The Arab Revolt (1916-1918). File photo.
The Arab sheikhs who instigated the US-Iran standoff have heard the African proverb, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. But they chose to ignore it. The assumption in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was that President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy would frighten Tehran and life would be back to normal very soon with a weakened Iran bludgeoned into submission.
On the contrary, the gyre of the US-Iran standoff is only widening by the day. What was thought to be a localised affair is acquiring international dimensions. America’s Arab allies no longer have a say in the mutation of the US-Iran standoff.
The Saudi and Emirati role narrows down to bankrolling the Anglo-American project on Iran and to allow the western bases on their territories to be used as launching pads for belligerent acts aimed at provoking the leadership in Tehran into retaliatory moves. In sum, there is growing danger that they might get sucked into a conflict situation in a near future.
The Gulf states lack “strategic depth” vis-a-vis Iran and are sure to find themselves on the frontline of any military conflagration. Conceivably, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE bargained for such an eventuality.
It is possible to discern amidst the welter of interpretations given to the “partial” pullout of the UAE forces from Yemen, Abu Dhabi’s calculation that safeguarding homeland security comes first, way above any imperial agenda. That sobering thought may also have prompted the UAE to make some overtures most recently toward Tehran.
The UAE has taken a nuanced stance that no country could be held responsible for the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in June. Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said “clear and convincing evidence” is needed regarding the attacks that targeted four vessels off the UAE coast, including two Saudi oil tankers. In essence he distanced the UAE from the US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s finding that the attacks on oil tankers were the work of “naval mines almost certainly from Iran”.
Significantly, Al-Nahyan made the remark at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a visit to Moscow in late June, which from all indications focused on the efforts to bring the war in Yemen to an end and on a possible Russian initiative to moderate UAE’s tensions with Iran. (Interestingly, within the week after Al-Nahyan’s visit in late June, Moscow also hosted the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the UN special envoy on Yemen.)
It is entirely conceivable that Russia is doing what it can behind the scenes to lower the tensions between Iran and the UAE and in the Persian Gulf region as a whole. Moscow has lately rebooted its proposal for a collective security system for the Persian Gulf. In fact, on July 29, the Russian concept of collective security in the Persian Gulf has been distributed as an official document approved by the UN.
The Russian document envisages an initiative group to prepare an international conference on security and cooperation in the Persian Gulf, which would later lead to establishing an organisation on security and cooperation in this region. China has welcomed the Russian initiative and offered to contribute to its success — “We would also like to boost cooperation, coordination and communication with all the corresponding parties.”
Clearly, the Russian proposal flies in the face of the Anglo-American project to create a western naval armada led by the US to take control of the 19000 nautical miles in and around the Strait of Hormuz that will put the West effectively as the moderator of the world oil market — with all the implications that go with it for international politics — and literally reduce the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries to de facto pumping stations. For that reason, the Russian initiative will not fly. Simply put, the US and Britain will resent Russia butting in.
However, there are other straws in the wind. The Iran-UAE joint meeting to address littoral security cooperation in Tehran on July 30 is a tell-tale sign that the Persian Gulf states may have begun to realise that the endemic insecurities of the region ultimately require a regional solution. Iran has welcomed the Emirati overture and sees in it a “slight shift” in policy.
The big question is how far the UAE can get away with an independent foreign policy toward Iran. The West traditionally dictates the bottom line and that cannot change fundamentally unless the Arab regimes in the region give way to representative rule.
This is where the real tragedy lies. The big powers — be it the US or Russia — are largely guided by their own mercantilist interests and are stakeholders in the autocratic regimes in the region, which they find easily amenable to manipulation. A century ago, when an Arab Revolt appeared in the region, Britain had engineered it to roll back the Ottoman Empire. Today, there is no such possibility. The dismal ending of the Arab Spring in Egypt was to the advantage and utter delight of both the US and Russia.
Having said that, the situation is not altogether bleak. The western powers and Russia fiercely competing to secure lucrative arms sales running into tens of billions of dollars annually. This can be turned into opportunity.
The Russia-Saudi axis calibrating the world oil market shows the potential to incrementally shift the locus of Middle East politics.
Similarly, China’s appearance on the scene opens seamless possibilities for the Gulf states. The recent visit by the UAE Crown Prince to China underscores the Arab ingenuity to test the frontiers of strategic autonomy even in such difficult conditions. The fact of the matter is that the UAE has openly defied American pressure and is positioning itself as a hub of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, furthermore, has become the first country in the Persian Gulf to introduce the 5G technology from China. (See my blog Belt and Road takes a leap forward to the Gulf.)