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The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0001
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DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0001
The Arab Gulf
States and Reform
in the Middle East:
Between Iran and
the “Arab Spring”
Yoel Guzansky
School of Political Sciences, Haifa University and
the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS),
Tel Aviv University

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0001
© Yoel Guzansky 2015
Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2015 978-1-137-46782-9

All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this

publication may be made without written permission.
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save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, or under the terms of any licence
permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency,
Saffron House, 6–10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS.
Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication
may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
The author has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work
in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published 2015 by
Palgrave Macmillan in the UK is an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndsmill, Basingstoke,
Hampshire, RG21 6XS
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Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries

ISBN: 978–1–137–46783–6 PDF

ISBN: 978–1–349–50009–3
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836
Acknowledgments vii

List of Abbreviations viii

1 Introduction: Defensive Monarchies 1

Part I Conflict and Cooperation in the Gulf 6

2 The Changing Dynamic of American–GCC

Relations 7
3 The Gulf Cooperation Council: From
Cooperation to Unity? 19
4 Defense Cooperation in the GCC 30

Part II The Gulf States and Iran 39

5 Saudi Arabia 41
6 Kuwait 60
7 Qatar 66
8 The United Arab Emirates 79
9 Bahrain 87
10 Oman 98
11 The Other “Gulf ” State: Yemen 105

Part III Stability and the “Arab Spring” 109

Part IV Is the Enemy of My Enemy

My Friend? Israel and the Gulf States 125

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0001 v
vi Contents

12 Conclusion: The Rising Gulf 136

Appendix: Major Events in the History of the Gulf States 142

Index 144

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0001
I’m grateful for the assistance of many who have contrib-
uted to this book, both from the Gulf and outside the Gulf,
for sharing their time and insights with me. Many in the
Gulf, for various reasons, asked to stay anonymous. First,
I would like to thank the people at Palgrave Macmillan,
especially Sara Crowley-Vigneau and Andrew Baird for
their patience and experience. It was a great pleasure
working with them. I thank the anonymous reviewers
for their excellent comments and useful suggestions. I’m
indebted to the late Joseph Kostiner, a dear friend and
a remarkable teacher whose full knowledge about the
Gulf I’m yet to discover. I was fortunate to have him as
a mentor. I appreciate very much the support of Amos
Yadlin, Udi Dekel, Oded Eran, and Moshe Grundman
and the staff at the Institute for National Security Stud-
ies (INSS) at Tel Aviv’s University to which I’m affiliated
with. Erez Striem, Stephen Rakowski and Rachel Hoffman
helped to bring this book to conclusion. I’m very grateful
for the encouragement and on going assistance of Gabriel
Ben-Dor, Aharon Klieman and Uzi Rabi. Last, but not
least, special thanks go to Miriam Goldman, a friend and a
colleague who like me is passionate about the Gulf, for her
invaluable assistance in editing, organizing and research-
ing, which can be seen in this work’s entirety. This book is
dedicated to my children Gur and Sheila and to my wife,
Tamar. Thank you, for everything.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0002 vii

List of Abbreviations
AQAP Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
ARAMCO Arabian American Oil Company
BICI Bahrain Independent Commission of
GCC Gulf Cooperation Council
GDP Gross Domestic Product
ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
LNG Liquefied Natural Gas
NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
OIC Organization of Islamic Cooperation
OPEC Organization of the Petroleum Exporting
POMED Project on Middle East Democracy
UAE United Arab Emirates
UN United Nations
USA United States of America
WMD Weapons of Mass Destruction

viii DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0003

Introduction: Defensive
Abstract: This book will discuss Saudi Arabia and the
smaller Gulf states, the threats with which they must
contend, and the manner in which they are choosing to do
so. While the focus of this analysis will revolve around the
relations of these Arab Gulf states with Iran, a country that
has played a central role in their threat perception since the
1979 Islamic Revolution, this research will also consider the
relations with each other and with the United States, and
the effect of other regional events and forces that impact
considerations, chief among them the Arab Upheavals.

Keywords: “Arab Spring”; GCC; Iran; Israel; Saudi Arabia

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0004.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0004 
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

The Arab Gulf states’ – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United
Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman1 – proximity to, interests in, and
concerns with Iran and Iraq, as well as their responses to and experiences
with the “Arab Spring,” have increasingly pulled them into the limelight,
resulting in significant attention both from academic scholars and
mainstream media. While the importance of access to energy resources
in the Gulf is nothing new – 47 percent of the total proven global oil
reserves and 42 percent of the total proven global gas reserves are in the
Gulf2 – the various developments in and around the Arabian Peninsula,
along with the ever-present potential for the Gulf3 to once again become
a theater of war, make it clear that this region will continue to be a
central for regional and global security. This analysis seeks to follow the
main trends in Gulf security in light of the changes in the regional and
international arena, while examining the relationship between external
and internal threats, which are intertwined in the Gulf security agenda.
Length constraints make it impossible to effectively cover all aspects of
regional security. Therefore, the requisite foci here will be those outlined
The Gulf states have unique characteristics. Their populations are
limited, and they have small, unskilled armies. Nevertheless, they have
been blessed with tremendous wealth. This has not only allowed them to
attract allies but also caused them to be a target for subversion, terror, and
even, as in the case of the UAE, occupation of territories. In recent years,
they have contended with a series of internal and external challenges.
These include rapid demographic changes, namely, increasingly youthful
and unemployed populations, the rise of radical and political Islam, the
growing understanding of the limitations of dependence on oil income
to maintain political stability and development and difficulties in diver-
sifying economically, the perceived need for enormous expenditures on
advanced weaponry, continued reliance on the West for defense, and,
growing regional threats in the form of Iran, which is working to acquire
nuclear capability, Iraq, which is in the process of a possible disintegra-
tion, Yemen, whose prospects for stability is questionable and the “Arab
Spring,” whose long-term effects remain to be seen.
A large portion of the research concerning Gulf security focuses on the
competition, conflicts, and balance of power among the larger and more
powerful countries located along its coasts, that is, Saudi Arabia, Iran,
and Iraq. This is understandable, given the impact of the regional events
that have occurred since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, namely, several

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0004
Introduction: Defensive Monarchies 

global energy crises, three regional wars, cycles of terror, prolonged

outside intervention, and low-intensity conflicts, all of which create a
situation of ongoing crisis.
The first part of this analysis focuses on the historical security patterns
of the six Gulf Arab states; the establishment of a central, regional insti-
tution, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); and the security challenges
it faces, including those that occur against the background of intra-GCC
rivalries and conflicts.
The first chapter reviews the impact of British hegemony on the security
architecture of the Gulf in general, and the six Gulf Arab states in particu-
lar, which is still evident today. The undermining of the regional order for
which Britain was responsible led the United States to gradually increase its
involvement in the region. First and foremost, it sought to ensure contin-
ued free access to the Gulf economy, yet it was not immediately prepared
to wholly fill its predecessor’s shoes. US policy was intended to maintain
equilibrium among the three aforementioned major states in the Gulf while
striving to balance the material advantages of its presence in the area with
the political price this presence brings, and the dependence that the Gulf
states have developed on outside forces. Also included will be a related
discussion concerning American policy vis-à-vis Iran and the American
attitude toward continued involvement in the Middle East in general.
The second chapter discusses the motivations for establishing the
sub-region’s main institution, the exclusive [Sunni Monarchy] GCC, its
ability to promote cooperation among its six members, and its contribu-
tion to regional security. The undermining of the status quo in the wake
of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq War
increased the fears of the Gulf states and led them, for the first time,
to recognize the importance of establishing a framework for defense
cooperation. However, more than three decades after its creation, at a
time when security threats appear to be growing, GCC members are still
finding it difficult to formulate an agreed-upon policy on foreign affairs,
defense issues, and even certain economic issues. The most recent and
representative example is the complications that have accompanied
the Saudi-led attempts to form a more cohesive “Gulf union.” This part
ends with an analysis on the subject of GCC security collaboration. This
chapter traces the ups and downs of defense cooperation between the
Arab Gulf nations, focusing on the establishment of the GCC and the
joint Peninsula Shield Force, crucial milestones in Arab Gulf security

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0004
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

The second part of this book discusses the complex relations each of
the six Arab Gulf states has with Iran, including Saudi Arabia and its
attempts to confront the rise of Iran, its main ideological and geostrategic
rival; Kuwait, which is strongly affected by its geographic proximity to
Iran, accused of subversive activity, and by the presence of a considerable
number of Kuwaiti Shiites; Qatar, which, in contrast to the other GCC
members, has adopted a more independent foreign policy that tends
not to be identified with one camp, and which is meant to strengthen
its position and immunize itself from radical elements; the UAE, whose
relations are influenced by extensive commercial ties (particularly with
Dubai), on the one hand, and Iran’s occupation of three islands in the
Gulf claimed by the UAE on the other; Bahrain, which largely blames
its extensive unrest since 2011 on the influence of an “outside actor” (i.e.,
Iran), leading Bahrain to perceive Iran as its main threat to national
security and to undertake efforts to strengthen the Gulf Arab front vis-à-
vis Iran and its allies; and Oman, which to a large extent operates outside
the GCC consensus preferring, in many cases, to sit on the fence in its
foreign policy, faithfully representing its geographic location on the edge
of the Gulf, its modest economic and military capabilities, and its unique
Ibadi character.
A final chapter in this part is dealing with the situation in Yemen.
The civil unrest that has gripped the nation since January 2011, inspired
by the upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world, has intensified existing
trends and accelerated processes liable to lead to state failure. The hope
had been that Saleh’s resignation as president would contain the Yemeni
revolution and, more importantly, the serious situation of the country,
but so far the hoped-for stability has not materialized. On the contrary,
the Yemeni revolution has further weakened the central government and
resulted in increased Iranian and al-Qaeda influence.
Part III will review the GCC response to the regional upheavals, focus-
ing on the varying reactions and tactics employed by the six states to
combat or mitigate internal unrest and potential regional instability, with
a particular emphasis on the varying responses of each state according
to its interests, resources, demographics, and domestic unrest (or lack
thereof). The fourth and last part will analyze Israel–GCC relations in
light of shared interests and gradual, tacit rapprochement. Both sides
are eager to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capability and would
like to curb Iranian attempts to attain regional hegemony. In addition,
both are perturbed by recent developments in US policy, particularly the

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0004
Introduction: Defensive Monarchies 

reluctance to use force against Syria, and signs of a gradual shift away
from the problems of the Middle East. However, in spite of the conver-
gence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf
states, full normalization is not on the agenda as long as there is no
significant political breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians. At
the same time, there is a wide range between full diplomatic relations
and a total lack of contact, and the two sides can take advantage of this.

