Saudis, Gulf states ‘unnerved by US pivot away from Middle East’

Obama administration seeking to calm Arab allies’ fears with arms sales and trade agreements, expert says, but that won’t be enough if Iran gets the bomb

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is greeted by Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Fahd bin Abdullah, left, upon his arrival at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, on April 23, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is greeted by Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Fahd bin Abdullah, left, upon his arrival at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, on April 23, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool)

WASHINGTON – In a bid to calm regional concern that the United States is withdrawing from a troubled Middle East, the Obama administration is working to strengthen ties with several Persian Gulf states, according to experts.

Many of America’s staunchest regional allies believe the Obama administration is seeking to focus less on the Middle East and its troubles and more on other regions with greater geopolitical clout, like East Asia. Several Middle Eastern countries have read American behavior — the so-called strategic “pivot” to Asia, cuts in the defense budget, and the unwillingness to intervene in Syria — as signs of growing American reluctance to shoulder the burden of regional security.

“We’re seeing the Obama administration trying desperately to have it both ways. They believe we’re over-invested in the Middle East and want to diminish our investment, but they’re starting to understand it’s terrifying to people in the region,” according to Kenneth Pollack, a veteran Middle East analyst at Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

That fear is focused on the ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis, which Israel and many Arab states view as the single greatest threat to their security.

The tensions in the region are on the rise. Saudi Arabia recently announced it has captured at least 28 members of an alleged Iranian spy ring in two waves of arrests in March and May, and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned last week that the Iranian nuclear program was a “danger” to the “security of the whole region.”

Kenneth Pollack (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kenneth Pollack (photo credit: Courtesy)

The UAE has also seen a ratcheting up of tension with Iran. In mid-2012, the UAE, together with the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, reported to the UN that they were enforcing UN sanctions against Tehran more strictly.

“The fact that these two countries are now taking steps to enforce the sanctions, and reporting those steps to the UN, is remarkable by itself,” a senior Security Council diplomat told UAE’s The National newspaper in September 2012. “It shows that the UN sanctions regime can work. UAE has been one of Iran’s enablers. Iran’s becoming more isolated.”

And in May, the UAE protested Iran’s threats against nearby Bahrain over its crackdown on Shi’ite leaders in the tiny kingdom. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed called the Iranian threats — in which an Iranian deputy foreign minister warned Bahrain to “expect an unexpected reaction” — “a serious problem with our neighbor.”

Similarly, Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General Abdullatif Al-Zayani last month blasted what he called “Iranian systematic interference” in the Arab states of the area.

While tensions with Iran are on the rise, America’s allies are questioning the Obama administration’s desire to stay the course in the region.

“The Saudis are feeling uncertain about the future of the US-Saudi relationship, which has been a cornerstone of Saudi security since World War II,” according to Pollack, who is a noted former CIA Iran analyst and a former director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council.

The concern: America’s regional allies are reading clear signs of the superpower’s desire to disentangle itself from the region. Despite criticism, the US has done little to affect the course of battle in the Syrian civil war. And despite repeated requests from allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration has declined to order military action to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, instead opting for continued diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Middle Eastern allies have also noted the administration’s much-discussed strategic “pivot” away from what many administration officials view as the distractions of the Middle East to the more geopolitically weighty issues related to the growing influence of China.

“This administration believes that the US has over-invested in the region in the past 40 years,” Pollack says. Pollack fears “the Middle East has gotten much worse because of that belief. The Saudis in particular are increasingly uncomfortable with the Obama administration’s approach, and we’re beginning to see the Saudis take a stronger role in their security,” including strengthening ties with China.

In order to calm these fears, the US has sought heightened security and economic ties with regional allies, including a series of major arms sales and trade agreements.

The most recent example: The State Department announced this week the signing of a US-Saudi Open Skies agreement in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was signed Tuesday by the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James B. Smith and Saudi Arabia’s deputy director of the General Authority of Civil Aviation, Faisal bin Hamad Al-Sugair.

The agreement loosens government regulation and interference in air traffic between the two countries, “eliminating restrictions on how often the carriers fly, the kind of aircraft they use and the prices they charge,” the State Department said in a statement. The agreement is intended to strengthen business ties between the two countries “by expanding opportunities for air services and encouraging vigorous price competition by airlines.”

Meanwhile, efforts to cement the US-Saudi security relationship have reached unprecedented levels.

A State Department spokesman praised US-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation, telling a Saudi journalist in Washington this week that “Saudi Arabia has been a key counterterrorism partner and a country that we work with very closely and effectively on counterterrorism issues.”

The US has also worked to upgrade regional militaries that might be called upon to counter Iran in any future crisis. In 2010, the US signed a massive $30 billion sale of 84 F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. Last month, it announced another massive defense deal, selling 26 F-16s to the United Arab Emirates and advanced missiles to both Gulf states capable of being launched in friendly territory and penetrating with great accuracy far behind an opponent’s borders.

The reported May air strikes by Israel on Syrian weapons stockpiles destined for Hezbollah were reportedly carried out using a similar maneuver.

The new sales enhance the deterrent power of the Saudi and UAE militaries, as their responses to potential Iranian aggression could include air strikes on targets far behind the front lines without the two countries’ pilots having to penetrate Iranian airspace.

While the Saudis have been “concerned” about a US withdrawal from the region, these new initiatives mark “an effort by both parties to reaffirm their commitment to each other,” says Pollack

But it may not be enough, Pollack fears. If the US fails to prevent Iran’s attainment of a nuclear weapons capability, “the Saudis would have to reassess” their security dependence on the US.

The Saudis might opt to use the threat of launching their own nuclear weapons program – a scenario that could lead to a domino effect of nuclear proliferation in an unstable region – to obtain stronger US security guarantees.

According to Pollack, if the Obama administration’s policy of prevention fails, as the Saudis and other US allies in the region now believe to be likely, the US will likely find itself drawn into far greater investment in the region.

The US may have to offer “a defense treaty where we explicitly say that an attack on the Saudis is an attack on the United States. The US would have to say that there won’t be an Iranian-Saudi crisis or an Iranian-Kuwaiti crisis or an Iranian-Israeli one. Any crisis, any aggression by Iran, would create an Iranian-US crisis. That would be the best answer.”

Most Popular
read more: