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America in the Gulf: A new strategic relationship

BY MATEIN KHALID / 6 July 2005

WHEN Britain abandoned its military commitments in the Gulf in 1971 after a succession of sterling devaluations, the US moved to fill the strategic power vacuum east of Suez. Nixon and Kissinger crafted a twin pillars strategy to check Soviet influence in the Middle East and keep the oil chokepoints open to the West.

This meant arming the Shah of Iran and Saudi Arabia to act as the gendarmes of the West in the vast region. However, the overthrow of the Shah and his replacement by a theocratic revolutionary regime sworn to subvert the Great Satan was the kiss of death for the twin pillars security doctrine.

The Iranian Revolution was followed by the outbreak of war on the Shatt al-Arab. Satisfied with a stalemate, Washington tilted towards Baghdad when it seemed as if Iraq was on the verge of defeat after the Fao offensive. Yet, as the Iran-contra scandal proved, Reagan kept a clandestine arms sale pipeline open to the Khomeini regime. It was diplomacy at its Machiavellian worst, encapsulated in Dr Kissinger’s observation that it was a pity that both sides could not loose. Meanwhile, as the slaughter on the Shatt al-Arab reached dimensions last seen in the trenches of Flanders in the First World War, the USSR imploded and the Cold War rationale for US intervention in the Gulf was history.

The regional threat from Iran and Iraq triggered Washington’s decision to escalate its naval presence in the Gulf in 1987 with the reflagging of the Kuwaiti tankers. The 1980’s witnessed a lethal rise in the political temperature of the Gulf. The Iranian and Iraqi air forces attacked neutral tankers headed for the Straits of Hormuz. There were abortive coup attempts in Bahrain and an assassination attempt against the Amir of Kuwait.

Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. A Kuwait Airbus was hijacked and taken to Teheran. Saudi and Iranian fighter planes engaged in dogfights over the Gulf. Saudi Arabia felt threatened enough to seek US support and buy Chinese Silkworm ballistic missiles to arm itself. The apocalyptic highpoint in the Great Game was Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

The success of Desert Storm recalibrated the calculus of power politics in the Gulf. The US secured military bases or access facilities across the Gulf oil monarchies. Yet the political cost of American bases in Saudi Arabia became untenable as Bill Clinton’s dual containment policy did not dislodge Saddam from power, horrified the Islamic world with the human cost of sanctions in Iraq. Meanwhile, Bin Laden declared war against the US from his Afghan cave and his cassus belli against the Crusaders was the presence of infidel soldiers in the birthplace of Islam. Like twin pillars, dual containment was yet another failed American policy in the Gulf.

With the 9/11 cataclysm and the overthrow of the Saddam regime, the chessboard of Gulf power politics saw new pawns, new players and new strategies. The US downscaled its presence in Saudi Arabia and shifted its air wing from the Prince Sultan Air Base in the Nejdi desert to Al-Udaid in Qatar.

The Saudi-American special relationship was mired in mutual acrimony and recrimination but the kingdom is the global central bank of oil, owner of one fourth of the world’s proven oil reserves and home to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina so Washington cannot ignore Riyadh’s strategic importance in the Islamic world. Above all, Saudi Arabia is the quintessential conservative status quo power in the Middle East and its "riyalpolitik" is a force for regional stability.

However, public opinion in both the US and Saudi Arabia has forced President Bush to shift his security axis in the Gulf from the kingdom to the five smaller GCC littoral states. A new strategic doctrine for Gulf security was born in the bitterness of the post 9/11 world.

With military bases, access facilities, command and control structures, and battle carrier groups, the US is unquestionably the architect of the new, post-millennium security architecture in the Gulf. As long as Iran is perceived as a strategic threat by the US and Gulf states, as long as two thirds of the world tanker tonnage passes through the Straits of Hormuz, American military presence in the Gulf is inevitable.

It is ironic that the current Pax Americana in the Gulf has echoes of the British imperial protectorates in the Middle East. But Washington will never do a cut and run east of Suez, as Britain did in 1971. With $60 per barrel oil, Uncle Sam stands guard over the most precious geological prize in history.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker
 
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