America’s friends in the Gulf are a little less pro-West these days.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were all poised for a United
States military strike on Syria after its apparent use of chemical weapons last month. But as the prospect for a military strike seems to be receding, US popularity is going along with it.
“Both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pointed at [Syrian
President] Bashar Assad and said he’s responsible,” Craig Nelson, the foreign editor of The National, told The Media Line. “But when it comes to what to do about it, there’s a real break. Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to punish Bashar and they see President Obama as backing down. They see him as a weak leader.”
Iran is much closer to the Arab Gulf states than is Syria, and it’s much more of a threat.
In that sense, any move that strengthens Assad strengthens Iran; and any move that weakens Assad weakens Iran.
“Syria is the first line of defense for Iran in the region,” Abdulla Abdulkhaleq, a professor of political science at UAE University, told The Media Line. “If the Assad regime were to fall, that would be a strategic blow to Iran in the region.”
Worried about Tehran’s territorial and nuclear ambitions, a senior official in the UAE told The Media Line that when it comes to the Iran issue, his country has a shared interest with Israel, even if there are no diplomatic relations between them.
“If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all,” he said on the condition of anonymity.
In Israel, even though Syria sits on the country’s northern border, there is far more concern about Iran. Officials here have repeatedly said they are staying out of the conflict with Syria, while warning that Israel will retaliate harshly if it is attacked.
“Our agenda is not an Israeli agenda, but if it coincides, so be it,” Abdulkhaleq said.
Officials in both Israel and the Gulf say the current crisis over Syria is a rehearsal for a bigger issue over Iran.
Leaders in the region reason that if President Obama backs down from his oft-stated position that use of chemical weapons would necessitate an American response, then he may also be expected to retreat from another red line: Iran becoming a nuclear power.
“Saudis really have it in for Iran,” Nelson says. “[Saudi Arabia’s] King Abdullah himself,
who is quite old and rarely makes public statements, has come out against Assad. He says that anything that benefits Assad is benefiting Tehran, and that’s not a good thing for us.”
Monarchies in the region are Sunni Muslim, as is the majority of the population in Syria, so the escalating humanitarian crisis has angered many in the Gulf States.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent billions of dollars arming the Syrian rebels. The
US has delivered non-lethal aid, but not weapons.
Despite their frustration with President Obama’s lack of action on Syria, it’s unlikely that the close ties between Washington and its allies in the Gulf will be disturbed.
“The Americans are still needed here -- they are the indispensable super power around and that will remain for some time,” Abdulkhaleq said. “We don’t have any other insurance company, and we live in a dangerous area.”