This commentary, prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu, was first published in the 7 September 2021 issue of our newsletter Arabia Concise.
Western diplomacy is on the move. After the debacle of recent days in Afghanistan, it wants to reassure the Arab Gulf countries of its good intentions and friendship. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are currently travelling to the region. The two US officials are travelling separately to different Gulf countries to reassure local leaders of US intentions. The European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, is currently in Iraq. Later this month he is also expected to visit the UAE. Diplomats from other European countries are also active throughout the region. This flurry of activity is absolutely necessary but needs to be sustained.
The drama that unfolded in Afghanistan over the last days and weeks was, rightly or wrongly, understood by many as another sign of Western decline. In the GCC countries, what happened in Afghanistan was in many ways too close for comfort. Two decades ago, a US-led international coalition went to war in Afghanistan, chasing after the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden after he masterminded the attacks on the US on 9/11 whilst he and his Al Qaeda movement were under the protection of the Afghan Taliban. Having achieved their aim, they lingered irresolutely, allowing a situation to develop that was unsustainable.
The Gulf was a “British lake” until the 1960’s. After the British unceremoniously withdrew “east of Suez” in 1971, the Americans replaced them. This was with the enthusiastic support of the local governments who wanted Western protection. The extent to which this protection has been there is arguable. Only this week missiles again rained on Saudi cities fired by pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen. No one in Washington, London, Paris, or Brussels appeared very worried.
Throughout the oil boom in the last quarter of the 20th century and since, the GCC countries were seen in the United States, Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe through the prism of being major oil exporters and arms importers. To this, in more recent years, was added concerns of Islamic extremism. The West went to war twice with Iraq in this period primarily out of concerns regarding oil supplies. It has made the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz a red line when it comes to relations with Iran. In the meantime, it kept its arms industries financially viable thanks to lucrative deals worth billions of dollars funded with the cash liquidity of the Arab Gulf states.
For fifty years the relations between the West and the GCC countries have been primarily – some argue purely – transactional. This was often coated in diplomatic jargon, but even the veneer of that dropped during the time of the Trump administration which overtly expected huge arms sales to be the reward paid in return for US patronage.
At the end of 2021 the region is back to being in a defining moment, the same as it was in 1971 when the Americans replaced the British. The countries of the region are very different in many ways. Despite still being described as “conservative Arab monarchies”, they have in fact gone through a social revolution. They have also consolidated as states, become more ambitious and more assertive. They have also become more cynical of their relationship with the West. They have seen too many Western “carpet merchants” in smart suits, and they have become wary. Western leaders and officials regularly descend on the region waging their fingers on this or that, but when it comes to substance on security there is often ambivalence. Afghanistan simply reminded them of Western limitations.
Western countries and the Arab Gulf monarchies need each other. But for their friendship to last it needs to be rebuilt on a different basis than has been the case so far:
• First, trust needs to be restored, and that is going to take considerable effort and political heavy lifting. The political dialogue that is required should start in earnest.
• The relationship needs to shift from oil and weapons to trade and connectivity. The GCC countries recognise that they face big economic challenges ahead. They need partners to accompany them on their journey as they transition from being oil economies to being economic and commercial trade hubs. Western countries need to engage on an equal basis, before China, Russia and others fill this space. The Dubai Expo can be a good launch pad for introducing new dynamism in this relationship.
• The military and strategic relationship needs to be adjusted for the realities of the moment. This means the two sides need to find a common approach to Iran. Easier said than done, one may say, especially given the divisions on this in both camps, but absolutely vital if future missteps are to be avoided. This may entail a comprehensive rethink of the region’s security architecture. It is time to think ambitiously.
• Western concerns about religious radicalism are real enough. Yet there is not much appreciation of the huge efforts done by Saudi Arabia, UAE and others to address religious radicalisation. Solid people-to-people contacts need therefore to be put front and centre of any future relationship. Engaging with the new generation of Gulf Arabs is vital.
• In this relationship it is now time for the EU to come out of the shadows. It has less baggage than others in the region. It is a better fit for the new agenda of the future. It has much to contribute, but it needs to act coherently and in a timely manner. In EU councils the Gulf region cannot be left as an issue, to be discussed if there is time, as seems to have happened at the recent Informal Foreign Ministers Meeting (Gymnich) in Slovenia last week. High Representative Borrell said in Slovenia, “I think we have to engage more with the Gulf”. That is something of an understatement.
The lessons of Afghanistan need to be learnt. The fallout from Afghanistan needs to be managed. Solid relations between Western countries and the GCC states should form a cornerstone for future international and regional relations. But they now need to be updated and put on a different and more solid basis.
source: This commentary, prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu, was first published in the 7 September 2021 issue of our newsletter Arabia Concise.
photo: US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrives in Qatar on 6 September at the start of a tour of Gulf states.