Since Saddam Hussein’s Invasion of Kuwait, GCC states have collectively established a strong alliance with Israel. This alliance is currently focused on the destruction of Iran and the elimination of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East (and Central Asia). Both Israel and GCC countries are scared livid of the Iranian regime, its influence in their states and are therefore necessarily committed to this common goal. But this is a strategic mistake – for both GCC states and Israel. They have confused Iran’s regime with ordinary Iranians. Their beef is with the Mullahs NOT Iranians. This is a strategic blunder.
The Palestinian Factor
For decades Israel and the ‘whole’ Arab world were blood enemies. Arab league members provided over $250 Million in funds to support the Palestinians since the ‘60s, and successfully organized an embargo with their oil supplies in the 1970’s to place pressure on Israel (and its allies: US and Europe).
But, in 1990, there was a tidal shift in alliances. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Yasser Arafat (then PLO Chairman) came out and publicly supported Hussein; and Kuwait’s Palestinian population rose in support of the Iraqis during the invasion. And not long after the U.S. led liberation, the Kuwaitis expelled 450,000 Palestinians. The Palestinian population in these booming Persian “Gulf Arab” states has now dwindled by about 90% since 1990, replaced by Pakistanis and Filipinos.
Kuwait’s allies: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and other Persian Gulf Monarchs or Sheikhdoms or dictators (depending on your point of view) have rationalized that Palestinians were and still are a national security risk and should not be trusted – nor supported.
Payback against Saddam Hussein did not take long. Ironically, Saddam Hussein who was once supported to the tune of billions of dollars by these same states in his war with Iran was also in their cross hairs. And within a decade, or so the U.S. stationed itself in Qatar, and transported troops through Kuwait to decimate his regime. Hussein had not only failed to follow to destroy Iran, but had turned against them!
In politics it seems – the enemy of my enemy is my friend! In fact, the opening with Israel came on the heels of the Madrid Conference in 1991 that contributed to the countries’ ofﬁcial, rapprochement with Israel. Most of the ‘brokerage’ in these relationships has developed through close relations with Jewish organizations in the United States. There is now an odd sense of solidarity arising out of the knowledge that Iraqi Scud missiles had fallen on both Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
In 1994, the GCC canceled its boycott of companies and countries that maintained economic ties with Israel. In 2005 the same Gulf States announced normalization measures with Israel. The Bahraini foreign minister conﬁrmed that his country had decided to cancel the boycott of Israeli goods, and the Qatari foreign minister called on Arab nations “to respond positively to the step taken by Israel.” He noted that “full diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel may be possible even before a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from the territories.”
And while this decade long strategic shift was occurring, the British government sold its stake in BP basically to a combination of Jewish Bankers (Rothschilds Holdings 39%) and Gulf State Investment Organizations like for example the Kuwait Investment Organization (21.6% by 2005). BP now, is basically an arm of these states, while employing and banking primarily British executives and banks.
And Israel’s government, for its part is enabling Israeli companies to indirectly contribute to the security of these dictatorships through training of local armed forces and by offering advanced (homeland security-related) advanced products, as long as they are perceived not to harm Israel’s strategic competitive advantage. Israel already has access to markets in the Gulf; the boycott is not applied if the products do not carry an Israeli label.
Israel’s covert relations with the United Arab Emirates were partially exposed by the late-November 2010 leak of diplomatic cables by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks that uncovered the “secret and persistent dialogue” between the two countries.
There are numerous formal and informal visits between the nations (and with Turkey among the crowd). Whether or not there are formal relations, i.e. embassies, it’s very clear that there is a strong alliance in place. Israelis and Sheikhdoms are ONE.
The Iran Factor
Iran’s Mullahs have long been an adversary to these Arab dictators. It is not clear why? It is true that Shiites comprise the majority of the populations in most of this region – including Saudi Arabia’s oil rich Eastern provinces. Democratic reforms, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain …you name it…would result in Shiite led majorities, just like Iraq. There is real fear in these ruling Arab elites when it comes to ‘democratic reforms’. But what exactly the Mullahs did to deserve this status is unclear? Yes, Iran did bomb Kuwaiti tankers – but that was during the war when Kuwait was exporting Iraqi oil…and Iraq had just bombed Iranian oil installations. And okay, there is a territorial dispute over islands in the Persian Gulf. So what??
What is strange for me is that there is frequent intermarriage, migration, bilingualism, and commerce between Iranians and many of these GCC states and citizens. Indeed besides the indigenous Shiite populations in the states around the Persian Gulf, there are over 400,000 Iranians residing in places like Dubai, roughly one third of its urban population…performing core functions in the area. Iranians, (the people of Iran), are a huge regional asset.
Despite all this, in recent years what has tied the Gulf states to Israel more than anything else is their ever-growing mutual fear of Iran. Israel today, represents the enemy of not only the Palestinians but also Iran’s Mullahs. An alliance between these “(Persian) Gulf Arab” states and Israel has been established with a clear objective of undermining Iranian influence and “suppressing” Palestinian ambitions.
According to Wikileaks published US State Department cable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, repeatedly implored Washington to target the Iranian nuclear sites—in his words: to “cut off the head of the snake while there was still time.”
It is an open secret that these Gulf countries maintain contacts with Israel—mainly through the sharing of intelligence. In the summer of 2010 it was again reported (although the reliability of these claims is uncertain) that Saudi Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs V : 1 (2011) Arabia would allow Israeli warplanes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. Israeli military gear was even delivered to Saudi Arabia in preparation for an eventual attack on Iran.
Sami al Faraj, president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies and a consultant to Kuwait and other GCC states, said recently that the “GCC states have been engaged in consultations and intelligence exchange with Israel, particularly regarding the Iranian threat.” Indeed, in the eyes of Arab rulers of the Gulf, it may seem that Israel can be vital to Gulf security, as the US is now leaving Iraq and Afghanistan.
Containing Iran’s quest for what is viewed as a ‘hegemonic role’ in the Persian Gulf is the main concern of the Arab monarchies, committed as they are to the preservation of their regimes. After the Islamic Revolution, terror and subversion became Tehran’s primary means of enforcing its regional policy and boosting its inﬂuence. In most cases, as with the covert Iranian “sleeper cell” uncovered in Kuwait (with links to Bahrain) in April 2010, it was hard to prove Iranian involvement; thus, Iran can deny any connection to such activity, while maintaining open diplomatic relations with the Gulf states it is covertly targeting.
On the one hand, the Mullahs have conveyed that they see themselves as partners for all Gulf States. On the other, their actions have been hardly reassuring on the western side of the Gulf. Iran has questioned the legitimacy of regimes, explicitly threatened to shut the straits of Hormuz, and to target strategic facilities in the Gulf States. It has conducted ominous military maneuvers and played a negative role in events in Iraq and Yemen. Moreover, Iran has occupied what the GCC consider to be their land (Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands). The Mullahs even went so far as to declare Bahrain as the fourteenth district of Iran (reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric regarding Kuwait).
For their part, the GCC governments recognize the difﬁculties facing the international community in stopping Iran on its way to nuclear weapons capability and want to avoid angering their increasingly powerful neighbor—and prefer to do what is necessary behind the scenes – indirectly if you will. Netenyahu’s brazen verbal attack on Iran is heralded by its ‘tacit allies’ and further amplified on Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV throughout the Middle East during peak viewing periods.
There is a genuine concern that an Iranian bomb will enable the Mullahs to set the future political, economic, and strategic agenda in the region. Similar concerns stem from the possible outcome of an Israeli and/or American military operation aimed at thwarting Iran’s nuclear capability, namely, a massive and widespread Iranian retaliation. Although GCC countries support a ‘comprehensive’ diplomatic solution to the crisis with Iran, they fear it will be at the expense of their interests and result in American recognition of Iran’s dominance in the Gulf.
Today’s Proxy Wars
In the absence of an overt war, Israel and its Arab allies have decided to fight Iran’s mullahs by proxy. The overall plan is to ‘contain’ Iran – i.e. surround Iran while ensuring Iran’s economy is held back with sanctioning. This is a systematic policy of weakening Iran and sucking Iranian blood. Meanwhile, of course they (and their surrogates) are running off with Iran’s treasure in the Caspian Sea and limiting Iranian oil and gas exports in favor of their own exports. In addition, sanctions have served to enable GCC countries to act as trading points for ‘sanction busting’ – reselling sanctioned goods to Iran at inflated prices and essentially profiting from Iran’s demise.
Interestingly, Israel and GCC states enjoy excellent relations with Azerbaijan. And BP, their joint prime investment vehicle, owns (and operates) the key oil pipeline across Azerbaijan and is the major operator of oil and gas platforms in the Caspian Sea (in what is actually Iranian water).
It is reported that Israel has a number of air bases inside Azerbaijan, with fighter jets ready for orders to attack Iran at any time. Azerbaijan now also is tacitly supporting Azeri separatists inside Iran.
GCC states have begun funding Al-Ahwazi separatists and Jundallah (Baluchi) separatists. While Israel too, has been funding Kurdish separatists.
But the clearest expression of this proxy effort is in Syria. I will grant you that the Syrian affair is much more than a proxy fight with Iran. Yes, both Israel and GCC states (like Qatar) have a clear objective of running major gas pipelines across Syria (and Lebanon too) to the Turkey to export their newly discovered resources. And yes, Turkey too has partnered with them and built the Nabucco pipeline to Europe with 40% excess capacity with this objective in mind.
What apparently started as a legitimate attempt to join the Arab spring and fight for democratic rights in Syria has transpired into a mercenary led ‘civil war’, with considerable entry of ‘foreign fighters’ in the fray. The Syrian government recently handed a list of names of citizens from 19 countries accused of joining Syria’s rebels: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen and Chechnya. Since Chechnya is not a country, but a republic of the Russian Federation, the list likely contains names of Russian citizens…too. According to CNN reports, the strangest part of all of these fighters is that Jabhat al-Nusra — the radical Islamic group that has become the opposition’s best fighting force. The lead author of a new analysis of the group, which is backed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), told CNN that al-Nusra now has 5,000 fighters and is willing to watch Syria burn to secure an al-Qaeda foothold in the region!
In July, Dutch photo journalist Jeroen Oerlemans and British photographer John Cantlie were captured and held hostage in Syria for a week by rebel militants. They claimed that several of their captors spoke English with recognizable regional British accents, like Birmingham and London. And in August, Syrian rebel commanders reportedly became concerned over the numbers of hardline Islamists entering Syria from other Muslim-majority countries.
Beyond these proxy wars, there is clear indication that a direct war may in fact be in the cards. This past year, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. The new links more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 per cent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz. GCC states are clearly preparing for a conflict, although their preparations are NOT yet complete. Interestingly, Iraq too has a pipeline across Saudi Arabia to al Muajiz on the Red Sea to deliver its oil and by pass the Persian Gulf. One fascinating fact is that Saudi Arabia’s Al Muajiz Port on the Red Sea was developed for a total shipping capacity of 10 Million barrels a day!
A Major Strategic Blunder
The problem with this complete strategic realignment is that core populations of these GCC states are inherently pan-Arabist. Which means that once the ‘people’ of these states figure out that there is an ‘overt’ realignment between their leaders and Israel, there is the potential for a massive back-clash domestically. This could be further fueled by natural ‘Arab Spring” type democratic yearnings among the populations of these GCC states – and not only might there be a massive shift in government in the GCC states, but Israel too risks losing partners that it has invested heavily in.
Secondly, an overt war with Iran would only accelerate the demise of these regimes – not sustain them. The deal so far with their suppressed populations has been to exchange economic gains for political gains. If war breaks out there will naturally be rationing and military drafts. This sort of instability will only make them further vulnerable.
Thirdly, I believe a calculation that makes Iran their enemy is fundamentally flawed. The Mullahs in Tehran do not represent Iran or Iranians. In fact the Mullahs in Iran are enemies of Iranians too. In fact most Iranians see the Mullahs as ‘Arabs’ i.e. imposed on Iran; and indeed many senior regime leaders were born in Iraq – not even Iran.
These sheikhs need to remember that Iran’s current role in the region is a derivative of wars ‘started’ by GCC states – not Iranian aggression. Remember, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran – with support, encouragement and financial backing from GCC states. The minutes of his meetings with King Fahd in Egypt is now public record. The loan balances Iraq had to GCC states is also public record that came out as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. You can’t hide it. And any insecurity these monarchs feel from the legitimate demands of their populations should NOT be confused with Iranian meddling. Iranians have become a scapegoat – when the real problems are elsewhere. Iranians did NOT put the Mullahs in power – the West did. That is public record too.
Fourthly, Iran (especially after the war with Iraq and two neighboring wars) has now developed a formidable defense establishment, and its own (in house) weapon systems. This strategic posture cold provoke an outright war, and just like the war with Iraq – there is a real possibility that the GCC states could come out on the short end of their own stick. After two years of a proxy war versus Iran in Syria, there is no clear conclusion. Assad remains in power. The joint Israeli/GCC/Turkey plan is to then extend the war to Lebanon and then Iran. But what if the GCC states get ‘stuck’ in Syria? Have they succeeded? Will the west come to the rescue again? Or let’s put it another way, is there a vital strategic interest in Syria that the U.S. must defend? Will the U.S. risk bankruptcy for Syria? I doubt it.
