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In Arab world, a new alliance is on the rise

Why We Wrote This

What impact does America’s inward gaze have on international problem-solving? That’s an issue we will return to regularly. Here, a look at how six US-friendly Arab nations are banding together.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir attends informal talks between Arab foreign ministers on the latest regional developments, at the King Hussein Convention Centre at the Dead Sea, Jordan, Jan. 31, 2019.

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An alliance of six Sunni Arab states is stepping up as a leading actor in the Middle East as a response to shrinking US influence in the region. The informal alliance – we’ll call them the Big 6 – has a voice on issues ranging from postwar Syria to diplomatic overtures on the Yemen and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. All six states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Egypt – are traditional US allies.

First and foremost, the Big 6 seek to act as a bulwark against Iran. They are also united in their unease over Turkey’s “meddling” in the Arab world. They have been using their combined wealth, influence, and ties with the West to pressure Arab governments and political groups to follow their agenda and distance themselves from Iran and Turkey.

“Although no one says it directly and it is never announced, these Arab states are acting as one unified group,” says one insider. “If you are in their favor, they will all support you and embrace you; if you do not live up to their expectations, you will be blocked by all.”

Across the Middle East, from Iraq to North Africa, a new informal alignment of Sunni Arab countries is quietly influencing developments.

The alliance – comprising Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Egypt – is stepping up as a leading actor in the Arab world with a voice on issues ranging from postwar Syria and the thwarting of Iran to diplomatic overtures on the Yemen and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

It’s doing so at a time when the United States is more inward-looking and less engaged in the region and when the Saudis themselves have experienced a public fall from grace in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The grouping has no official name – people refer to them verbally as “the six states” or the “big states” or the “six big states.” Let’s call them the Big 6. On the surface, it is the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, minus Qatar and Oman but with the addition of Jordan and Egypt.

Each member brings unique strengths: Saudi Arabia offers the leverage of its oil wealth and religious custodianship of Mecca and Medina; the UAE is a global economic power with an advanced military and oil and gas wealth; Bahrain and Kuwait have vast wealth and investments across the region; Jordan is a geographic and cultural gateway to the Levant; and Egypt is the most populous Arab country, home to 25 percent of all Arab citizens.

What is behind this new alliance?

Chiefly Iran and its influence in Arab states. The Big 6 is first and foremost a Sunni Arab coalition that seeks to act as a bulwark against Iran, coordinate Arab foreign policy, and prevent the encroaching influence of non-Arab regional actors such as Turkey. All six states, to varying degrees, have been wary of increased Iranian influence in the Arab world since the 2003 Iraq war – a concern that became an alarm with Iran’s military presence in Syria following the outbreak of the 2011 civil war. Members see what they call a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and even Yemen encircling them. More concerning is the installation by pro-Iranian militias in these countries of ballistic missiles with the ability to hit Arab capitals.

These states are also united in their unease over Turkey’s “meddling” in the Arab world, with many seeing Turkey as a regional rival looking to revive its Ottoman Empire glory. Gulf states have not forgiven nor forgotten Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for Islamist opposition groups that challenged their monarchies, while Egypt protests the Turkish government’s ongoing harboring of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles. The bloc also supports the ongoing blockade of Qatar over what they claim is an unwillingness to take stances against Iran and Turkey.

Is the alliance a military power?

Not strictly, no. The Big 6 have been using their combined wealth, influence, oil, diplomacy, patronage networks, and ties with the West to pressure and cajole Arab governments, political groups, militias, and even tribesmen to follow their agenda and distance themselves from Iran and Turkey. They are applying lessons learned from the disastrous war in Yemen, a military venture by Saudi Arabia launched in the belief that aggressive posturing and military strikes would deter Iran’s regional ambitions. Four years later, with over $100 billion spent and no end in sight to what has become a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, these Arab states now believe that quiet diplomacy, economic pressure, and the carrot of oil wealth and investments can slowly win over and isolate Iran’s patrons in Arab states. It is the adoption of a long game of winning hearts and pocketbooks rather than a quick and violent uprooting of Iranian influence. That being said, Gulf militarization is not slowing down out of the belief that no carrot is complete without a big stick.

Are they influential?

Although this informal group’s impact may not be visible from the West, on the ground in the Arab world its sway is dramatic. After Saudi Arabia and the UAE gave their blessing to the formation of the Iraqi government in January, Jordan’s King Abdullah visited Baghdad. Iraq’s neighbor signed a series of deals to cut fees on Iraqi goods imported through Jordan and to establish free trade agreements and industrial areas to create thousands of jobs in Iraq.

The Big 6’s coordinated approach can also be seen at work in Syria, where the group decided to bring Bashar al-Assad in from the cold after seven years of failing to topple the Syrian president. Within a month of the UAE reopening its embassy in Syria last December, Bahrain and Kuwait followed, while Jordan sent a chargé d’affaires to Damascus for the first time in five years. With the green light, investors, contractors, and business owners from these six states have been holding discussions with the Syrian government; the national air carriers of these states are preparing to renew flights to Syria.

It is part of a coordinated strategy, insiders say; should President Assad provide proof he is reducing Iranian influence in his country, the bloc will continue to offer normalization and funds. If he fails to take confidence-building measures, the six are expected to freeze relations at a moment’s notice. “Although no one says it directly and it is never announced, these Arab states are acting as one unified group,” says one insider. “If you are in their favor, they will all support you and embrace you; if you do not live up to their expectations, you will be blocked by all.”

How does this affect the US?

It is unclear as long as US Mideast policy remains unclear. All six states are traditional US allies who host either strategic US military bases or operate closely with American forces. Washington has shared economic and security interests with these members; individually, each has reliable track records of supporting and promoting US policy in the region. However, the Big 6 was formed largely as a response to the shrinking American influence in the region and the reluctance of the Obama and now Trump administrations to take strong action against Iran and its proxies beyond diplomatic and economic sanctions. Ideally, the Big 6 creates a more unified Arab actor with which to coordinate US policy in the region, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran. But once Washington’s policies conflict with the interests of the Big 6, this bloc’s go-at-it-alone approach could pose real headaches for the US administration.

Can the Big 6 be a partner for peace?

Possibly. For weeks, insiders say four Gulf countries in the bloc – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain – have been considering officially normalizing ties with Israel in return for united pressure on Iran and concessions for the Palestinians. Such an agreement, coordinated in part with the Palestinian Authority, would be brokered by Egypt and Jordan, which have peace treaties with Israel. With Saudi Arabia desperate to wind down its war in Yemen, the group is also looking for ways to reach a face-saving settlement to the conflict, with bloc member Jordan hosting the second round of UN-sponsored peace talks. The Big 6 has also been playing a behind-the-scenes role in trying to leverage a stable outcome to the political and military stalemate in Libya. The key question remains whether this new bloc of Arab states will heed the mistakes of Riyadh’s aggressive military policy and continue their consensus-based pragmatic approach to contain Iran or whether an unintended escalation will push them, and the Arab world, toward military conflict.

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