Gulf Alliances: Regional States Hedge Their Bets

By James M. Dorsey

The current Saudi-led intervention in Yemen designed to prevent Iranian-backed forces

from gaining power symbolises the Gulf’s new assertiveness. This is unfolding as the various

Gulf states seek to hedge their bets with different strategies that complement rather than

replace the regional US security umbrella.

Qatar this month signed a military agreement with Turkey which gives the two parties the

right to deploy soldiers in each other’s territory. Qatar is the latest Gulf state to seek alliances

as a way to enhance security in a world in which a post-nuclear agreement Iran would join

Turkey and Israel as the region’s foremost military powers. The agreement is rooted in shared

attitudes towards tumultuous developments in the Middle East that potentially threaten

long-ruling autocrats and spawned civil wars and spiralling political violence and could rewrite

the region’s nation state cartography.

If invoked in a time of crisis, the likelihood is that tiny Qatar’s alignment with the second

largest standing army in NATO would mean that Turkish forces would be sent to aid the Gulf

state and recognises that Qatar’s 12,000-man military will never be capable of defending the

emirate. The agreement supplements Qatar’s soft power strategy that seeks to embed the

Gulf state in the international community through sports, arts, airline connectivity,

investment and high-powered mediation of regional disputes in a way that it could call on it

in times of emergency.

While the Qatar-Turkey agreement is between governments that are politically aligned on

one side of the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple political divides, concern among

Gulf states has also sparked subtle shifts that are bringing erstwhile opponents closer

together. Qatari and Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and

Egypt had soured since the military coup in 2013 that toppled Egyptian President

Mohammed Morsi because of the two states support for Islamist groups like the Muslim

Brotherhood and Hamas.

The subtle realignment of alliances prompted by fears that the United States will conclude

a deal with Iran that they believe fails to ensure that the Islamic republic will not become a

nuclear power was first noticeable in the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to be

more open about their political and security relations with Israel. The two Gulf states refuse

to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state because of its unresolved conflict

with the Palestinians but share Israel’s perception of Iran as an existential threat.

“Everything is underground, nothing is public. But our security cooperation with Egypt and

the Gulf states is unique. This is the best period of security and diplomatic relations with the

Arabs,” said General Amos Gilad, the Israeli defence ministry’s director of policy and

political-military relations, during a visit to Singapore last year. Gilad played a key role in

forging Israel’s alliance with Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

In unprecedented public moves, Saudi officials reached out to Israel they had long shied

away from. Saudi officials, contrary to past practice, refrained in December from commenting

on unconfirmed news reports that quoted Saudi oil minister Ali Bin Ibrahim al-Naimi as saying

the kingdom would be willing to sell oil to Israel.

Six months earlier former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the US and UK Prince

Turki Al Faisal called on Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue as a way of facilitating enhanced

Israeli-Saudi relations. Besides opening direct flights between Riyadh and Jerusalem, “commerce,

medicine, science, art, and culture between our two peoples would develop,” Turki wrote in the

first ever op-ed submitted by a member of the Saudi elite to an Israeli newspaper.

A second indication was a decision last December by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to paper

over their differences with Qatar over the Muslim Brotherhood. The three states had nine

months earlier withdrawn their ambassadors from the Qatari capital in a failed attempt to force

Qatar to break its ties with the Brotherhood and expel Brothers from the country.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as a far greater threat than the Brotherhood, has

signalled that its attitude towards the Brotherhood was changing despite its backing for Sisi’s

brutal crackdown on the group in Egypt and the kingdom’s banning of the Brothers as terrorists.

The moves are part of a Saudi effort to forge a Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran that paved the

way for this month’s visit to Riyadh by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A recent conference in Mecca that brought together Muslim clerics to denounce terrorism was

hosted by the Muslim World League, a body established by Saudi Arabia but long associated

with the Brotherhood. Earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal declared that the kingdom

has “no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Gulf states’ fears of Iran are likely to create further opportunity for China to strengthen its soft

military ties in the region in a balancing act that is designed to ensure that it does not challenge

US hegemony in the region. China said this month it had agreed to sell Turkey a US$3.4 billion

surface-to-air missile system that could prove difficult to integrate with its NATO allies.

China’s approach could potentially further involve temporary deployment of armed forces for

overseas military exercises as well as the deployment of military patrols, peacekeeping forces,

military trainers and consultants; also the building of overseas munitions warehouses, joint

intelligence facilities, aerospace tracking facilities, earthquake monitoring stations, technical

service, military replenishment stops, maintenance bases, and military teaching institutions.

The  nibbling at the fringe of the Middle East’s security architecture is however unlikely to

improve regional security as long as it includes policies by states like Saudi Arabia that

exacerbate rather than soften sectarian divides and that seek to box in regional powers rather

than include them on equitable terms.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS),

Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s

Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle

East Soccer blog.