President Trump has left little doubt that he would prefer to withdraw the American military from most, if not all, of its commitments and deployments abroad. We cannot ignore his statements; they reflect national fatigue, if not exhaustion, with America’s “endless wars,” especially those in the Middle East. President Obama also responded to this public sentiment, although he did not articulate his intentions quite so explicitly. Still, he did fully withdrawal from Iraq, ostensibly at the refusal of the Iraqi Government to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). In fact, many pundits claimed he did not try sufficiently to muscle the Iraqis into acquiescence.
With all this in mind, we need to consider the likelihood that President Trump, or his successor, will react to public opinion and pull back U.S. forces. In particular, it is important to understand what this could mean for the absence of the U.S. in the Gulf region.
There is a precedent for how this might play out. For a variety of reasons not pertinent to this discussion, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced in July 1967 that Britain would abandon its mainland bases East of Suez by 1977. Shortly afterward, in January 1968, Wilson accelerated his timetable and declared that all British forces would be withdrawn from Singapore, Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf by the end of 1971. Despite the temporal difference, valuable lessons can be learned by asking “What happened then?”
The smaller coastal Persian Gulf states protected by the UK panicked. Wilson may have thought he had sweetened the package by offering full political independence to the “Trucial States,” the ten quasi-independent states that now comprise the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. Britain had “protected” these coastal states since the 19th century under a euphemistically named “special treaty relationship with the United Kingdom.” This relationship allowed the British to decide such mundane matters as determining who would rule each theoretically independent state.
While the coastal states were prepared to accept political independence, they did not want the protection to go away. One of the richest rulers, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan of Abu Dhabi, went so far as to offer to quite literally pay for the expenses of keeping substantial British forces based in the region. He got stiffed and the British were gone by 1971.
Sheikh Zayed and his fellow rulers knew their history. They knew that Persia (now Iran) and the Najdi tribes (now Saudi Arabia) had historically contested control over the smaller (and generally more prosperous) states on the Arab coast of the Gulf. We should not forget that since the fourth millennium B.C. the Gulf has been the preferred trade route between the western world of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, and the eastern lands of India and China. The Gulf has produced wealth from exports such as pearls, (and now oil and gas), for nearly just as long. Early history indicates that this Arab/Persian rivalry also goes back several millennia. The Yemeni- originated Lakhmid Kingdom fought the Persian Sassanid dynasty during the 7th and 8th centuries for control over the region. (If you want to know who won in the end, it was the Persians.) Only outside actors could keep these predatory neighbors at bay. The British were not the first. We have historic evidence that a Christian Gulf state known as Bayt Qatreyieh, declared itself independent of the Persian Church – and presumably the Persian State – in about 640 A.D., contemporaneously with Persia’s defeat at the hands of the East Roman Emperor Heraclius.
The record indicates that Persia, now Muslim, reasserted control over the Gulf until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. It appears that the locals – at least in Bahrain – welcomed the Portuguese. Oman, (which had kept Iran at a distance through adroit diplomacy and significant sea power over much of the Indian Ocean and East Africa), did not display the same keenness for the Portuguese. Unfortunately, it lacked the firepower to keep them at bay. A century later, the English entered the fray; at first helping Persia to expel the Portuguese. The English were also busily contesting Portugal for control over India. By the mid-18th century, the Najdi tribes (now led by the Al-Saud clan and allied with the new religious movement of the followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab), asserted themselves anew. This in turn introduced a new outside actor, the Ottomans, who worked to suppress the Wahhabis/Saudis and, not surprisingly, stake their own claim to the Gulf’s Arab coast. In fact, as late as the 1860s the Qataris placed themselves under Ottoman protection. In turn, the British, ostensibly to suppress piracy, slowly established control of virtually the entire Arab coast of the Gulf in the 19th century; a control which they relinquished in 1971.
Why this historical detour? Because it helps us better understand what the consequences of an American withdrawal could mean for the present moment.
Let’s return to 1971 and the Royal Navy disappearing over the horizon. Persia (now Iran) and the Najdi tribes (now Saudi Arabia) appeared as if on cue to play their historic roles. The Saudis worked hard to reestablish influence, provoking a rebellion in Oman, and seeking to prevent Sheikh Zayed from creating a single Gulf political entity. The latter was ultimately successful, and his efforts became the United Arab Emirates. However, by stirring up dynastic and geographic rivalries between the two states, the Al-Saud succeeded in keeping Qatar and Bahrain out of the new federation. Riyadh has continued to pursue territorial claims against all the states of the Arabian littoral, and a few years ago arguably reduced Bahrain to feudal vassalage.
