But Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not bring the United States and Iran to war — suggesting that Arab countries are more ambivalent about war with Iran than many policy experts assume, and that they may actually be a source of restraint.
How the current situation looked set for provocation
When the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, many experts worried this was a prelude to war. Saudi actions compounded this fear. Saudi leaders were frustrated with the Obama administration’s outreach and pleased by Trump’s aggressive stance.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman displayed an aggressive stance toward Iran, increasing regional tensions. Some analysts began to explicitly worry that Saudi Arabia — and the UAE, another Gulf ally often aligned with Saudi Arabia — would pull the United States into war. This would not be the first time irresponsible weak allies dragged their powerful patrons into a war they did not desire, as this process arguably contributed to the outbreak of World War I.
Academic scholarship validates this fear. An influential study found that tense regions experience complicated alliance politics. When governments believe offensive war will be quick and effective, they become dependent on their allies. If a government starts a war, then its allies believe they must come to its aid. In this way, a small military conflict can become a major one.
The United States is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The United States relies on the two countries to stabilize energy markets and provide access to the region — and they enjoy great influence over our policies, particularly in the Trump administration.
As Iran is a major military and economic power adjacent to their territories, these countries believe Iran poses a threat to their safety. The countries’ differences are also ideological. The Saudi and UAE populations are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Iran has a majority Shiite Muslim population. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ruled by conservative monarchies that are wary of political unrest. Iran’s regime, by contrast, is a revolutionary one — the regime has attempted to provoke political unrest across the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
Two events that could have caused conflict — but didn’t
If the United States’ Gulf allies really wanted war with Iran, two incidents could have been used to push the United States into hostilities.
In May, explosions damaged oil tankers in UAE waters; many — including, notably, the Trump administration — assumed Iran was behind the attack. But the UAE did not directly blame Iran when submitting a report to the United Nations investigating the incident.
In September, drones struck a major oil refinery in Saudi Arabia. The Houthis — an Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen that Saudi Arabia is fighting — took responsibility for the attack, and most assumed Iran was behind it. While Saudi Arabia did blame Iran, it did not follow up with calls for retaliatory military action.
In early November, the UAE publicly called for the international community to negotiate with Iran. The UAE is also drawing down its involvement in Yemen’s civil war, which has developed into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rationale behind this is a bit opaque, but probably relates to the UAE’s concerns about the proxy war getting out of control and sparking direct hostilities.
Arab Gulf states: restraining the United States?
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not pushed the United States into war with Iran. They easily could have, by emphatically condemning Iran after attacks on their territory or even taking retaliatory action. Given the Trump administration’s hostility toward Iran and sympathy toward Saudi Arabia, there’s a good chance the United States would have supported military action.
Instead, recently, it seems as if they are restraining the United States. In the wake of the Saudi refinery attack, Mohammed bin Salman said war with Iran would cause a huge spike in oil prices and “economic catastrophe.” He said this in the context of warning what would happen if the international community did not stand up to Iran, suggesting complacency would lead to war. But it’s hard not to see this as a warning to the United States, especially as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the attack an “act of war.”
This situation has puzzled observers of the region. Others note the increasing diplomatic efforts by Middle Eastern countries to minimize hostilities. This looks a lot like governments using leverage over alliance partners to keep them out of war.
Apparent restraint by Saudi Arabia and the UAE may suggest more ambivalence over war with Iran in the region than most expect. The Gulf Arab countries are still far from united, with disagreement on ideology and power politics (especially the blockade of Qatar) preventing them from forming a strong anti-Iran coalition. There is increasing space between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over Yemen, and the UAE more broadly appears increasingly focused on restoring regional stability. Saudi Arabia and the UAE will bear the brunt of any war in the Gulf. Their governments may think through the impact of rhetoric and actions more than the Trump administration does, and fear what they see.
Peter Henne is an assistant professor of political science in the University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of “Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).