GULF states are quietly abandoning a key plank in the much-heralded ``new Arab order,'' as they back away from plans to rally other Arab nations to their future defense, officials and diplomats here say. Instead, regional officials explain, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will bank on Western military assistance and support until their own forces are large and capable enough to deal with any potential threat.
Although the nature of a future Gulf security arrangement is still hazy, the new thinking in the area marks a dramatic break with expectations raised after the war against Iraq that the Arab members of the United States-led coalition would strengthen military ties among themselves to build Gulf defenses.
That strategy was expressed in the Damascus Declaration, initialed by the GCC countries, Syria, and Egypt on March 6. ``The presence of the Egyptian and Syrian forces in the territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the Gulf region,'' it said, ``represents a nucleus for an Arab peace force which is being prepared to guarantee the security and safety of the Arab countries in the Gulf region.''
Since then, however, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it wants neither Western nor Arab troops stationed on its soil. Egypt's 36,000 men are withdrawing from Kuwait. Only a symbolic Arab force is expected to remain.
``We are thinking self reliance,'' says a Gulf official. ``But we will have to work more closely with our friends like the United States and Britain.''
The switch from a pan-Arab alliance toward a Western orientation, was guided by an appraisal of who did the real fighting against Iraq, says Abdullah Kabaa, a Saudi professor and sometime government adviser.
``We appreciate the Egyptian and Syrian'' role, he says, ``but it was the Americans who won the war. Arab solidarity is fine, we are all brothers, but we are not going to hang our future on an Arab security arrangement.''
At the same time, adds a Saudi political analyst, ``a man bitten by a snake is afraid of a coil of rope.'' Wounded by the number of Arabs all over North Africa and the Middle East who sympathized with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, he explains, Riyadh feels safer with Western allies.
Within the GCC, there are differences among member states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain over the practicalities and funding of a future security net for their region, and no blueprint is expected until the autumn, according to a Gulf official.
The Saudis, for example, ``have said absolutely categorically that they do not want foreign troops on their territory,'' says a Western military observer, ``while the Kuwaitis are asking the American and British troops to stay on as long as possible.''
Locally, the Saudi government has announced plans to double the size of its armed forces to 250,000 within five years, and GCC countries are working on ways of ``pushing coordination of our military efforts to new dimensions,'' the Gulf official says.
``But underlying it all, the bottom line is that they will be dependent on the West,'' says the Western military observer.
With Western ground troops anxious to leave Kuwait and unwanted in Saudi Arabia, American and British involvement will likely be limited to a significant naval force in the Gulf, according to Western military sources. This force might include a US Marine amphibious unit and aircraft stationed in Bahrain and possibly Saudi Arabia, the sources say.
WASHINGTON had hoped to pre-position tanks and other equipment at Saudi bases, but Riyadh is reportedly balking at even this marginal US presence. Some diplomats suggest this could be a tactic to pressure the US Congress to approve future arms sales to the kingdom. But others see deeper trends.
``[The Saudis'] thinking is that things went pretty well for them,'' a Western diplomat says. ``The Americans came, the Americans won, the Americans went. What do they need to change?''
``I detect an air of complacency creeping in,'' echoes the military observer. ``If there's another flare-up, they are sure the Americans and British will be back immediately. I think they may be drawing the wrong lessons from the war.''
Certainly, Gulf officials say they are reconsidering the role of a regional defense force. ``Iraq is weak. Iran is weak. Where is the threat coming from?'' asks a Gulf diplomat. ``Is there any imminent threat that requires the presence of 50,000 Arab troops?
``The troops that came here, came for a purpose ... [which] has been achieved,'' he says. ``Whatever troops remain will have a new purpose, and the nature of their role will be different. It will be to show their political commitment to the defense of the Gulf, and for that you are talking a much smaller number of troops.''
With GCC members free to make bilateral deals, the official says Kuwait may ask token Egyptian and Syrian forces to stay on to smooth feathers ruffled by the Gulf's preference for Western aid.
GCC, Syrian, and Egyptian experts are to meet here next week to prepare for a July meeting of their foreign ministers in Kuwait. Though officials say the ``six plus two'' grouping remains an important foundation for a ``new Arab order,'' it appears to have failed its first test on the security front.
``People jumped on the Damascus Declaration too fast,'' says the Gulf official. ``Our friends were too excited, and our enemies were too horrified.'' Already its significance is fading.