1 For the purposes of this book, these six states will be referred to as the “Gulf
Arab states,” the “Gulf states,” or the GCC states.
2 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 63rd edition, June 2014.
3 The Gulf, which is mainly known as the “Persian Gulf ” and is sometimes
called the “Arab Gulf,” will, in most instances, is called in this memorandum
by its neutral name, “the Gulf.” The dispute between the Arab Gulf states
and Iran over the name is more semantic. The UN was even asked to address
this issue, and it established a committee of experts, which chose the name
“Persian Gulf,” claiming that this was for geographic, historical, and legal
reasons. See United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names,
Working Paper No. 61, Historical, Geographical and Legal Validity of the Name:
Persian Gulf, Vienna, 2006.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0004
Part I
Conflict and Cooperation
in the Gulf

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0005
The Changing Dynamic of
American–GCC Relations
Abstract: In spite of the Gulf states’ dependence on external
support, in particular that of the United States, they have
begun to question Washington’s willingness to guarantee
their security and provide political reinforcement. This is
a direct result of US policy toward America’s Arab allies
during the “Arab Spring,” toward Syria, and the possible
rapprochement between Iran and the United States. These
doubts are liable to affect the willingness of the Gulf states
to tow America’s line in the region. The sense among
some of the Gulf elite is that, while no good alternative
to the United States’ military power exists, particularly
as a counterweight to Iran’s growing strength, America’s
steadfastness in the region is in question.

Keywords: “Arab Spring”; GCC; Iran; nuclear; US

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006 
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

The Gulf states’ dependence on external security and the need for foreign
players to have access to the Gulf ’s economy has not changed signifi-
cantly in the past one hundred years, and it appears that it will continue
in this manner for at least the foreseeable future. In general, the basic
security problems facing the six Gulf states stem from the fact that most
are territorially small, with limited populations and correspondingly
small armies lacking in combat experience. However, they are wealthy
countries with about half of the world’s oil and gas reserves, a combina-
tion that has made them a preferred target for terrorism, subversion, and
takeover attempts.1
In spite of the upheavals in the Gulf over the years – ranging from
inter-tribal struggles to British hegemony to today’s conflict over the
Iranian nuclear program – the basic security pattern of the states located
along its western coast has remained consistent over the years, that is,
heavily reliant upon foreign forces for protection. There is little doubt
that the extensive focus on Gulf security has stemmed primarily from
international interest in accessing and safeguarding energy sources. The
geostrategic importance of the Gulf, however, began prior to the discov-
ery of oil and gas in the 20th century.
The British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971 symbolized the end of
Britain’s connection to the area, which had existed for some 150 years.
Britain maintained its presence in the Gulf even after releasing its grip
on most of its colonies around the world in 1947. Historians differ as to
the main motivation behind its Gulf involvement. One school empha-
sizes the strategic dimension of British imperialism, particularly in the
19th century, which was intended to protect India.2 Historians who hail
from another school argue that Britain acted mainly out of commercial–
economic considerations and from the need to protect markets and
shipping routes.3 In addition, there were issues requiring Britain’s atten-
tion, such as eliminating naval piracy and the slave trade and arms trade
in the Gulf – which, to a large extent, indirectly and unintentionally laid
the foundations for British hegemony there.
Although the Gulf sheikhdoms were considered foreign territory and
were headed by independent rulers, their status vis-à-vis the British
government turned them unofficially into part of the British Empire.
Their state infrastructure, starting with public services and the educa-
tional system, and including military units and defense units, were
organized along British lines and were even administered by representa-
tives of the Crown. The fear of the British government that it would lose

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006
The Changing Dynamic of American–GCC Relations 

its leading role in the Gulf, together with the need to contend with the
threat from the Ottoman Empire and with Russia’s increasing interest in
warm water ports, led it to sign exclusivity agreements with the rulers of
these territories. This allowed Britain to maintain a buffer zone free of
outside influence in order to protect the route to India. In exchange for
British protection, the local tribal leaders pledged to stop the slave and
arms trade, and allow their foreign relations to be conducted as part of
the British Empire. After World War II, the main interests of the West
in the Gulf were to safeguard energy sources and to protect the friendly
regimes there.
To a large extent, the Truman Doctrine (March 1947) skipped the
Gulf. Its chief targets were Greece and Turkey, and the United States
contented itself with stationing a token naval force in Bahrain. American
commitments in other regions (the Marshall Plan, starting in 1948, and
the Korean War in 1950) created an expectation in the United States
that defense of the Gulf would not entail stationing a large number of
US combat troops there. In practice, it was the protection provided by
Britain that made it possible to maintain the status quo in the region and
the independence of the states there.
British presence mitigated conflicts between the territories on the
western coast of the Gulf and maintained their security. For example,
immediately following Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961, it
faced the threat of an Iraqi invasion, causing the immediate return of
British soldiers. Other rulers in the Gulf feared that Britain’s exit from
the region would harm the security of their sheikhdoms, and the rulers
of Abu Dhabi and Dubai even offered to cover the annual cost of placing
British troops in the Gulf in order to prevent their planned departure.
Britain’s announcement in 1968 of its intention to remove its troops
from the Gulf by December 1971 significantly changed the strategic
balance in the region. On November 30, 1971, one day before the troops
were actually withdrawn, Iran seized three strategic islands near the
Strait of Hormuz, that is, Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb,
which were under the sovereignty of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah (both
of whom later became part of the UAE). The seizure of these islands
demonstrated to the sheikhdoms their vulnerability to threats by their
neighbors and the necessity of outside security support.
The undermining of the regional order for which Britain was respon-
sible led the United States to gradually increase its involvement in the
Gulf. The Gulf states, for their part, increasingly relied on a US military

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

presence for deterrence and protection, given their inbuilt military

weakness and hostile neighbors. From this point on, US presence in the
Gulf has been characterized by ongoing arms sales, the pre-positioning
of equipment, ongoing joint training and preparation, the establishment
of central bases (including the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and
the regional headquarters of the US Central Command in Qatar), and
even direct military intervention when necessary. There were a number
of milestones at the beginning of US involvement in the Gulf. This
includes the granting of the concession to Standard Oil of California
(which later became the Arab-American Oil Company, ARAMCO) in
1933; the construction of an airbase in Dhahran in 1946; and America’s
first use of the British naval port in Bahrain in 1949. This suggests that
the process of exchanging British hegemony for American hegemony
began even before Britain’s departure from the Gulf, and since then,
preserving stability in the region has become an issue of national security
for the United States. The various US administrations, both Republican
and Democratic, have expressed a commitment to maintaining the free
flow of oil from the region, supporting the local regimes against external
threats, and preserving their stability.
The Yom Kippur War and the oil crisis of 1973–4 was, largely, a water-
shed in US policy toward the Middle East and the Gulf, even more so
than the withdrawal of British forces. In October 1973, as part of the
broader oil embargo that was enacted, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia termi-
nated the exportation of oil to the United States and cut off the supply of
oil to US Navy ships due to American support for Israel and its airlift to
Israel during the Yom Kippur War. As a result, oil transformed from a
commercial-economic interest to one of national-strategic importance
to the United States and the West. From the point of view of the Gulf
states, the skyrocketing oil prices not only led to an increase in their
national revenues, but also turned oil into an important tool – perhaps
the most important – in their foreign policy.
To a large extent, the Shah of Iran protected US interests in the region
after the British withdrawal from the Gulf. However, the United States,
attempted to maintain a balance of power from afar by strengthening
Saudi Arabia and Iran simultaneously. However, this “twin pillar” policy,
that was formulated by Henry Kissinger, made Iran, in practice, the
policeman of the Gulf, from the outset, Saudi Arabia lacking the military
capacity to play this role. In exchange for the Shah’s willingness to main-
tain the status quo, that is, to block any Soviet influence in the Gulf and

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006
The Changing Dynamic of American–GCC Relations 

ensure the continued flow of oil, he received advanced American-made

weaponry, and the room to maneuver domestically as America down-
played its criticism of Iran’s human rights violations. This fragile policy
survived during the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent energy crisis,
and even during the war in Yemen and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Iran’s Islamic revolution, however, reshuffled the cards. About a month
after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, US President Jimmy Carter, in
his State of the Union address of January 23, 1980, outlined his new policy
toward the Gulf, which later became known as the “Carter Doctrine.” This
policy, which stemmed from the return of the Soviet threat to the region
and from the new situation in Iran, became the basis for the American
approach to regional security which, to a large extent, continues to this
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Gulf states faced both the hegemonic aspi-
rations of Iran and Iraq’s territorial ambitions (primarily due to its desire
to expand its narrow naval outlet to the Gulf), as well as attempts by both
to intervene in domestic politics and economies of states in the region.
The Soviet Union’s entanglement in Afghanistan and the transformation
of the United States from a close ally of Iran to its archenemy caused the
US presence in the Gulf to become increasingly directed toward contain-
ment of the Islamic regime in Tehran, a trend that grew stronger as the
Iran–Iraq War continued. The weakening of Iran as a result of the war
and the collapse of the Soviet Union caused the United States to think
that it could simultaneously balance both the power of Iran and that of
Iraq. The US administration’s failure to understand the threat posed to
the region by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in
August 1990 forced the United States to build and head a coalition – the
largest since the Second World War – in order to liberate Kuwait and
restore the balance in the Gulf. Operation Desert Storm, which began
in response to the occupation of Kuwait, led to closer relations between
America and the Gulf states. Other options for improving gulf states
security, such as increasing the GCC’s joint military force (the Penin-
sula Shield Force) to 100,000 troops, as Oman suggested, or joining an
alliance with Egypt and Syria, were quickly abandoned, considering the
Arab Gulf states’ lack of confidence in their ability to defend themselves
effectively and lack of trust in the military power or the political inten-
tions of the Arab states.
Since then, US policy in the Gulf has aspired to balance the advantages
of a presence in the region with the political and material price of such

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

presence. As a result, the various US administrations have worked to

promote cooperation among the Gulf states, and between the Gulf states
and America, with the goal of reducing their dependence on US military
power. The United States supported initiatives such as the establishment
of the aforementioned Peninsula Shield Force, and their temporary alli-
ance with Syria and Egypt in 1991. At the same time, at the request of
the Gulf states, it left most of its military power “beyond the horizon.”
Since the early 1990s, the US military modus operandi in the Gulf, and
attempts by the United States to promote security cooperation between
itself and states in the region, have been intended to deter potential
military threats from Iran and Iraq as part of a policy known as “dual
containment.” The basis of this policy was an attempt to isolate Iran and
Iraq politically, militarily, and economically. The US government led the
international effort to impose sanctions on Iraq; attempted to influence
Russia, Europe, and Japan to limit their economic and military ties with
Iran; and worked to increase military support for Arab states in the
The US presence in the Gulf states, and the bombing of Iraq as a
result of Saddam Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with the UN sanctions
regime, created sympathy for the Iraqi people in the Arab street, as well
as a growing fear on the part of the Gulf monarchies of a continuing US
presence on their territory. The attacks against the US military bases in
Dhahran in June 1995, the Khobar Towers in November 1996, and the
destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 illustrated the extent to
which the US presence in the Gulf had become a double-edged sword.
This even led to conspiracy theories in the region, which suggested
that the United States was not truly interested in overthrowing Saddam
Hussein because failure in this regard would allow a continued military
presence in the Gulf.
The policy of dual containment was finally buried with the US inva-
sion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 and the ouster of the Saddam Hussein
regime. The collapse of the Iraqi army and the overthrow of the Ba’ath
regime naturally strengthened the standing of Shiite Iran, as the leaders
of the Gulf states had warned at the time. Once again, as in the early
1980s, the Gulf states became a target for Iranian attempts increase
Iranian influence in the region, but this time without Iraq to balance
Iran’s power. When President George W. Bush reconsidered his regional
policy during his second term, the United States was already up to its
neck in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran – which gained the most from

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0006
The Changing Dynamic of American–GCC Relations 

the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and the Taliban’s ouster –
felt freer than in the past to promote its regional ambitions and to work
toward nuclear capability.