Iran (under the Shah) also asserted historic territorial claims to Bahrain and strategic islands. Almost all Gulf Arabs believe the British green-lighted Iranian seizures of the Tunbs and Abu Musa islands in return for their dropping of similar claims against Bahrain.
The U.S., the only other world power that had the capacity to replace the British in the Gulf, chose to support Saudi primacy by refusing any direct security relationship with the newly independent states. Washington D.C. would not entertain any request for arms sales from the smaller states. The U.S. even turned down a Qatari request for 0.50” caliber machineguns.
Bereft of outside protectors, and unable to coalesce politically because of dynastic rivalries, each coastal state struck out on its own. Bahrain (and to a lesser degree Qatar) became Saudi tributaries, trading “protection” for Saudi interference and on occasion, humiliation. Kuwait, (trapped uncomfortably between the three most powerful regional powers: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran) was able to play them off one another with some success. Oman, protected by mountains, faced less of a threat, but did ultimately cultivate ties with Iran. The UAE cultivated support from Iraq, the most distant and thus least threatening of the powerful regional players.
The coastal Gulf States did not interpret Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution as significantly changing the region’s threat parameters. History had taught them that Iran was Persia, regardless of its rulers. Only Saudi Arabia saw the Iranian revolution as an emerging threat to its primacy within the larger Muslim world.
U.S. policy changed following the Iraqi attack on Iran in October 1980 and the ensuing 1980-88 war. The U.S. realized the coastal states, (which were soon to coalesce as the GCC), would not enter an alliance dominated by Saudi Arabia, and grudgingly began to develop bilateral military ties with the coastal states.
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait changed everything. The coastal states made it clear that Saudi Arabia could not defend even itself, let alone the others, and served only to call the Americans. They could do that themselves.
After Desert Storm, the U.S. found itself in an enviable position. Each of the GCC states wanted American protection, and the U.S. took up the invitation. America replaced Britain’s role, but with the added advantage that, unlike the British, it did not interfere much in local rule. The years between 1990 and 2003 represented the high point of the American presence in the Gulf.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq upset this balance. The U.S. incapacitated the one Arab state that threatened both traditional predators. After 2005, and upon the realization that the U.S. was no longer behaving rationally, private discussion began among the coastal Arab governments regarding alternative outside protection. At the time, the substitutions were less than appetizing. The British and French had pretensions but lacked real deterrent power. A weakened Russia still had power, but was seen as too close to Iran. China and Japan had vital economic interests in the political independence of the coastal states, but lacked the requisite military power. In addition, they had shown no signs that they might even be willing to take on the role. India presented an interesting case. New Delhi indeed retained the power and proximity to deploy, but was seen as an extra-regional threat due to the influence it could exercise over the millions of Indians living and working in the GCC.
The coastal states’ leadership saw U.S. policy as confusing and unreliable. Subsequently, they developed a keen interest in better understanding of American domestic politics. Most were disappointed by John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 and the forlorn return to ‘normal’ his candidacy represented. Obama received an early welcome, however, his obvious desire to reduce America’s footprint in the region soured their optimism. On the other hand, the Gulf states saw President Trump as a tough cowboy who would restore American primacy and presence. However, recent actions have caused a great deal of heartburn, even among the regional states who cultivated him. In sum, each of the states now finds themselves casting about for alternatives.
Gulf State leaders read Foreign Affairs, and other such publications as much as any observer of U.S. foreign policy. Therefore, they know that a massive American realignment away from their region is on the table. The contradictory and confusing signals emanating from Washington and from the White House in particular, have only added to their worries. President Trump has made clear he intends to use military force only to protect narrowly defined U.S. interests.
The U.S. has several options to reduce its footprint and involvement.
- COSMETIC: The U.S. stays everywhere but reduces its troop numbers. This represents the best possible “withdrawal” from the point of view of the coastal states and Saudi Arabia. It also gives the U.S. more options in dealing with ISIS, al-Qaeda and positions Washington to challenge the Iranian footprint in Iraq and Syria. However, this option saves little money and puts the troops remaining at smaller isolated bases at greater risk. Optically, it could not be sold to the American voting public as a real withdrawal.
