Another segment, however, feel reassured, and believe their future is secure in light of the restoration of the special relationship with the US, and that there is no real possibility that the GCC would unravel for a number of reasons. They believe that the US-Saudi relationship in particular is indispensable, because of its many layers and levels, from the White House to key US corporations that are effectively part of the ruling establishment in America, and the so-called deep state alongside the intelligence and military, not to mention the strategic level involving the oil and arms industries.
There is a huge gap between these two sides in the Gulf and the broader Arab region, however. The issue requires a transparent exchange of views instead of accusations of treason against those who feel concerned, or of naive complacency against those who feel reassured. Indeed, what is happening in the GCC countries does not exclusively affect Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, but the entire Middle East and the Arab region.
The strategic equation of the regional balance of power is radically influenced by the fate of the Gulf countries. Iran is currently consolidating its weight in the balance of power. Turkey remains a regional heavyweight, despite its current crises. Israel is wary of benefiting further from the regional balance of power, given its relations with the US, which protects it, supports it and guarantees its strategic edge, and given the Arab fragmentation and the Sunni-Shia conflict unfolding not in Iran but exclusively in the Arab geography. For their part, the Arabs are searching for their lost weight in the regional balance of power, after Egypt was peacefully neutralized through the Camp David treaty with Israel, Iraq was neutralized through the US-led invasion, and Syria was neutralized through becoming an arena for regional and international proxy wars and score-settling. Now the GCC countries are trying to lick their wounds, wondering how they can resume integration and trust among themselves to avoid falling into the trap of permanent division and estrangement.
A prominent banker who studied at Harvard with a US former high level official quoted him as saying that the Middle East would remain a hot battleground until “Arabs are separated from their money.” It is not surprising that this seems to be the short-term and long-term thinking of the US, an unapologetic superpower focused on its interests. If the US interest is better served by siphoning off their oil money, not just through arms deals and the cost of the security umbrella but also through the instigation of war, enmity and crises among them, then so be it for America.
Such long-term strategy goes beyond any single administration or president. Some may object and invoke the importance of democracy, elections and the media. But in reality, the features of democracy have been receding in the US, because of the erosion of the independent media, and the dominance of lobbies and interest groups over the electoral process.
None of this is to say that the Arab interest requires separating from or antagonizing the US. Russia is not an alternative superpower, ally or strategic partner. Russia itself is walking a tightrope with the US, with which it is seeking special bilateral relations. Iran, which has for decades called America “the Great Satan,” aspires most to a truce and normalized relations with the US, even if that requires public truce-like relations with Israel. So there is no need for Arabs or the Gulf to apologize for seeking for decades exceptional relations with the US, whether at a high or low price.
But the Arab and Gulf countries need to be vigilant about the US’s bad memory when it comes to Arab good deeds, and sharp memory when it comes to bad deeds. In other words, the US official and popular memory is fixated upon the terror attacks September 11, 2001, blamed on Sunni Arabs and Saudis in particular. For this reason, the antagonism toward them in the media, intellectual forums and public opinion has not been eased by the major deals secured by US companies at the summit in Riyadh, nor by the solid pledges made by Sunni powers to partner with the US to defeat Sunni radical terror.
The Americans may invoke civil rights, women’s rights and human rights as their main beefs with Saudi Arabia, but in their heart, the main issue is what they deem to be Sunni Arab terrorism that hit the US homeland. In addition, they perceive the Middle East often from Israel’s perspective, and in this context, Sunnis and Arabs are seen as hostile to peace with Israel, regardless of the fact that the Arab Peace Initiative with Israel was fundamentally a Saudi demarche.
Depending on which camp you are in, Gulf unity is secure because of a stable relationship with Washington, or insecure because of the instability of that relationship. The two camps urgently need to talk to each other.
Israel will obstruct attempts by the Trump administration to modify the peace initiative by adding more concessions on the parties, because Israel does not believe its interests are served if the Arabs and Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf become a real peace partner. Indeed, the Israelis believe they are better served by the continuation of hostility with the Arabs and Sunnis, and the continuation of their image as an anti-peace aggressor. Peace impoverishes Israel while war keeps it the US’s spoilt child. This requires heading off any attempt by any US administration to forge real peace on the basis of the two-state solution, which Israel now categorically rejects because it does not resolve the so-called demographic problem of the Palestinians in Israel. Rather, Israel among other things wants Jordan to be an alternative homeland for the Palestinians.
Israel prefers to maintain a truce-like relationship with Iran, because it believes its interests are better served by partnership with Tehran against the Sunni Arab common foe. The instigation of Al-Aqsa crisis recently is part of Israel’s strategy to contain any Gulf enthusiasm for Trump’s proposals on Palestine, because Al-Aqsa is the shortest route to preventing Sunni leaders from peacemaking even if by making further concessions to Israel. As long as the US is not resolved to impose peace on Israel, no Arab, Palestinian or Gulf concessions will ever be enough.
This does not mean the Arabs should walk back from the policy of a “peace offensive” vis-a-vis Israel in — real or illusory — partnership with the US. This is what the Gulf countries are doing now as part of their advanced relations with the Trump administration, offering the Sunnis as partners in a permanent peace with Israel, rather than Iran or the Shia.
However, the mistake the Gulf countries must avoid is accepting the impression that enmity with Iran is the incentive for peace with Israel. Indeed, there is no use in Sunni-Shia competition on Palestine, because Israel benefits from that to neutralize Palestine from the equation and in other ways too.
The Gulf crisis with Iran has nothing to do with Palestine or Israel. Tehran pays lip service to the Palestinian issue, and uses it to gain a foothold in the Arab countries and embarrass the Arab governments. The Gulf thinking may be that the Palestinian cause is defunct in reality, with no better option than to encourage US initiatives, and this is behind the decision to render relations with Israel as part of the strategy to strengthen US-Gulf relations.
The “reassured” segment in the Gulf believe that relations with all components of the regional balance of power, that is Turkey, Iran and Israel, are a detail in the main issue, which is the relationship with the US superpower — shifting from frightening deterioration under Obama to warmth under Trump. This segment believe Washington is the main security valve for the Gulf, regardless of Trump’s domestic woes. They believe no financial or political cost is too great to guarantee Gulf short-term and long-term security.
Those “worried” in the Gulf fear the US’s bad memory, and fear Trump would be ousted one way or another, rendering their massive investments in him a waste and part of the bid to “separate Arabs from their money.” Instead, they want to mend bridges among the Gulf countries, including by turning the page with Qatar. They believe that their security is better served by repairing relations with Iran, even if that requires concessions, especially since President Rouhani is trying to claw back power from the Revolutionary Guards, the proponents of Iranian regional dominance and intervention in Arab lands, with Rouhani even poised to succeed supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
It is crucial for the two camps to talk to each other for the sake of the Gulf’s future. The next Gulf summit is scheduled for December in Kuwait, but the committees have not been meeting because of the Qatar row. It is time to expand the traditional scope of these committees, to bring in Gulf and Arab intellectuals and strategists, for a constructive dialogue and a vision that would take into account the concerns of the worried and the optimism of the reassured. Not just for the coming five years, but for the long-term vision of the GCC, and its position vis-a-vis Turkey, Iran, and Israel.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham