Obama is about to wade into an insecure Gulf


President Obama leaves the Marine One helicopter as he arrives at the Rijksmuseum on the Museumplein in Amsterdam on Monday. After attending a nuclear security conference, Obama will travel on to Saudi Arabia.  (Paul Vreeker/Reuters)

Judging by the recent royal temper tantrums and the parade of op-eds suggesting ways to soothe the Saudis, President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia on Thursday is shaping up as one of the more awkward diplomatic encounters this side of the “Red Wedding.”

Saudi officials have made no secret of their displeasure over the United States’ support of  democratic change in Egypt and across the region, its refusal to leap into a Syrian quagmire and its role in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Saudis have hardly been assuaged by U.S. deference to Riyadh on their human rights abuses or passive acceptance of Saudi support for Egypt’s military coup or vicious sectarian repression of protests in Bahrain.

A lot of the surface pyrotechnics are fairly typical alliance politics, with fears of entrapment, domination and abandonment magnified by a hyperactive media environment and seized upon by U.S. policy entrepreneurs who share Saudi views on Syria, Egypt and Iran. They are given substance by pervasive, genuine uncertainty about the region’s future and by submerged but intense fears about challenges to key regimes. Those rapid internal and regional political trends were the focus of a workshop I helped to organize earlier this month. The Project on Middle East Political Science and Ca’ Foscari University brought 15 scholars from the United States, Europe and the Middle East to Venice to assess these new Gulf security politics (all of the papers prepared for that workshop can be downloaded here as a free PDF). The views of these academic experts can offer some useful perspective to what is really driving the turbulence.

The theatrics of the U.S.-Saudi summit will unfold amidst unusually active turmoil within the Gulf. Last month’s unusually blunt Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini démarche against Qatar failed to bring Kuwait and Oman (the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council) on board. The divisions torpedoed the idea of Obama’s meeting with the assembled GCC leaders in Riyadh (which was probably a blessing in disguise, since it spared us a stomach-churning photo of the president shaking hands with the unrepentant king of Bahrain). Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti support for Egypt’s military coup risks turning into an open-ended financial drain, and infuriated many of the powerful Islamist forces at home. The ensuing Saudi listing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has been deeply controversial in the kingdom and throughout the region. The costs and effects of Gulf support for jihadist groups in Syria have faced increasing public scrutiny.

These rising erratic gambits at home and abroad do not suggest a confident or unified set of regimes. Indeed, this should be the finest hour for the “regime security” theory, which has been the dominant framework for understanding the region’s security politics in recent years. The regime security framework emerged to challenge the conventional realist view of states primarily responding to external power and threat in their alliance and foreign policy choices. As Gregory Gause and other scholars have effectively demonstrated, these regimes often prioritized threats to their own power and survival from within as well as from abroad. Iran’s “threat” to Riyadh, for instance, had as much to do with its potential appeal to Saudi Shiites as it did with its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.

This perspective seems to offer considerable traction on the domestic and regional maneuverings of Gulf regimes in the last few years. While no GCC regimes fell in the face of popular protest, the Arab uprisings clearly intensified and sharpened their internal regime security concerns. Regime efforts to insulate themselves from popular dissent included potentially unsustainable economic commitments and harsh domestic political crackdowns on seemingly trivial forms of public dissent.

As the regime security theorists would expect, these Gulf leaders have also sought to deal with their domestic troubles in part through foreign policy. The coordinated campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reflected this logic of shoring up domestic power through foreign policy activism. So did the financial and political support by wealthy Gulf monarchies for less well-endowed fellow monarchs across the region.

The claims of the “regime security” school should not be taken uncritically, of course, as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen notes. The regimes of the Gulf have often embraced crisis, in the formulation of Toby Jones, as a useful device for extracting international support and suppressing domestic dissent. After all, casting the political aspirations of the Shiites of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, large numbers of Bahraini citizens, or youth activists demanding political reforms as a “security” challenge serves to delegitimize their political concerns and to justify a repressive response. Fred Wehrey notes how Saudi and Bahraini elites have for decades framed demands for political rights by oppressed Shiite communities as “security” threats linked to Iranian ambition. The labeling of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist” group has much less to do with security than with politics. And when there are real threats, they are often blowback from their own shortsighted survival strategies, such as the growing concern over the possible impact of the return of hardened jihadists from the Syrian insurgency that they backed.

These feelings of insecurity help to explain why some Saudi and other Gulf leaders worry so much about U.S. retrenchment from the region. Despite the continued deployment of U.S. troops across the region, as Gary Sick observes, many of these elites are troubled by the thought of a reduced U.S. security presence and willingness to deploy military force. Few who believe that the United States is retrenching will be convinced otherwise by presidential visits or by speeches about continuing security partnership and enduring common interests. In part, that’s because they are probably right. The United States did manage to extricate itself from Iraq, and did defy conventional foreign policy wisdom by refusing to plunge more deeply into the Syrian civil war.

If the United States manages to secure a viable nuclear deal with Iran, it would reduce the risk of war and create pressures and opportunities to build more constructive relations – anathema to a grand strategy built around regional confrontation with Tehran. Still, the fact that Saudi Arabia has so publicly lambasted the Obama administration suggests that the Saudis don’t actually fear abandonment all that much. If they did, they might be more keen to find ways to reassure rather than to confront Washington.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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