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Great Power Competition in the Gulf: America’s Primacy Will Endure—Until it Leaves

The question of what great power (or powers) will control the Gulf region in the twenty-first century concerns both the countries of the region and outside powers alike. Unfortunately, it is a question that seems to have no obvious answer. Is the future global power balance to be multipolar, or a new bipolar world? What value will the future great powers—whichever ones they turn out to be—assign to the Gulf region in a world economy in which oil no longer plays a central role? How much, if anything, are they willing to invest to maintain the regional order? If the great powers no longer care, can the countries of the Gulf region manage their own security affairs?

The Gulf Has Long Invited Outside Protection

Since time immemorial, the Gulf has attracted predatory nearby powers—both the Gulf states’ larger and more powerful inland neighbors and other powers from further afield—competing to control its coastal states. Over the centuries, the smaller Gulf polities have frequently invited powerful protectors from outside the region, exchanging some degree of independence for protection from local predators. In effect, the coastal Gulf has often found itself in a situation not unlike that of a small business in a rough neighborhood; better to pay protection to the big Mafia boss than to take one’s chances with local criminals.

The West has long (incorrectly) imagined the Gulf as a sand-strewn backwater before the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century. In fact, archaeology has proven that the Gulf was a rich prize, fought over for millennia before the Christian era. In antiquity, the kings of Susa, the Elamites, and the Assyrians sallied forth from the Iranian plateau to compete with long-forgotten Arabian kingdoms of Himyarites, Sabaeans, and even Sheba for control of the vital maritime conduit linking Mesopotamia with India and beyond.  These wars first appeared in documented history recording the two-hundred-year conflict between the Yemeni Lakhmid Kingdom and the Persian Sassanids during the 8th and 7th centuries BC. The Sassanids won, and controlled the Gulf until overwhelmed by the Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD. The Persians’ many periods of rule did not go unchallenged; Alexander the Great conquered Persia and sailed a fleet through the Gulf’s waters. On occasion, the coastal states themselves rebelled against Persian control, inviting outside powers such as the Roman Empire to interfere. After the Islamic conquest, numerous Persian dynasties fought the Arab (and later Turkic) powers for control of the region. By the sixteenth century, European powers, first the Portuguese and later the French and English, sailed into the Indian Ocean and attempted to control the Gulf, either to bottle up maritime competitors or to monopolize the riches of the regional pearl trade. Using the excuse of stopping “piracy,” the British invaded the Gulf to monopolize the Indian trade routes and kill local competition. Much like the Mafia, a series of foreign hegemons found it in their interest to protect the Gulf while exploiting it for their own purposes.

The century and a half of British regional hegemony followed by another half century of American hegemony—added the latest chapters of a rich tapestry of a multi-millennial contest for influence in and control over the Gulf region. It appears that history will soon open another chapter as the world evolves from the bipolar world of the last half of the twentieth century, with a brief but ultimately ill-fated excursion into a monopolar world at the beginning of the twenty-first.

Will We Have a Multipolar Balance of Power?

As that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” The Gulf’s current hegemon, the United States, appears to have tired of the region and has made it clear that containing China, the other emerging world superpower, in the Pacific takes priority over whatever vestigial interest the U.S. may have in the Gulf.  Many pundits argue that we have moved away from a bipolar world to a multipolar balance of power. This thesis, however, demands examination. Who exactly are the other powers competing with the United States? If its debacle in Ukraine is any indication, Russia has slipped badly from superpower status. Its possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal may deter attack from its foes, but it does very little to help it project power. Other than as a supplier of weaponry—albeit with a reputation tarnished by Russia’s abysmal performance against Ukraine—the Kremlin can do almost nothing to protect its prospective allies in the Gulf. In fact, what country wants Russian “protection” if it involves devastating hospitals and civilian neighborhoods as the Russian did in Syria. The Gulf states are understandably wary of a reprise of Syria in their own countries.

Europe, collectively, possesses enormous latent power, but has yet to act like a coherent international player. A recently ascendant France, capitalizing on Brexit, Germany’s reluctance to lead in anything except economic matters, and Russian aggression has revived the EU’s push for a ‘strategically autonomous’ Europe with the capacity to play a Great Power role. Although a worthy endeavor, few EU states have endorsed this plan; most understandably prefer the American security umbrella.

India, set to become the world’s most populous country by 2030, has a latent potential to equal and even surpass Europe. Unfortunately, it shares many of the same internal contradictions—and adds a few of its own—that inhibit its ability to play the hegemon, even in the Gulf, practically its backyard. India’s major security threats lie on its land borders. It faces two allied nuclear-armed adversaries, Pakistan and China, and has little to gain by devoting major resources to the Gulf. American maritime dominance guarantees India’s ocean trade without it having to invest in the naval force projection needed to play a greater role in the Gulf. Finally, with almost five million Indian citizens working in the GCC, Gulf countries will understandably have qualms about Indian intentions.

