Survivor, Gulf Style

Posted in Broader Middle East | 17-Dec-07 | Author: Barry Rubin| Source: GLORIA Center

Let's say you rule an Arab state in the Persian Gulf--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. How does the world look to you right now?

Remember, of course, that what you think is not necessarily what you say. Unfortunately, there are many Western observers who don't seem to understand this simple point. Publicly, Gulf leaders complain about the United States and the alleged Israeli threat, flaunting their dedication to the Arab cause, passionate commitment to the Palestinians, and beliefs in Muslim solidarity even toward neighboring Iran.

Privately, it's something altogether different.

Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's nineteenth-century dictator, once supposedly lamented, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States."

The Gulf monarchs feel themselves very close to God indeed but they are far from the United States and extremely near Iran, Syria, revolutionary Islamists, and bloodthirsty terrorists. A lot of their own people think the same way as those difficult folks, in part because--though of course this is not the only reason--their leaders have promoted or tolerated many of those same ideas.

But again, Iran is very near and the Gulf Arabs know how ruthless and ambitious its leaders happen to be. They don't share Western illusions in this regard. Consequently, they are terrified that Iran will get nuclear weapons. After all, who would be more threatened by that outcome than themselves? Â Yet they are equally scared that open and energetic support for stopping Tehran's nuclear ambitions will be punished by Iran someday.

After all, can they really depend on the United States? They complain publicly when it is tough and privately fear its being soft. Horrified by the prospect of America attacking Iran, fright at it not doing so drives them toward appeasement. In theory, they are all for a broad front to stop the spread of radical Islamism, yet rarely will they lift a finger to do much for that cause. And their own constant anti-American criticism and opposition to Western policies also undermine attempts to defend them. As a result, they give Washington little help, thus undermining any chance to build an anti-Iran coalition.

This also applies to Iraq, where publicly Gulf Arabs usually urge American withdrawal while privately viewing such an event with horror. Much of the violence in Iraq, of course, is paid for and implemented by Saudis, ensuring instability in that country. They carry out the anti-Iran struggle by helping usually pro-bin Ladin Sunni kill supposedly pro-Tehran Shia. On this front, at least, they are battling Iran but, ironically, in a way that also fights against the United States.

And what of the Arab-Israeli conflict, supposedly their overwhelming preoccupation. In general, their approach--at least behind the scenes--is cynical. A Saudi official opening a secret conversation with an Israeli counterpart some years ago said something like, "The Palestinians must have a state. Â Jerusalem must be liberated. OK, that's out of the way so let's talk."

Of course, the Gulf Arab rulers know how passionately--partly due to their own propaganda--their masses would be infuriated at peace, and how greatly their political rivals would take advantage of any real moderation to brand them as traitors. There is in Gulf ruling circles, especially and perhaps primarily in Saudi Arabia, genuine hatred, bizarre ideas, and terrified fear of Jews. Yet this is equaled by tremendous disinterest in really helping Palestinians. During the 1990s, American officials went to the Gulf to beg, in vain, for financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. It is not that concern over the Arab-Israeli conflict is phony so much as this issue's priority is ridiculously exaggerated by observers from the standpoint of Gulf Arab regimes.

In a real sense, the attitude toward the conflict is to tell the West: it's your problem, not our problem. The Saudis might show up at the Madrid conference in 1991 or the Annapolis meeting in 2007 but that's about the extent of their effort. Or at most they will simply give the Palestinians and Syrians veto power, saying that when those two decide the conflict is over the Arab states will accept that decision.

As in other cases, the Gulf Arabs want the United States to make problems go away with no risk or sacrifice on their part. They then blame the West for not doing so, a campaign that often finds lots of people in that region foolish enough to believe this propaganda

What most Gulf Arabs want, though, is neither jihad nor an Islamist empire but simply security for themselves. By cheering on and often subsidizing jihad--at least outside their own countries--they hope to buy themselves immunity from the radicals' violence and revolutionary instability. They seek Western protection and practice appeasement simultaneously as parts of a single coherent policy. The goal is material well-being for themselves and peace at home.

Gulf Arab regimes applauded and subsidized the radical Nasserists and Baathists for decades convinced that the West they maligned would save them whenever needed. They were proved right. In the 1980s, the United States led a coalition to stave off Iran and convoy their oil tankers; in 1991, an American-organized alliance drove Iraq out of Kuwait. History, they hope, will repeat itself.

The problem with this approach is that their policy denies peace, progress, and stability for others, in fact often makes bloodshed and conflict inevitable in large parts of the Middle East. And, irony of ironies, the same strategy they are pursuing might end by blowing up their own houses.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal . His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley) .