Perceptions of Security in the Arab Gulf Region

Findings from a Trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia

Lawrence Korb and Caroline Wadhams provide analysis on the U.S. role in the Middle East from their recent trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Caroline Wadhams and Lawrence Korb on their recent trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (CAP)
Caroline Wadhams and Lawrence Korb on their recent trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (CAP)

We traveled from May 3 to May 12 as part of a delegation to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—two of our most important allies and trading partners in the Middle East. The trip was organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in order to meet with government officials and nongovernmental figures to assess Gulf security, the threat of a potentially nuclear-capable Iran, extremism in the region, and perceptions of U.S. power, among other issues.

Iran and fears of a nuclear-armed Iran dominated our discussions in both countries. And the situation in Iraq seems to only exacerbate Emirate and Saudi Arabian perceptions of growing Iranian influence in the region. Another commonality is that both countries’ economies are dominated by the oil sector. They are both aggressively planning for a future when their oil reserves are depleted and global demand has shrunk, and diversifying their economies and educating their populations in order to be competitive in a knowledge-based economy. Below are some of the key findings in each country we visited.

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates amazes visitors with its growth and ambition. Its skyscrapers, malls, manmade islands, and the crane’s ubiquity only partially reveal the scale of its plans. The political leaders and the populace see themselves as leaders in the Middle East—bringing their neighbors kicking and screaming into an increasingly interconnected and competitive world, where a tolerant form of Islam pervades. Yet they aim to preserve their Emirati culture and makeup—no easy task as the Emirati population shrinks to less than 20 percent of the population. We drew several conclusions from our meetings there:

Iran is enemy #1

Emiratis consistently discussed their fears regarding Iran, its revolutionary government, and desire to be a superpower in the region. They believe Iranians, even under a government like that of the Shah, are an existential threat to the Gulf and the UAE in particular.

The UAE has had an ongoing dispute with the Iranians over a number of islands—the Iranians seized one island in 1992 that was previously shared with the UAE—and the Emiratis see signs that Hezbollah and other Iranian agents are meddling in every corner of the globe. They therefore refuse to accept a nuclear-capable Iran and paint devastating scenarios of what would happen if Iran gets the bomb, including a regional arms race.

Yet Emiratis are not able to map out a set of policy recommendations for the United States to address Iran; in other words, they have no affirmative approach. The people we spoke to are convinced that traditional concepts such as deterrence and containment will not work with Iran. They also argue that imposing sanctions or pressing banks not to do business with Iran will do little to stop the country’s nuclear program. And they do not believe that military action is desirable.

Iran won Iraq

Emiratis consistently lament the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and are now concerned about a U.S. withdrawal scheduled by the end of August. Many want us to remain even if it means violating the strategic framework agreement we signed with the Iraqis in December 2008. These concerns reflect their fears about Iran. They opposed our overthrow of Saddam Hussein because their leaders saw him as a counterweight to Iran and feared the results of a vacuum. They worry that the Iranians will continue to dominate the country if we leave, and the most recent Iraqi elections did little to assuage those fears.

They are cautious of a highly public U.S.-UAE partnership

UAE officials welcome and support the U.S. military presence in their country, but they do not want the presence of U.S. troops to be highly visible. There are hundreds of U.S. ship visits per year and more than several thousand troops and planes stationed in the UAE as part of the Al Dhafra Air Base. This presence is kept quiet, potentially because they believe that their residents (both Emiratis and expats) will oppose an American military presence on UAE soil.

That is why UAE officials do not want to sign a status of forces agreement with the United States that among other things would protect U.S. service personnel’s legal rights when they are in the cities. As a result, issues have to be resolved on a case-by-case basis, often leaving the service men and women in legal limbo.

The Hamas slaying slowed a potential warming in the UAE-Israel relationship

UAE officials believe that the January 20, 2010 slaying of Hamas military commander Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai, allegedly by the Israelis, was a slap in the face by Israel and has undermined the UAE’s ability to play a positive role in the Israel-Palestine situation. The UAE had been the most open of the Arab countries to dealing directly with Israel prior to the assassination. Unlike many other Arab countries, they had allowed Israelis to come to the UAE as part of international conferences. Many feel that the Israelis took advantage of this openness.

The UAE has sought out foreign expertise and manpower to build their country

The Emirati leadership has made a conscious decision to aggressively reach out to foreigners to build their capacity and skills to meet future challenges. Emiratis now make up less than 20 percent of the country’s population—only 800,000 members of the 4.6-million-person population are natives. This statistic was especially evident in our meetings with individuals from both the public and private sectors. Foreigners from countries such as the United States and Australia spoke for their Emirati counterparts in many of our meetings, whether with the National Security Council or the Critical Infrastructure Agency (equivalent to our Department of Homeland Security), and many foreigners actually lead government offices.