Finally, Gulf countries would not trust regional states, such as Turkey or Iran—or even Israel—as potential protectors. These non-Arab neighbors have expansionist and aggressive histories vis-a-vis Arab states; throughout Arabia’s history, they are the countries that it has sought to be protected from.

What About China?

The likelihood that a multipolar balance of power will dominate in the world in the next decade is close to zero. China, the only conceivable peer competitor to the United States on the globe, has eschewed long-distance foreign adventures—historically preferring to remain the “Middle Kingdom,” aloof from outside entanglements. Although China has expanded its economic ties with Africa and the Middle East—sometimes in ways that have made the West uncomfortable—it has scrupulously avoided local politics, preferring to remain a neutral business partner.

The United States’ confrontations with China have all taken place in China’s ‘near abroad,’ in territories it regards as within its own sphere of influence—Korea, Taiwan, the South China Sea—rather than the Middle East. China’s navy has grown dramatically in recent years, but it is explicitly configured to deny the United States access to China’s neighborhood rather than to display strength abroad.

Right now, China has only two vital interests in the Gulf region: as a source of imported energy and as a market for Chinese goods—two interests that do not require massive investments to enforce the peace in the region and face down the United States at the same time. Some argue that China’s vulnerability to American naval forces severing its links to the Gulf in the event of even limited war will force it to build that capacity. However, as one perverse result of the Ukraine debacle, China now has a better and cheaper option; with Russia humbled and its economy crumpled by Western economic sanctions, Moscow will soon find itself falling ever deeper into Beijing’s orbit. With other markets shut down by the U.S. and its allies, Russia will have little option but to export energy and its other commodities to China. Pipelines and railways linking the two countries have already expanded, and more are on the way.

Several Gulf countries, both in the GCC and out, have sought to expand their ties with Moscow and Beijing. None of those countries seriously believes, however, that either capital could replace Washington as the Gulf’s regional protector. Both Russia and China lack the capacity to do so, and while China could develop it over the coming decades, there is no sign that it wants to. Saudi Arabia can acquire missile technology from China, but that will not yield Chinese protection. Similarly, China may show interest in building military outposts in the region, but they will almost certainly remain intelligence bases and outposts for influence rather than strong points of real fighting power.

It Looks Like the US, But Do We Care?

So, for better or for worse, only the United States will have the capacity to play the role of regional hegemon for the foreseeable future. A major problem arises, then, if Washington decides it is no longer interested in the role. No one doubts that despite America’s deep internal political polarization, its politicians and public share a well-documented bipartisan weariness and aversion to staying in the Gulf. Given the inertia that characterizes major policy shifts and the need to maintain the flow of oil and gas until it is no longer important, the U.S. will not soon withdraw its forces from the Gulf. However, the Gulf countries must soon deal with the possibility that Donald Trump’s nonchalant indifference to the Iranian strike that shut down Saudi Aramco’s facilities at Abqaiq may become the norm for future American administrations. The only real obstacle preventing the Biden administration from reviving the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal loathed by Saudi Arabia, has come from domestic American political animus against Tehran rather than the wishes of regional players.

The countries in the region have sensed that America’s interest has been waning. This fact, more than any other, explains the uptick in the volume of diplomatic contacts between normally-squabbling countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Persuading Uncle Sam to stay would seem to be in the interests of all GCC countries, but this would be a hard sell even if Riyadh had not burned bridges with the White House by refusing to answer President Biden’s phone calls or trying to ingratiate itself with his opponents. Such believe this strategy would work if it would help to bring Trump back; but even Trump has never concealed his disinterest in the Gulf, viewing it only as a cash cow.

The Gulf’s refusal to cooperate on the issue of Ukraine, such as by increasing oil production, does not ingratiate GCC states with any part of the American political spectrum. Despite the al-Ula agreements, the GCC adversary countries have shown no sign of coordinating foreign and national security policy. It appears that Riyadh wants a way out of Yemen but saving face has so far proven an insuperable obstacle. Only Qatar has thoroughly ingratiated itself to the United States. Without significantly increased intra-GCC cooperation, the other member states have little chance of influencing  American policy choices.

None of this is set in stone, and the future remains uncertain. However, it appears fairly clear that no other nation will step in to replace or challenge the United States as the Gulf’s protecting power. The willingness of the United States, however, to continue to play that role is unclear, despite reassuring statements from American officials. None of the Gulf states seem to know what to do about the potential loss of the security Washington provides. However, it is certain that sooner or later, an arrangement will be reached, for better or for worse; politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

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

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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