BY RAGHIDA DERGHAM: Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat
Abu Dhabi – The diplomacy of Arab Gulf states has been very active, whether individually or collectively through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), over the issues of the Arab region and their referral to international forums. Gulf countries have also practically and effectively participated in supporting radical change in Libya, for example, with funding and training hand in hand with diplomacy — sometimes from opposite sides. The political scene in the Gulf region indicates differences at varying degrees among GCC countries. Such differences are sometimes bilateral, while they are at other times focused on broader foreign policies, especially at the regional level and particularly in how to deal with Iran and its regional ambitions. At the geopolitical level, the disagreement is slight or nearly inexistent, in view of the highly developed relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in terms of shaping a new regional order. Yet at the regional and bilateral levels, there is a great deal of discrepancy in thinking and in stances, with little coordination and scattered policies. This situation requires reform, starting with a diplomatic initiative to bring the diplomacies of the six GCC states closer together, so as for differences not to deepen at this important stage for the Gulf and for the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa. Talk here is not just of a diplomacy that is aware of the necessity of reforming domestic policies as an important part of the strategies of foreign policies, particularly at the regional level. The political scene in the Gulf region reflects lukewarm relations between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a year after the border dispute, and also because of what happened over where the central bank for the unified GCC currency should be based, after the UAE sought to host the bank’s headquarters and Saudi Arabia insisted on having it in Riyadh. Time-honored Gulf traditions prevent the display of “dirty laundry,” and they also prevent transgressions among GCC states, great or small. This is why it is difficult to assess how to resolve the lukewarm state and turn it into warmth, without the occurrence of some kind of recognition that there is an unnatural state of affairs. Such a situation is not exclusively bilateral, nor is it necessarily as serious as this, as long as it is not coupled with other aspects that bring about the lukewarm state among GCC countries, some of which being issues closely linked to Iran. All Gulf Arabs perhaps view Iran’s ambitions from the same perspective, yet their views on how such ambitions should be dealt with certainly differ.
Oman for example is extremely cautious and is closer to Iran than the other five GCC states. Kuwait is more worried about Iran and its ambitions, especially within Kuwait. Qatar, with its policy of “shock and awe,” has astonished the region with its stances on the Syrian opposition, while bearing in mind that Syria is of the utmost importance for Iran’s strategy in the region, and that Qatar had always publicly been on good and amicable terms with Tehran. Bahrain considers itself the victim of Iranian interference that seeks to topple its government and its bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, a special relationship within the Gulf Cooperation Council. The UAE is well aware of the threat to it posed by Iran, but it chooses containment and preemption through dialogue, so as to avoid confrontation. As for Saudi Arabia, it finds itself in a position of confrontation, especially after the recent unrest in the eastern region and the announcement by the United States of Iran’s involvement in the attempted assassination of Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Adel Al-Jubeir.
Because Iran is an unusual neighbor for the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and one with a spider’s web in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, some GCC states have sought to neutralize the spread of Iran’s tentacles towards them through courtesy and dialogue, while others are of the opinion that they have no choice but to confront it. And because Iran wages wars by proxy through Arab platforms loyal to it or through Arab organizations that it funds, trains and sponsors, some seasoned Gulf Arab experts have over the past few weeks expressed their fear that Iran may seek revenge for the loss of its ally in Syria by directing attacks against GCC countries, and not necessarily against Israel through Hezbollah, as assumed by traditional wisdom. What happened in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia is, in the view of many Gulf Arabs, a continuation of the events in Bahrain in terms of provoking domestic disturbances within a sectarian framework with the aim of causing a tremor in Bahrain and unrest in Saudi Arabia. Yet there are also those who consider that settling for this analysis exclusively is tantamount to ignoring the elephant in the room, given that there really are legitimate demands that should quickly be resolved, radically and systematically.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as per the description of a seasoned expert from the Gulf, is a special relationship that is clearly defined in terms of the size of each party at all levels. For Bahrain views the KSA as a shield protecting it with more than just the Peninsula Shield Force that has been deployed. What must be paid heed to here is the necessity for Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia not to turn into laxity that could prevent true and radical reform in Bahrain over the issue of citizenship and equal rights. This is because there are those who consider that Bahrain has departed from the tradition of dialogue, exactly because it feels that it does not need to show courtesy to the Al-Wefaq movement because of the protective shield it has been provided with. If such a view proves true, it would be dangerous for Bahrain, because there is no escape for any country in the Arab region from adopting sincere reform. Settling for an impartial investigation into the events of Bahrain, regardless of its results, will not be sufficient, nor will it be an alternative for the required reforms. Such reforms are necessary for the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as they are important in the framework of broader reforms within GCC countries and in their relations with Iran, in terms of removing the pretext or the fuse for igniting sectarian tensions on the part of Tehran.
Emirati diplomacy seems to be headed in a direction opposite to that of confronting Iranian threats. It seems to be neutralizing issues of dispute with Iran and placing them on a shelf for the time being. The UAE, about a year ago, stopped mentioning the three islands disputed with Iran, and has, according to sources, also asked GCC countries not to bring up this issue in regional or international forums. This is an important change, knowing that the three islands were a main pillar of any issue the Emirates had raised for many years. Such a change perhaps expresses good intentions towards Iran, and it is perhaps a decision to remove pretexts for escalation with the latter. In either case, it seems that Emirati diplomacy towards Iran is based on a strategy of preemption through dialogue and through neutralizing objects of conflict and dispute. This does not mean that the UAE is relaxed and reassured towards Iran, nor does it mean that its real assessment of the dangers of Iran’s ambitions and policies differs from that of Saudi Arabia, for example. A different method does not mean a different assessment or a different policy in broad terms, but it does reflect a divergence in the stances of Arab Gulf states at several milestones throughout Iran’s course. Towards Syria, for instance, there is lukewarm Emirati support for the Syrian opposition, at least officially and publicly, while Qatar is as clear as can be in its support of the opposition and its insistence on holding Bashar Al-Assad’s regime accountable. Divergence among the stances of GCC countries does not stop at the UAE and Qatar, but is true for all six countries, at varying degrees.
The UAE and Qatar played an extremely important role in Libya, gathering the support of the GCC and the League of Arab States to push the Security Council to issue Resolution 1973, on the basis of which NATO carried out the air strikes that proved to be a radical contribution in toppling the regime. And on the basis of the Libyan model, the features of the new regional order are beginning to take shape. Yet today, there is some contradiction in the nature of the military support and training in Libya between each of the UAE and Qatar, as it has become clear that they are supporting groups that are opposed to each other. Thus, here too the discrepancy in the foreign policies of GCC states is apparent. The common denominator between these two countries and others is that dynamic diplomatic activity is no longer restricted to one of them.
During the 2011 Summit on the Global Agenda organized by the World Economic Forum and held this year in Abu Dhabi, it was noteworthy what the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, said in his opening statement before more than 800 international figures from among the foremost experts in the fields of business, intellectual and social issues, economics and politics. He spoke of current challenges and of the necessity of developing new business models, or modifying traditional models, stressing the importance of the social role and of developing practical strategies. He said that the most prominent challenges facing the world were: the issue of maritime piracy that threatens world trade; food security, knowing that more than 900 million people face hunger; combating terrorism, including combating money-laundering and improving the security of harbors and maritime routes; combating the phenomenon of human trafficking; and, following the example led by the UAE, developing new international standards for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Those broad lines are not the traditional items on the agendas of Arab foreign ministers, in view of the nature of the challenges mentioned by Abdullah bin Zayed. Yet this does not negate nor contradict the fact that diplomatic activity is taking place at the level of local challenges.
Indeed, energizing Gulf diplomacy locally, regionally and internationally is a positive, useful and necessary development. Pursuing identical stances is not what’s required, since countries have their own national policies and priorities, at the end of the day. Yet it would be useful for the GCC countries if their diplomacies were to come closer together, at least for some regional messages to be clear, and for domestic reform to be systematic and cohesive, among other things in terms of international standards of human rights, including the rights of women and minorities.
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