The US, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf

Summary:  Fifth chapter of new Arab Digest / Global Policy Journal e-book explores how the Gulf monarchies have reacted to their increasingly ambiguous relationship with the US.

We are pleased to announce today the publication of the fifth chapter of our new free serialised E-book ‘The Future of the Middle East’, a co-production by Global Policy and Arab Digest edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton.

Global Policy is an interdisciplinary peer reviewed journal and online platform which aims to bring together academics and practitioners to analyse public and private solutions to global issues. Established in 2010, Global Policy is based at Durham University and edited by David Held and Dani Rodrik.

Today’s chapter, for which we thank David B. Roberts, explores how the Gulf monarchies have reacted to their increasingly ambiguous relationship with the US. David is Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, former Director of RUSI Qatar and author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State.

We welcome all your comments, either for circulation or for our consideration only. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

The US, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf

Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.’ 

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

It is a miracle that the US-Saudi relationship has survived this long. The enduring nature of this relationship is an ode to the realist school of international relations and a triumph of realpolitik overcoming cavernous differences in the very nature of state, society, religion, politics, international relations, and outlook. Initially bound together in a fraught oil-for-security pact, the elites in the two states remained reluctantly but enduringly committed to upholding their ends of the relationship. But reality has increasingly intruded. The 10th September 2001 will likely come to mark the zenith of the bilateral relationship. The pertinent question now is how fast the inexorable deterioration of relations is and how relations may settle to a new norm more reflective of their polar opposite realities.

Trade Trumping Values

Since the meeting of Saudi and US leaders on the evocatively named Great Bitter Lake in Egypt in 1945, the two states have been umbilically linked together. In the early years, the US was interested in the increasingly large oil deposits found in the Kingdom. From a situation of significant self-sufficiency at the beginning of the 20th century, foreign supplies were increasingly required as the 1940s and 1950s wore on, driven primarily by the exigencies of World War Two and then burgeoning numbers of personal motor vehicles. Worried that the UK would use its long-standing regional relations in the Gulf to sew up the markets, the US sought a relationship of exclusivity with Saudi Arabia. When the scale of oil deposits in the wider region became ever more apparent in the 1950s, Saudi Arabia became yet more important. With the US entanglements in Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s, deploying significant forces to the Persian Gulf was politically impossible and resulted in the Nixon Doctrine: fostering a reliance on Iran and Saudi Arabia to secure the region. Indeed, the US was forced to act swiftly by the UK’s 1968 decision to retire ‘East of Suez’ by 1971, leaving – from the US perspective – a potentially worrisome security vacuum in the region.

The two states were fortified with astonishing amounts of US arms and equipment. By 1975, over 45% of worldwide US arms exports was going to the Gulf, compared to only 10% in 1970. But more than mere arms shipments, the US relationship with Saudi Arabia in particular revolved around equipping the state with a modern military infrastructure. Part of this referred to equipping and training the Saudi military: approximately 70% of worldwide US government and civilian contractors linked to sales and commercial exports under the Arms Control Export Act were based in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, by 1977, the US Army Engineers Corps was in line to undertake work valued at approximately $500bn in 2016 dollars. They were, in effect, building from the ground up military cities and bases to international standards.

Despite such close relations, Saudi leaders were abidingly concerned that the depth of the US role remain as unseen as possible, such was the unpopularity of the US with domestic Saudi audiences. The US close relations with Israel were, unsurprisingly, a key bone of contention. Other local elites in Saudi Arabia actually feared US motives. Henry Kissinger had alluded to taking control of the oil fields in Saudi’s eastern provinces years before should Saudi-US bilateral relations deteriorate significantly; something that was only exacerbated by the US’s build-up of forces in Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, and (albeit to a smaller degree) in Bahrain. Nevertheless, closer relations were incrementally boosted despite these contradictions and issues.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution ruined this modus operandi with the US’s core regional ally becoming avowedly hostile to US interests and allies in the region. At the same time, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This showcased the USSR’s enormous airlift capacity and wider ability to deploy 20 divisions in its near-abroad. Now its forces were only 800 miles from the Persian Gulf, while US forces were 7000 miles away. Also forgotten today is that this was but one example (albeit by far the largest of its type) of a wider era of Soviet expansion, which included regional discussions, agreements and anchorages as in Aden (with up to 12 submarine pens), a large floating dock on Socotra Island off Southern Yemen and other potential bases in Madagascar, the Maldives, on the islands of Dahlak, which since Eritrean independence from Ethiopia in 1993 have belonged to Eritrea, and Perim which belongs to Yemen.

