By Emile El-Hokayem – The body of water that separates the UAE from Iran forms what is unquestionably the world’s most strategically important sea. It has had several names throughout history, reflecting the dominant regional power of the day. Even its changing nicknames reveal much about the ever-altering geopolitics: “Arab pool”, “Persian pond”, and more recently, “American lake”.
So, if the occasional bursts of nationalism are understandable in a region of such cultural pride and historical heritage, they should not mask the reality that today the Gulf’s fate has become an international concern. Indeed, the fact that many have settled on the name “the Gulf” to refer to our region is not as much an attempt to flee controversy as it is a reflection of the fact that the Gulf has become way too important to the entire world. Stability in the Gulf is now best understood as a global public good given the impact that events here can have on all other nations. And those shouldering that responsibility, be they local leaders or great powers, struggle every day to walk the thin line between regional stability and confrontation.
The recent history of the region is indeed cause for worry: in the span of three decades it has witnessed no fewer than three major wars and regular internal unrest that, thankfully, never fatally destabilised local governments. And today’s uncertainties – Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions, the potential American reaction to them, the possibility of a contagious collapse in Iraq, or al Qa’eda-style terrorism – are too great to allow for complacency.
The maturing Gulf states were once minor players in the great game that involved the Cold War powers, revolutionary Iran and various other Arab countries, most prominently Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Opposed to communism, khomeinist thought and Arab nationalism, they threw their weight behind the United States to guarantee regional stability.
And judging from the US record, they did well. In the 1980s, when Gulf tankers were hit by Iranian missiles, and in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US, as much out of commitment to the security of its allies as to self-interest and international credibility, proved indispensable in protecting their interests. America made good on its guarantee at a time when no other country would or could. This was a lesson not lost on Gulf leaders.
Then, along came the Iraq war and America’s subsequent loss of prestige and influence. No longer could US strategic wisdom be assumed. No longer could US operational and bureaucratic efficacy be trusted. No longer would US military might awe allies and deter enemies as it once did. A weakened US has now to cope with the fact that the only winner of the Iraq war is much-feared Iran.
This is, of course, the most pessimistic appraisal of US power. By virtue of its technological dominance and global reach, the US will remain the paramount player in the region. A $7 billion deal to provide the UAE with top-of-the-line missile defence technology is nearing completion. Other Gulf states are upgrading their defensive capabilities with US-provided weapons systems. And with US technology comes US training, maintenance and integration.
But America’s credibility has been irreparably damaged, and unless the next administration pulls off an improbable masterstroke the security of this region will depend on a new mix of factors of which the US will be a principle but no longer unique feature.
Indeed, flush with cash and mindful of their new global standing, the Gulf states have fully embraced the notion that the security of their neighbourhood is an international responsibility. Operationally, this means that while the Gulf states continue to count on US physical guarantees, the first and perhaps most important level of protection is an international consensus that prevents and, when necessary, manages any increase in regional tensions.
This explains why the Gulf states are investing so much in their relationships with every permanent member of the UN Security Council and rising powers such as India, Turkey and Indonesia. By investing in the economies of these countries, building cultural and educational ties with the West as well as Asia, diversifying their weapons procurement and even welcoming powers like France and military organisations such as Nato, the Gulf states are creating a web of interdependence.
Similarly, the Gulf states expect the international community to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-capable power without resorting to force – which would greatly damage the entire region. But a concerted international effort on Iran has fallen victim to other considerations. Few realise how the Georgia conflict or Arab-Israeli tensions complicate their goal of a nuclear-arms free Gulf.
This strategy of internationalising Gulf security is proving a major irritant to Iran, which views external political attention and a foreign military presence in the Gulf as a threat to its security and an impediment to its ambitions. This is why Iran insists on “indigenising” Gulf security, and why the Gulf states fear a grand bargain between the US and Iran that would consecrate Iran as the foremost regional power.
The Gulf states were once accused of strategic laziness because they subcontracted their security to the US. This is no longer the case as they shrewdly take advantage of the new distribution of global power to identify and cultivate new alliances. But they need to take their thinking to the next level to become shapers of their own security destiny. Indeed, the missing element is the lack of progress on regional cooperation on security and defence issues. Surely someone can show that way.
Emile El-Hokayem is a Non-Resident Fellow in the Southwest Asia/Gulf Program at the Stimson Center and the Politics Editor of the UAE-based The National newspaper. This article first appeared in the National on September 12, 2008.