In November 2015, the P5+1 signed an agreement with Iran to resolve the nuclear crisis that had caused a great deal of consternation across the Middle East over the past decade. Yet in signing the agreement, another serious issue would come to the fore that could have an equally damaging impact upon regional relations that are becoming increasingly frayed.
Regional security in the Persian Gulf has been shaped by competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose rivalry after the revolution in 1979 has shaped the nature of politics in the Middle East. This rivalry, while occurring along sectarian lines is predominantly driven by geopolitical – or national – interests. One area of difference is over the organisation of regional security. While Iran sees itself as uniquely qualified to ensure regional security, Saudi Arabia relies upon the US to guarantee its security.
Moreover, following the fragmentation of state-society relations across the Middle East after the Iraq War and the Arab Uprisings more broadly, both states have attempted to increase their influence across the region, believing that the other is manipulating events. This is perhaps best seen in Riyadh’s attempts to speak to the US and suggest that Iran is behind unrest across the region.
Indeed, in US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, Saudi efforts to securitize the threat posed by Iran feature prominently. As one cable notes:
the King’s frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program. “He told you to cut off the head of the snake,” he recalled to the Charge’, adding that working with the US to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq is a strategic priority for the King and his government.
Yet despite Riyadh’s efforts to frame Iran as a threat to the US, Washington has avoided the type of military action that many in Jerusalem and Riyadh would have desired.
Moreover, in an article for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg sets out ‘the Obama doctrine’, which outlined Obama’s vision of foreign policy. The article also touched on how the president viewed the organisation of Gulf security:
The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace. An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.
Given Saudi Arabia’s long-standing reliance upon the US to guarantee their security, such suggestions are a cause of much concern.
In addition, the suggestion that 28 pages of the 9/11 report would be declassified – allegedly detailing foreign complicity in the attacks – coupled with the threat of litigation against Saudi Arabia from the families of victims, would further fracture relations. In response, Turki Al Faisal, a Saudi prince argued that “America has changed, we have changed and definitely we need to realign and readjust our understandings of each other.”
Al Faisal also spoke of the need to recalibrate “our relationship with America — how far we can go with our dependence on America. How much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership? What is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together.”
In an effort to mend relations between the two states, Obama visited Saudi Arabia in April. In a press conference after meeting King Salman, Obama stressed
the friendship and cooperation that exist between the United States and the Gulf countries has been consistent for decades […] so what is true between the United States and the GCC, as is true with all of our allies and friends, is that at any point in time, there are going to be differences in tactics.
Yet if Al Faisal is correct then perhaps changes have shifted the structural nature of the relationship, which may be beyond the normal hurdles in diplomatic friendships.
Quite how much either side has changed – and is ready to listen to the other – is, of course, a question to be answered in time.