July 17, 2017

The Gulf and the Great Powers: Evolving Dynamics



Mark N. Katz

Dr. Katz, a professor at George Mason University, is a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (April-September 2017).

Eight states border the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf: seven predominantly Arab (Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman), and one predominantly non-Arab (Iran). In 1945, all eight were monarchies. The one in Iraq was overthrown in 1958, the one in Iran in 1979. In 1981, the six remaining Arab monarchies formed the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to, among other objectives, mutually protect the rule of their royal families.

Ever since the end of World War II, the decline of British influence in the region, and most especially, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there has often been sharp tension and even conflict between the Arab states of the Gulf and Iran. There has also been tension and conflict among the Arab states, most notably, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The Gulf has also been an arena in which rivalries among great powers have taken place. While the British were the predominant power in the Gulf for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they faced challenges from, among others, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Russia/the Soviet Union. Britain slowly yielded its position in the Gulf to the United States following World War II, finally withdrawing from "East of Suez" in 1971. America's predominance in the Gulf would, in turn, be challenged by the Soviet Union as well as revolutionary regimes in both Iraq and Iran.

In the Gulf, as elsewhere, states antagonistic to each other inside the region have usually been aligned with different antagonists from outside. This pattern is not at all remarkable; however, during the Obama years an unusual pattern did develop. Fearing that the U.S. administration's pursuit of an Iranian nuclear accord would lead to an improved overall relationship between Washington and their Iranian rival, some of America's traditional Gulf Arab allies sought to hedge against this by turning to other external powers for support — yet continuing their reliance on Washington. But, while other great powers (Russia, China and India as well as European states) have regarded GCC unhappiness with the Obama administration as an opportunity to improve their own ties with the GCC, they have also seized upon the Iranian nuclear accord as an opportunity to improve their relations with Tehran. Similarly, the Arab Shia-majority-dominated Baghdad government, which was brought to power by the United States, has also restored close ties with Russia and China, which had both in different ways been allies of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-minority-dominated regime.

In addition to exploring why this state of affairs has come about, this article will discuss how stable it is (especially now that Obama is no longer the American president) as well as how and why this state of affairs might change. First, though, how rivalries in the Gulf have evolved since the end of World War II will be briefly described, 1) to show that there were significant changes before the Obama era, 2) to put the interactions during the Obama era into context, and 3) to suggest future possibilities.




1945-1958: At the beginning of the Cold War, all governments in the Gulf feared the Soviet Union and Soviet-supported Marxist domestic opposition. On the Arab side, the rulers also feared Arab-Nationalist domestic opposition. Iran, the pro-British monarchy in Iraq, the British-"protected" Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia were all allied (formally or informally) with the United States. There were rivalries within the region, including between American-backed Saudi Arabia and some British-backed Gulf Arab states (especially Oman),1 but the common fear of Moscow and its allies (and later, Nasser and other Arab Nationalists) kept these rivalries in check. Except regarding Iran just after World War II, when Stalin initially proved unwilling to withdraw the occupying forces he had sent there in conjunction with the British, Moscow's role in the Gulf was not particularly strong.2 Aligned with each other, despite sharp differences during the 1956 Suez Crisis, America and Britain enjoyed great-power pre-eminence in the region.

1958-1979: The 1958 overthrow of Iraq's pro-British monarchy and its replacement with a series of "revolutionary" regimes (usually) allied with Moscow gave the Soviet Union a significant, though often difficult, ally in the Gulf.3 This period also witnessed other Soviet-backed efforts that threatened the pro-Western monarchies of the region:

• An alliance between Moscow, on the one hand, and Egypt and Syria (both hostile to Arab monarchies), on the other

• Soviet and Egyptian support for the republican side in the 1962 revolution and subsequent civil war in North Yemen

• the coming to power of a Marxist regime in South Yemen when the British withdrew in 1967

• the South Yemeni-backed Marxist insurgency in neighboring Oman in the late 1960s and early 1970s

• the rise of pro-Soviet Marxist regimes in Ethiopia and Afghanistan.4

Iran, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Arab monarchies all feared the Soviet Union and its regional allies (after the departure of the British) and grew increasingly close to the United States. There were some important differences between America's Gulf allies — the shah of Iran, just as the British were leaving, seized three islands from what became the UAE5 — but their common fears were stronger than their differences, and they all remained allied to the United States.

