mention a Gulf country, but I would add one: Saudi Arabia. Not large, but some. If we are not buying really very much of our oil from there, why do we care? It comes right to the word of a global market for oil, for petroleum. In other words, supply and demand. For those of you who study economics, you will be on board with me for that. What I mean by that is that you will have a certain totally demand globally for oil, and you have suppliers who meet that demand. It doesn’t really matter whether you or I buy our oil in one place or another as much as there be oil available for those who demand it. In other words, if something happened to the flow of that oil to the Persian Gulf, those countries that buy from the Gulf (that is mostly Asia), would go to other market places. Where are they going to go? They are going to go to Nigeria, Venezuela, probably Canada. They are going to be competing with you for the oil that you purchase there. The word that politicians use all the time about oil independence, we are going to produce oil so that we don’t have to depend on those awful countries out in the region. They mean Saudi Arabia mostly and others, and it is just not going to happen. It is diversity of supply; it is diversity of purchasing that makes your security and oil effective. So oil. It is the free flow of that oil from the Gulf. It doesn’t do any good if it is there, but it can’t get to market. We have often just talked about and provided protection for the oil tankers and others to be able to exit the Gulf to the world markets.

We also have an interested support in the moderate governments in the region because we have other issues beyond oil. Daish represents of course the terrorism, but terrorism and terrorist activities with support from the region, we look to moderate governments to be allies in dealing with that problem. So their instability, their protection falls into the area of US interest. Also, I would add that as derivative of those sort of definitions comes a philosophy, which has been applied over the decades, which is that the United States wanted to be certain that the Gulf region was not dominated by a hostile power. Now, if you go back to Eisenhower and the presidents who followed in the 50s and the 60s and into the 70s, that danger was seen as communism and the Soviet Union and its efforts to encroach southward from Central Asia toward the Persian Gulf. But in 1979 and 1980, we redefined that to include regional states who we defined as hostile and therefore did not want to be dominant in the Gulf. Now what are we talking about? We are talking about Iran after the Islamic revolution and we were talking about Iraq under Saddam Hussein. So that approach to security and our interest in the Gulf again has been something that has been sustained through many, many, many years. Events in the region have forces to take actions clearly. The Iraq-Iran war, the seven-year war between Iraq and Iran, when oil tankers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were being attacked, the United States responded by deploying a very large naval presence escorting ships and preserving that flow of oil out of the Gulf. From 1990 to ’91, the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqis and the United States leading the world and establishing a coalition of forces including Arab armies, Syrian and Egyptian in particular, and other GCC, to liberate Kuwait. In 2003–11, the US military intervention and occupation of Iraq. Just those three examples of our engagement in a very significant way.

The first two actions supporting the flow, the movement of oil tankers and the liberation of Kuwait, really aimed at maintaining or even restoring the status quo. The third one wasn’t. The third one was a very dramatic effort on the part of the United States to change the power structure in the region. It was to replace a dictator, but to put in place democracy, right? This is not status quo; this is a real change in the dynamics in the region. Looking always, as the United States tries to do, to build a security structure and architecture in the Gulf, leads me to just mention one moment in time, making an illustrative of the problems we face when we do try to think in terms of an architecture for security. This was post-liberation Kuwait. This was in the ’91, ’92, ’93 period of time. President Bush really wanted to see a different approach to security that didn’t engage the United States to the same extent that he had had to do. With encouragement, the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council working and talking to the two main Arab governments who provided troops to the Syrians and the Egyptians came out with something called the Damascus Declaration, six plus two, and this declaration promoted the idea, or at least proposed that Egypt and Syria would maintain a troop presence in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that would be paid for entirely by the Gulf states to provide that contingency force in case it was needed and in return for the two states being willing to do this, the rich Arab states that the GCC were going to establish the economic development fund that would fund projects in Egypt and Syria and enhance them. It went nowhere. Why? The Arabs in the Gulf started thinking about what would come with Syria and Egyptian troops, none of them wanted the Ba’athi ideology of Assad and then they began to think about Egyptians and Egyptian view of their role in the region, then they began to realize that if you have Arab forces in your country and there are other issues unrelated to your own security that are coming up in the region, suddenly you have two foreign forces that could intimidate or influence or at least constrain how you would act on those issues. So down the drain it went. Before it went all the way down the drain, the rich Arab states began to hear from Egypt, in particular, but Syria as well, about just how much money they anticipated getting from the rich Arab states. It was just too much for those Arabs who really like their money and don’t like to give it away. Any of the older people here who ever had to deal with it and these governments know exactly what I am talking about.

