For nearly a decade after the attacks of September 11, as wars ravaged Iraq and Afghanistan, Arabs railed against a seemingly belligerent, trigger-happy America. Stop fighting Islam and get out of the Middle East, they demanded.
In recent years, the US has wanted nothing better, its public exhausted by wars that seemed to have no end and preoccupied by economic devastation that had struck much closer to home. Today, US troops are out of Iraq and this year they should withdraw from Afghanistan.
Far from being relieved, however, the Arabs are, once again, enraged. Where is the US when we need it, they ask. Why has it abandoned the Middle East? The public mood is confused by the multiple crises convulsing the region as much as by America’s reaction to them. The US is blamed by some for being too accommodating towards Islamists and by others for being too antagonistic, for doing too little in Syria and at the same time for conspiring too much.
These days, though, what rattles the US is less the public resentment, to which it has long been accustomed. Instead, it is anger at the government level, particularly among traditional Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia. Seen from Riyadh, the combination of US inaction on Syria, the interim nuclear deal in November with its arch-rival Iran and the shale gas revolution that is weaning America off Middle Eastern oil represents an unsettling shift in US commitment to the region.
In unusually blunt statements for a Saudi diplomat, Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf, the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, has charged that western nations — by which he primarily means the US — are following policies that “risk the stability and security” of the Middle East. The kingdom would not remain silent about this “dangerous gamble,” he wrote in December in the New York Times. “There is no way on earth the Arab Gulf states can trust America as they used to during the past six decades,” fumed Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a leading Emirati commentator, in a recent article, referring most notably to US “mishandling” of the Syrian civil war. It is, he insisted, “no longer business as usual”.
An evaluation of the relationship with the US is a healthy exercise in a region that has been criticised for depending too heavily on outsiders to resolve its problems. Yet, with calamities blighting an increasing number of Arab countries, no other nation can replace the US security umbrella in the Gulf, which provides for the safe flow of oil supplies and the stability of the regimes in the area.
Despite the talk about rebalancing US policy towards Asia, the Middle East’s strategic importance — and its ability to produce a constant stream of trouble — means it will continue to require sustained attention. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, spends more than half of his time working on the Middle East, according to State Department officials. American engagement with Iran, moreover, is still in its early days. Even a comprehensive nuclear deal that removes the Iranian nuclear threat for good and restores US relations with Tehran will not necessarily work to the detriment of Gulf Arab states. “The US military will remain the most powerful in the world and we will honour our commitments, and the US is not retreating, not retreating from any part of the world,” declared Chuck Hagel, the US Defence Secretary, at a recent security meeting in Bahrain to announce steps to strengthen defence cooperation with Gulf partners.
Since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, US policy towards the region often has appeared incoherent. Critics say the Barack Obama administration has sought to avoid new entanglements in the Middle East at the worst possible time, when the region faces new problems and is desperate for outside leadership. The US seemed helpless when its major ally, the Hosni Mubarak regime in Cairo, collapsed in February 2011. It left the UK and France to take the lead in the Libyan military intervention that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. And it ignored Arab and European pleas for military backing for Syria’s rebels.
In some cases, the Obama administration had little option — there was nothing it could do to keep Mubarak in power and only limited influence with the Egyptian military when, two years later, the generals moved against the first democratically elected Islamist president, Mohammad Mursi. It is also difficult to see how it could have prevented post-Gaddafi Libya from falling into the bloody lawlessness that cost the life of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, in 2012.
In Syria, however, its failure to use military threats to back up its call on Bashar Al Assad to step down has, arguably, contributed to the worsening of the Syria crisis. Even in Egypt, the administration’s dithering over whether to call the Mursi ouster a coup, and what to do in its aftermath, diminished its ability to influence events.
At the same time, Kerry has invested his personal prestige and valuable time in reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, an engagement that Arab states have long sought. But his focus on resolving the intractable conflict at a time of more pressing crises has dismayed some Arab states. Officials in the region also question whether the US is in a position to press Israel for necessary concessions when relations are strained over the Obama administration’s six-month nuclear deal with Iran. The accord upset Israeli officials — who say it is too soft on Iran — even more than US allies in the Gulf.
The shake-up of the autocratic order in the Middle East was bound to test US relationship with the authoritarian monarchies of the Gulf, which were determined to stop the wave of revolt from reaching their shores. But it is over Syria, where the civil war is entering its fourth year, that the most serious differences with the US emerged.
Arab officials assumed the US would agree to a repeat of the Libya intervention, particularly if they started to fund and supply weapons to the rebels. Yet, as the war escalated in 2012 and 2013, and regime atrocities multiplied, a cautious White House refused to join in and pressured allies against supplying heavy weapons to the opposition, arguing they could fall in the hands of extremist jihadists.
The outcome has been disastrous for the US and its Arab allies alike: The Al Assad regime has been tenacious as its own allies, Russia and Iran, invested heavily in its survival. Meanwhile, moderate pro-western rebels and Islamist fighters backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been losing ground to well-funded and well-trained groups of Al Qaida extremists.
The US-Saudi relationship reached a low point in September. The US was on the verge of launching cruise missiles to punish the Al Assad regime for allegedly deploying chemical weapons against civilians, but suddenly announced that a diplomatic deal with Russia had been reached to remove and destroy the weapons. The Saudis expressed their disapproval in a surprising way: Riyadh flatly turned down a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council, though its diplomats had lobbied for it for two years. “There is misapprehension and misunderstanding on Syria that had the US only done the strikes we would no longer be talking about Al Assad,” argues a senior State Department official. “We’ve clarified that the strike would have been in retaliation for the chemical weapons and that we’d still be talking about Al Assad.”
But the US was keeping its eye on the bigger prize — the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which started in secret early last year. By the time the Saudis and their neighbours learnt about the talks in late November, the US and other world powers had already reached a landmark interim agreement with Iran. The anxiety over America’s Middle East policies heightened as conspiracy theories swirled that the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran — the Sunni Arab powers’ regional rival — would legitimise Iranian influence in the Arab world, selling out traditional allies in the process.
While Saudi Arabia and its neighbours have kept their public statements subdued, it was left to commentators and people close to official thinking to express the outrage, which at times bordered on hysteria. The kingdom would now shift away from the US and adopt unilateral policies, claimed some leaks. It might also acquire nuclear weapons of its own, said other reports.
As nuclear negotiations with Iran were progressing, Kerry set out for Saudi Arabia in early November on a damage-control mission. On the way, he stopped in Egypt for a day before Mursi, the ousted president, was to face trial on criminal charges of inciting his supporters to kill protesters outside the presidential palace in 2012. The Saudis and other Gulf partners were closely watching the visit, having pressed the US for months to support the generals in Egypt. The US administration had been wavering on its Egypt policy since the July 2013 removal of Mursi. It refused to judge the ouster a coup, since doing so could trigger a Congressional halt in military aid, but at the same time, it suspended part of the aid and called for a swift return to democratic transition. For many observers, the US attitude towards Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, was further confirmation of American confusion and disengagement from the Middle East. Kerry added to the muddle by declaring that the military’s “road map” of a return to democracy was “being carried out to the best of our perception” — a statement widely seen as being supportive of the new authorities, and therefore pleasing to the Saudis.
Kerry sent other reassuring messages during his meeting with Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. He argued that the outcome of nuclear negotiations with Iran was in Saudi Arabia’s interest and insisted there was no secret deal that would abandon the region to Iranian dominance. On Syria too, Kerry explained that Obama had not changed policy and had, from day one, been committed to a diplomatic solution.
The Saudi King was diplomatic, telling Kerry that the complaints he heard in public did not express his own views, according to a senior State Department official. (Other Saudi officials were sending a different message, though.)
To a certain extent, Riyadh, over the past two years, has become more assertive and less sensitive to US concerns. It is unlikely Egypt’s generals could have deposed Mursi — a move with which the US was uncomfortable — without Saudi political and financial backing. In total, the Gulf financial package of more than $12 billion (Dh44.13 billion) saved the Egyptian economy from collapse. Last week, Riyadh vowed to spend $3 billion on new weapons — it specified they should be purchased from France — for the Lebanese army in an attempt to bolster its Sunni allies who are being increasingly challenged by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group allied to Iran. The pledge came a few days after the assassination of a Sunni politician.
US officials, however, take the view that cooperation with Saudi Arabia is so extensive that expressions of unhappiness do not amount to a breakdown in relations. Current US analysis holds that King Abdullah is not likely to endorse the pursuit of nuclear weapons, even if through cooperation with Pakistan, whose nuclear programme is believed to have been at least partly funded by the Saudis. US officials also play down claims that the Saudis may adopt unilateral policies that can threaten American interests, even if they work less hard to accommodate Washington.
Riyadh’s plan to train thousands of Syrian fighters in a new push against the Al Assad regime has failed to impress, with one US official estimating that without western intervention, it would take years before such a force could dislodge the Syrian leader. By then, it is possible that not much will remain of Syria. So far, the result of Arab involvement has been to perpetuate the conflict and further radicalise the opposition rather than bring it to a conclusion.
Nor should the idea that Gulf states will bury their rivalries and develop into a disciplined and more powerful regional unit worry the Obama administration. Oman, host to the secret US-Iran talks, has already rebuffed Saudi calls for an upgrading of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to a proper union (the group includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait). Others, including Qatar, are showing signs of a greater willingness to talk to Iran, leaving the Saudis looking the most intransigent.
Gregory Gause, a senior fellow at Brookings Doha Centre, a think tank, argues that Saudi Arabia will pursue independent policies on Syria and Egypt, but they have no alternative ally on basic security issues to replace the US. “There isn’t much [the Saudis] can do about US-Iranian relations and will have to live with whatever Washington and Tehran come up with,” he says.
As the Middle East struggles to adapt to a more inward-looking America, some policy changes and more self-reliance are certain to follow. But just as Washington cannot afford to turn its back on the Middle East, regional states, including Saudi Arabia, should be under no illusion that they can replace America. Infuriating as this marriage may be to both sides, it is still better than a divorce.
— Financial Times