By the late 1970s, seven of the Gulf states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman) were allied with the United States, the eighth (Iraq) with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, though, after Iraq first threatened to annex Kuwait when it became independent from the UK in 1962, Kuwait began cultivating Baghdad's great-power patron, the USSR, in order to induce Moscow to restrain Iraq.6 It should also be noted that Communist China gave some support to anti-Western forces in the region (and elsewhere) in the 1960s and early 1970s. But, with increased Sino-Soviet tensions, as well as the Sino-American rapprochement that began in the early 1970s, Beijing largely acquiesced to American dominance in the region.7

1979-1990: The 1979 Iranian Revolution led to the overthrow of a longtime American ally in Tehran. However, unlike the usual case in the developing world during the Cold War, when the downfall of a pro-American regime typically led to its replacement by a pro-Soviet one, the Islamic Republic was anti-Soviet, too. Nor did Soviet support for Baghdad during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War endear Moscow to Tehran. Especially after Iran beat back the initial Iraqi invasion and moved into Iraq, seeking the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Moscow's ally Iraq as well as Washington's Gulf Arab allies all saw Iran as a common threat. During the mid-1980s, this resulted in an improvement both in American relations with pro-Soviet Iraq and in Soviet relations with pro-American Oman, the UAE and Qatar. Kuwait sought protection from both Washington and Moscow.

This period concluded with a number of dramatic changes affecting the international relations of the Gulf, including the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, the rise of Soviet-American cooperation under Gorbachev, and increased Iraqi hostility toward the GCC states and the West.8

At the beginning of 1990, America was allied to the six GCC states. A less active Soviet Union was no longer interested in competing with America or strongly supporting Iraq and was seeking improved ties to Iran. China and India sought good relations with all states in the region.

1990-2001: Iraq's 1990 invasion and annexation of neighboring Kuwait not only overwhelmed that small country, it was also a threat to Saudi Arabia and some of the other GCC states. This event at the end of the Cold War, when Soviet-American cooperation was strong, allowed the George H.W. Bush administration to obtain UN Security Council authorization for the use of force against Iraq and to organize a remarkable coalition of states that actively participated in the effort. (The USSR voted in favor of the resolution, and China abstained on it; as veto-wielding permanent members, either could have blocked it.) Yet, while this coalition succeeded in pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and restoring the Al Sabah monarchy, Saddam Hussein remained in power despite the continuation of the Security Council economic sanctions imposed after the invasion.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, it seemed that Moscow would play little role in the Gulf region. But as Russian-American relations cooled over the course of the 1990s, Moscow moved to improve its ties with Iran, though not too much, in deference to Washington, and with Iraq, which Moscow, among others, reportedly helped evade the full brunt of UN sanctions. In the period between Putin's rise to power at the end of 1999 and September 11, 2001, Moscow actively sought to improve ties with Iran through arms sales and an agreement to finish building the Bushehr nuclear reactor — begun by the West Germans before the 1979 revolution but which they ceased work on afterward — as well as with Saddam Hussein through seeking the removal of sanctions against Iraq.9 Fearing both Baghdad and Tehran, the GCC states remained allied with the United States. But, while Iraq and Iran both had antagonistic relations with the West, they could not really be described as allies of Russia either. This was partly because a still economically weak Russia was not willing to defy the United States during this period, and because Moscow and Tehran were unable to overcome the many differences between them. China and India, as before, both mainly pursued economic cooperation with the states of the region.10 European states actively pursued economic ties with the GCC states; many also pursued them with Iran. Like some of their Russian counterparts, some European firms reportedly aided Saddam Hussein in evading sanctions.11

2001-2009: The dramatic 9/11 attacks on American territory orchestrated by the al-Qaeda leadership from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan were followed very quickly by the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan and the downfall of the Taliban regime shortly thereafter. With the war seeming to be going well, the George W. Bush administration decided on the basis of flimsy evidence to invade Iraq in early 2003. America and its coalition partners quickly succeeded in overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime and its overmatched military. But while the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan had received UN Security Council authorization and worldwide approval, the one in Iraq did not. Russia, China and several of America's Western allies expressed vociferous objections to what they saw as an aggressive war. Saudi Arabia, in particular, was fearful that the overthrow of Saddam's regime based on the Sunni Arab minority and its replacement via elections with one based on the Shia Arab majority would lead to the rise of Iranian influence in Baghdad — a fear that was indeed borne out. Some of the smaller GCC states (most notably, Kuwait and Qatar), though, were more supportive of American actions and allowed U.S. forces to be based on their territory.

