To preserve Western interests in the Gulf, we need to expand the scope of our engagement


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein
Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein

Distinguished Senior Fellow for Diplomatic Engagement and Director of the Arabian Peninsula Affairs Program at the Middle East Institute

Photo of This article is part of our Diplomacy in the Middle East series.
This article is part of our Diplomacy in the Middle East series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Diplomacy in the Middle East series.

The structure of power and diplomacy in inner- and inter-state relations in the Middle East is once again undergoing profound transformations. In the 20th century, the power architecture inherited from colonial rule condemned the region to instability, leaving behind questionable borders and dissatisfied ethnic minorities, and ultimately fuelling state and non-state actors to challenge existing territorial sovereignty.

More recently, the renegotiation of the role of civil society during the Arab Spring demonstrated the existence of seeds of change, which have been silently growing long before the first protests in Tahrir Square. Several political dialogues materialised in the early 2010s but failed to bring about stability in the region. Today, much uncertainty surrounds the future of Middle Eastern diplomacy and politics.

Our Diplomacy in the Middle East series focuses on the most prominent issues affecting the Middle East, with the aim of learning from the past, understanding current challenges and contemplating the role of hard and soft diplomacy throughout the region.

Drawing together the expertise and experiences of diplomats and foreign policy experts from across the Middle East, Europe and the United States, this series addresses topics such as Iran’s influence within and outside the region, the fate of Syria, peace processes in the Middle East and the stabilisation of Iraq.

United States President Biden’s mid-July visit to the Gulf region to meet with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) +3 – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq – intended to stabilise US relations with its regional partners. The tensions that flared earlier in the year largely reflected differences over the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and the related need to secure adequate global energy supplies in the face of Russian threats. But the emergence of these tensions only exacerbated strains in relations already complicated by managing differences over the Iranian threat to regional security, the war in Yemen and disagreements about human rights and civil liberties, as personified by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi case.

It is no surprise that both Biden’s effort to mitigate, if not reverse, the downward trajectory of relations with regional partners and the accompanying media coverage focused on the twin pillars of traditional US and Western engagement with the region: defence and energy. Thus, the US-GCC Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of their summit meeting lauded “the ongoing efforts of OPEC+ towards stabilizing the global oil market in the interests of consumers, producers, and supporting economic growth.” For their part, the GCC leaders assembled in Jeddah “welcomed President Biden’s affirmation of the United States’ commitment to its strategic partnership with GCC member states, and that it stands ready to work jointly with its partners in the GCC to deter and confront all external threats to their security, as well as against threats to vital waterways, especially the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab.”

But, as Biden made clear, the Gulf states’ orientation towards the US and the West is under threat of a vacuum that might be filled by China or Russia. In fact, while the expansion of Russian engagement in the region is largely a reflection of its traditional emphasis on its status as a potential provider of energy and defence goods and services, China’s relations are broader and deeper. It is established as the principal economic partner for several of the GCC states; it has promoted a deepening relationship through its Belt and Road Initiative; and it is increasingly a purveyor not only of consumer technology but also of defence goods, particularly those, like ballistic missiles, that the US and Western governments have been reluctant to provide. In recognition of those changing dynamics, leaders in the Gulf have made clear that they do not want to see their region become an arena for the US-China-Russia strategic competition.

Not only will Russia and, potentially, China compete for roles in the defence and security arena, but the GCC states themselves have made it clear that they want to ‘turn the page’ on regional tensions

It is also clear that the traditional reliance of regional states on the US and its Western allies for defence and security may no longer be sufficient to ensure their primacy as a partner, even leaving aside exaggerated assertions of declining US commitment. Not only will Russia and, potentially, China compete for roles in the defence and security arena, but the GCC states themselves have made it clear that they want to ‘turn the page’ on regional tensions and are looking for opportunities to lower the temperature and reduce the threat of conflict. In that regard, UAE diplomatic advisor Anwar Gargash indicated in late July that the UAE is seeking to reopen diplomatic relations with Tehran. As a result, it is less likely that the Gulf states will prioritise access to defence goods and services in their evaluation of their foreign relations.

Thus, the US and the West, recognising that strong relations with partners in the Gulf region are critical to their interests, need to expand the scope of their engagement with the Gulf states beyond defence and energy. However, the good news is that the West is well-positioned to compete in this evolving regional framework. As regional states emphasise economic diversification and a move away from dependence on fossil fuels for their economic well-being, access to Western technology and the capital markets dominated by New York and London will be essential to their success. Moreover, the challenges that are likely to drive regional developments in the coming years, such as managing the impact of climate change and strengthening regional public health capabilities to deal with the inevitable next pandemic, are areas in which Western public and private sector institutions are far more advanced and capable than any competitor.

Moving forward, it will be important for Western governments to develop strategies for assisting regional states in building the structures and acquiring the capabilities to manage these rising challenges. Through expanding these frameworks for cooperation and coordination, Western governments can ensure sustained preferential relations with regional counterparts.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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