The US responded with the Carter Doctrine, a promise to secure the Gulf region from external aggression. Backfilling this promise with US capability proved to be essentially impossible. Concepts of a ‘Rapid Deployment Force’ were mooted in the US, but the US-Israeli relationship was, as ever, deeply unpopular and riled local Gulf populations to the point where Gulf states refused to entertain any serious US basing requests. Moreover, given that the US had just shown itself unwilling or unable to stand by a critical regional ally – Iran – Gulf leaders wondered as to the benefits of closer US relations.

Security Trumping Values

Today, of course, we are used to seeing cheek-by-jowl relations between the Arab Gulf monarchies and the US. The region has, for a quarter of a century, been festooned with military bases all-but given over to the use of western allies like the US. While the monarchies seldom advertised these bases – one could live in Kuwait or Qatar and have essentially no interaction with or knowledge of the (at times) tens of thousands of western troops based a few kilometres up the road – the cat of close military-to-military relations has long been out of the bag.

The pressing need for more direct US military assistance grew throughout the 1980s. The need for the re-flagging of oil tankers was an important step towards normalizing the presence of US warships in the Gulf. Though monarchies feared the domestic reactions of their citizens, they feared more a serious escalation of the Iran-Iraq War and continued attacks on their lifeblood: oil exports by tanker. Then, but a few years later, Saddam Hussein easily overran Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. The military forces of the monarchies neither individually nor in the guise of their regional cooperative security force – The Peninsula Shield – were trusted to confront Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, the government had to seek the permission from the religious establishment to legitimise Operations Desert Shield and Storm, such were the government’s concerns of the popular reaction of basing three quarters of a million foreigners in the Kingdom. The clergy acquiesced but demanded a high price, greater control of educational and social spheres: a ‘descent into bottomless Islamization’ as Giles Kepel put it.

Subsequently, the new security realities changed the status quo. The US had a foothold in the region that it had been seeking for at least a decade and that it, in some ways, had been preparing for since the 1950s. And the Monarchies saw what devastation could be wrought as with the war in Kuwait. Moreover, Saddam was still in power, and though no one thought something like Kuwait’s invasion would happen again, no one saw the 1990 invasion of Kuwait coming either.

Status Quo Trumps Values

A new normality thus emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. The overt security role of the US and its western allies was apparent. The domestic tensions that had for so long prevented exactly such a set of relations were forgotten, though they did not disappear. There were, of course, many reasons for the attacks of 11th September 2001, but, as Osama bin Laden noted on many occasions, he was motivated at least in part by the desire to remove western troops from the Arabian Peninsula. The unprecedented attack looked for a time at least like it could finally break the bilateral US-Saudi relationship. But, the status quo ante resumed soon enough.

The only real sign of the difficult shifts under the veneer of the public bilateral relationship was the Saudi government’s request that the US remove its most significant military presence from the Kingdom. Thus, in 2003 the US moved its Air Operations Centre – the nerve centre of its command and control apparatus for forces around the wider Middle East – from Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh to al-Udeid in Qatar. And the war in Iraq was run from Doha despite protestations from Riyadh and elsewhere in the region that unseating Hussein would be a mistake leaving Iraq open to untrammelled Iranian influence. That Iran was able to exert far more influence in Baghdad and elsewhere after the invasion was a key factor in souring the relationship between the Arab Gulf monarchies and the US. From their perspective, the US and its allies had just made their region far more insecure. They had invaded a Muslim state, destroyed key infrastructure, stood by as lawlessness descended, not planned effectively to support a new government’s rise, thus sowing chaos in a pivotal regional state. As far as the leaders around the Arab Gulf are concerned, this led near-directly to Iran’s expanding influence at the north end of the Gulf and the rise of Da’esh (Islamic State) in the ruins of the Iraqi state.

Such issues were exacerbated by the actions of the Obama Administration, and a gulf between the US and its regional allies increasingly opened. In the Arab Spring, just as with the Shah of Iran in 1979, the US did not intervene to prop up a regional strong-man (Hosni Mubarak in Egypt) who had been a key US ally for decades. This was an acutely disturbing issue for the Arab Gulf monarchies, exacerbated when the US seemed – from their perspective at least – not to offer assiduous support for the al-Khalifah monarchy in Bahrain as Arab Spring-inspired riots increased in Manama. Seemingly long-standing relations with the US were not necessarily enough to guarantee US support in the event of a serious disruption.