America appeared to be the dominant external power in the Gulf after it first intervened in Iraq. There was even talk about whether the Bush administration would next liberate Iran or Syria. But as the Iraq War became more difficult and problems arose between Baghdad and Washington, Iranian influence grew. Despite having opposed the overthrow of Saddam, Moscow and Beijing also cultivated good relations with the new government in Baghdad — something Washington actually encouraged, since it did not want either of these states to undermine the new Iraqi government. Despite misgivings about the Bush administration's actions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf, the GCC states all remained allied to the United States, which they saw as their main protector against a hostile Iran no longer countered by Saddam Hussein. Some European states, as well as others, actively supported the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, but as the war dragged on and became increasingly unpopular, many of them withdrew their troops.

By the end of this period, America's relations with Iran remained hostile and its influence in Iraq clearly had limits, though the "surge" in Iraq in the latter part of the Bush era did result in some improvement in the security situation there.




When Barack Obama became president in January 2009, he embarked upon two goals with regard to the Gulf. First, viewing the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq as having been a costly error that had led to a quagmire, he was determined to withdraw American forces from that country. Second, prioritizing the limitation and even elimination of weapons of mass destruction, Obama sought to negotiate an international accord whereby Iran renounced the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The benefits of this were seen by Obama as two-fold: an Iranian nuclear accord would advance his nonproliferation goals as well as improve America's relations with a long-time adversary, as Nixon had done with China and Bill Clinton had done with Vietnam.12

Pursuing these aims was not undertaken with the intention of undermining America's GCC allies or U.S. relations with them. Indeed, the Obama administration appears to have assumed that achieving an Iranian nuclear accord would enhance GCC security; the Gulf Arabs would be better off with the limits on Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons such an accord would mandate. Objections and other expressions of concern from the GCC states about Obama's pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran were viewed by him as misguided; he saw such an accord as serving the common good and objections to it as temporary. Many Asian states also initially objected to Nixon's rapprochement with China, but then seized upon it as an opportunity to improve their own relations with Beijing, especially in the realm of trade.13

Most GCC governments, though, viewed the Obama administration's initiatives regarding Iraq and Iran with alarm. Whether they supported or decried the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq to begin with, most feared that the withdrawal of American forces would lead to the strengthening of Iran's influence there and enable Tehran to more easily pursue policies hostile to GCC interests. Further, GCC governments feared that the Obama administration's enthusiasm for a nuclear agreement would result in a "bad deal" allowing Tehran to pursue its regional ambitions. Perhaps it might even be able to acquire nuclear weapons if Washington were "lulled into complacency" because of the agreement.14

GCC concerns about the Obama administration's intention to withdraw American forces from Iraq as well as seek a nuclear accord with Iran, then, did not just reflect their fears about Iran, but also a lack of confidence that the Obama administration was as committed to GCC security as previous administrations had been. The Israeli government, coincidentally, had similar concerns about Obama's outreach toward Iran.

As a result of their sense that the Obama administration was moving toward Iran, numerous commentators within the GCC called for their governments to seek support from other great powers. And while not cutting back on their ties with the United States, several GCC governments did explore the possibility of expanding security ties with other states, including Russia, China, India and the major European states as well as the EU. One of their motives was a desire "to bring Washington to its senses" by raising the prospect that its outreach to Iran could result in other states — including America's rivals — gaining influence in the GCC. Another motive was purely pragmatic: if indeed American power was declining while that of other great powers (especially Russia, China and India) was increasing, it made sense for the GCC states to begin seeking support from the rising powers.15

For their part, these external powers all welcomed the prospect of improved ties to the GCC. An increase in exports, including weapons sales, to the GCC was something all of them had long sought, and all were certainly willing to take advantage of GCC disappointment with Obama administration policies in their pursuit of economic gain. Indeed, as one French scholar pointed out to me, European nations, Russia, China and India all sought to increase their exports to the GCC, not just in competition with the United States, but with one another.