Between Iran and the West

The current administration of President Obama is putting an empha-

sis on strengthening the Arab Gulf states’ military power to help
them cope better with the Iranian threat, whether for the purposes
of establishing a long-term strategy of containment and deterrence
toward Iran or in order to prepare them for a possible response by
Iran in the event that its nuclear facilities are attacked. In general, the
most prominent characteristics of the US policy toward Iran include
significantly increasing economic sanctions and attempting to delay
and disrupt Iran’s technological progress through a variety of means.
In addition, although downplaying the military option, Obama
has indicated that it remains “on the table.” In parallel, he sought to
promote multilateral negotiations in his first term and direct negotia-
tions in his second term.
While the economic sanctions imposed on Iran are forcing it to
reexamine its policy on the nuclear issue, they have not thus far led it to
completely stop its quest for nuclear capability.
In his second term, the Obama administration continued to promote
the idea of a dialogue with Iran, this time through direct negotiations,
and, at the same time, clearly stated its objections to Iran obtaining
nuclear capability. The United States is also carrying out operations –
especially strengthening the armies of the Gulf states – from which
can be inferred that it intends, at the least, to create a balance of
deterrence toward Iran. Moreover, a preoccupation with the military
option has continued, with questions as to whether it can successfully
stop the Iranian nuclear program, and a debate as to the political and
military price that such an operation may involve. The assessment
is that currently, if Iran does not “break the rules,” the United States
will not have a great desire to increase its military involvement in the
Along with American efforts in regard to Iran, ensuring access to the
Gulf oil and helping to maintain the stability of the six monarchies will
continue to be vital interests of the West and the United States. This will

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

be true even if United States’ domestic oil production continues to rise

and ultimately begins to supply all of its energy needs. Moreover, the
United States maintains an interest in combating anti-American extrem-
ists in the Gulf and the broader Middle East who have sought to take
advantage of the instability and collapse of old Arab regimes, as well as
pursuing a successful negotiated end to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Enlisting GCC support in such a continued war on terror and for such a
peace treaty will be essential.
Despite some fairly clear indications that US policy in the Gulf and
the broader region seems both firm and vital, other behavior, includ-
ing that regarding the “Arab Spring,” has led the elites in the Gulf to
become skeptical of the certainty of American political backing, should
a domestic threat to their rule rise. This skepticism is all the more so
pronounced and concerning considering the presence of US military
forces on their territory, which has already been challenging due to a
certain level of domestic criticism and discontent that exists in some of
the Gulf states. The 2012 Department of Defense report that promised
to “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region4 has only added to the
perception that America’s commitment to the states of the region may
be weakening. Such skepticism will cause difficulties in aligning with
US regional policy in the future and it will force the Gulf states to think
twice before taking risks for the United States, first and foremost, in
connection with Iran.
The United States understands that it must demonstrate its commit-
ment to both protecting the Arab Gulf states there, given their fear of
Iran, and also to the region if it wishes to reassure its allies and enlist
their support in implementing US policy. Toward this end, it has offered
a new “security envelope,” based on greater integration of the Gulf states’
armies among themselves and with the United States. This idea, which
was intended primarily as reassurance, may also reflect its operative
plans, intended to deter Iran. In addition, GCC states have been included
on the itineraries of several high-level American officials, perhaps in an
effort to demonstrate its commitment to its allies and the broader region.
Selling America’s more advanced weaponry are some of the tangible
ways in which Washington can reassure its GCC allies that it takes their
security concerns seriously. On the other hand, it’s the Arab monarch’s
way to try and get the US forces to stay in and around the Gulf as much
as possible.

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The Changing Dynamic of American–GCC Relations 

Continuity and change in US–GCC relations

The sense among some of the Gulf elite is that, while no good alternative
to the United States’ military power exists, particularly as a counterweight
to Iran’s growing strength, America’s steadfastness in the region is in
question. Despite the Gulf states’ ability to acquire advanced weaponry,
close ranks, and even develop independent (civilian) nuclear programs
their strength can never equal that of Iran’s (due to lack of strategic
depth, small populations, and limited, untrained armies). Therefore,
they may seek to hedge their bets as much as possible and, therefore,
adopt a two-prong policy which, on the one hand, will continue, and
even deepen, their dependence on outside elements for deterrence and
security and, on the other, will preserve good neighborly relations with
Iran to the extent possible.
Until recently, signs of GCC dissatisfaction with the administration’s
Middle East policy came primarily from reports and news analyses. Of
late, however, the Saudi government has become much less cautious
about its public criticism of the United States.5 Notwithstanding its
threats, however, Saudi Arabia has no good options as to a substitute
for the United States. The unwritten alliance that connects these two
countries has been based on the principle that the United States has
access to the economy of the Gulf and in exchange, provides the king-
dom with a defense umbrella against external threats. Despite its wealth,
the kingdom is not able to cope with significant threats in its strategic
environment alone. Moreover, at this time, no other major power can or
wants to play the role of protecting the Gulf states from Iran. However,
it is possible that in the wake of the erosion of Saudi confidence in the
United States, the kingdom will seek to diffuse risks and form a parallel
web of relations with various countries, even if not complete, and thereby
improve its security situation.
The Gulf states confidence in the partnership was punctured when the
US administration seemed to be turning its back on the House of Khalifa
in Bahrain and especially in the Saudi view, abandoned its long-time
allies, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el
Abidine Ben Ali, preferring to support “processes of democratization” in
these countries – although ironically it was the Muslim Brotherhood that
emerged victorious in this process. While the United States attempted
to maintain good relations with Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood
government, Saudi Arabia, which sees the movement as an ideological

