New geopolitical winds blow in Arabian Gulf, say policy specialists

At the conclusion of the Manama Forum, International Institute for Strategic Studies specialists say the region needs to navigate new US posture and harness economic power to help deal with Iran threats

Delegates attend the opening of the 15th Manama Dialogue, a regional security summit organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in the Bahraini capital on November 22, 2019.  / AFP / Mazen Mahdi

Decision-makers in the Arabian Gulf face the immediate challenge of dealing with changing US involvement in the Middle East and translating economic leverage into security gains to counter Iran.

This was the assessment of senior policy specialists from the International Institute for Security Studies at the conclusion of the Manama Forum, a main gathering organised by the institute that concluded in Bahrain on Sunday.

Deputy head Kori Schake said “anxiety” about diminished US involvement has spread in the region over the past year.

“At the same time there is a desire for (home-grown) regional solutions. Navigating the two things will be a big part of the challenge,” Ms Schake told the concluding session of the Manama Forum.

Middle East specialist Emile Hokayem said the US retrenchment can be traced to the presidency of Barack Obama. But it took a new dimension under President Donald Trump, prompting the region’s leaders to hedge their bets, said Mr Hokayem, pointing to strengthened ties with China and Russia.

“There is an understanding in the region that there are structural factors driving that. The change is how the US talks about the region, especially this extreme transactional nature of the mindset on what were pretty strong traditional relationships,” Mr Hokayem said.

He said Mr Trump has shifted “US investment in Gulf security as a global public good to a more a more transactional affair, which is shaping the fundamentals of the region.”

Gulf leaders have also reacted to the new picture by adding tools to their economic power, seeking to alter a traditional model of oil exports and goods import to making and attracting foreign investment, said John Raine, who specialises in geopolitical assessment.

Mr Raine said the diversification is a departure from “ the very comfortable geometry in the Gulf to which we have been used.” But he cautioned that it was risky.

“In the forging of international relationships that underpin these economic plans there are new security dilemmas and challenges,” Mr Raine said.

Hasan Alhasan, a fellow in the institute, pointed to recent “forays" of oil and gas investment in Asia by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

He said “these trade and investment gains” need to yield security advantages, especially after the September 14 attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil plants.

The Asian states condemned the attack, claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, “but did not want really to turn the finger at Iran,” Mr Alhasan said.

“It is a perception that the Gulf states will be trying to change,” said Mr Alhasan, a former official in the government of Bahrain.

Mr Al Hasan said the US withdrawal last year from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has helped Tehran present itself as a victim, a narrative supported by China.

“The Asian perspective is very critical. The Asian economies are not only the major economic partners of Iran. They are primary buyers of Iranian oil including during the time of sanctions. They continue to do so usually under the table,” he said.

“Watch the security economic nexus very closely,” Mr Alhasan said. "A large portion of global economic growth depends on it”.