Recent developments in the Middle East have presented new challenges to the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states. The Egyptian military’s ejection of the Morsi government  and burgeoning U.S.-Iranian dialogue have exposed sharp differences between the United States and the Gulf states over the regional order. Gulf commentators, particularly in Saudi Arabia, are calling for more muscular and independent foreign policies to balance what they see as America’s unreliability. Are these tactics merely hedging, or is there a new emerging trend in the Gulf that seeks to unilaterally undercut U.S. objectives? 

Carnegie’s Frederic Wehrey offered his assessment of U.S.-Gulf relations, and discussed findings from his recent book Sectarian Politics in the Gulf:  From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (Columbia University Press, 2013), which was named as one of the top five books on the Middle East for 2013 by Foreign Policy.  Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh moderated. 

Key Trends from the Gulf

  • Saudi Arabia's "Diversified Portfolio Approach": Wehrey characterized Saudi Arabia as backing multiple actors in regional conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq as a form of hedging.  A similar dynamic is at work in Saudi Arabia's search for external patrons: the country is seeking assistance from China, Pakistan, India, and other powers to balance its dependence on the U.S.
  • Challenges to Multilateral Cooperation:  Wehrey pointed out that the Gulf states have a historical distrust of Saudi Arabian foreign policy, which they see as overbearing and hegemonic.  Domestic politics in each Gulf state undermine prospects for real multilateralism in the Gulf Cooperation Council, he added. 
  • Gulf Perceptions of Security Differ From Those of Washington:  Saudi Arabia tends to view ideological threats like Revolutionary Shiism from Iran or the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement as the greatest threat to its domestic security, Wehrey explained. Washington, on the other hand, tends to define Gulf security in material and military terms. This disconnect has resulted in frequent misunderstandings.

U.S.-Saudi Relations

  • Still Sound: Wehrey argued that the fundamental relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is still sound. For example, the United States has continued its scheduled arms deliveries to the Gulf, including a recent $11 billion package and increased the tempo of its foreign military sales to the region over the past six years. 
  • United States as Security Guarantor: While Saudi Arabia has several options of allies for supporting security in the region, nobody is going to fulfill the role of security guarantor, Wehrey said. China is a free-rider in terms of Gulf security and is happy to let the United States be the policeman while they pursue trade. The European Union, the Gulf’s biggest trading partner, has no real power to provide security. In Russia, the stance on Syria makes this a non-starter, antagonizing the Gulf, he added.  Also, India could be potential partner, given its proximity and maritime power.

Current U.S. Military Priorities in the Gulf

  • Encourage Multilateralism: Wehrey noted that the current U.S. priorities in the Gulf are to encourage greater multilateral cooperation among Gulf states.  Yet, given the current distrust, he argued this will remain an elusive goal. Maritime defense remains the most promising area for multilateral cooperation.
  • Ensure Access: The United States also wants to ensure strategic access to the region, despite the so-called pivot to Asia, he added.
  • Promote Reform: Wehrey added that the United States should focus more on leveraging military assistance to promote political and security reform.

Sectarianism in the Gulf

  • Local Origins: Symptoms should not be conflated with root causes, Wehrey said. Ultimately, sectarianism is locally rooted and is a product of misgoverning, discrimination, and elite manipulation of identities. 
  • Iran or Saudi Arabia? Wehrey rejected the idea that Iran is solely to blame for rising sectarianism in the region, instead also holding Saudi Arabia partly responsible for what he called the “longstanding political exclusion, economic marginalization, and elite manipulation of identities” towards the Shiites of the region.
  • U.S. Role:  Moving forward, the United States has a clear interest in addressing sectarianism; however, Wehrey advised that the United States should start looking at sectarianism as a component of internal political reform rather than as something rooted in religious identity conflict.