When thinking about political divisions in the Gulf region, the first thing that comes to mind is the continual tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose contemporary manifestation dates back to the revolution in Tehran and the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Even as the Saudi-Iran rivalry and its adjunct, the Sunni-Shia sectarian tension, have gained new regional salience in recent years, the divide among the Gulf Arab states has become deeper.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates pulled out their ambassadors from Doha, accusing Qatar of interfering in their internal affairs. The reference is to Qatar’s alleged support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed with deep discomfort in Riyadh. Media in the Gulf is agog with speculation that Saudi Arabia might soon unveil an air, land and sea blockade of Qatar if Doha does not stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has denied the charges. Saudi Arabia, then, is caught in a cleft stick between a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood on the rise and a Shia Iran on a roll.
If the Saudis need a strong regional front against the twin challenges, the one organisation it leads, the Gulf Cooperation Council, has developed major cracks. When Iran’s Islamic revolution seemed to threaten the conservative Arab kingdom, six countries in the region got together to form the GCC in 1981. Led by Saudi Arabia, the GCC included Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE. The GCC also hired Saddam Hussein of Iraq to destabilise the Islamic Republic by launching a war against Iran. When the costly confrontation in the 1980s ended in a stalemate, Hussein turned on the Gulf kingdoms by occupying Kuwait in 1990. It needed a massive American military intervention to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty.
But the second American war to oust Hussein in 2003 made matters worse for the Saudis by empowering the Shia majority in Iraq and opening the door for Tehran’s influence in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Oman does not share Saudi threat perceptions on Iran. Muscat played a key role in facilitating the dialogue between Washington and Tehran and, earlier this month, became the first Arab country in the region to host Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The regional divisions are so deep that plans to get all the GCC leaders into a room with US President Barack Obama next week have reportedly been shelved. Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes amidst growing Saudi doubts about America’s political will to sustain its security commitments to its traditional allies. The Saudis have deep reservations about Obama’s engagement with Iran and the prospects for an end to Tehran’s international isolation. Riyadh also worries about Washington’s enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and the reluctance to see the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudis are also disappointed by Obama’s unwillingness to back a regime change in Damascus.
For the US, Saudi Arabia has long been its most important partner in the region, and Obama is certain to offer reassurances to Riyadh. But Washington also has interests in Qatar, which hosts the forward headquarters of the US Central Command. In recent years, the US has been encouraging Saudi Arabia to strengthen the GCC and promote regional military integration. Washington wants to sell weapons to the GCC as a military bloc rather than to its individual members. This strategy might be unsustainable if the political unity of the GCC begins to unravel.
The Saudi-Iran rivalry in the Gulf has begun to envelop Pakistan, where sectarian tensions between the Shia and the Sunni have taken strong root. Even more significant is the prospect that Pakistan might become part of the Saudi effort to contain Iran. Despite official denials in Islamabad, there is a widespread assumption that the recent Saudi “gift” of $1.5 billion was linked to Pakistan’s military support for Saudi objectives in Syria. It has also been reported that Riyadh is seeking Pakistani troops in its ongoing war against militant groups on the turbulent border with Yemen.
Delhi, currently preoccupied with elections, will have to grapple, sooner rather than later, with the consequences of the changing regional balance of power in the Arabian peninsula, the extension of the Saudi-Iran rivalry into the subcontinent and the multiple contradictions in US policy towards the Gulf.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’