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Gulf makes strategic shift in new international system

Dr Christian Koch
Filed on October 21, 2006

WHEN Condoleezza Rice visited the region two weeks ago as part of a new diplomatic initiative with the message of a new "Middle East", she received a cold response. Arab leaders agreed to meet her and listen to her statements and arguments because it is part of the diplomatic protocol.

Moreover, Arab tradition demands that a visitor is treated with respect and kindness. But Arab leaders also know that US policy is not made in the State Department. Rather, the real power resides in the White House in the form of the Vice-President’s Office and the National Security Council. Despite the portrayal of the Arab world as being backward and living in the past, its rulers and populations, in fact, have a keen awareness about the realities of the new international system and they can see right through the American pretensions.

Moderate Arab allies have basically abandoned the United States —not militarily or economically, but politically. What remains is a facade of a relationship. Egypt, for example, is not about to jeopardise billions of annual aid by completely ignoring the United States. Rather, it pays lip service to the US by receiving its dignitaries and occasionally calling on the US to revive the peace process. The same is true with the Arab Gulf countries, which realise that they require American military power for protection in a dangerous neighbourhood. For the moment, they would rather have the US in their back pocket despite all its problematic policies than have Iran breathe down their neck.

Given the realities of America’s quagmire in Iraq, all the suggestions that, during the second term, the Bush administration became more realistic in its assessment of Middle East situation and more sincere in reaching out for the assistance and input of the allies is simply nonsense. The bottom line is that the US has not changed its policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past three decades. Under the given circumstances of domestic American politics, the US will never exert sufficient pressure on Israel to reach an agreement on the conflict despite the fact that the outlines of an eventual accord are known to everyone and have been around for some time. It is land for peace and if presented in the right way, the Arabs are ready to except it. But for whatever reason, every US administration in the past four decades has consistently extended Israel the benefit of doubt, meaning that it was the Arabs that were uninterested while Israel that was seeking peace.

The Arab world has certainly made its mistakes in the past, but the characterisation of right and wrong as being an absolute definition in international relations no longer applies. The US, however, still lives with its Cold War mentality in which there exists a winner and loser, and its policy officials succumb to precisely that logic. In the Gulf, having tried it before and failed, the US continues to implement a balance of power approach to regional relations by playing one country against another. This is also the case with within the Gulf Cooperation Council.

To their credit, the governments of the Arab Gulf countries have understood for some time both the changes talking place in the international system —in which military power is no longer the ultimate determinant of right and wrong —and the shortsightedness of US Middle East policy. Even prior to 9/11, then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah became so enraged with the US position on the Arab-Israeli conflict that he instructed the Saudi ambassador to the US to deliver the following message: "Starting from today, you’re from Uruguay, as they say. You (Americans) go your way, I (Saudi Arabia) go my way. From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America’s interests lie in the region."

Similarly but more diplomatically, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told the Gulf Dialogue meeting in Bahrain in December 2004 that guarantees for Gulf security cannot be provided unilaterally "even by the only superpower in the world" but that the region required guarantees "provided by the collective will of the international community." In a way, both messages were signals to the US that its policies were heading in the wrong direction. But instead of taking note of these signals, the US has continued on the same path.

As a result, the Arab Gulf has begun to build ties with a variety of nations including the European Union, Turkey, and particularly Asia. By linking the economic interests of these countries and regions to the security of the Gulf, the Arab Gulf is able to build stronger partnership, in addition to establishing a role for itself in the international arena. Underscoring this policy is the understanding that relations are no longer defined by military power alone and that only extensive economic, political and social relationships will help the region escape its inherent cycle of instability.

What is more, the diplomatic efforts of the Arab Gulf countries are being reciprocated by the other side with European and Asian officials increasingly coming to the region and realising the moderate potential these countries hold for the region as a whole. On his way back from the United States in April 2006, which was not classified as an official state visit, Chinese President Hu Jintao made just one stop, in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Germany has placed the Gulf as a region of significance in terms of its upcoming EU presidency.

There is a temptation to provide US foreign policy with the benefit of doubt, but under the Bush administration it has proven to be a facade with very little substance behind it. After listening and placing their hopes in American promises about a better future, the Arab Gulf countries have begun to look after their own interests and they are intent to follow this path despite US objections. This could be the real strategic shift occurring in the region.

Dr Christian Koch is the Director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai





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