At much the same time, Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ aggravated the problem. Though in reality the US was expanding its military footprint in the Gulf (as in Bahrain) and, if anything, it was a pivot from Europe and not from the Gulf, the perception remained that the US was increasingly disinterested in the Gulf region. Then, the sum of all Gulf fears came to fruition, and the US did a ‘nuclear deal’ (i.e. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with Iran. It is difficult to overemphasize how betrayed the monarchies felt by this deal. The concept that the US would eventually do a deal with Iran at the expense of the Arab Gulf monarchies had, for decades, been a fatalistic conspiracy theory permeating the Gulf. And then Obama made it so.

Security Trumps Enduring Hesitation

The reaction of the Arab Gulf monarchies to this smörgåsbord of burgeoning issues with their US relationship culminated in the 2015 military intervention in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the UAE led an unprecedented Arab coalition to push back the expansion of the Houthi forces in Yemen. Neither state was willing to countenance the reality of the Houthis controlling the Yemeni capital and key port cities. The core concern with such a state of affairs was that, with consolidated power and such a vastly expanded infrastructure, the Houthis would find it easier to obtain supplies of weapons and other such support from Iran that they could use to consolidate their power. There is little doubt that Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons over the years. The only debate is how significant these supplies were. The Arab Gulf monarchies view them as of critical importance, whereas most academic writing on the subject tends to argue that, on the contrary, the Houthis power stems far more from indigenous factors.

The Arab-led Yemen intervention can be broadly split into three: the air campaign, the Saudi battles on their border with the Houthis, and the UAE-led campaign in the south of Yemen. The air campaign from Saudi Arabia was, logistically speaking, an impressive coordination and sustainment effort from a large multi-national coalition, even if the US air force operated hundreds of air-to-air refuelling sorties, and British and US advisors helped in the targeting process. The on-the-ground realities of the campaign, however, have been disastrous in terms of their humanitarian impact. In the north, Saudi forces have struggled to secure their border with the Houthis having faced similar issues as with the border conflict the two sides fought out in 2009-2010. In the south, the UAE have undertaken some impressive technical military operations, notably a surprising and successful amphibious landing near Aden. This operation led to the wider ‘liberation’ of Aden and laid the groundwork for wider UAE-led counter-terrorism operations in Maarib province to re-exert control over al-Qaeda-type groups that had profited handsomely from the interventions wiping out central governmental control.

Overall, the Yemen operation is far from a success. Saudi is still struggling with the Houthis on their joint border and the group remains encamped throughout the central regions. While the Houthis are no longer the state’s central power, and thus the coalition has achieved one central aim, this has been achieved at extraordinary humanitarian costs and it may not even last such is the fragmented and brutalised state of the country. From a wider geostrategic perspective, this intervention is a key inflection point highlighting the willingness of the monarchies (in particular Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to deploy their forces in significant numbers. This new development is evidently a key part of the planning in the monarchies for their post-US future. This is not to say that the US will immediately cease to be a core actor in the Gulf. The shortcomings of the Gulf militaries were brutally highlighted on occasion in Yemen, and the critical supporting role of the US (and allies) was also demonstrated, filling niche capabilities that the monarchies do not have in abundance (e.g. air-to-air refuelling). Moreover, by virtue of the military-to-military ties through equipment sales, training, and supplies, the US will necessarily remain intimately involved in the regional politico-military industrial complex. But the region is nevertheless entering a new era. Trust in the US has been deeply dented. And, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the monarchies are asserting themselves regionally as never before.


And what now? The monarchies are thrilled that Obama is no longer the US President and are reassured with initial suggestions that Trump is not a fan of the Iran deal. Indeed, those in the Trump camp seem to be archetypal Iran hawks. But it would be foolish to rejoice. The hallmark of Trump’s presidency in its early days is a deeply erratic streak. The monarchies have sought to ingratiate themselves with the new President. For example, Qatar’s investment authority proposed investing in US infrastructure and will purchase F-15s in a deal that looks to have more to do with currying favour with the US administration than with meeting a military requirement. Such ploys make sense. But to bet on such a capricious leader would be an exercise in hope over expectation. The evolution of the military forces of the Arab Gulf monarchies has seen various false dawns before, where vast acquisitions have not led to an appreciable development in capability. But, as in Saudi Arabia or in the UAE, the more modern iteration of acquisition has been complemented by an emerging desire to take an active role in deploying forces. This has been driven at least in part by growing misgivings as to the utility and trustworthiness of their US alliances. Developing indigenous capabilities with US assistance increasingly at arm’s length is, at the very least, their current modus operandi. And this reflects far better the natural disposition of each side.

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