Yet while these other actual or aspiring great powers were all willing to improve their ties with the GCC states, there were limits to their enthusiasm. While the GCC states were upset with the Obama administration for wanting to improve U.S. ties with Iran, all these other great powers either already had, or wanted to have, even closer relations with Iran than Washington appeared to be contemplating. Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany were also signatories to the Iranian nuclear accord. All of them as well as others genuinely supported the Iranian nuclear accord, even if some GCC states (and Israel) did not. They saw it not only as a means of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue — none of them, after all, wanted to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons either — but also as a means of ending international sanctions so that they could all increase their trade relationships with Iran. Similarly, all these external powers sought to cooperate with the government in Baghdad, irrespective of GCC concerns about its dependence on Tehran. In short, while Russia, China, India and Europe all sought improved ties with the GCC, they simultaneously sought improved ties with Iran and Iraq. They were unwilling to give up anything, not just in terms of their actual relations with Tehran and Baghdad, but also in what they hoped to achieve in their future relations with them, for the sake of their ties with the GCC. At the same time, though, they were not willing to forgo ties to the GCC for the sake of their ties to Iran.

By the end of the Obama administration, then, relations between the states of the Gulf and external powers were complicated. The United States was still the principal great-power backer of the GCC states, but their relations with Washington were strained. The GCC was also reaching out to various European states as well as Russia, China and India, but while relations were good, none of them was willing or able to replace the United States as the GCC's principal security guarantor. Iran's relations with Russia were closer than its ties to any other great power, due mainly to their joint intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime, but neither wished to be seen as the exclusive ally of the other. Moscow was seeking improved ties with the GCC states, more successfully with some than others, even while cooperating with Iran. The Iraqi government in Baghdad had close ties with Iran, but also with the United States, despite continued tension in Iranian-American relations. While Britain and France had closer security ties to the GCC states, they, along with other European countries, pursued improved economic relations with Iran. China and India basically pursued commercial interests in all countries of the region and refused to side with either Iran or any of the GCC states against the others.

In short, during the Obama years all external great powers sought to avoid aligning completely with any one Gulf state against another, and the Gulf states sought to avoid aligning completely with any one external great power against any other. Still, despite the Obama administration's hopes for improved Iranian-American relations and GCC fears of this occurring, the strongest relationship between any of the Gulf states and an external great power was that between the GCC and the United States.




In that the pattern of interaction between external great powers and states internal to the Gulf has changed in the past, this pattern may well change again. Indeed, it would be more surprising if it did not. But how? There are several possibilities.

First, under Trump, U.S.-Iranian relations are likely to become more hostile than under Obama. The GCC states, along with Israel, might actually find this reassuring. If so, U.S. ties with the GCC could be expected to grow closer, returning, it might be said, to their pre-Obama norm. It would not be surprising, then, to see Russian-Iranian ties grow closer in response. Instead of being an arena in which the United States and Iran both warily cooperate with the Baghdad government against Islamic State, Iraq could turn into an arena of competition, as Syria has been, between the United States and some GCC states, on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other. If the Trump administration decides to disengage from Iraq, though, the GCC states will fear the prospect of an increased Iranian presence there. But Trump's leaving Iran to shoulder the burden of defending its Arab Shia allies there against ISIS may actually render Tehran less able to threaten the GCC states. The burden of fighting the opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, after all, has made Iran and Hezbollah less able to focus on their preferred target, Israel.

Another possibility relates to China and India. While states antagonistic to each other inside the Gulf are undoubtedly frustrated that Beijing and New Delhi have avoided choosing sides in the region, their behavior is consistent with the way Paul Kennedy described the behavior of rising great powers seeking to avoid involvement in conflicts between other states for as long as they can.16 On the other hand, China and India are antagonistic toward each other. Just as the Moscow-Washington rivalry led the two Cold War-era superpowers to ally with different antagonistic states inside the Gulf, China and India might do the same, if and when their rivalry grows stronger.

