The Gulf Arab states, it seems, are no longer banking on their so-called strategic partners. Instead of waiting and watching – as decisions are taken by some global powers, sometimes without consulting with them even though they may be affected by their outcomes – these states are taking their destinies in their own hands.
The fate of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany), have entered their most delicate phase. Regardless of this, the GCC member states led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia are implementing a bold but pragmatic vision at a time when flexibility and adaptation are needed.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tour of the Gulf last week fits this context, as do joint statements issued by the various GCC member states. Clear roadmaps for bilateral ties have been drawn while their positions on regional crises under way in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen have been clarified. Visits made by high-level Emirati officials to Turkey and Iran suggest that political realism has led to a shift in relations between key Arab states and their non-Arab neighbours. These efforts follow a qualitative leap in relations between some Gulf states and Israel, established last year with the Abraham Accords.
During this week’s UAE Security Forum in Washington, Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to President Sheikh Khalifa, spoke of the need to “avoid vacuum and escalation” with adversaries and rival powers. He made the case for giving as much impetus to economic growth and prosperity as is given to security and stability. His point was clear: there will be a different approach to development and progress, as well as in the Gulf states' relations with countries such as the US, China and India.
During his lecture, Dr Gargash pointed to the evolving nature of Gulf-American relations over the past four decades. In 1980, for example, Washington adopted the Carter Doctrine that allowed the US to use military force to defend its interests in the Arabian Gulf region, in response to the erstwhile Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. At the time, US president Jimmy Carter deemed it a serious threat to the freedom of navigation for oil supplies from the Middle East.
Today, Dr Gargash said, major conflicts that implicate the US in the region should be avoided. America getting embroiled in a conflict such as the one in Iraq would be in no one’s interest, he said.
While stressing that the US remains the UAE’s foremost strategic ally, he emphasised that avoiding an escalation of tensions or a power vacuum in the region, such as the one exploited by ISIS in Iraq a few years ago, would be America’s primary contribution to regional stability.
According to Dr Gargash, we are entering an era of crisis management and conflict resolution, achieved first through initiating ceasefires before searching for political solutions and coming up with bold policies. Examples include the Abraham Accords, the Gulf's engagement with Turkey, the UAE senior officials' visits to Syria and Iran, and the reaffirmation of Al Ula Declaration between GCC member states.
The Gulf states don’t wish for the Vienna talks – aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal – to fail. But they worry that tensions between Iran on the one side and the US and Israel on the other would have implications for their security, especially in the event of escalation and confrontation. This explains their engagement with Iran. Indeed, the Gulf states are seeking rapprochement in the region, whether it is between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the UAE vis-a-vis Turkey, or in Egypt-Turkey relations. Diplomatic movements suggest there is an insistence on moving away from escalation of tensions towards containment of crises, and on replacing confrontation with collaboration.
On the nuclear talks, however, the future doesn't seem all that bright.
One of Iran’s gambits involves promoting the idea of readopting the 2015 nuclear agreement as it is – without any adjustments or upgrades – coupled with a non-binding communique that would do little more than express American or European wishes for other clauses. In other words, the non-binding statement alone would tackle issues such as monitoring mechanisms for Iran’s nuclear programme, ballistic missiles programme, and perhaps express a wish to see a more constructive role in the region. However, its basis would be adopting the nuclear agreement in its original formulation without any modifications.
The regime is also adopting the tactic of intimidation. Tehran has stated that it is in no rush to cut a nuclear deal on just any terms, and that in case no deal is reached before the Christmas holidays, it could take its time to return to further negotiations. It even seems willing to issue an official statement saying it can live without a nuclear deal.
One precondition Iran has put forward to the US and the Europeans is that all economic sanctions be lifted in one go. The Biden administration won't accept it, nor will it be willing to issue any non-binding statement.
But if this were to lead to the Vienna talks collapsing, could it create fissures between the western governments? It is possible. However, the Biden administration is also aware that it needs to work with the Europeans on the Iran nuclear issue in return for seeking Brussels' co-operation on the brewing crisis in Ukraine, which is on edge amid talk of a possible conflict with neighbouring Russia.
With the West moving slowly and Iran attempting to create a wedge between governments on either side of the Atlantic, the Gulf states are rejigging their priorities and repositioning themselves on the basis of a clear vision in the larger interests of the region.