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

rival and an element that undermines stability, cooled its relations with
Egypt while the Brotherhood was in power.
The Saudis found it difficult to hide their satisfaction when Presi-
dent Morsi was ousted in a military coup. King Abdullah hastened to
congratulate acting President Adly Mansour for the army’s having
“removed Egypt from the dark tunnel,”6 and the Saudis even announced
that they would stand behind the military government if the West did
not transfer aid to Egypt. The kingdom, together with Kuwait and the
UAE, put together a generous aid package in order to help the new Egyp-
tian regime stand on its feet. For its part, the United States expressed its
reservations about the coup, which it viewed as contrary to its interests,
and decided on a temporary and partial freeze of military aid to Egypt in
response to the violent suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood protests.
The US–Russian agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons
also angered the elits in the Gulf. Dismantling the chemical weapons
was not a top priority for the Saudis, which saw the conflict as an
opportunity to land a blow against the Assad regime that could tip the
scales in the fighting in the rebels’ favor, remove Syria from the Iranian
sphere of influence, and further weaken Hizbollah’s standing in Leba-
non. Saudi Arabia sees the US–Russian agreement as a cop-out that will
prolong the survival of the regime. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi
ambassador to the United States, expressed the frustration in Riyadh
with his comment that “the current charade of international control
over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly
perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to
back down but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”7 Saudi anger
is not limited to rhetoric, and the Saudis have reportedly announced a
reduction in cooperation with the United States in arming the Syrian
Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf states also fears a
US–Iranian rapprochement. The Iranian charm offensive is seen in the
Gulf states as an exercise in deception. The Saudis fear the possibility of
an Iranian–Western deal that would allow Iran to escape its isolation,
and at the same time advance toward nuclear capability. Above all, Saudi
Arabia fears reconciliation between Iran and the West that would be at
Saudi expense, restore Iranian legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and
allow it to increase its influence in the region. A final agreement with
Iran on the nuclear issue, and certainly a possible future detente in
US–Iranian relations, would deal a huge blow to US–GCC relations.

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The Changing Dynamic of American–GCC Relations 

The rulers in the Gulf fear a change of US strategic direction, which

has already removed its troops from Iraq and withdrew most of its
combat forces from Afghanistan. The US administration has announced
that in the future, East Asia will be the top priority for the United States.
Furthermore, in recent years the United States has stepped up the pace
of oil and gas production in US territory and according to forecasts
will become energy-independent by the end of the current decade. The
Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis fear that if and when the United States
achieves full energy independence, it will no longer need its Arab allies
and will largely reduce its involvement in the Gulf and the broader
Middle East.
The next few years are thus expected to be a test period for Saudi/
GCC–US relations, but it is too early to eulogize the historic alliance
between the two. Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia
are based on deep common interests and have survived previous crises,
from the 1973 oil embargo to the serious crisis in the wake of September
11, 2001. Even when the United States achieves energy independence,
Gulf stability will continue to be a clear American interest, and even if
most of the oil and gas are already designated for sale to Asia, the price
of oil will continue to be set in the Gulf. The lack of security stability in
the Gulf has dramatic implications for global oil prices and for the world
economic situation, which is critical for the United States.
Moreover, the regional turmoil has also strengthened US–Saudi
cooperation. The United States and Saudi Arabia together achieved an
agreement allowing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
The Saudis cooperated with the sanctions regime against Iran and even
stepped up the pace of oil production in order to make up for short-
ages caused by the removal of Iranian oil from the markets. The two
countries are also continuing to cooperate in the war against al-Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula, which has taken control over areas of southern
Yemen and which both countries view as a security threat. In addition,
the United States continues to supply Saudi Arabia with large quantities
of advanced weapon systems, which constitute an important contribu-
tion to the US economy.
Overall, the Gulf Arab monarch’s options are limited. In spite of
its great wealth, they are not able to confront significant threats in its
strategic environment alone: their strategic facilities are vulnerable,
and their armies are small and untrained. Furthermore, no other major
power is currently interested in or capable of filling the role played by

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

the United States in maintaining stability and security in the Gulf, or

in other words, deterrence and protection of the Gulf states from Iran.
However, because of the erosion in their confidence in the United States,
the Saudis and others might seek to diversify risks and formulate a paral-
lel web of relations, which even if not perfect will improve its security
situation, including an attempt to obtain an independent, off-the-shelf
nuclear deterrent in the future.

1 Joseph Kostiner, Joshua Teitelbaum, and Uzi Rabi, “Gulf Security: A Local
Perspective” in The Gulf states: Politics, Society, Economy, ed. Yosef Kostiner,
Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv
University, 2000 (Hebrew).
2 John Gallagher, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1982).
3 P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, “Gentlemanly Capitalists and British Expansion
Overseas: New Imperialism 1850–1945,” Economic History Review, Vol. 40, No. 1
(February 1987).
4 United States Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership:
Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012.
5 Mohammed Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, “Saudi Arabia Will Go It
Alone,” The New York Times, December 17, 2013.
6 Elizabeth Dickinson, “UAE, Saudi Arabia Express Support for Egyptian
Military’s Removal of Morsi” the National, July 4, 2013.
7 “Our Former Friends the Saudis,” The Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2013.

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The Gulf Cooperation Council:
From Cooperation to Unity?
Abstract: The turmoil in the Arab world and the
escalating struggle with Iran has resulted in GCC attempts
to inoculate themselves against potential risks and to
strengthen their legitimacy. This process includes a Saudi-
led initiative to transform the organization into a more
unified body. Efforts to date have proven unpopular among
some of the other Gulf states, who worry about Riyadh’s
intentions, suggesting that it may be an overly ambitious
endeavor. This in turn punctures the veneer of unity
created by the “Arab Spring” and manifested, inter alia, in
the shared opposition to Qaddafi and Assad.

Keywords: Gulf Cooperation Council; Gulf Union; Iran;

Saudi Arabia

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0007.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0007 
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

On May 26, 1981, the leaders of the six Gulf states concluded their joint
summit meeting in Abu Dhabi with a declaration on the establishment of
the Gulf Cooperation Council. The main goal was to increase coordina-
tion and cooperation in various areas. Despite the rising importance of
security cooperation, and increasing threats to the Gulf, to a large extent
this mutual effort has remained on paper ever since. The undermining
of the status quo in the wake of the revolution in Iran and the outbreak
of the Iran–Iraq War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, increased
the fear of the Gulf states and led them to recognize the importance
of establishing a framework for security cooperation. However, in this
regard the GCC states have repeatedly proven ineffective both in deter-
ring external aggression and protecting against internal subversion,
terrorism, and coup attempts, and in coordinating operations designed
to present a unified political-security policy.
The establishment of the GCC was not only a result of the negative
developments of the late 1970s and the early 1980s; it was also an expres-
sion of common interests, the characterof the regimes, and their common
religion and origin. It was also a result of processes that had begun even
earlier, whose goal, as declared by the states in the GCC’s founding char-
ter, was “to lay the foundations for comprehensive integration.”1 This was
an expression of the attempt to find an agreed-upon formula for Gulf
security, which had been made even prior to Britain’s departure, but to
no avail. The Gulf states required a trigger, which would cause them to
temporarily place aside their mutual suspicions and attempt to overcome
their disagreements. This was provided by the Islamic revolution in Iran
and the Iran–Iraq War, which led to a sense of urgency, providing the
necessary impetus, and accelerating the process by which the six monar-
chies came together.
At the conclusion of a visit to Kuwait two months following the onset
of the Iran–Iraq War, the Saudi foreign minister made an extraordinary
declaration: “The security of every state in the Arab Gulf is the security
of Saudi Arabia.”2 For the first time, there was public confirmation of
the kingdom’s commitment to the security of the small states along the
Gulf ’s coast. In the following months, the pace of meetings between the
leaders was increased, and preparations were made that would lay the
foundations for institutionalized cooperation in the Gulf. At a meeting
of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Ta’if in January
1981, a discussion was held on Gulf security, and it was declared that the
Gulf states were, together, exclusively responsible for their security. This

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The Gulf Cooperation Council: From Cooperation to Unity? 

was an expression of their intention to adopt a common policy distinct

from that of their neighbors. One month later, on February 4, 1981 in
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman
agreed for the first time to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council. The
new organization that was established included, and has developed into,
several institutions:
1 The Supreme Council – The executive body in the organization,
composed of the heads of states. The chairmanship is assigned to
member states for a year on a rotating basis, according to Arabic
alphabetical order by state name. The Supreme Council approves
the recommendations of the Ministerial Council, is responsible
for the GCC’s budget and for choosing the organization’s secretary
general. Initially, it was decided that the council would meet once
a year (usually in December), but in 1998 another consultation
was added between summit meetings. In addition, it was agreed
that the council would convene for an extraordinary meeting at
the request of one of the members. For major issues, a unanimous
vote is required, while on procedural issues, a majority will
suffice. Council meetings are valid only if at least four of the six
founders are present. In addition to the council, there are two main
a. The Conflict Resolution Committee – This institution, which to a
large extent exists only on paper, was supposed to be a permanent
body responsible for resolving conflicts between member states.
In practice, the committee meets on an ad hoc basis following a
decision by the Supreme Council and on the basis of the character
of the conflict being discussed. It has rarely been used.
b. The Advisory Committee – This body, which was established only
in 1998, is composed of 30 experts, 5 from each state, who have
been selected for a period of 3 years. Their role is to study various
subjects on the agenda and to advise the Supreme Council.
2 The Ministerial Council – This council is composed of the
foreign ministers of the six states. Its main function is to prepare
the agenda for meetings of the Supreme Council. It also has the
authority to propose alternative policy and recommendations,
and to coordinate activity among the six states in all areas. The
Ministerial Council convenes every three months unless in the
case of crisis and unless a decision has been made to cancel such a

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

meeting. Its voting practices are identical to those of the Supreme

3 The Secretariat General – The secretariat’s main role is to prepare
professional reports on the various issues on the organization’s
agenda at the request of the Supreme Council. It is also supposed
to monitor the implementation of decisions. Headed by a secretary
general, the individual holding this position is appointed for
a period of three years, and not more than six. The Secretariat
General is located in Riyadh, further evidence of Saudi Arabia’s
centrality within and influence over the GCC. In addition, the
organization has a delegation in Brussels and a media office in
Bahrain. Owing to the honorary nature of this office and the weight
it can hold, the GCC nations often enter into long negotiations
regarding which member nation will be represented in this
As noted, the GCC charter includes a declaration of intentions to bring
about complete integration among the member states in due course.
However, it was decided that they would maintain their independence
in decision-making and that fundamental decisions would be made by
consensus and could not be forced on a state that opposed them. During
the more than 30 years of the organization’s existence, its members have
been divided on nearly every issue that has come up, including the ques-
tion of foreign intervention in Gulf security; policy toward their neigh-
bors, Iran and Iraq; and oil policy. There have also been disputes over the
very purpose and policy of GCC. While several members, such as Oman,
visualized the organization as a tool for protection from external threats,
others, such as Kuwait, considered it, at least in the early years, primarily a
response to internal threats. Ultimately, the council proved to be, at most,
an institution for moderating or containing conflicts between members.
The “flexibility” of the GCC allowed its members to maintain certain
independence in decision-making in foreign and defense policy, and
the adoption of a “neutral” line and avoidance of conflict helped them
to maintain a certain distance from the upheavals in the Gulf. Thus, for
example, in the first years after the organization was founded, Saudi
Arabia worked to gradually strengthen its ties with the United States,
while Kuwait established closer relations with the Eastern bloc. At the
same time, this lack of rigid policy also made it difficult for the six states,
which faced similar challenges, to present a clear, unified political line.