What do we fall back on? Well, the GCC states society, "We can do this by ourselves. Let’s put together a really effective GCC military," and they asked the Sultan of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, if he would lead a group, put together some advisors and come up with an architecture for that. He did, he presented it, everybody lauded it and said, “This is magnificent and wonderful,” and the Saudis said, “This is great. The headquarters will be in awe: a Saudi general will run this.” Then the other five left quietly from the room. It went on the shelf and it was never again resurrected, at least not in those terms. Why? Because the smaller five states simply were not going to subjugate themselves to Saudi. The states in the region really are allied together in their own national interests from outside threats, but within it, they are very much divided in their approaches. They each have very different domestic situations to deal with; they each have different relationships with external powers. Oman, for example, has a very good relationship with Iran. That is not true with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Right? So there are divisions as well as interests that bring them together. Having their military under the Saudi was not going anywhere.

So what happened? The five smaller GC states, and I was Ambassador of Kuwait at the time, each approached us and asked for a bilateral treaty agreement. It would enable cooperation and the military’s fear. This was not so different from the agreements they had with the British earlier in historic terms, but I negotiated one with Kuwait. There is that one with Bahrain, one with Qatar one with UAE, United Emirates, and one with Oman. Not with Saudi Arabia. Why? The Saudis have always been hesitant. This goes back to the 40s and 50s to have any sort of agreement with a big power external to the region. When Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi on a ship in the Suez Canal in ’45 (this was just before Roosevelt died), they actually accommodated themselves into an agreement and understanding that oil for security, security for oil. You can figure out who was providing what. That has really been an unwritten agreement that has just existed between us and Saudi Arabia since that time. So the architecture then of the Gulf becomes the United States, sort of the coordinator, the maestro, if you will, of the region. It has worked. The central command and the sitcom, as we call it, for the Middle East has its regional headquarters in Qatar. The third army, which is the army element of central command, has its regional headquarters in Kuwait. The United States Air Force also has its regional headquarters in Kuwait. The United States Navy has its fifth fleet presence base in Bahrain. So that ends up being the architecture that we are now having to deal with.

One of the things that I have done recently and that I think it is useful to do, and I would like to do a bit of it with you now, is to take a look through the eyes of the six GCC states. How do they see the world around them when they look out? This is not the US view of things, but often policy makers, and I think the Americans are this way—sorry that is a criticism, but I think it is valid—don’t really think in terms of how others are looking at the very same problem we are. We have our interests; we look at it in a certain way. And that is valid, but you will come up with the right policies, you will come up with the right decisions on your actions, if you are doing it with a context of how you are going to be received, how your allies particularly are going to respond to it. So let’s just take a look.

I would point out the four major developments over the last 30 years that have created issues that we need to understand when it comes to the Gulf States. The first is the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979; the second is the US military invasion and occupation of Iraq; the third is the impact of the Arab Spring; and the fourth is the sudden success of Daish. You heard me say it, and I am not going to use the other word.

