What is in the Crystal Ball for the Gulf Nations of the Middle East?
As the first signs of spring 2018 dawn upon the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has become all the more reckless to hypothesize as to how the different pieces of the region’s political mosaic will settle. The only responsible take-aways that can be coerced out of this tumultuous first quarter of the year are that peace between Palestinians and Israelis is on ice, while the divide between Sunnis and Shiites is on fire. One or two recent developments are nevertheless noteworthy:
For a start, there is reason to believe that the fervor that ordinary people on the streets of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had in times past for the Palestinian cause has waned. Had an American administration decreed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem only twenty or so years ago, all hell would have broken loose, seriously rocking the boat for some of the region’s regimes. Instead, when President Trump recently made precisely that kind of pronouncement, the burning of tires and effigies on the boulevards was, if anything, muted. Instead, what did in fact emerge was the further cementing of a hitherto forbidden triangular relationship between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, with Bahrain tagging along its critical Saudi benefactors.
Perhaps to button things up, Israel then chose to follow up by retaliating en masse to, of all things, an Iranian drone that may or may not have pierced its air space. By sending fighter jets to exert a heavy toll on Iranian and Syrian assets inside of Syria, and at the conceivably negligible cost of one of their aircraft, Israel in effect further consolidated its ebbing entente with the Saudis and Emiratis.
That sort of diplomatic and military maneuvering naturally doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The new coalition has Israel relieving the U.S. from having to defend its main Sunni clients from Iranian-backed Shiite hegemony. Did we not hear President Trump repeatedly berate past U.S. administrations for having spent “$7 trillion” on the Middle East? And doesn’t Israel benefit handsomely from opening up Arab markets with tens of millions of new and financially robust consumers? As for the Saudis and Emiratis, they are if anything more comfortable with the ever-ready Israelis having their back than with the invariably unreliable United States. Furthermore, to top it all, Trump’s “America First” and “jobs, jobs, jobs” paradigms get a boost as well, with billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weaponry supplied annually to all three nations.
And yet, in a part of the world where the discernable is always fickle, and the improbable likely, it is foolhardy, at a time when most anything can derail pacts stronger than that in the Middle East, to proclaim that the die is cast for that alliance. For example, while the Israeli-backed coalition has air dominance, Iran can wield meaningful influence on the ground with its revolutionary guard corps in Iraq and Syria, and its Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthi proxy brigades in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen—plus the thousands of artillery rounds and missiles that can reach every part of the region. The Fighting in Yemen as well, to cite another example, seems to be a toss-up as to which of the two sides will bear the brunt of the responsibility for the killed and maimed, and genocidal famine, that the country is experiencing.
As for Saudi Arabia’s current prospects for peace and prosperity, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could surely use a few more years of consolidation to have the Kingdom’s youth witness in real time some of the benefits of his ambitious 2030 vision and anti-corruption campaign. In the interim, these moves, and the regime’s attempts at breathing a little fresh air into women’s emancipation and other cultural and political freedoms, may have to endure a little more understandable skepticism.