In the King AbdulAziz museum in Riyadh, there is a picture of King AbdulAziz and the then-king of Bahrain sitting next to each other. My guide was keen to show the picture and encouraged me to marvel at it. From my perspective, it was no different from other historical photos you might see of leaders sitting next to each other. My guide looked at me, very pleased with himself, and asked me “What do you notice about this picture?”. I looked again and saw two men sitting next to each other. My confused look seemed to disappoint my host who insisted that I look again, but carefully. Stumped, I turned to him and asked him to guide me to the profound point he was clearly keen to make. He replied:
“Look, the king of Bahrain sits lower than King AbdulAziz. In this region, Saudi Arabia is the big brother. And Bahrain and the other Gulf states know that well”.
I am used to exuberant Saudi patriotism, and in fairness, there is much truth to the statement (in relation to Bahrain to at least. Qatar and the UAE would beg to differ these days). However, it was not the brazen nature of the statement that has ensured that I have remembered this scene six years later, but the overwhelming shame that overcame me of how proud an Arab was to be superior to another Arab.
At a conference in Brussels not long ago, I was invited to discuss the Qatar-Saudi crisis. Panelists are often very quick to sympathise with Qatar and understandably so. Although Qatar is definitely the victim in this situation, a binary approach to the issue fails to take into account just how real the fear of an Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia, fuelled by Aljazeera, sent jitters across the Saudi establishment, and how Emir Tamim’s lip service to King Salman in two Riyadh meetings evoked rage from the kingdom that ultimately manifested in the blockade. Understanding the attitudes of both parties provides the most solid foundation for the construction of viable solutions.
In any event, during the discussion, I was asked by a woman dressed in Islamic attire a question that now forms the crux of this article;
“You said that Saudi Arabia wants everyone to acknowledge that it is the superior country in the region and the big brother. But what is the point of that when, in reality, no matter how powerful they are in comparison to the Arabs, they are just puppets of the US like every other Arab leader?”
It is a question that I have no doubt has been put in nearly every café across the Arab world in different decibels depending on the level of state surveillance. It is also a good one, and one often addressed in very simple terms.
Why would Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman travel to Washington and accept the humiliation of Trump holding up a board of signed contracts in front of the press and indicate he is little more than a cash cow?
Why do Saudi contenders for the throne travel extensively to Washington offering themselves as genuine defenders of US interests as credentials to rule the kingdom?
Why would Emir Tamim expand the Al-Udeid military base to demonstrate to the US that he is an indispensable ally and therefore should not support the blockade?
Why would Mohamed Bin Zayed pump vast sums of money establishing think tanks in Washington, and establish economic free zones domestically for Western companies that Europe and the US would never offer to Arab companies?
Why would Bahrain declare that Palestine is no longer an important issue, seeking to appease Trump’s plans to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem?
The arguments regarding self-interest are well-known. Gulf monarchies live in lavish wealth. Objectively, wealth and luxury weaken resolve and encourage a gradual lapse into a bubble that results in a deep disconnect with reality. There is a marked difference in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy under King Faisel and his successors. Faisel grew up in far lesser means reflected in his response to Kissinger during the oil crisis:
“You must have noticed, nothing in this dinner tonight carries foreign mark. The meat on the table comes from locally hunted camels. The delicacies all made on Arab land, from Arab resources. The lamps that give us light tonight, burn on fuel extracted from camel fat. If you dare come here, we would set our wells on fire and wander into the deserts. We, as you see, would survive. What would you do?”
It would be naïve however to suggest that the apathy caused by wealth and luxury is behind the insatiable desire of Gulf monarchies to ingratiate themselves with Washington. Instead, King Faisel serves as an enduring example to modern monarchies of the alternative to subordination; death by assassination.
It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy experienced a seismic shift after the assassination of King Faisel. For the Gulf, King Faisel serves as an example of what happens when a country steps out of line. Faisel’s imposition of the oil embargo in protest at US support for Israel sent shockwaves around the globe, causing economic crises as far as Australia. It is perhaps one of the most powerful examples of unilateral action in the interests of the Arabs in modern times, alongside Nasser’s seizing of the Suez canal.
However, the US rallied. Nasser was defeated in the Arab-Israeli war and Arab nationalism petered out. King Faisel was assassinated.
Instead of evoking anger, the rest of the Gulf monarchies came to the view that if Nasser, with Jordan and Syria could not defeat Israel, and if King Faisel who shook the world economy was removed with ease, what hope could they possibly have if they continued with antagonism?
The shift towards survival was immediate. US security agreements with Gulf monarchies were expanded and as relations improved, the former semi-unity of the Gulf states disintegrated. When Iraq emerged from the war with Iran in the late 80’s badly damaged, and requiring an OPEC quota that would help rebuild the economy, Kuwaiti and Emirati certainty in US military capabilities encouraged them to pump more oil, bringing the price down and paralysing Iraq’s attempts at reconstruction. Saddam’s attempts to push the Arab states to force Kuwait and the UAE in line proved futile and he eventually decided to invade.
The US’ swift declaration of Operation Desert Storm established a clear precedent for US intervention in the protection of the smaller Gulf states, and this would have profound consequences for inter-Gulf relations. Qatar would use Al-Udeid to win US favour and secure protection as it pursued an expansionist ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ foreign policy. Kuwait would allow eight US military installations. The regional monarchies had gone from opposing the US, to allying with them against each other.
In other words, a policy of ‘if you cannot beat them, join them’ came into effect. Nasser stood up to the US and was defeated. King Faisel stood up to the US, and was killed. Today’s monarchies are balancing ambition with a desire to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of those ambitions. For Mohamed Bin Salman, Palestine is not worth dying for as King Faisel did. The relationship with the US is a matter of life or death. To pursue a serious foreign policy in the interests of Palestine and in the interests of the Arab (or Islamic) world requires a level of conviction that very few, if any, in the region actually possess.
Suppose Mohamed Bin Salman sent troops into Gaza to fend off Israeli attacks on protestors. He can be certain that Egypt will not assist him, neither will Jordan, neither will the UAE, neither will Kuwait, neither will Iraq, or Syria. In fact, Egypt would probably send its foreign minister to Riyadh with a list of US demands that would include a withdrawal and payment of reparations. This would be followed by news articles that former Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef has convinced members of the royal family that Mohamed Bin Salman is too volatile and needs to be replaced. At some point, breaking news would appear on our television of gunshots being heard around Bin Salman’s palace. A statement from the White House in Washington would call for restraint and state that the US is in constant communication with their Saudi partners and hope they resolve their differences. Bin Salman is then subsequently removed. In other words, from Bin Salman’s perspective, it is political suicide. This is how the Crown Prince likely sees the situation.
The problem with the Gulf approach however, is that it is becoming unstuck by an unlikely rival; formerly secular Turkey. Erdogan’s unashamedly Muslim approach to the Palestine-Israel issue, his clear antagonism towards US foreign policy, his defiance against a hostile Europe, and his shrewd approach towards economic prosperity and balancing international interests has won him plaudits across the Muslim world. Erdogan has become an example of shrewd politics in the Muslim interest in a region riven by subordination.
The difference between Erdogan and the Gulf monarchies is that his power stems from popular support from a large section of Turkish society haunted by the legacy of Ataturk’s secularism which saw a clampdown on any manifestation of the Kurdish identity and extensive measures to limit the manifestation of Islamic religious practices. Erdogan, for many, is the bastion against returning to those dark days of repression and economic decline. When Angela Merkel of Germany claimed she had discussed “Islamist terrorism” with the Turkish president, he remarked in her presence to journalists that he objected to the use of the term ‘Islamist terror’, claiming there was no such ting as Islam is not a religion of terror. Such an approach was in stark contrast to UAE justification for Trump’s racist travel ban.
The Arabs have a saying that “heaven is surrounded by obstacles and thorns, while hellfire is surrounded by all that is attractive and desirable”. A friend joked the other day that Erdogan is seeking the former, with Europe, the US and Israel all stacked against him, while the Gulf monarchies are well on their way to the latter with Europe, the US and Israel all with them.
Jokes aside, the current state of Gulf foreign policy can be summarised with a poignant saying in Arabic:
أسدٌ عليّ وفي الحروب نعامةٌ
[He is a] lion against me, but an ostrich in war [buries his head in the sand against the enemy].