So let me just talk briefly, and I realize there is just limited time. Why do I pick these four, and why are they problems? Why are they issues for the six Arab Gulf States? The Islamic Revolution—what did it bring to the fore? It brought the Islamic republic? It brought a regime that declared revolution was sacred, the clerical Islamic leaders insisting that their Islamic credentials are superior to those who claim to in fact be champions of the Muslim world, and that is the Saudis. There were public demonstrations in Saudi Arabia against the ruling family that participants were Iranian pilgrims, to the Hajj disrupting it. They are with a call by the then-supreme leader of Iran committee for the overthrow of these apostate monarchies across the Persian Gulf. In 1979 was a significant attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It was certainly lead by a Saudi, but it is considered by most of the Saudi leadership. He was considered by this call in Iran by overthrowing the apostate monarchy. Saudi Arabia is not the only country to have felt Iranian belligerency. Let’s go through quickly a list: Iraqi Shia extremist is based in Iran and lead by a Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist and bombed the American embassies in Kuwait and the French embassy. In 1985 a Shia extremist attempted to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait. Through the Iraq-Iran war, the Iranians shot missiles at Iraq and hit the Kuwaiti oil refineries and as I mentioned earlier, targeted Kuwaiti tankers. The Iranians occupied three islands claimed by the United Emirates and still possess them. Tehran backed an attempt to overthrow the Sunni dominated government in Bahrain at one point. So there is ample reason for the Arab Gulf States to be concerned about this Iranian Shiite government across the way, but the nightmare of it all was the view of these Arab governments that their Shia minorities were, in effect, loyal to Iran because they were Shia and were there for fifth column movements in their own countries, minorities that were being used by Iran to affect the overthrow of the Sunni government. Now, I don’t believe that is true myself, but I am giving you the view that they have, and they are very paranoid about this.

If you look at America’s war and Saddam and the occupation of Iraq, it was a cataclysmic event as I have said earlier in some of my remarks, but it was especially alarming to the Arab states in the Gulf because it toppled the Sunni dominating government and it replaced it due to our advocacy of democracy with a government that was dominated by Iraq’s majority Shia population. Again, go back to that last point I was making, and suddenly they see Shia, they see the Iranian influence. They had always looked at Iraq as a bulwark against this Shia Persian country, and then you had the Shia Persians over the Zagros Mountains in the plains of Iraq. The Euphrates, Tigris, right on the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Again, alarming there. Of course, they then saw Maliki, the then-prime minister, as very pro-irradiant and using his position to enhance the power of the Shias.

Let’s look quickly at the Arab Spring. I am not going to go through what I have heard already— and you have too—really excellent presentations of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, but the point to make here is that even though you don’t bind in the press, the media, the same dramatic developments in the streets and squares except in Bahrain. There were ramifications; there are ramifications. The same issues that you find in Egypt and Tunisia, which had been discussed by others, but elsewhere in the region, exist in these countries I am talking about. Corruption, the treatment of citizens—these are human rights abuses. Lack of transparent government, refusal by the ruling families to share power—those are there, and it is seething underneath. So the governments, as they look at Iran and its threat, as they look to Iraq in the north and the changes in the political power structure. They also sense an alarming development internally.

They were also concerned about the way the United States reacted, that we did not support Mubarak that they considered our ally and friend, reminding them that we didn’t support the Shah when he was toppled. And then the question was clearly, “What does that mean for us? Is the United States going to be there for us?” Then there was this whole issue of the Muslim Brotherhood that comes out of the Egyptian experience. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and they have done so because of an experience they have had with the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years. They have members that allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come in. The Muslim Brotherhood is organized; they embedded themselves in the countries educational institutions and in the political culture up to the point of actually threatening the political order in those countries. Again, this is the view of the ruling families and the way they look at what is happening. The Arab states responded to these threats that came out of the Arab Spring. The rich ones used money, as they have done before. The Saudis deployed troops to Bahrain to put down the insurrection, or I would just call it demonstrations for human rights, for personal rights in Bahrain and said they declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Then there is the rise of Daish (almost said the other word, sorry) in June of 1914, of course, dramatically, the Salafi group that calls itself an Islamic state that captured Iraq’s second largest city giving them control of one-third of Iraq in near a six-month period of time. I would say that the Arab states looked at horror upon this development because Daish challenged the legitimacy of all the governments that were establishing a caliphate. They were saying that all of the existing governments and regimes were outside the parameters of Islam, and they should be toppled. The boundaries shouldn’t have existed to begin with because the Muslim world, the ummah is not unified, and it should not be divided. So the people in the region really did perceive the threat to them, and as we watched and they had watched the way Daish has exercised its power—let’s talk about its atrocities in particular—the populations are more and more estranged from what maybe initially, was an empathy or a sympathy for Daish.

