On Friday, September 16, the Middle East Institute hosted three speakers from the Gulf Research Center: Director and Founder Dr. Abdelaziz Sager; Senior Advisor & Program Director of Security and Terrorism Studies Dr. Mustafa Alani; and Dr. Christian Koch, Director of the Gulf Research Center in Geneva. The discussion, entitled “A View from the Gulf: A Discussion of Gulf Politics and Security,” covered the reactions of the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) states to the Arab Spring, as well as ongoing developments in Israel, Iran and Turkey.
Dr. Sager opened his remarks with the question, “How do we see the Arab Spring?” From a Gulf perspective, the primary impact of the Arab Spring is security, which Dr. Sager broke down into domestic, regional, and international components. Although he reiterated GCC understanding that “no one is immune” to the political changes sweeping the region, he emphasized the continuing stability on most of the Arabian Peninsula and the GCC’s desire for “evolution over revolution.” In Saudi Arabia, he characterized the opposition not as a national movement but as a small group concerned primarily with issues of good governance: transparency, accountability, and fair distribution of resources. He also added that the Saudi acceptance of former Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was actually a mark of support for the Arab Spring that allowed the Egyptian revolution to progress.
Given the strong link between the recent political upheaval and regional economic issues, Dr. Sager moved on to address the Gulf’s economy: the large number of foreign temporary workers throughout the GCC states, as well as the growth of the youth population and the importance of providing jobs for them in the coming years. He mentioned backing for smaller businesses in the form of soft loans as the primary means of support for youth returning from education abroad. Although Dr. Sager noted that the Gulf has an economic cushion that the countries experiencing upheaval lack, it does not mean that there is no requirement to address domestic concerns.
Dr. Sager’s discussion of the nature of the US-GCC relationship highlighted themes of change and disappointment. He questioned the continuing value of US support in the wake of America’s scuttling of Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution. Legitimacy, he said, was now to be found in the streets, not in Washington. Sager referred to a statement made by the late King Hussein of Jordan: “when I wake up in the morning, I think about the United States, but when Congress wakes up in the morning, they don’t think about the Middle East.” Even within the context of a discussion of Gulf politics, the question of the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood was raised: if there were demonstrations against the United States in the event of a veto in the UN Security Council, Dr. Sager warned, it put the GCC governments in a very weak position to defend the US. He questioned the contradictory nature of a US veto, given that a vote against Palestinian statehood would be construed as a vote against a two-state solution, which the United States has historically supported. Why, he asked, does the United States support democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, but not in Palestine?
In Dr. Alani’s discussion of regional security, he primarily focused on the rising role of Iran, particularly in regards to Iraq and Bahrain. The GCC no longer benefited from the position of Iraq as a buffer between Iran and the Gulf; since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he said, there has been a virtual border with Iran, which the GCC sees now extending into Bahrain. Both he and Dr. Sager characterized the uprising in Bahrain as not belonging to the reform movement of the Arab Spring, which they said the Gulf supports, but as a sectarian movement supported by Iran as a ploy to gain control of the region. Although none of the speakers made direct reference to the Shi’a, both Dr. Sager and Dr. Alani referred to the sectarian nature of the Bahrain uprising as a delegitimizing factor.
Dr. Alani also said the GCC viewed Iranian nuclear capacity as a major issue, characterizing it as something more dangerous than merely a peaceful energy program, as Iran claims, but less menacing than an existential threat to Israel, as the US fears. Iran’s existing troves of energy resources make it clear that the ultimate goal is weaponization, he said, which will ultimately affect the non-nuclear Gulf rather than impact Israel, with its second-strike capabilities. He noted that the US position toward Iran has helped it to enhance its nuclear program rather than to discourage it, which has pushed the region toward difficult choices.
Dr. Koch continued the discussion of the changing nature of the US-GCC relationship. Although the US has been the guarantor of Gulf security for the past 40 years, he said, that role has grown increasingly uncertain since the invasion of Iraq. It is becoming less clear whether America’s and the GCC’s strategic directions are still complementary. He characterized the GCC as being pushed toward self-reliance as a result of the marginalization of the United States in the region. In searching for alternatives, the GCC has expanded cooperation with Asia and the EU, as well as increasing coordination among the Gulf states through work and infrastructure agreements.
Perhaps unusual for an event focused on the Gulf, the main issues discussed were not oil, Iraq, or terrorism, though all three were touched upon. Dr. Sager reiterated the GCC commitment to the dollar, adding that their wish for continued use of oil made them no more eager for a price increase than the rest of the world. Dr. Alani mentioned rising prominence in the GCC states of the argument that the illegitimacy of the Saddam Hussein government similarly invalidates the 1993 agreement made with Kuwait. Dr. Alani reminded the audience that the issue of Iraq’s access to the sea has been an issue since the 1940s, not just during the Saddam Hussein era. He also warned of the rise of another Hezbollah-like entity in Yemen and discussed the Gulf’s limited capacity to affect change in the country, though he said states based on the premise of unity such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia had a strong vested interest in preventing Yemen’s disintegration.
In response to a question about the emergence of Turkey, Dr. Alani compared it favorably to Iran, based on its lack of meddling in Arab affairs. Turkey’s value to the Gulf had formerly been its closeness with Israel and its status as a NATO country, though its increased meddling in internal politics has made those favorable relations subject to change. He admitted, however, that the Turkish government’s recent diplomatic positions have earned it much popularity in the region. Furthermore, he said there has been a vacuum of leadership in the region, from the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1978, to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, to the situation facing Bashar al-Assad in Syria currently. In addressing Syria, Dr. Sager said that the Saudi government waited to give the Syrian regime time for reform, but when the deaths exceeded an acceptable number, they decided to support the revolution even without knowing what would come of it.
Overall, the speakers presented the Gulf as a region not in need of reform, which they said was already occurring, but one of rapid transitions. If the region is to truly go the way of evolution over revolution, the Gulf states cannot allow the gap between popular expectations and political results to widen much further.
This event summary was written by Alexandra Locke, an intern in MEI's Programs and Communications Department.
Assertions and opinions in this Summary are solely those of the above-mentioned author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.