Commentary on “The Approaching Turning Point”

by Yoginder Sikand

The American invasion and occupation of Iraq has set the stage for a major transformation in America's policy vis-à-vis the Gulf States, particularly with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has consistently been a major US ally in the region, and especially after the Iranian revolution in 1979 it has worked closely with America on several fronts, most notably to counter anti-monarchical and democratic forces in the region. Saudi Arabia is the largest market for American products in the region, and also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the largest importer of American arms. American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia guard the country, providing the Wahhabi regime with solid defence against both internal as well as external opponents. In turn, America has access to Saudi oil, said to account for a fourth of the world's known reserves.

That cozy relationship between the Saudis and the Americans is now being seriously reconsidered by policy makers in Washington. This is strikingly illustrated in a recent report brought out by the Brookings Institute, a major American think-tank. Titled 'The Approaching Turning Point: The Future of US relations with the Gulf States', it is authored by F. Gregory Gause III, director of the Middle East Studies Programme at the University of Vermont.

Gause argues that owing to numerous domestic and international factors American policy in the Gulf is today in the midst of a 'sea change'. Within Saudi Arabia, he notes, there is growing opposition to the presence of US troops stationed in the country, which, in turn, has resulted in a major challenge to the ruling family, a key American ally. On the American side, the events of 11 September have led to a growing opposition to America's alliance with the Wahhabi regime, which many have accused of sponsoring radical Islamist groups abroad. Given these developments, he argues, America must reconsider its close alliance with the Saudi regime, and look for other partners in the region. This does not mean, however, that America should consider the Saudi regime as an opponent, for that would not, he says, be in America's own interests. 'It is simply not sensible for the United States', Gause writes, 'to make an enemy of a government which sits on 25 % of all the known oil reserves in the world, which controls the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and which seeks to cooperate with the United States on a number of key issues'. Hence, while resisting the temptation of branding Saudi Arabia as an enemy, he suggests that America should continue to cooperate with the Saudis on issues of 'common interest', but at the same time must also realise that the Saudi are not going to toe the American line on every issue or even on every aspect of America's 'war on terrorism'. The Saudi-American relationship must be restructured, Gause argues, to reflect the new realisation that the interests of both countries 'overlap, but are not identical'. Washington should aim for a 'normal' relationship with Riyadh to take the place of the 'special' relationship of the recent past. On issues such as oil and economic affairs the two should closely cooperate, while America must no longer see Saudi Arabia as 'a useful base' for American forces.

With America now occupying Iraq and busy setting about installing a pro-American regime in the country, the usefulness of American military bases in Saudi Arabia is being seriously reconsidered in Washington. Removing American troops from Saudi soil and relocating them elsewhere, Gause suggests, would undermine anti-American forces in the region that have been using the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia to argue the case that America is engaged in a war against Islam. At the same time, he says, America must 'push' the Saudis to 'use their prestige and their networks in the wider Muslim world to take a more active role in the "war on terrorism"'. For this purpose he advises the US to get the Saudis to clamp down on funding to Islamist groups, and to encourage the Saudi regime to assume a greater role in 'the war of ideas', to promote 'more tolerant and less "jihadist" interpretations of Islam' in order to combat 'bin Ladinist ideas'.

At the same time as America has justified its invasion and occupation of Iraq in 'democratic' 'liberationist' terms, as delivering 'democracy' to the Iraqis long suffering under the rule of a ruthless dictator, it shows no signs of being seriously concerned with promoting real democracy in countries in the region that are closely allied with it, most of whom are ruled by dictators or monarchs. Gause has an ingenious argument to counter the call for democracy in these American client states. He insists that the suggestion that the US must push the Saudis for substantial changes in their political and social system is 'flawed', because it might provoke domestic opposition, being seen as a western imposition. More importantly, from the American point of view, is the obvious fact that real democracy in Saudi Arabia would, at least in the short term, 'inevitably produce a political system even more in thrall to the religious establishment, and less open to American pressures, than the one that exists now'. Further, given the mounting anti-American wave among the Saudi people, democratic elections, Gause argues, would obviously result in clear victories of anti-American parties or candidates. As Gause clearly recognises, such elections would 'not produce the kinds of changes that American critics of Saudi Arabia would like to see'. Hence, keeping the present Saudi rulers in power is, Gause says, in America's own interests, because, he argues, the 'only group in a position to replace them' would then be even more committed to Wahhabi radicalism than the ruling regime. Put simply, Gause dismisses arguments for democracy in Saudi Arabia as this would not be in America's own interests. So much, then, for American rhetoric of democracy and human rights.

A major aspect of America's changing relationship with Saudi Arabia concerns its military presence in the region. Gause writes that as America's military links with the Saudis contract its reliance on smaller Gulf monarchies must expand. This, in fact, has already been underway for several years now. Since 1991 America has developed an extensive network of military bases in these countries, which Gause sees as taking on the role played by American bases in Saudi Arabia. Kuwait today hosts American troops on a regular basis, and nearly a third of the country has been declared a closed military zone. The headquarters of the vastly expanded American naval presence in the Gulf are now located in Bahrain. Qatar has recently signed an agreement with the US to upgrade American facilities in the country, which include a major airfield and control centre. Oman now provides access to US forces at three bases on its territory, while the UAE's port and airport facilities provide logistical support for American forces in the region.

These small monarchical states, none of which is a democracy in any sense, are now poised to replace Saudi Arabia as the linchpin of American military policy in the Gulf region. Gause presents this nexus as being in the interests of both the Americans as well as the ruling regimes of these states. America needs their oil as well as bases in their territories in order to control access to oil reserves in the region. For their part, these regimes are dependent on American troops to defend them from what they see as external threats, particularly, Gause says, from Iran. Consequently, they are said to consider 'their American security tie as their ultimate insurance policy'. 'These governments', Gause writes, 'see a greater and more immediate need for American protection than the Saudi government does, and are willing to pay a greater price for it'.

Gause recognises that while the ruling regimes of these states are heavily dependent on America, large sections of their own people might be opposed to American military presence in their countries. But where American interests are paramount, democratic scruples must be thrown to the wind! Gause acknowledges the growing anti-American feelings in these states, owing principally to America's support for Israel and the way it has pursued its 'war on terrorism'. Yet, he refuses to seriously engage with this question, evading it by claiming that the people of these states are more likely to accept an American military presence than in Saudi Arabia because '[i]t was not so long ago that Great Britain had a formal protectorate in these states, within the living memory of their elites'. Furthermore, since foreign workers outnumber citizens in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, the sort of 'social disruptions' that an American military presence would cause are 'not nearly as unusual' as they are in Saudi Arabia. Equally importantly, since these states are relatively small in terms of area and population, potential opposition, Gause suggests, can be 'mitigated' through 'rulers' patronage systems', 'personal connections' and 'intelligence gathering'. Overall, then, these states are, from the American point of view, 'simply easier to manage politically', and hence 'better suited to sustain a long term American military presence' as compared to Saudi Arabia. Given this, Gause says, the presence of American forces in these countries is now being seen both by Washington as well as the rulers of these states as 'permanent'.

With the smaller Gulf States replacing Saudi Arabia as hosts of American forces in the region, Gause warns that America should be circumspect about demands for democracy in these countries. He suggests that greater democratisation in these countries is likely to strengthen anti-American forces, given the widespread anti-American sentiment among the local population. '[G]reater political openness', he stresses, 'will not necessarily make the conduct of American foreign policy in these states any easier'. Elections in the Gulf States, he notes, would, at least in the short term, 'yield parliaments composed of groups who are less likely to be supportive of American foreign policy objectives in the region that the ruling regimes are now'. Hence, he implicitly critiques the demand for real democracy in these states by suggesting that 'Washington should be modest and realistic about what electoral openings in the smaller Gulf States will mean', and must not 'hinge its policy toward those states on demands for fully democratic elections'. Put in plain words what Gause seems to argue is that democracy in the Gulf region should be clearly subordinated to American interests. If democracy is likely to produce regimes that interfere with America's hegemonic designs, he appears to be saying, it must be effectively countered or at least not be allowed to flourish.

The shift in America's imperialist strategy in the Gulf seems in many respects a return to the British model of control over the states in the region in the late colonial period. Gause himself admits that 'Washington increasingly finds itself in a position in the Gulf that bears many similarities to that of Great Britain, the previous "keeper of the peace" in the region'. He writes that Britain sought to maintain its dominance in the region by supporting 'friendly' local rulers while avoiding military action further inland in Arabia. He sees the shift in America's military policy as today moving in that direction, 'more closely mimic[ing] the British strategy'. He suggests that America could 'learn much' from the British colonial policy in the region of ruling through local elites and doing 'little to try to reform local political systems in their own image'. This policy is said to have 'mitigated the inevitable friction between the British and the local populations', thus ensuring overall British hegemony. In other words, he appears to argue, America must not seek to promote genuine democracy in the region but, instead, serve as 'the guarantor of the particular political order there'. He cautions that America should resist the 'temptation' of getting involved in the domestic affairs of these states. Such 'temptations' that must be carefully guarded against could even be for the 'best of reasons', such as promoting 'reform, democratisation, human rights, etc.'. Rather than directly intervening in these countries' affairs, he advises that America should support 'those reform efforts that emerge from the ruling elites themselves'. Needless to say, the ruling elites in these countries are fiercely opposed to genuine democracy, and hence, Gause's recommendations appear to amount simply to a plea for the preservation of the status quo.

The Palestinian issue is central to the way America is perceived in the Arab world, and anti-American feelings in the region owe much to America's support for Israel. Gause, however, has no suggestions at all to make for a reconsideration of American stance on the question, and conveniently glosses over the issue. This, as well as his implicit opposition to genuine democratisation in the region, clearly show the hollowness of American rhetoric of promoting 'democracy', which is used only very selectively in order to pursue American designs in the area, as in the case of Iraq today. Likewise, Gause offers no critique whatsoever of America's use in the past of Saudi-style Wahhabism as a tool to promote its interests to counter secular, leftist, nationalist and democratic forces in the Muslim world. Indeed, echoing the views of other influential American policy makers, his opposition to Wahhabism is far from consistent, and is guided simply by a narrow conception of American interests. Thus, while he acknowledges that the official Saudi Wahhabi brand of Islam 'undoubtedly encourages intolerance' towards other Muslim groups, particularly but not only the Shias, he argues that 'as long as official "Wahhabism" is not a direct source of terrorism against the United States, this is an issue that must be left for Saudis themselves'.

Reflecting the voices of an influential section of America's policy making elite, Gause's report promises little to those who had hoped for the emergence of a genuine dialogue between America and the Muslim world. In the wake of the events of 11 September 2001 many had expected that the American establishment would recognise the crucial need for genuine democracy in the region and a solution to the Palestinian issue as essential in order to undermine the influence of radical Islamists. However, as Gause's report suggests, there appears to be no significant shift in American policy in this regard. The military solution that America is now pursuing, and which Gause himself appears to support, can only promise to further complicate the situation, and do nothing at all to remedy the root causes of instability in the Gulf.

“The Approaching Turning Point” is available from the Brookings Institution


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