Friday, December 9, 2016

Hope and despair in the Persian Gulf - Dr. Reuven Berko

by Dr. Reuven Berko

It turns out that the Sunni Gulf states actually hope for U.S. protection, not confrontation, and hope that President-elect Trump will change U.S. policy in their favor.

U.S. President Barack Obama's mystifying remarks this week warning of damage to both property and persons should there be a confrontation with Islam, along with his calls to shut down Guantanamo Bay, reflect a disconnect from what is happening in the Middle East, since other than an all-out war against radical Islamist organizations and their operatives, no one intends to confront Islam on an individual or state level. At the twilight of his tenure, they are fearful in the Persian Gulf, but they are also optimistic.

An indication of both the fear and the hope is a two-day conference of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, which came to a close Wednesday night in Manama, Bahrain. The summit was characterized by a fear of abandonment, the consequence of an Obama administration perceived to have neglected America's Arab friends. It turns out that the Sunni Gulf states actually hope for U.S. protection, not confrontation, and hope that President-elect Trump will change U.S. policy in their favor.

The Persian Gulf is dominated not just by the fear they have been abandoned by the U.S., but by the fear that the U.S. has substituted their alliance with an alliance with a new Iranian partner, a "second-tier contractor" for regional order. Now the Gulf waits with baited breath for the return of the No. 1 superpower (for now), and they have high hopes the incoming president will help protect the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council comprises six member states: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar. The council was established on May 25, 1981 in Abu Dhabi following the Iran-Iraq War, which served to expose their vulnerability to territorial, economic and religious greed, especially on the part of Iran. This coalition aims to bolster economic and security cooperation among the Gulf states to protect them from external threats to their territories, their religious places and their resources.

The 37th GCC summit is an expression of the vigilance these states require to protect themselves from the challenge presented by terrorist organizations that threaten them at home, but mostly from the increasingly aggressive behavior of Iran. 

Participants at the summit pointed to the chaos and Iranian and Russian involvement in the region in light of America's absence. Media reports that accompanied the conference mentioned the disaster in Aleppo and warned that an Egyptian engineering battalion was assisting the Syrian regime and that Iranian planes had hit Turkish military forces. From their perceptive, the lack of an American presence has enabled Iran to get involved in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and for other hostile actors, like Russia, to help fill the vacuum.

And indeed, Iranian involvement in the region has been accompanied by that country's increasing harassment of the Gulf states, including provocations by Iranian Shiite pilgrims during the Haj in Saudi Arabia, the discovery of spy networks and Iranian subversion in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, the conquest of islands and outposts in the Persian Gulf, provocative behavior by the Iranian Navy (including toward U.S. forces) and overt military support to the Houthis in Yemen, who are attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, including shooting missiles toward Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam.

The attempt to establish a common operative military body for the Gulf states failed despite the threat presented by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who represent Iran's violent infiltration of the peninsula. Initial reports in the Arab media point to the failure of the Gulf states to overcome internal sectarianism and issues of self-interest. The exclusion of Al Jazeera, which is owned by Gulf Council member Qatar, from the summit was symbolic of this alienation. Nevertheless, the conference was given legitimacy through the attendance of British Prime Minister Theresa May and her call for the establishment of a road map for strategic cooperation because "Gulf security is our security." 

At the summit, Great Britain was a pillar of support for the Arabs. The assembled called for Iran to end its involvement in terror, subversion and the internal affairs of Gulf states. The states agreed there is no military solution in Iraq and Syria, only negotiations. They were also in agreement on the need to help Iraq in its fight against Islamic State and the need for an international effort to find a solution for Yemen. The Palestinian issue -- and the widely held belief that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is the heart of the Arab people -- did not receive any mention from the Arabs or the British, whom Abbas recently called "Balfour criminals."

The prevailing fear in the Gulf is not just that they have been abandoned by the U.S., but that the U.S. has substituted a new Iranian partner in their place.

Dr. Reuven Berko


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