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For decades, Gulf leaders counted on U.S. protection. Here’s what changed.

This attack scrambled their calculations

A Navy patrol boat that carried journalists to see damaged oil tankers in June leaves a U.S. naval base near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)
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Gulf leaders have long encouraged the vast U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, believing it deterred aggression and kept them safer.

That changed in September when a drone strike widely attributed to Iran badly damaged Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Even though the price of oil barely twitched and supply was hardly interrupted, Sept. 14, 2019, will go down as a seminal moment in Middle East political history.

The U.S. military presence in the region was supposed to deter precisely such an attack. What happened?

Gulf countries relied on U.S. protection

For the Gulf monarchies, protection through deterrence has long been a central point of their relationship with the United States. Since the establishment of the Saudi-U.S. relationship in the 1940s, such starkly different countries have seldom forged denser bilateral relations.

Saudi leaders saw neither commonality nor familiarity with their U.S. counterparts. Rather, they expanded the scope and depth of this bilateral relationship to benefit from closer U.S. technical and advisory cooperation — and counted on an ever-closer defensive and protective relationship with the United States to ward off a growing array of regional security threats.

The U.S. government, a veritable army of contractors and consultants, and other Western nations such as Britain, played decisive roles in shaping and modernizing the security institutions in the Gulf monarchies, but particularly in Saudi Arabia. The security-rooted relationship between Washington, London, Paris and the Gulf capitals flourished regardless of other political controversies.

The monarchies enjoyed relatively unfettered access to the most advanced Western military equipment, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in Western capitals. By comparison, since 2008, the monarchies have outspent Iran by about 180 to 1 on weaponry.

When its Gulf clients were threatened, the United States in the past delivered on its commitments. During the 1980s Tanker War, the United States deployed forces to the Persian Gulf to reflag and protect Gulf shipping. In 1990-1991, the United States led one of the largest coalitions in modern history to defend the monarchies and liberate Kuwait.

This Gulf War demonstrated both the dangers of the Gulf region, and the effectiveness of U.S. military force. Despite long-standing concerns about appearing too close to the United States, Gulf leaders encouraged the stationing of hitherto unimaginable numbers of U.S. forces throughout the monarchies.

Most of these bases continued to grow — resulting in vast and potent U.S. forces in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE. Such close political access and alignment with by far the world’s most potent military power meant the monarchies developed a misleading sense of deterrence and security.

Were Gulf leaders overconfident?

Gulf leaders made more controversial, far-reaching and provocative decisions knowing there was an enormous U.S. military base sometimes barely a kilometer away.

Would Qatar’s leadership really have been as provocative during the Arab Spring — and supportive of the range of anti-governmental forces — if it didn’t host one of the most important U.S. military bases outside of continental America? Would Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led the 2017 blockade of Qatar if the United States was not guarding the front door? This squabble diverted attention from Iran, theoretically the main concern throughout the Gulf — and by definition undercut a united front against Iran.

For much of the past few years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have eagerly supported President Trump’s increasingly hard line on Iran. They welcomed his ripping up of the Iran nuclear deal, less commonly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” fit well with their worldview and their preferences. To many Gulf leaders, Trump remained an untrustworthy enigma but seemed to have good instincts when it came to Iran.

Gulf support rested on the assumption that the U.S. presence would deter any significant Iranian retaliation even as the pressure escalated and Iran’s economy suffered. The monarchies expected Tehran’s response to be manageable, and they kept urging stronger sanctions, safe in the belief that they were protected.

The Gulf nations are shifting gears on Iran

The attacks on shipping in 2019 concerned the monarchies, and their fears were ultimately solidified in the Abqaiq and Khurais attack, which many analysts say Iran orchestrated. Such an attack wasn’t supposed to happen — U.S. military might was supposed to deter Iran. And the Gulf States also acquired expensive U.S. military technology to prevent exactly such an attack.

U.S. reinforcements, including additional fighter squadrons and missile defense systems, arrived in the Gulf within a month. But the damage was done, and the monarchies changed posture.

Gulf monarchies stepped back from goading Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. Instead, they opened long-closed lines of communication to Iran, broached the topic of unfreezing Iranian funds, cautioned calm when it came to the attribution of this and other attacks — and made incremental moves to resolve the Qatari blockade.

In January, the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani drew few tears from Gulf monarchs, who have long been concerned about his impact on the region. But the United States move sparked new fears of Iranian retaliation against the Gulf countries.

What happens now? Gulf monarchs will probably focus on doing whatever they can to nudge Trump to engage with Iran to defuse the situation. Over the long term, the Gulf monarchies’ diversification of security and defense relations will pick up pace.

The United States has created a footprint, force structures, and training and logistic pipelines that will last decades. But the Gulf regimes aren’t likely to continue to behave as if this offers an effective security guarantee.

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David B. Roberts is an assistant professor at King’s College London and author of “Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of City State” (Hurst Publishers, 2017). He tweets @thegulfblog.

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