In his first two months in office, President Barack Obama has moved rapidly to set the contours of a new strategy to address multiple security challenges in the Middle East and South Asia. As the administration continues to define its policies on complicated issues like counterterrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming months, it should consult closely with its Gulf Arab allies, who serve as a key link between nearly all of the pieces of the broader puzzle of the Middle East and South Asia.
President Obama’s first four major policy steps for the Middle East and South Asia have signaled that the new U.S. administration is thinking ambitiously and creatively about the opportunities and threats for global security emanating from this strategically important region of the world. He appointed former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace and Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the second full day of his administration, setting up a strong diplomatic team to complement the efforts of America’s sizeable and effective military presence in the region. The new administration also initiated a series of policy reviews on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and other key areas of Middle East and South Asia policy.
The president set a new tone aimed at fostering cooperation for greater stability in the region in his inaugural address, his first televised interview as president with the Arabic language satellite television channel, Al Arabiya, and his announcement of a plan for a phased and responsible redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq that provided the broad outlines of the diplomatic and development assistance goals and efforts that will help mitigate the risks of a U.S. troop drawdown. He emphasized consultation with key allies in the region, phoning the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on his first full day in office and sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Envoy Mitchell and Special Representative Holbrooke to the area. Senior officials from across the region visited Washington during these opening two months to set the framework for future cooperative efforts.
As President Obama continues to build the foundation for a new strategy for the Middle East and South Asia that he laid in the first two months, one key part of the region that should not get lost in the shuffle is the Gulf. For decades, U.S. national security policy has dedicated significant resources and attention to the Gulf region for one primary reason—to ensure the safe export of the region’s considerable oil and gas resources that are vital for global economic growth and security. On my current trip to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait this week, I’m reminded in meetings with Emirati and Kuwaiti government officials and business and civil society leaders that global security depends not only on these countries’ considerable oil resources, but also on the role these countries play as vital links between the Middle East and South Asia.
Throughout much of the Cold War, the overriding strategic imperatives shaping U.S. policy in the region were securing the region’s oil supply and containing Soviet influence in the region. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the Gulf throughout the 1980s was to support Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a buffer against Iran and maintain alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Reagan administration worked to contain Soviet influence by supporting mujahideen fighters from many Muslim majority countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent 1991 Gulf war, altered the strategic architecture of the Gulf region. The 1990s saw the Clinton administration move U.S. policy in the Gulf towards dual containment of both Iran and Iraq, while the focus shifted to advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The Bush administration shifted the focus in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It eliminated the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, disengaged from deep involvement on the Arab-Israeli front, and ousted Saddam Hussein from power by invading Iraq in 2003. The dust is still settling from these dramatic policy shifts that fundamentally changed the security architecture of the Gulf region.
One of the most important consequences of the Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East and South Asia was the impact they had on Iran’s strategic calculations. Some analysts argue that Iran was emboldened because its two biggest regional adversaries – the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – were taken out by the United States. Others argue that Iran felt encircled by a considerable U.S. military presence on its western and eastern borders, as well as being singled out as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech. This sense of encirclement, they argue, motivated Iran to step up its efforts to support terrorist groups serving as spoilers on the Arab-Israeli front such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas. Importantly, the changes in the regional security architecture increased the Iranian regime’s motivation to acquire some sort of nuclear capability.
In support of its new strategic approach, the Bush administration made what is perhaps the largest investment of military resources in the history of the Middle East and South Asia. Today, the United States has nearly ten times as many troops in the broader Middle East – stretching from Egypt in the west to Afghanistan in the east – than it did in January 2001. In these past eight years, the United States has made at least $50 billion in sales of military equipment and services to allies in the region, not including the efforts to build security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. These efforts were aimed at eliminating lawless zones of instability and enhancing overall security in the region.
Despite these considerable investments, the Obama administration, as it completes its policy reviews and continues to build a new strategy, finds a region still plagued by multiple security challenges. Threats from jihadist terrorist networks like Al Qaeda seemed diminished but still endure in key places like Pakistan. On the Arab-Israeli front, initiatives are largely stalled as Israelis and Palestinians continue to deal with their own internal political divisions. The security situation in Iraq has improved, but internal political divides still plague the country. Afghanistan is less stable than it was in 2002, and Pakistan is navigating a tumultuous transition after former President Pervez Musharraf left office last year.
As the Obama administration attempts to implement a comprehensive and integrated approach in this complicated landscape Arab Gulf countries can play an important contributing role on several fronts:
1. The Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab Gulf countries have played an important role during the past few years in attempts to help bridge internal divisions among Palestinian factions and between Israel and the Arab world. Saudi Arabia introduced the Arab Peace Initiative that was adopted by the whole Arab League in 2002 and facilitated talks between Fatah and Hamas that led to the Mecca Agreement. Wealthy countries in the Gulf have been active donors to the Palestinian Authority, helping it to develop the Palestinian economy. At the Palestinian economic reconstruction conference held in Egypt earlier this month, the Gulf Cooperation Council states pledged $1.65 billion to help with humanitarian and reconstruction aid to the Gaza Strip
In the coming months the Gulf states could make useful steps to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. A reintroduction of and efforts to operationalize the Arab Peace Initiative could set the tone for attempts to make progress on the Arab-Israeli front in the coming months, as a new Israeli government takes office and efforts to bridge Palestinian divides continue.
2. Iraq. Several Arab Gulf countries have taken more steps to heal old Saddam-era wounds and move beyond the elevated regional tensions of Shia-Sunni divides by reaching out to the Maliki government and rebuilding diplomatic ties, moves that were in part made possible when the Maliki government took military action against Shia militias last summer. In June 2008, the Emirati foreign minister became the first Gulf foreign minister to visit Baghdad after the ousting of Saddam Hussein and, following a visit by Maliki the next month, the Emirates cancelled Iraq’s almost $7 billion in debts. In addition, several of the Gulf states have named ambassadors to Iraq, including Kuwait, which did so for the first time since 1991. As U.S. troops continue to redeploy, further security, diplomatic and economic support from all countries in the region is essential to advance regional stability.
3. Pakistan-Afghanistan. The overlapping interests between several Arab Gulf countries and South Asia are great. Several Gulf countries are increasingly reliant on agricultural exports from Pakistan to ensure their food security and depend on millions of guest workers from Pakistan and India, among other countries, to make their economies function. At the same time, Pakistan’s economy, which is experiencing decreased growth and higher prices, depends on the remittances that their citizens working in the Gulf send back to their families in the country. Oil-rich Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia also have provided billions in fuel subsidies that have helped Pakistan weather its economic storms, and others have delivered much-needed infusions of cash to help Pakistan avoid a liquidity crisis.
The political and security links between the Arab Gulf and South Asia are important as well—Gulf Arab countries have had close ties to some leaders of the Taliban, and political disputes in Pakistan are often quietly mediated by representatives from the Arab Gulf. Saudi Arabia from time to time has offered quiet support to the leader of Pakistan’s opposition, Nawaz Sharif, and the late Benazir Bhutto lived in the Emirates for several years while in exile.
4. Iran. Last but not least, the Arab Gulf countries have an important role in helping address one of the thorniest global security challenges today—Iran’s nuclear program. On this trip, I’ve heard mixed messages in both the Emirates and Kuwait about the nuclear program and no one in the region seems quite sure about the path forward.
On the one hand, even as the Arab Gulf countries continue to build their military defenses by acquiring weapon systems such as Patriot missile batteries, there is virtually no support for military action by the United States or any other country to address the Iranian threat. Yet, on the other hand, while most of the people I have met with on this trip support the type of diplomatic engagement with Iran that the Obama administration has discussed, I have heard a great deal of skepticism that diplomacy will yield any tangible results. Even those in the Arab Gulf countries who support U.S. engagement with Iran worry that the Obama administration may be too naive when it comes to negotiating with Iran—that the United States won’t have the right negotiators or strategy to strike a good bargain that doesn’t undermine the interests of these countries.
To make matters more complicated, I have also heard serious reservations among Emiratis and Kuwaitis about joining U.S. and European efforts to further tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the few potential avenues for gaining greater leverage on the Iranian regime. Unless additional economic sanctions are supported by Chapter VII United Nations Security Council resolutions – something that requires Russian and Chinese support – it does not seem likely that those sanctions against Iran would receive strong cooperation and enforcement from some countries in the Arab Gulf. This complicated perspective means that strong leadership is required on the Iranian nuclear question. President Obama is going to have to bring the Arab Gulf allies along as he sets a new approach, and they in return must find ways to support his efforts on this mutual challenge and concern.
The Arab Gulf countries are a vital component of the broader Middle East and South Asia region—a component that has the vast majority of the world’s oil resources and the linkages between the eastern and western parts of this area of the world. For decades, the United States has made significant military investments in the Gulf region, and the time has come to implement a more comprehensive strategy that employs diplomacy and economic tools to stabilize the region, while maintaining robust military support.
Secretary of State Clinton talked about “smart power” in her confirmation hearings in January, and the Middle East and South Asia will be perhaps the most difficult test of whether such “smart power” will work. The Obama administration has laid the foundation for a new approach to the Middle East and South Asia, but much work remains ahead. Making it work will require strong U.S. coordination with key Arab Gulf allies.