Iran crisis: Why Gulf Arabs increasingly see US as a liability

Why We Wrote This

Allies value dependability and transparency. Which is why President Trump's clash with Iran, which blindsided America's Gulf Arab allies, strengthened their sense that the United States is becoming a liability.

Kamran Jebreili/AP
A Navy patrol boat carrying journalists to see damaged oil tankers leaves a U.S. Navy 5th Fleet base, near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, June 19, 2019. America's Gulf allies long pushed for hawkish U.S. policies to isolate Iran but had turned toward diplomacy, now compromised by the killing of Iran’s most powerful commander. 

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Under other circumstances, Arab states would have been happy to see last Friday’s drone missile strike on Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

But in ordering the attack, President Donald Trump also upended the Gulf’s nascent diplomacy with Iran. At the time of the assassination, General Soleimani was carrying Tehran’s official response to Saudi Arabia’s invitation to talks, according to the Iraqi government and diplomatic sources.

Now, blindsided Gulf leaders are flying around the world to try to prevent a conflict they once sought, but now fear. And they face an even larger challenge: What to do about an ally like America?

Amid what they see as D.C.’s erratic policies, internal chaos, and broken promises, many conclude that America is becoming a “liability.” The Gulf’s dramatic turnabout with Iran was partially fueled by the Trump administration’s perceived unwillingness to protect Arab states from Iranian attacks.

“What the Gulf countries are really afraid of now is that the U.S. will start a war with Iran and walk away,” says Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are absolutely terrified that Trump has stirred up the hornets’ nest, the Iranians will retaliate, and he will leave them holding the bag.”

Blindsided. Exposed. Anxious. Exasperated.

Such are Gulf Arab leaders as they fly to Washington, Tehran, and European capitals to contain the fallout from the U.S. assassination of an Iranian general they saw as their mortal enemy but whose killing was a red line they could not afford to cross.

Having traveled a policy journey from saber-rattling to mediation, Gulf Arabs are finding themselves racing to prevent a conflict they once sought but now fear.

But as they scramble to prevent a U.S. response to Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes Wednesday, the Sunni Gulf states are facing an even larger challenge: What to do about an ally like America?

Amid rising frustration over what they see as Washington’s erratic policies, internal chaos, and broken promises, many are arriving at the conclusion that after years of policy mishaps, America is becoming a “liability.”

“Our most important ally, a world power who is here on the pretense of stabilizing the region, is destabilizing the region and taking all of us with them without a second thought,” says one Gulf diplomatic source, who did not wish his name or country to be identified.

Although under other circumstances Arab states would have been happy to see the Iranian general gone, last Friday’s drone missile strike on Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani ordered by President Donald Trump effectively torpedoed Gulf diplomacy with Iran.

When the U.S. hit General Soleimani’s vehicle outside Baghdad International Airport, the feared general was carrying with him Iran’s official response to Saudi Arabia’s invitation to talks and a regional cease-fire, according to the Iraqi government and diplomatic sources.

The Iran-Gulf de-escalation was the work of months of painstaking, quiet diplomacy by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who once clamored for Washington to take military action to deter Iran and its proxies.

With the assassination, Gulf countries worry the Trump administration has also obliterated efforts to bring an end to the five-year war in Yemen, where Riyadh has been working toward a political settlement to end hostilities with Tehran and its Houthi allies.

Gulf’s turn to diplomacy

The Gulf’s dramatic turnabout and push for diplomacy with Iran was fueled in part by what it perceived as the “unreliability” of the Trump administration and Washington’s unwillingness to protect Arab states from repeated Iranian attacks.

In the wake of last summer’s sabotage of Gulf tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, a UAE delegation went to Tehran and signed a pact to monitor the shipping lanes to prevent conflict, while Saudi Arabia quietly reached out to Iranian proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

September’s attacks on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia, which badly damaged the kingdom’s oil infrastructure and went without an overt U.S. response, reinforced the notion that the Gulf stands alone.

The belief settled in Arab capitals that for this transactional president, the political cost was too high and personal benefits too few to justify any retaliation. Feeling abandoned, Gulf countries concluded that diplomacy was their only way forward with Iran.

Until all that was upended on Friday.

“In an instant, we saw a sudden shift in the U.S. from being passive and non-interventionist vis-à-vis Iran to being extremely confrontational and taking out its top commander,” says Riad Kahwaji, director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

“It is from one extreme to another with a complete disregard to the disastrous consequences for U.S. allies in the Gulf and regional security.”

In perhaps an ironic twist, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are now pursuing diplomacy to ease tensions in Washington and Tehran and walk the U.S. back from the precipice of war.

Hours after the assassination, Saudi Arabia preached “self-restraint” to the U.S., and the UAE foreign minister called for “wisdom.” The Qatari foreign minister was in Tehran 24 hours after the strike.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent his own brother, Khalid bin Salman, deputy defense minister, to Washington, where he is currently urging the Trump administration to exercise restraint, while Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim Al Thani discussed de-escalation with Mr. Trump by phone Tuesday.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman arrives for a private meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 6, 2020.

Exasperation with U.S.

These words of “caution” and “restraint” were repeated Wednesday, hours after Iranian missiles struck the U.S.-led coalition’s Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq.

Yet beneath the diplomacy is a simmering exasperation and anger over what officials and analysts describe as the U.S. administration’s “carelessness.”

Gulf officials are worried that should Iran subsequently target U.S. bases or citizens on Gulf soil, Arab states will be forced to respond themselves, dragging the entire region toward war.

The costs of any U.S.-Iran conflict in the Persian Gulf are clear and many.

American military bases and facilities in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia total some 50,000 to 65,000 U.S. troops, several warships, and air operation command centers. American companies and commercial interests are numerous, as are multimillion-dollar oil and natural gas installations across the Gulf.

These bases, along with Arab cities, are easily in reach of Iran’s ballistic missiles and its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and beyond.

According to one private estimation by Gulf analysts, a single destructive missile attack on Dubai – which Iran surrogates threatened to hit should the U.S. respond to Wednesday’s missile strikes – could cost the Gulf billions of dollars.

“The Gulf is the most militarized place on earth, and despite that we have not seen security or stability,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor close to decision-makers in Abu Dhabi.

“The more you militarize, the less secure the region becomes. This is between the U.S. and Iran, and both the U.S. and Iran need to stop this vicious cycle.”

But an even deeper fear is gripping Gulf leaders.

“What the Gulf countries are really afraid of now is that the U.S. will start a war with Iran and walk away,” says Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute and former CIA analyst. “They are absolutely terrified that Trump has stirred up the hornets’ nest, the Iranians will retaliate, and he will leave them holding the bag.”

Eroding trust

The crisis represents a breakdown in relations and trust with Washington and the administration that has deteriorated for months after initially looking like a happy marriage.

It comes after a series of broken promises, including the troop pullout from Syria and refusal to back the Saudi- and UAE-led blockade of Gulf rival Qatar.

Trust has reportedly been broken between Arab states and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, once seen as an “independent thinker” who could steer President Trump’s policies and prevent rash decision-making.

Now the secretary is viewed in Gulf circles as a “yes man” after repeatedly selling the administration’s knee-jerk decisions to a skeptical Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, often on the fly.  

“We are promised one decision from the Trump administration before Pompeo leaves Washington. By the time his flight lands, Trump will have Tweeted and the secretary will tell us a completely different decision than what we agreed to,” says the Gulf diplomatic source.  

“There is a lot of dysfunction, conflict, and confusion in Washington. You have the most unpredictable president in America’s history and elections approaching,” says Mr. Abdulla.

“We hear conflicting messages from the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and Congress, and we have to ask ourselves: Who really speaks for the American people?”

With the Iran crisis, decision-makers and citizens in the Gulf too are rethinking their alliance with the U.S. and the fundamental quid pro quo of military protection in return for securing a vital resource, oil.

“People here are asking: What is the purpose of the U.S. military presence? What is the point if they are not able to provide the protection it is supposed to and now may be drawing us into a regional war?” says Mr. Kahwaji at INEGMA.

“The security framework established in the region has failed miserably, and now the U.S. itself has become a liability.”

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