- STRATEGIC: The U.S. pulls out of Iraq and Syria, but retains a few strategic bases such as the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet at Bahrain, the U.S. Air Force’s forward HQ for CENTCOM at Qatar’s al-Udeid, and as-Sayliyah, the U.S. Army’s prepositioning facility outside Doha. This option makes sense strategically in that it leaves the U.S. in place for major contingencies, while still reducing risk to isolated garrisons. However, like the cosmetic option, it cannot be sold as a major withdrawal to the American public. It brings relatively few troops home and saves only a small amount of money. It will also enrage Saudi Arabia and the UAE, countries that will find a Qatar-centric American military presence intolerable.
- MAXIMUM: The U.S. pulls all combat troops from all bases while retaining an offshore presence with regular visits by U.S. Navy formations. In its absence, it will also continue reassuring allies by participating in sporadic exercises with U.S. air and ground forces flown in for the occasion. Washington would retain military training missions to support arms sales and influence local militaries. In this scenario, the risk to U.S. forces declines to nearly zero. Costs would also drop dramatically and the U.S. public would seemingly get what it wants. The U.S. could still protect against a conventional invasion from Iran, but little else. None of the Arab Gulf states like this option, but have little choice other than to, proverbially, make the best of it.
For this article, we should discuss the “maximum” option, as it would be the most likely to settle domestic American political requirements. As noted, the Gulf States will seek other options. Doing nothing ensures that Iran would be in a position to exploit diplomacy, pursue subversion, and otherwise intimidate the coastal Gulf states, taking hegemonic steps with little fear of pushback. The Gulf states would work to resist as best they could, but history tends to repeat itself: unbridled Persia always wins. Some states will work to ameliorate Tehran’s ascendance.
The GCC states will do what they can to entice an outside power to fill the vacuum. They all talk to some degree about allying with Israel, but nothing indicates Israel would devote the resources required without the Americans taking the lead and the biggest risks. Russia clearly has the military and diplomatic means to rein in Iran (should it choose to do so) and will without a doubt push itself aggressively into the role of protector. Moscow does not want a hegemonic Iran and would build on its presence in Syria and its good diplomatic relations with Israel to flex its muscle. The Russians will try to focus to the maximum degree possible on rebuilding relationships with Iraq. However, Russian containment of Iran has a price, including the demand for real political support internationally and regionally from all players. They would expect coordination on gas and oil export policies, in addition to a big shift in procurement to Russian weapons systems.
The UAE has made clear it wants to build itself up to be an independent force that can challenge both Iran and Saudi Arabia while intimidating its smaller neighbors. Each of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran – as well as Qatar and most Yemeni factions – will do whatever is necessary to prevent this from happening. Oman in particular will do what it can to undo whatever UAE influence remains in Yemen. The Omanis have historical experience with the British and will again do what they can to entice some kind of return of British power. Post-Brexit Britain, unfortunately, might be too broke to respond, and the Omanis are not rich enough to shoulder the price required to rebuild British forces.
Saudi Arabia has already indicated that it will try to get the attention of either Russia or China. Riyadh would prefer the latter, as it has consistently shown that its primary interests are economic and commercial. Beijing would demand a price for protection, but that price would likely come in the form of cash, business ties, and hydrocarbons. However, China still lacks the ability to extend credible military power far beyond its immediate neighborhood.
Qatar has already established ties with Turkey but it may find itself disappointed. President Erdogan may wish to reestablish a form of Ottoman hegemony over the region but has made the mistake of taking on too many enemies at the same time. Turkish troops have engaged in Syria, threatened Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and have deployed to Libya. Should this not be stretching their resources enough, Turkey runs the additional risk of a major military confrontation with Greece over Mediterranean seabed issues.
If Kuwait observes Russia stepping up its relations with Iraq (which it probably still counts as a greater threat), it would face the dilemma of cultivating Iran or Russia as a counterweight. It may also reach out to Turkey, but as we have seen that maybe a weak reed.
In short, a withdrawal of the U.S. would not be the end of the world for the Gulf coastal states. It will, however, become a much more complicated region to manage. The obvious solution to the problems created by an American withdrawal would be for the coastal states to build a stronger defense-oriented GCC. However, given that the smaller states regard Saudi Arabia more as a predator rather than a partner, it cannot function unless it does not include the Kingdom. Riyadh will do its utmost to undermine any intra-coastal alliance of Gulf states. The U.S. has done little to strengthen the GCC; its withdrawal will put to rest any desire to do so in the future. The GCC will probably remain alive, albeit on life support.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.