Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 December 2007 - 2 January 2008
Issue No. 877
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Third road between

Caught in the middle between the United States and Iran, Gulf countries this year reviewed their strategic options, writes Mohamed Darwish

Security considerations loomed large over Gulf politics this year, while inflation and eroding exchange rates suppressed optimism on the economic front.

The current year saw the two major powers in the Gulf threatening a showdown. The US, occupying Iraq and keeping military bases in various Gulf States, locked horns with Iran, a country that has considerable military and economic clout as well as many Shia co-religionists in the Gulf. The tug of war between the two powers spilled across Iraqi borders and rattled nerves across the region.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) watched in shock as the US and Iran made no secret of their desire to control the region. For the past six months, both Washington and Tehran placed immense pressure on Gulf countries through a mix of carrot and stick tactics.

With Nicolas Sarkozy's France getting into the foray, Gulf states wearily contemplated their options. Should the rhetoric turn to a military duel, Gulf countries knew that the fighting would take place on their doorstep. Should the US decide to take military action against Iran, Gulf states knew it would be pointless to even try and dissuade it -- so they prepared for the worst.

GCC countries, wishing to stay on Iran's good side, decided to distance themselves from US policy in the region, whether regarding Iraq, Iran, Syria, Hamas or Hizbullah. Tehran made it amply clear that if attacked from US bases in Gulf countries, it would respond by destroying US facilities in the Gulf. The threat -- not an idle one -- has been taken seriously by Iran's neighbours. This is why Gulf countries have been seeking a third way, not too close to the US and not too friendly to Iran. With Saudi King Abdullah trying to build consensus among GCC countries, various consultations were held in the Gulf between March and May 2007.

Mindful of current tensions, GCC foreign and defence ministers held two meetings in Riyadh last month. Among other things, they reviewed ways of preventing terror from spilling from Iraq into their own countries. The chiefs of national security agencies of GCC countries met in Kuwait in October, to make sure that they're all on the same page. Meanwhile, Iranian officials held repeated meetings with GCC countries, reassuring their neighbours that Iran was not a threat to them and that its nuclear endeavours were strictly peaceful. Gulf officials may not have been totally convinced, but they made cordial gestures. Saudi King Abdullah received Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in October 2007, the first ever summit between the Sunni and Shia leaders.

A milestone was achieved when Ahmadinejad was invited to the opening session of the 28th GCC summit in Doha last month. The GCC was created in 1981 with the aim of ensuring the safety of Gulf countries during the Iraq-Iran war, which had broken out a year earlier. In the 28th summit, the Iranian president voiced his country's desire to improve ties with GCC members. He called for the formation of a council for economic cooperation and another council for security cooperation, urging the launch of joint investment in oil and gas. The message wasn't subtle. Tehran wanted to lump the security of all Gulf nations together, so as to shield itself from foreign threats.

Ahmadinejad asserted the "need to achieve peace and security in the region without foreign intervention". He added that, "the security of all countries in the region is interconnected, and any security disturbance in the region would affect all its countries." Striking a reconciliatory note, GCC Secretary- General Abdul-Rahdam Al-Atiyah welcomed Ahmadinejad's proposals for enhanced cooperation, saying that the proposals were "in the interest of the region's security, stability and prosperity".

The GCC's invitation of the Iranian president was a daring move. It is not that Gulf countries don't want normal relations with their strong neighbour. But to play host to the president of a country that had promised to set Arab oil on fire was rather extraordinary. Iran had promised to fire 50 rockets a minute across the Gulf if its nuclear installations were attacked. Iran is still occupying three UAE islands. And the US still calls it a member of the "axis of evil".

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the GCC's invitation of Ahmadinejad was an act of provocation to the US, especially that it took place before the US released an intelligence report exonerating Iran's nuclear programme and opening the door for US-Iranian cooperation on Iraq, Lebanon, and other things. As it happened, the report squarely validated GCC policy on Iran.

Alarmed by the show of independence in the Gulf, the US hastened to call a regional conference on Gulf security in Bahrain on 8 December. In that conference, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates lashed out at what he termed the destabilisation policies of Tehran and its threats to the US and Gulf countries. He also called for the creation of an anti-missile shield in the region, so as to confront threats from Tehran.

Secretary Gates claimed that, unlike Iran, Israel doesn't pose a threat to Gulf countries, urging Gulf states to put economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran to dissuade it from developing a nuclear military programme. But GCC officials dismissed US views, reiterating in Manama that they wanted a peaceful solution and an end to the sabre rattling. Al-Atiyah said that GCC countries wish to keep the Iranian nuclear programme strictly peaceful and encourage Iranian-Western dialogue. "The GCC wants solutions that reinforce peace and stability as well as a dialogue that rises above political manoeuvring," he said.

Similar sentiment was expressed by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Jasem Al-Thani. Speaking at Manama, with Gates a few seats away, the Qatari official said that, "Gulf countries have no desire to get involved in a US-Iranian military showdown." Trying to entice Gulf countries to take its side, the US offered them massive arms deals as well as a joint programme for peaceful nuclear energy. Gulf countries, however, have little need for these arms, which the Americans claim would redress the military balance of the Gulf vis-à-vis Iran.

During a meeting between EU and GCC officials in Riyadh on 8 May, the EU voiced approval of the GCC intention to cooperate closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Both sides expressed concern over Tehran's nuclear programme while urging a diplomatic solution. But the impression was clear that the Gulf was being asked to worry about Tehran's potential nuclear capabilities and forget about Israel's actual ones. Weapon purchases by GCC countries amounted to $20 billion this year. Meanwhile, Iran was said to be receiving air defence system upgrades from Moscow via Damascus.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Gates both toured the region in late July to underline the message that the 2007 arms deals aim to fortify Washington's allies in the region aimed at offsetting the negative impact of Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. But observers now believe that, for all the hype about weapon sales to the Gulf, a showdown is unlikely. Washington and Tehran seem to be sorting out their differences in Iraq. And there are signs that Damascus, which took part in the Annapolis conference, may resume talks about the Golan Heights.

The Arab world is aware that the current US-Iranian conflict may not last for long. In fact, an Iranian-US alliance, with Israel hopping aboard at some point, is not to be ruled out. Once the Iranians and the Americans forget their current disagreements, they may find a way of dividing the Gulf region between them. The current shouting game is about interests, not principles.

Another important development in 2007 was the GCC declaration that it would form a common market starting early 2008. Perhaps the GCC is moving beyond its beleaguered present into a future of promise and initiative.

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