IN September, Sultan Qaboos of Oman established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, thus joining Kuwait among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in taking this step. Other Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, may shortly follow suit. In the past few months Riyadh and Moscow have been conducting what is being called ``soccer diplomacy,'' following the visit of Prince Faisal bin Fahd, son of the Saudi monarch, to Moscow with a soccer team. While there, he met at the Kuw aiti Embassy with a number of senior Soviet officials. Recent Soviet diplomatic successes in the Persian Gulf raise an inevitable question: To what extent are they due to the gradual erosion of United States credibility in the Middle East and the Gulf states' growing disenchantment with US policies?
The receptivity of the Gulf countries to Soviet overtures relates primarily to their internal and regional concerns. It reflects their growing political maturity and self-confidence, including recognition of the reality of Soviet power and proximity and the need to come to terms with it. Thus the Gulf states feel it would be unrealistic not to have diplomatic relations with the other superpower, particularly given its proximity to their region. They also feel experienced enough now in international life
to handle relations with Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union is viewed as a status quo power that is not trying to change or destabilize existing regimes. The experience of Kuwait, where the USSR has had a large embassy for several years, has been reassuring. Kuwait has also used its experience with the USSR to encourage its GCC partners to follow its example.
More recently, the Soviets have encouraged South Yemen to normalize relations with Oman. In fact, it is widely believed that this Soviet step helped prompt Oman to open relations with Moscow, both in recognition of Moscow's efforts and to discourage a Soviet role in reactivating the dormant Dhofari rebellion. This type of calculation is not new. Kuwait, for example, has long used its connection with the USSR and the latter's influence to moderate Iraqi ambitions and protect itself from Palestinian press ures.
The desire to balance the power of regional giants is another strong reason for some Gulf states to establish links with Moscow. They are now most concerned with the potential threat from Iran, but the smaller Gulf states also have no illusions about Iraq. Indeed, in the long run some of them see Iraq as a more formidable threat. Nor are they comfortable with Saudi Arabia's pressure tactics and efforts to turn the GCC into a vehicle for Saudi influence. Some observers in the Persian Gulf believe that Om an's decision to establish relations with the Soviet Union was partly a reaction to Saudi pressures. It is also believed that Sultan Qaboos expects Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Moscow in the near future and has not wanted to be seen following in Riyadh's footsteps.
Further, there is the lingering fear that the Iraq-Iran war might yet extend to the rest of the Gulf. The Gulf states are aware that, alone, they could not face such a development. They are trying to involve the Soviet Union in preventing it or, should it happen, in helping to end it quickly.
It is in this context that regional perceptions of US reliability are most important. The last seven years have witnessed the fall of the Shah of Iran, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and, most important, US failure in Lebanon. Taken together, these developments have seriously eroded US credibility. Many Persian Gulf countries question the value of friendship and identification with the US, particularly where this makes them targets of anti-US elements in the region. US unwillingnes s to provide them with their defense needs also contributes to this decreasing confidence.
Moreover, US policies in the rest of the Arab world reverberate in the Gulf. For example, US endorsement of the Israeli raid on Tunisia, the forcing down of the Egyptian airplane in Italy, and the delay in the Jordanian arms package have generated anger and dismay in the Gulf. The Gulf states share in what they consider Arab humiliation, and they wonder how the United States can still treat different parts of the Middle East as somehow separate regions. In addition, while they realize their ultimate dep endence on the over-the-horizon US security umbrella, they also resent what they consider a US attitude of taking them for granted. As a result, they are seeking ways to change this state of dependency. The opening to the Soviet Union is one way of doing just that.
No one expects this opening to result in a dramatic increase in the Soviet Gulf presence, nor seriously to undermine US-Gulf state relations. In fact, some observers believe that, should all the Gulf states establish relations with Moscow, there may not even be six Soviet embassies in six GCC countries. Rather, representation in Moscow and in the Gulf may be shared.
Meanwhile, there is nothing the US can do to stop the process of normalization in Gulf-Soviet relations. Yet, the extent and pace of this process will depend in part on how the United States conducts its Persian Gulf and Middle East policies, and on whether it succeeds in reestablishing its image as a reliable ally and friend.
Shireen T. Hunter, deputy director of the Middle East Project at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, has recently returned from a trip to the Persian Gulf.