There are two different possibilities, though, regarding how this might occur. One is the extension of the checkerboard pattern already visible in Asia. Just as India's largest neighbors on either side of it, China and Pakistan, see India as a rival and have cooperated with each other against it, Pakistan's two largest neighbors on either side of it, India and Iran, might cooperate with each other against both Pakistan and China. This could then lead Iran's neighbors on either side, Pakistan and the GCC, to cooperate with each other (and China) against Iran (and India). Another possibility is that if — as Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell have argued — there is now an anti-Western alliance among Russia, China and Iran,17then India, which is increasingly at odds with China, may ally with the United States as well as join it in allying with the GCC states.

Still another possibility is that, as Bobo Lo has argued, declining American power is not being replaced by other great powers rising, but by disorder increasing.18 In such a situation, what are now the major external powers active in the Gulf become so consumed by problems closer to home, or even at home, that they simply do not have the capacity to involve themselves decisively in the affairs of the Gulf. In this case, the largest state in the Gulf — Iran — would have an advantage over the others. The GCC states, though, might be able to turn to Turkey for support, especially if the Iranian-Turkish rivalry heats up over Syria and Iraq.19 Or, if conflict between Iran and Israel erupts, the GCC states might benefit from any Israeli action that weakens Iran.

Making predictions about future interactions between the Gulf states and the great powers seems especially hazardous at present. There are many uncertainties with regard to the policies of the Trump administration, the future condition of Russian-American relations and Chinese-Indian relations, and the possibility of rising disorder. One thing, though, is certain: the GCC states will continue to fear Iranian intentions toward them and therefore continue to seek external support against Tehran.


1 J.B. Kelly, Arabia, the Gulf and the West: A Critical View of the Arabs and Their Oil Policy (Basic Books, 1980), 116-17.

2 Galia Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East from World War II to Gorbachev (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 44-54.

3 Oles M. Smolansky with Bettie M. Smolansky, The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence (Duke University Press, 1991).

4 Stephen Page, The USSR and Arabia: The Development of Soviet Policies and Attitudes towards the Countries of the Arabian Peninsula, 1955-1970(Central Asian Research Centre, 1971); and Talal Nizameddin, Russia and the Middle East: Towards a New Foreign Policy (St. Martin's Press, 1999), 16-43.

5 Kelly, Arabia and the Gulf, 95-6.

6 Mark N. Katz, Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 162-71.

7 Hashim S.H. Behbehani,China's Foreign Policy in the Arab World, 1955-75: Three Case Studies (Kegan Paul International, 1981).

8 Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East, 258-90; and Nizameddin, Russia and the Middle East, 44-70.

9 Mark N. Katz, "Playing the Angles: Russian Diplomacy before and during the War in Iraq," Middle East Policy 10, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 43-55.

10 Geoffrey Kemp, The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia's Growing Presence in the Middle East (Brookings Institution Press, 2010), 23-102.

11 Craig Whitlock and Glenn Frankel, "Many Helped Iraq Evade U.N. Sanctions on Weapons," Washington Post, October 8, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16142-2004Oct7.html.

12 Colin Dueck, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford University Press, 2015).

13 Thomas L. Friedman, "Obama Makes His Case on Iran Nuclear Deal," New York Times, July 14, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/opinion/thomas-friedman-obama-makes-….

14 Jamal Abdullah, "Analysis: How Will the GCC React to Iran Nuclear Deal?" Al Jazeera, June 29, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/06/analysis-gcc-react-iran-nuclear-d….

15 Mark N. Katz, "The Gulf and the Globe," Travels and Observations blog, December 8, 2011, https://katzeyeview.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/the-gulf-and-the-globe/.

16 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000(Vintage Books, 1989).

17 Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell, The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton University Press, 2016).

18 Bobo Lo, Russia and the New World Disorder (Chatham House/ Brookings Institution Press, 2015).

19 Ali Vaez, "Turkey and Iran's Dangerous Collision Course," New York Times, December 18, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/18/opinion/turkey-and-irans-dangerous-c….

1 comment:

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