Activist countries

Gulf Arab countries hedge against US power for Iran’s benefit

Virtually alone in the Middle East, the tiny emirate of Qatar has managed to balance powerful players: home to a key US air base, Al Udeid; benefiting from a defense pact and major non-NATO ally status with the United States; while maintaining friendly relations with Iran; host senior leaders of US-designated terrorist groups, including Hamas, the Taliban, and various other terrorist actors; and continue to fund and promote Al Jazeera, a vast media network that regularly broadcasts anti-Israel, anti-American, pro-Iranian and pro-Muslim Brotherhood messages.

Various efforts to punish Qatar for its nominal non-alignment – ​​though some might say it is only two-sided – have failed ignominiously. And Qatar’s success has made it a model for the rest of the region.

Today, frustrated by the wild shifts in US regional policy and increasingly skeptical of the consistency of US military support, the rest of the Gulf is in the process of what might be called “Qatarization”: covering up its betting against American power, playing footy with Tehran, striking economic and arms deals with China and Russia, and otherwise acting like, well, Qatar.

Virtually alone in the Middle East, the tiny emirate of Qatar has managed to balance powerful players: home to a key US air base, Al Udeid; benefiting from a defense pact and major non-NATO ally status with the United States; while maintaining friendly relations with Iran; host senior leaders of US-designated terrorist groups, including Hamas, the Taliban, and various other terrorist actors; and continue to fund and promote Al Jazeera, a vast media network that regularly broadcasts anti-Israel, anti-American, pro-Iranian and pro-Muslim Brotherhood messages.

Various efforts to punish Qatar for its nominal non-alignment – ​​though some might say it is only two-sided – have failed ignominiously. And Qatar’s success has made it a model for the rest of the region.

Today, frustrated by the wild shifts in US regional policy and increasingly skeptical of the consistency of US military support, the rest of the Gulf is in the process of what might be called “Qatarization”: covering up its betting against American power, playing footy with Tehran, striking economic and arms deals with China and Russia, and otherwise acting like, well, Qatar.

And one country in particular is exploiting this trend to its advantage: Iran.


Several forces have combined to accelerate the Qatarization of the Gulf. A major factor has been US President Barack Obama’s estrangement from the region during his tenure. This turning point was then reinforced – ironically – by his successor Donald Trump championing the new Abraham Accord, which was partly intended to carefully replace the Gulf countries’ reliance on of American power through alliances with Israel. And all of this was capped off by President Joe Biden’s eagerness to rejoin the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.

For Washington’s traditional partners in the Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it’s all about who will defend them against Iran and its proxies. In the Obama era, the answer was clear in their minds: the United States would side with Iran.

But many thought Obama was an aberration. Hope was rekindled in the Trump era, but it quickly became clear after Iranian-sponsored attacks on key Saudi oil facilities that even Iran’s most vocal enemies in the White House would not take not the defense of Riyadh. Needless to say, Biden’s team — made up of former Obama administration officials and a vice president who has made exposing Saudi Arabia a key part of his foreign policy — wouldn’t be a improvement. Thus solidified the era of Gulf coverage.

Another factor in the growing Qatarization of the region is the double whammy of climate activism and the diversification of energy supplies. The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have distorted markets in unexpected ways, but the overall trend has long been clear. In the year before the pandemic hit, the United States was a net exporter of gas and the largest producer of oil in the world. Taken in conjunction with population growth in places like Saudi Arabia, massive swings in the price of oil, incredibly large public sectors and other demands on the public purse, most Gulf governments are worried about their future economic security.

They also have Public Enemy No. 1 in their eyes: the man who brokered the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and now serves Biden’s climate czar John Kerry. In their view, as several regional leaders have confided to me, Kerry once sought to subjugate the Sunni Gulf powers by uplifting Iran and is now pursuing that plan by trying to destroy oil producers in favor of righteous environmental gains. in-the-sky.

Undoubtedly, Washington’s changes have upset the traditional calculations of its Gulf allies. And Iran was quick to pick up the slack. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, most Gulf countries have flirted with Tehran and vice versa. But their tolerance for Iran’s shenanigans abroad has been limited, and bilateral talks have rarely resulted in a serious rapprochement.

One reason for this is Saudi Arabia’s ongoing and growing concerns about Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. Riyadh experimented with various policies to contain the Iranian threat, including an effort in the 1980s and 1990s to mimic Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism to its own advantage by funding Al-Qaeda, recognizing the Taliban government of the 1990s in Afghanistan and exporting Wahhabi extremism. But the September 11 attacks put an end to this approach.

Given then-US President George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” choice in the wake of these attacks, the Saudi monarchy abandoned its desire to build a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic. And for the first decade and a half of the 21st century, Saudi Arabia began to reshape itself as the leader of a US-backed regional anti-Iranian bloc, stifling occasional attempts by its Gulf neighbors to repair their relations with Tehran. But this interregnum is over.

Riyadh’s early attempts at a post-American consensus against the Iranian Gulf included an almost unnecessary boycott and embargo of Qatar as well as a disastrous war in Yemen. In each case, Riyadh’s desire to make its case and assert its own independent foreign policy priorities – stopping Qatar’s promotion of Saudi dissidents and Muslim Brotherhood extremists in the first instance and preventing the Iranian-backed Houthis to launch cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, in the second instance, made sense on the face of it. But in each case, the execution was so counterproductive that early supporters (including the United States and Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia) fell.

The Emiratis first realized that a Saudi-led future was unlikely to work out well. Eventually, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caught up. Now, along with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, Qatar – Saudi Arabia has adopted a hedging strategy that includes better relations with Moscow and Beijing, and, yes, more openness to talking with Iran.

The most shocking manifestations of this new hedging strategy have been the well-publicized Saudi and Emirati rebuffs to calls from the White House for oil to backfill after the Russian embargo. (Notably, the two leaders chose to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin after invading Ukraine.) But there were other steps as well, such as the Emirati buying Chinese training planes. , a Chinese port project (now suspended) near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, a Chinese-backed ballistic missile factory in Saudi Arabia and, of course, the abstentions during the vote of the General Assembly of United Nations punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.


From Tehran’s perspective, Washington has created an opportunity – and, as usual, Iran’s leaders were quick to exploit it.

The Iranian regime has always worried about encirclement, and while it has worked with extraordinary success to destabilize a variety of players in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, its Gulf neighbors have always been harder to crack. Tehran has historically found that efforts to foment internal dissent in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have failed. And when Iranian leaders discovered that exporting instability to their more prosperous Gulf neighbors was too demanding a task, they took a more subtle approach that met with surprising success.

For the past year and more, the Iraqi government (itself trapped between Tehran and Washington) has brokered detente talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These recurring conversations have been disjointed at best, but Baghdad, at Tehran’s request, has sought to keep them going. Similarly, an unusual but important high-level meeting took place last December in Tehran between the UAE’s top national security official and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Neither Tehran’s eagerness for talks with its Gulf neighbors nor its own willingness to participate should be interpreted as transformative. Indeed, the Emirati and Saudi leaders remain suspicious of Iran, and Iran, for its part, continues to agitate against its Sunni neighbors. But as the rift between the United States and its former best friends in the GCC has grown – laid bare by its failure to support US oil supplies or punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine – the Iran continued to offer dialogue.

Tehran’s desire to take advantage of the cover of the Gulf is a sound strategy. This means no change to Iran’s overall ambitions for itself and its proxies, but it does underscore a willingness to play Qatar’s copyrighted game. And in the short term, this will could lessen the open war of attrition between Sunnis and Shiites in the region and cement in place Iran’s hegemony over Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. More importantly for the United States, it means an almost complete loss of influence in the region.

As with Qatar and Al Udeid, the United States will continue to base and preposition itself in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. But these basic rights will come with little political or economic loyalty. And as Biden discovered when he approached Saudi Arabia and its neighbors for their support, the Gulf countries will make their decisions based on what they perceive to be their interests, not Israel’s. America.