The truth is, that while this all seemed like a good idea (and everyone was angry at Saddam Hussein the Palestinians) it may not be a great idea today. Once one domino starts to fall through a public uprising for democracy – with ‘no’ push from Iran (May I add, there are many radical actors in the Middle East – Hamas, Hizbullah, al Qaeda, you name it…) – in any single one of these GCC countries, all these Sheikhs, or Monarchs or Dictators could all fall. This is something they need to learn from the former “Shah of Iran” – who had grandiose strategic ideas but did not establish a strong domestic political infrastructure that was vitally necessary to carry out his ambitions. The Sheikhs need to understand that they can do NOTHING without the heartfelt support of their citizens.
These GCC countries need to understand what their core strategic interest is. Does Iran represent a strategic threat? If so, why? And does that mean that GCC states need to align with Israel?
I would argue that it is in the “world’s” national interest to topple the regime in Iran – but not do anything to alienate the people of Iran or cause division among Iranians. That to the extent GCC states can be aligned with Israel or indeed any other country (Indonesia, Brazil etc.) to topple the regime in Tehran – that this would a fundamental strategic win for everyone. But beyond that any permanent alliance with Israel will be counterproductive to their interests and stability. This is not meant as a negative statement about Israel, it’s just a strategic reality. Israel has nothing to offer these regimes except exposure to radical forces. (Look at who they are partnering with in Syria?) And in fact Qatar could have pumped its natural gas across Syria – even without a proxy war in Syria or the balkanization of Syria, or the death of 60,000 Syrians. When the dust settles on all this, it will not be pretty. There were other ways to bring democracy to Syria without arming these sorts of rebels and radicals.
In fact, the most vital strategic ally every GCC state can have is a transformed Iranian government – their neighbor – that can police the neighborhood with them and help them make democratic transitions without a great deal of pain. Petty fights over small deserted islands, or sectarian considerations should not distract quality strategic thinking. Iran can offer them a huge market, can offer them regional stability, and also access to even bigger markets in Central Asia. Israel on the other hand is a strategic liability. So what if the Jewish lobby in Europe or the U.S. is helping them get access to cable TV distribution, and helping them buy soccer (football) teams – how is that of value to the people (the actual citizens) of GCC states? The Sheikhs are being shaked down for cash, buying over-priced assets. There is no real strategic, sustainable gain in getting VIP seats to major games.
It is true that before the West toppled the Shah, Britain persuaded America to align strategically with it and invest in Alaskan Oil while Britain exploited North Sea oil – both of which were expensive to extract, AND needed sustained high oil prices. Toppling the Shah also meant shutting off Iran’s exports for over 10 years! Today, America is being ‘pushed’ into becoming an energy ‘power house’ with net energy exports for the first time in over 30 years. But it is a mistake to believe that this will result in a strategic realignment. The Obama administration so far has refused to ‘play’ in Syria in concert with Israel, Turkey or the GCC. And the Obama administration is focused on ‘reducing imports’ NOT maximizing exports i.e. reducing America’s oil dependency. The GCC is mistaken if they believe “Saudi-Americanization” will shift U.S. policy. And if the GCC are really shrewd, they will notice that in fact the U.S. has been protecting Iran’s Mullahs – not undermining them…and vice-a-versa. Iran today lists Iraq and Afghanistan as major export clients (both dominated by the U.S. military, while apparently there are global sanctions on Iran). The Mullahs are an expression of U.S. foreign policy.
What do these Sheikhs really have to show for all the money they have invested in the West? Indeed, governments in the West view them as great candidates for hosing, and use all these opportunities to sell the Sheikhs billions of dollars of inflated priced arms – and junk government bonds to undermine their own domestic spending. They are being hosed. They are the ones being used…by Israel and the West!
And they have to face it, democratic yearnings in the region are unstoppable. The Mullahs will fall, and their dictatorships are at risk (and it is not because of Iran). These dictators can become Monarchs like the Queen of England – even if there are a ton of Catholics in Britain!
There is a better path to peace, stability and prosperity – they need to see it – but their strategic calculations are completely wrong.