The United States has a long history of supporting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states of Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. They constitute the hub of the world’s energy economy. However, in recent months, the U.S. emphasis on reaching a nuclear deal with Iran has left Saudi Arabia nervous about future U.S. support.
Tensions are high enough that President Obama added a stop in Saudi Arabia during his March trip through Europe. The President needed to “sit down face-to-face” with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, as one senior Administration official put it, “and patiently and carefully walk him through what it is we are doing.”
U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns recently reiterated America’s commitment to the Gulf as well in a speech he gave this past February at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.
There, Burns told the crowd, “Our security commitments and partnerships in the Gulf are more extensive today than ever before. Our military presence includes more than 35,000 ground, air, and naval personnel at more than a dozen bases in and around the Gulf. We’ve deployed our most advanced systems to the region – our most advanced aircraft and our most advanced munitions, our most advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, and our most advanced missile defense capabilities.”
Still despite these reassurances, there are many skeptics in the Gulf including Turad Al-Amri, a leading voice on Gulf policy in strategy due to his widely read column in the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat. Al-Amri also brings with him the perspective of being a former fighter pilot for the Saudi Air Force.
He says there has been a palpable change in the way people view America’s commitment to the region, saying, “The most important shift happened a few months ago when the US decided to go to the other side of the Gulf and make a deal with Iran. That’s a real nail in the coffin of the relations.”
The Obama administration is now negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Should the two sides cut a deal and end their three decades of mutual hostility, Gulf leaders worry the U.S. will accept a new Iranian hegemony over their region. And so the Gulf states and their new ally, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are trying to put together new arms agreements with China, Russia, and other powers. They are trying to anticipate a possible reduction of American military support says Turad al-Amri.
Any sizable reduction in assistance from America will force new alliances to emerge in the Gulf says Al Amri. He contends Saudi Arabia will then have to choose to see what scenario would best protect their interests. This could mean a pact with Iran or a multinational solution. Al Amri says, “Saudi Arabia are having their alternative plan with Egypt, Pakistan in addition to UAE and Kuwait, to do some kind of alliance that might balance the power in the Gulf.”
Al-Amri adds an alliance with nuclear-armed Pakistan would be dangerous for the world order. Until then, the Gulf States will hope that the words of assurance from America are backed up with real action.