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Changing Alignments in the Lower Gulf

From the Al-Ula Conference in January 2021 through the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, realignments between the GCC member states and other Gulf-adjacent nations have taken new and relatively unprecedented turns. In the past two years, the rulers of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have held a surprising number of effusively friendly meetings, despite more than a century of vendetta between the respective ruling families—culminating in the 2017 “blockade” of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, with several other Arab states initially offering rhetorical or passive support.

Decades of Distrust

The enmity between the respective royal families of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—the Al-Khalifah, Al-Thani, and Al-Nahyan families—began in the 1860s. At that time the Al-Khalifah, who originate from the town of Zubara in modern-day Qatar, ruled both Bahrain and Qatar from Bahrain. In the 1860s, the Al-Thani rebelled against the Al-Khalifah and gained -control of the peninsula.  An attempt by the Al-Khalifah to retake Qatar—supported by the Al-Nahyan family—turned into an ignominious military defeat at the hands of the Qataris. The Al-Khalifah and Al-Nahyan have nursed their grudges against Qatar ever since, and the Al-Thani have, from time to time, kept the memory fresh.

British control of the lower Gulf did nothing to reconcile intra-Gulf enmities. Britain’s Gulf protectorates were administered from India, where the British had spent the better part of a century perfecting a strategy of playing local rulers off against each other to undermine anti-colonial resistance. Territorial disputes, and the grudges that accompanied them, persisted through the protectorate era; Dubai and Sharjah did not settle their century-old border dispute until 1976, while Abu Dhabi finally ended a dispute with Saudi Arabia over the Al-Buraimi oasis in 1974 by ceding a territorial corridor to the Gulf to the Kingdom. This arrangement served Emirati interests, as the territory ceded was a no-man’s-land contested with Qatar and consequently exacerbated Qatari-Saudi differences. Saudi forces killed two Qatari border guards in disputed territory in 1990.

The co-founders of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, had initially invited Qatar and Bahrain to join the new federation. They withdrew the invitation, however, once it became obvious that Qatar and Bahrain would not be able to settle their disputes over the Hawar Islands, which lie between the two countries. The Saudis also applied pressure on both countries not to join, partly by working to stoke tensions on both sides over the islands. (The dispute was finally resolved in 2001, when the International Court of Justice awarded most of the islands to Bahrain.)

The next several decades after independence saw a great deal of friction between the lower Gulf states. Qatar, for example, blames its neighbors for facilitating an attempted palace coup in 1996. After 1996, Qatar launched a major overhaul of its foreign policy; it instituted socially liberal reforms, encouraged American-style education and facilitated the creation of American satellite campuses in its territory, cultivated close ties with the United States, and established Al Jazeera, a relatively free and open television network that quickly grew to become the Gulf’s most influential news source. Their neighbors saw these actions as a threat to the status quo in their own countries.

Most damningly, Qatar aligned itself with progressive movements of the Arab Spring in 2011, openly supporting the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—even as the rest of the Gulf states devoted enormous resources to containing them. The other Gulf nations viewed Qatar’s actions as a direct threat, and in 2014, they withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, demanding that Qatar abandon its independent foreign policy. Although the 2014 crisis was quickly resolved, Qatar’s neighbors later accused it of reneging on the agreements it had made, in July 2017, they instituted a total political and economic blockade of Qatar—breaking relations, deporting all Qatari citizens, closing their land borders with the peninsula, and banning Qatar-bound air and sea traffic from their waters and airspace. The Quartet’s blockade did not end until 2021, and distrust persisted for months afterward, especially in Qatar’s relationships with Bahrain and the UAE.

All is Forgiven

In January 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud (MBS) called a summit conference at al-Ula, an ancient city in the country’s northwest, to resolve the crisis. MBS was clearly the driving force behind the rapprochement; Saudi Arabia restored full diplomatic ties with Qatar immediately, but Bahrain and the UAE dragged their heels for another two years. Air space and territorial waters reopened, but trade between Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE returned only slowly. Embassies stayed closed.

Then things began to change. The UAE’s Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) met with Qatar’s Shaikh Tamim on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. Since then, the two rulers have exchanged visits—most visibly when MBZ attended the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in November of the same year. Tamim met MBS at a highly publicized meeting at a Red Sea resort in September 2021, also attended by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, MBZ’s National Security Advisor. More meetings between the three sides followed as the reconciliation seemed to grow firmer roots. In June 2023, the UAE reopened its embassy in Doha, almost six years to the date after the imposition of the blockade. Qatari diplomats reopened their embassy in Abu Dhabi and their consulate in Dubai the same day.

Over the past year, the détente has expanded to Qatar and Bahrain, which had previously displayed constant tension in their relationship. Bahrain’s crown prince spoke with Qatar’s emir by telephone in June 2023, a move that took many Gulf experts by surprise. Prior to the call, both Qatar’s Emir and Bahrain’s king had attended a small Arab summit hosted by the UAE, but there were no public reports of the two leaders meeting on the sidelines—or, indeed, interacting in any way.