But what these Gulf States also know is that they have internally, in each of their countries, structured organizations of people who really do believe in the Daish philosophy, if I may put it that way. They are very concerned that the problem is not going to come from across the border; it is going to come from within, from these groups. Again, I will just point out today, as these states look out at the world, they feel very threatened. I mean, the word “beleaguered” has to come to mind because all of these things have to come home, and they are having to deal with external threats and internal threats. Then, of course, you have Iran that appears stronger than ever. It is really advancing its power and its influence successfully around them. Think of Yemen. Yemen is not in the Gulf, but it is to the south of Saudi Arabia. There, the Iranians have at least optically present and concern that the Saudis very, very much believe that the Iranians are really behind the Houthis. They see this Iranian threat to them at the underbelly of the country as well to the north and to the east. Even more importantly, what the Saudis know is that the population of Yemen is larger than the population of all the other states on the peninsula added together, and there are large numbers of Yemenis who work in Saudi Arabia. A porous border, Syria’s economic situations, particularly the lack of water. I will just use that one as an example. As water resources in Yemen drop drastically, there comes a point (and it is not very far down the road) where there will not be enough water for people to drink. So where are people going to go? Well, they are not going to get an airplane to fly to America. That is a fact. They are going to cross the border and head for Saudi Arabia. If they go with the instability and the ideologies that are there, this is a threat to Saudi Arabia, and they recognize it. You add in to that the Al Qaeda, the Arabian Peninsula that is there, and there is in fact a serious, serious problem.

That leads me to talk about the United States and the US role. As I said, it is the principle guaranteer of Gulf security and I do not see an alternative. I don’t think that will change anytime soon, but let’s recognize that our own relationship with these states has had its ups and downs. Clearly, when we were supporting oil shipping during the Iraq-Iran war or when we liberated Kuwait, these were high points in the relationship. But on the other hand, these countries have a real doubt about US reliability. They certainly interpreted the failure to support, as I said earlier, the Shah and Mubarak as failures to support friends raising again doubts as to whether we would be there for them. They were also perplexed that the U.S. did not seem to comprehend the threat that might follow the fall of the Iranian monarchy or the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Was America or is America a dependable ally? Would we be there in their time of need? The same questions arise coupled with the sets that the United States doesn’t think through the consequences of its actions or non-actions. Trusting the U.S. to manage situations is in question. In Syria, the U.S. joined the Gulf Arab states and others in calling for the end of the Assad regime, yet the U.S., in their minds, did not seem committed to take the actions necessary to achieve that end. They were especially upset when President Obama failed to take military action when the Syrian action crossed his red line and used chemical weapons on its citizens. In fact, they wonder today if toppling Assad is still an objective of US foreign policy.

Then there is Iran. The new opening between Washington and Tehran came as a total surprise to most of the states when it became public that one of them had arranged a secret meeting between the U.S. and Iran going on into US negotiations with P5 plus Germany over Iran’s nuclear program. This has left the GCC states confused and definitely uncertain. Those states generally oppose Iran getting a nuclear weapon capability and they certainly want to avoid a war. They want to see a peaceful resolution, yet they harbor a belief—it does border on a phobia. In truth, the United States sees its relationship with Iran as far more important than the one we have with them. They worry that they have been uninformed, unconsulted by Washington regarding our intentions toward Tehran, and worse still, that we may make agreements or reach understandings with Iran that will affect their security and it will be done without ever having discussed it with them.

There are two other developments in the region that increased insecurity and intensified doubts about US reliability and let me just mention them. One is about oil production as it increases in the United States and US purchases or dependents on oil particularly from Saudi Arabia. It raises the particular question of if that oil for security agreement and understanding is still valid. I am not going to go further in the interest of time. The second one, the administration’s pronouncement that the U.S. would be pivoting towards Asia really left them unsettled. What did that mean? You are walking away; you are leaving us with Iran there and with all this other stuff I have described. You are walking away from us. Again, raising the question of US reliabilities as a security partner.

I think too it is critical to understand how the United States is viewed in the region to go a little bit further. There was a very interesting article in the Washington Post a couple of months ago that highlighted the mistrust of American policies in the region. He quoted most of Alani of the Gulf Research Center located in Dubai and this is his quote: “We have reached a low point in trust in this administration.” The article explains that such a view is rooted in three years of increased American disengagement beginning with the turmoil engendered by the Arab Spring. The author notes that different countries are suspicious for different reasons, but all feel betrayed in some way. Some cite Obama’s warning of military action in Syria that he used chemical weapons and backed off when they did. Others point to US failure to supply modern Syrian resistance forces with arms as promised. Persons argue that this failure created the conditions that enabled Daish actually to thrive, and city leaders criticize continued US support for Maliki when it was clear that his policies were so sectarian that they were leading toward an even more significant division in Iraq. Now let me just repeat. I don’t think the Gulf States have any alternative to a security relationship with the United States, but there loom significant concerns and doubts about the United States and its commitment to its friends, its understanding of the regions complexities. There do remain common causes, certainly the actions against Daish as well as Al Qaeda, and yet we are going to see these states more active unilaterally in taking actions that they calculate will help them survive in the region. Again, uncertain whether the United States will actually be taking the actions that they feel that we should. Of course, I was talking specifically about Iran.

Let me just close with a couple of brief observations about Iran. Iran definitely is sensing that its position and prestige and role in the region has advanced, that they are stronger and better off today than they were last year or a few years ago. We need to remember that Iran is an opportunistic state. It doesn’t have the power the military might to be a military threat in the way that you would have talked about Saddam and his military in Iraq or others. What do I mean by opportunistic? It means that they know how to engage when there are problems in the region. Not problems they created, but problems that exist and they know how to exploit them and they do it well. They have their ties with the Assad regime, they have their Shia populations that they work with or claim to work with. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that the supreme leader in Tehran actually said, “We are the people who have to support and defend our Shia brethren wherever they are.” Going back to that fear of the countries about their loyalty, the Shia loyalty. It is still very much there. I mentioned the developments in Yemen. These are all indicators or examples of how Iran can take advantage of situations. But one of the comments that I think is worth us all remembering, particularly the policy makers in America is that what Iran really wants in life is its role in the region as a prominent and important player to be recognized. All of this opportunistic activity is aimed at trying to get us and others to say, “Yeah, you are important. Yeah, come in the door.” And they haven’t achieved that yet. That is one card, at least, that we and others have to be able to play with Iranians as we go into negotiations over the nuclear—but as we go into look at other policies and as my group has been doing here during the seminar, this conference retreat.

Let me just say that my conclusions are that historic and traditional US interests remain. Those are what I mentioned earlier. And that the U.S. remains the key to Gulf security. We operate from a weaker position today after Iraq and the more recent actions that I mentioned, like in Syria and from the north. We can play a positive role in coordinating oppositions at Daish and in building a security architecture in the Gulf, but we must do so using the governments there because they need to be the ones that take the primary action both regionally and domestically to deal with the challenges I mentioned to you earlier. So while the U.S. can play an important role, be an important player, it cannot determine the outcome. Regional states ultimately must recognize the issues they face and act, especially with Daish, which I believe is really a significantly an issue of Islam itself. They have to be the ones that deal with Western powers, and people are not going to be successful in doing that. We must stay engaged. There is a tendency always for us to walk away when things get too complicated. We must stay engaged, and that begins with a very close coordination with our allies that reassure them that we are not walking away and that we are dependable and that we will be there when they need us. This partnership in my mind remains critical and fundamental if we really intend to achieve what we have defined as our national interest. Thank you.

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