Af-Pak is on the backburner

The UAE is one of the only Muslim countries to deploy a small number of troops to Afghanistan, and Afghanistan and Pakistan are consistently in the headlines in the United States, yet Emiratis did not discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan as top strategic priorities for the UAE. When pressed, officials expressed their support for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan and did not want us to leave precipitously, but they had little to advise in terms of strategy. Some argued that Al Qaeda has been weakened by U.S. action in Pakistan and that they no longer have the same capacity to communicate and plan attacks.

UAE leadership has a vision for a postoil world

UAE officials are aggressively trying to adapt to a future when they no longer possess oil. UAE officials are pursuing a multifaceted campaign to remain competitive over the long term. They are diversifying their economy, investing in education, and building their infrastructure. They see themselves as a bridge between the East and West and a leading force for moderate Islam.

Their success is not guaranteed; they fear what greater insecurity in the region could unleash within their country, whether through terrorist attacks or Iran’s growing influence. The declining birth rate of Emiratis as compared to other expatriates within their country also present a serious demographic challenge.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia stands in stark contrast to the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia is attempting to adapt to a postoil world, but strong social and political forces resist change. The restrictions on women serve as the most obvious illustration of this battle within society. We met with both government and nongovernment officials in Saudi Arabia including Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Prince and Governor of Riyadh Salman bin Abdulaziz, and his son Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. We came away with the following conclusions from our discussions:

Iran looms large in the Saudi psyche

The Saudis, like the Emirates, focus on Iran as their number one security concern. They are worried about what one official called the Iranian neoconservatives, and many believe that the answer to a potential nuclear Iran is a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East—including Israel. They believe that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, France, and China—should take up this offer, which was originally made by Iran under the Shah, and enforce it through the United Nations.

The new Iraq endangers Saudi interests

Saudi officials overall do not advocate for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. They believe that the United States should live up to the Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq and withdraw on schedule. They lament our invasion of Iraq, believe we handed Iraq to the Iranians on a platter, and worry about growing Iranian influence in Iraq following our withdrawal. And they argue that the world community needs to step in to help maintain unity in Iraq after the United States withdraws.

They do not support a particular individual for prime minister—in fact, they do not support any of the potential candidates, especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And some are troubled that the Iraqis appear to be adopting the Iranian model for governance by relying on Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani to choose the next prime minister.

Saudis have escalated counterterrorism efforts

The Saudis have aggressively undertaken counterterrorism efforts, especially in the past five years. They realized they had a real problem with extremism in their country following the 9/11 attacks and a number of terrorist activities in the kingdom in 2003 to 2005. And they have fired thousands of teachers and imams who they believe possess and promote extremist views. They have also promoted moderate Islamic messages in their media and established an elaborate rehabilitation program for convicted terrorists, including some who were interned at Guantánamo.

Using both hard and soft power including art classes and counseling, they believe that they have attained a very low recidivism rate of 10 to 15 percent among the terrorists. These figures are higher among those who were imprisoned in Guantánamo. But their definition of moderate Islam may have a different version than our own; it seems to entail increased tolerance of the Saudi state and not necessarily non-Muslims.

The Saudi economy is strong

Saudi Arabia emerged from the global economic crisis largely unscathed with a positive growth rate in 2009 and minimal harm to their banks. The economic situation in Saudi Arabia remains strong, primarily because of their countercyclical budget policies. When oil prices are high, they bank the surplus. When there is a downturn in oil prices because of conditions in the world economy, they increase spending using the surplus.

Saudi leadership is making major investments in the future

The Saudis, like the Emiratis, are undertaking major initiatives to maintain their competitiveness in the world economy following a decline in the supply of Saudi oil. They have created an elaborated economic cities program supported by private investors to improve the infrastructure, eliminate bureaucracy, and streamline government services. They are also investing hundreds of millions of dollars in educating their people, both with higher education and vocational programs. And they provide full scholarships for thousands of students to receive an education abroad every year.

Cultural and legal norms restrict women in society

We found the cultural expectations and rules surrounding women to be disturbing. Women are expected to enter many public places through separate entrances, file up in separate lines, and are forbidden from mingling with males who are not relatives in public. Many of these also apply to visitors. The women from our delegation were not allowed to use the hotel gym, for example, and there were no hours designated for women’s usage.

Many Saudis told us that the deeply conservative society of Saudi Arabia had determined these arrangements, not the state. And many argued that women themselves in Saudi Arabia preferred not to interact in the workplace or beyond with nonrelative males.

Officials do not see these policies surrounding women as potential impediments to foreign investment or business development in Saudi Arabia. But there is a movement within Saudi Arabia, especially by Saudi leaders, to relax some of these restrictions on women—driven as much or more by economic reasons as moral ones. More women are working now and receiving higher education. Yet there are deeply conservative forces within Saudi society, represented by the powerful clerical establishment, which may prevent further reforms from occurring.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Caroline Wadhams is Director for South Asia Security Studies.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow