For the Gulf region we are witnessing profound regional changes, which will impact our diplomatic relationships and alignments for years to come.
Most obviously there is the current conflict in Ukraine and the resulting Russia-West tensions. Then there is the realignment of several Arab states regarding Israel which is already resulting in once-unthinkable changes in regional policies. Then there is the winding-down of the Syria conflict, and tentative moves by states like the UAE and Jordan to open a new page of contacts with the Damascus regime. Similarly, we are seeing renewed GCC efforts to bring an end to the devastating conflict in Yemen.
Against this background we have the continuing threats emanating from Tehran, not least in the form of major efforts to thwart the democratic aspirations of citizens in Iraq and Lebanon.
Regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, it is anybody’s guess whether a deal is possible or desirable. Whereas just a few weeks ago various officials were hinting that a deal was almost ready; we suddenly witnessed an outburst of Iranian fury towards its nominal allies in Moscow, who Tehran now sees as trying to scupper the deal.
Just a few weeks ago there were hints that Washington was considering lifting the richly-deserved “terrorist” designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US State Department is now saying that discussion of such a theme would mean opening up debate about Iran’s manifold malicious activities throughout the Middle East – something the Ayatollahs certainly don’t desire!
This is one issue where Israel and many Arab states are very much aligned; given the huge threats to the region if Iran is allowed to become a military nuclear power; but also if Tehran’s region-wide ballistic and paramilitary programmes are allowed to continue unchecked.
This is not a theoretical issue when just in recent weeks Iranian missiles have struck Erbil, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Tehran may denounce GCC contacts with Israel, yet a primary reason why these contacts have been driven forward with such urgency is due to the threats posed by Iran’s own behaviour.
The Ukraine issue is a complex one for Gulf states. Relations with Western states and with Russia are of fundamental strategic importance; while this is not a conflict where Gulf states themselves have a strategic interest – in contrast with ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and major political challenges in states like Iraq, Lebanon and Libya; for which strong engagement with all UN Security Council members is of fundamental importance.
The US is a core strategic ally with GCC states, but it must behave like one in demonstrating unstinting solidarity with the region’s principal actors. When Western nations seek cooperation with Gulf states on crucial issues of energy security, it is likewise vital that these nations are willing to listen and act in accordance with GCC states’ fundamental security concerns on issues like Iran and Yemen.
Such real politic is also necessary when addressing the issue of Syria. It is certainly time to be engaging with all parties to ensure a durable peace, but this does not mean that the Assad regime can start making demands towards Gulf states for investing billions of dollars in reconstruction. This is particularly the case when Damascus continues to insist on shackling itself to a crumbling regime in Tehran. And with Moscow distracted elsewhere, suddenly the burden is on the Damascus authorities to do all the running if they desire to bring themselves in from the cold and rescue their disastrous economy and shattered country.
The recent renormalization of GCC ties with Lebanon is likewise a massive opportunity, but only if powerbrokers in Beirut seize the opportunity to sever the country’s increasing dependence on Tehran. Politicians in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa should take a long and careful look at their eastern ally: Iran is a broken, declining and isolated nation. What do they think the Ayatollahs can offer them other than poverty and ostracism?
The distraction of other major powers with events in Ukraine should be seized as an opportunity for GCC states to increasingly seize their destiny in their own hands and work to remodel the region as they see fitting. The contacts with Israel are likewise important in ensuring that regional states can jointly ensure that their views are taken into account on the world stage.
It is not beyond the capabilities of regional states to bring the conflicts in Yemen and Syria to an end when we work together constructively. Increasingly assertive and bold diplomacy by these states is also based on the recognition that nobody else will guarantee Arab peace and security unless we do our utmost to secure it for ourselves.