Changing Realities

Since time immemorial, the small littoral political units of the Gulf have attempted to fend off external domination, whether from the Persians to the east or the larger Arab neighbors to the west. The coastal states have traditionally accomplished this by seeking great-power protectors from outside the Gulf. The United States is only the most recent in a long line of outside powers that begins with the Babylonians and includes, throughout history, the Portuguese, Ottomans, and British. It now appears that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed has, for the first time in known Gulf history, embarked on establishing a power center inside the Gulf that can challenge both predatory neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, with its own strength.

MBZ has used the massive oil and gas wealth of the UAE to build a powerful military—conventionally assumed to be aimed at challenging Iran, but one that can equally defend the UAE from encroachments from Riyadh. The Emirati leader has combined this with diplomacy to build relationships beyond the United States. Historically, the smaller states of the Gulf have perceived the U.S. as basing its Gulf policies on Saudi Arabia (as well as on Iran, in a pre-1979 past) and treating the smaller Gulf states as marginal players. From 1971 until the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in late 1980, the US generally ignored the Gulf states, preferring to deal primarily through and with Saudi Arabia.

After Iran became a foe of the United States, American leaders tried to persuade the smaller Gulf states to form a NATO-like Gulf alliance to be led by Riyadh. This approach was not successful. During my time in the region as a mid-level diplomat, one senior Gulf military leader in the 1980s told me we were wasting our time, as such an alliance would inevitably be dominated by Saudi Arabia, a situation untenable to the smaller Gulf states. To succeed, he said, the United States would need to become a formal member, effectively supplanting Saudi hegemony with its own. This, of course, was anathema in Washington, and Saudi Arabia remained Washington’s go-to country, building on its special relationship with the United States.

The security situation in the Gulf changed dramatically with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which laid bare Saudi Arabia’s inability to protect itself—let alone the other Gulf states—and made the need for continued U.S. leadership in the region clear. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, one Gulf leader told me that, in the event of another regional conflict, Saudi Arabia had exactly one military strategy: call the Americans. “We know how to use a telephone as well,” he quipped.

Indeed, the high-water mark of American influence in the Gulf came after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. In the years that followed, America built a complex military presence in the region, became the primary source of military equipment and training for all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and was seen as the guarantor of the region against the threat from the mullahs in Tehran. The smaller Gulf states began to feel that the U.S., finally, prioritized its bilateral relationships with them. For example, the transfer of the U.S. airbase from Prince Sultan Airbase in the Kingdom to al-Udeid in Qatar was interpreted as a shift in American reliance on the smaller Gulf states. U.S. willingness to sell them defense articles of greater sophistication reinforced that perception.

The honeymoon period ended after the twin debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq, which soured the American public on the Middle East (and simultaneously soured the Middle Eastern public on America). Today, the United States remains in the Gulf, but it is clear to all parties that its interests lie elsewhere; successive American administrations have talked about a “pivot to Asia” for so long that people in the region have started to believe them. At the same time, the fracking revolution has made the U.S. a competitor in the export of gas, rather than a customer—reinforcing the impression that America no longer regards the region as crucial to its interests. All in all, confidence in a continued American presence has ebbed.

In the absence of clear American leadership, the Gulf states have adapted their strategies to accommodate this new reality. MBS, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and head of government, has become far more assertive and self-confident since he first rose to prominence within Saudi Arabia in 2015. MBS’s early excursions into international power politics did not turn out well. The intervention in Yemen, launched shortly after MBS became Defense Minister, quickly turned into a costly quagmire, giving Iran an opportunity to harm the Kingdom at little cost to its own security. The kidnapping of Lebanese then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri became an international joke and failed to accomplish MBS’s presumed objective of countering Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy. The murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi infuriated Americans across the political spectrum.

However, MBS has clearly learned from his mistakes. A three-year low-key diplomatic engagement with Iran has now become a full-scale resumption of diplomatic ties that has brought Riyadh the added benefit of increasing influence in Iraq. The Khashoggi debacle has long since faded from the headlines. Europe now courts MBS, with invitations to London and Paris. Turkish President Tayyep Recep Erdogan, who once vowed to hold Saudi leaders accountable for the murder on his territory, has swallowed his pride, transferred the Khashoggi investigation to Saudi Arabia, and visited MBS in Jeddah. MBS recruited Russia as an ally of OPEC, forming the “OPEC+” alliance. In his greatest diplomatic triumph, MBS welcomed President Joe Biden to Riyadh with a fist bump, figuratively portraying Biden as eating crow.

During his time in power, MBS has begun an ambitious reshaping of the Kingdom, taming the Wahhabi clergy that were once the mainstay of Al-Saud control and pursuing sweeping initiatives into sports, tourism, and sustainable industries, as well as dramatically undoing the social constrictions that characterized the Kingdom for decades. Immensely popular domestically, MBS has now embarked on making Saudi Arabia the most influential country in the region and in the Arab world.

The lower Gulf states have a different take on an assertive self-confident Saudi Arabia. Saudi demands for regional hegemony have accelerated, to the consternation of the smaller Gulf states. The UAE’s success in organizing the blockade of Qatar, and its cooperation in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, marked the high-water mark of UAE-Saudi relations, but the two countries have since drifted into a far more competitive relationship. The UAE appears to have concluded that the long-term threat from a newly empowered Saudi Arabia has reached a par with the long-term threat from Iran—which, after all, is in a far weaker political, economic, and diplomatic position than Saudi Arabia is. The Saudi-Emirati fallout extends into the personal domain as well; although MBS once considered MBZ a close ally, the two leaders have not spoken in at least six months, according to an explosive Wall Street Journal report. In the same article, MBS is quoted as fuming at his Emirati counterpart, alleging that Abu Dhabi had “stabbed [him] in the back” and promising unspecified retribution.

Neither East Nor West

In response to its new threat perceptions, Abu Dhabi has been repairing relationships across the spectrum. It has reinvigorated its relationship with Iran, returning its ambassador to Tehran after several years’ hiatus. Abu Dhabi recently welcomed Erdogan for a state visit, healing vestigial animosity from Ankara’s support for Qatar during the blockade. Perhaps most importantly, the UAE agreed to participate in the “Abraham Accords” in mid-2020, becoming the first Arab nations to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in more than a quarter of a century. Although the alliance was framed as a bulwark against Iran, the UAE’s assiduous pursuit of better relations with Tehran makes one wonder if this was indeed Abu Dhabi’s long-term intention. Building a relationship with Israel gives the UAE a small but important foothold in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and MBZ knows quite well that MBS must overcome far more obstacles to open diplomatic relations with Israel than he did. The Kingdom still presents itself as the leader of the Islamic world as an essential element of its foreign policy, and opening an embassy in Israel without resolving the Palestinian question likely represents a bridge too far for Saudi leadership.

One can discern a similar pattern in other Emirati actions in recent years. In early 2022, the UAE announced its withdrawal from the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen. Although Abu Dhabi withdrew from the coalition, its forces continue to be very active, especially in southern Yemen, where it has established alliances with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and other separatist elements in the Hadramout and Mahra regions—alliances that run contrary to Riyadh, which seeks to re-establish a centralized Yemeni state. Leaders from the island of Socotra off southern Yemen have complained that the UAE has effectively taken over there, giving it a foothold in the Arabian Sea and opposite the Somali coast.

News reports also indicate that the UAE is building an airbase on Mayyun Island, located just inside the Bab el-Mandeb. At the same time, the UAE has strengthened its commercial presence in Somaliland, a break-away province of Somalia along the coast of the Gulf of Aden. It has stationed air and naval forces at Assab in Eritrea after a diplomatic dust-up killed attempts to establish bases in Djibouti. Putting these actions together leads to the conclusion that the UAE has positioned itself to exercise unprecedented control over the Bab el-Mandeb, the exit from the Red Sea of all traffic into the Indian Ocean.

The explanation that the UAE’s aims are altruistic—that it simply wishes to guarantee the safety of oil exports through the Red Sea—makes little sense. Keeping the Bab el-Mandeb open for the flow of hydrocarbons will remain a top American and European priority into the indefinite future; the U.S. Navy has already committed to securing the straits. However, building a strong military and geostrategic presence in the Bab el-Mandeb gives the UAE the opportunity to deny the straits to the Saudis; a potentially game-changing deterrent against any future Saudi threats.

It would thus appear that MBZ may have decided that old feuds between lower Gulf ruling families are now an unaffordable luxury for the littoral Gulf states. These feuds were self-destructive in nature, enabling the Iranians and the Saudis to play the smaller states off against one another and prevent them from gaining real regional authority. Although mutual distrust between Qatar and Bahrain remains, the same sentiment may also be at play in Doha and Manama. The Bahraini ruling family has depended on the Saudi royal family, its distant cousins, for protection against domestic challenges and Iranian threats. However, a Saudi deployment of troops in Bahrain to suppress popular unrest in 2011 has left the island state as a virtual Saudi vassal, a state of affairs that likely chafes the island’s rulers. Over the past decade, the UAE has become a major economic supporter of the Bahraini regime, giving it the ear of the ruling family. Similarly, the Al-Thanis in Qatar have never had any illusions about Riyadh’s desire to reduce their peninsula to vassal status. If the UAE—a very probable ‘if’—has decided that it wants to draw Bahrain and Qatar into its own orbit for mutual protection, helping end the century-old feud between these two ruling families would appear to be the highest priority. If this requires the Al-Nahyan abandoning their long-time vendetta with the Al-Thanis, MBZ is a sufficiently pragmatic leader to do it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.


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