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The Gulf Cooperation Council: From Cooperation to Unity? 

By the early 1990s, the GCC had achieved considerable economic

progress, but a decade following its establishment, it failed to deter the
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, protect a member state, and to remove the
threat to the largest oil fields in the world in northeast Saudi Arabia.
Several days after the invasion, the Gulf state rulers called for Western
assistance. The occupation of Kuwait was not only a demonstration of
their weakness, but also an expression of their differing threat percep-
tions, which prevented the GCC from deploying a credible deterrent
The public displays of fraternity and solidarity by the organization’s
leaders cover up competing and conflicting interests and a differing
view of the strategic environment. Although the security component
was central to the establishment of the GCC, the member states had
consciously refrained from emphasizing the military-security aspect
and instead stressed the “soft” components. It is not inconceivable that
an emphasis on security would have had a boomerang effect, that is,
effective security cooperation would have led to threats, especially from
Iran, which the organization could not have withstood, certainly not in
its early days. The bottom line is that even after more than three decades,
the GCC’s contribution to regional security is marginal.
Contributing to this phenomenon are the inter-GCC divisions that
revolve around unresolved, unpopular or unsatisfactory territorial
disputes and demarcations. Bilateral treaties conducted between Brit-
ain and the Trucial states (soon to become the United Arab Emirates)
without regard to its neighbors, vague delineations, political interests
and, of course, the locations and potential discovery of oil and gas fields
contribute to disagreements in this regard. Often, agreements on paper
do not necessarily mean the conclusion of low-level conflicts that may
be inspired by frustration with settlements or used as a political tool to
exert influence in an unrelated matter. Despite a 1974 agreement between
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, various instances of increased
tension based on border concerns have arose between the two, such as
in 2006, when the UAE opted to include a map without the 1974 border
changes in its annual yearbook.
Another reason for the difficulty in achieving real cooperation among
the six Arab Gulf states, in particular on issues of foreign and defense
policy is Saudi dominance and the lack of balance between the states.
This is causing increasing independence – in particular on issues
concerning decision-making on foreign and defense policy – and a

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

tendency to act according to the particular interests of each state. Even

regarding soft issues, such as the adoption of a common currency and
the establishment of a central bank, the GCC states are finding it difficult
to cooperate.
While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain have ratified the
agreement on a common currency, Oman announced that it could not
meet the required threshold conditions. In May 2009, the United Arab
Emirates, the second largest Gulf-state economy, said the same. It was
explained that the UAE’s reservations were a result of Saudi Arabia’s
attempt to increase its dominance, reflected in its intention to locate the
GCC’s central bank in Riyadh. In practice, the member states formally
began the work of the Economic Council – which was intended to be
the basis of the central bank, and later, of a common currency – but the
actual beginning of operations was repeatedly postponed. The six Gulf
states had agreed on partial implementation of the customs union in
January 2003, but there were multiple delays when it came to resolving
some of the hurdles that got in the way for full integration.3 After more
than a decade of deliberations and summit meetings the issue of customs
also remains stymied, and the timetable for a customs union has been
postponed time and again. Full application would lead to a significant
increase as it would remove all obstacles that obstruct the smooth flow
of goods and services.
Some observers, both inside and outside of the Gulf, point to the
need to strengthen GCC institutions and to introduce reforms in
GCC decision-making processes. But strengthening the organizational
mechanism will not ensure a consensus on basic issues of national
security, especially when coupled with a lack of trust, historical hostility,
inter-tribal competition, and territorial disputes. Organizational reform,
no matter how comprehensive, is likely to add a layer of superfluous
bureaucracy, without bringing about fundamental change in the GCC’s
contribution to regional security.
It was mainly the fear of revolutionary Iran that led the Gulf states to
conclude that they must confront the regional threats through organiza-
tion. Nevertheless, in the past decade, since the exposure of Iran’s nuclear
program, GCC member states have behaved in a fairly passive manner
and have generally remained on the fringes of the effort to prevent Iran
from obtaining a nuclear capability. The lack of stability in the region
since early 2011 has once again brought this issue to the surface. Today,
we can see a certain strategic coordination and the adoption of a more

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The Gulf Cooperation Council: From Cooperation to Unity? 

assertive position by the GCC, which is reviving this loose alliance.

Noteworthy in this context is the GCC Supreme Council’s announce-
ment of its potential expansion to include Jordan and Morocco; to
strengthen the joint military force and to provide it with naval reach;
and even to establish a joint police force. These decisions are the result
of a growing perception by GCC states of the threat from Iran and the
need to broaden its base of support here. It remains to be seen whether
such declarations will prove accurate, or whether they are destined to be
like their predecessors. To the extent that the ruling elites in the GCC
member states are convinced that their alliance will contribute to their
security, they will support strengthening it.

Toward a Gulf Union?

In December 2011, at the 32nd GCC summit, King Abdullah of Saudi

Arabia presented an initiative for turning the organization into one
entity. The initiative, which according to reports, includes full economic
union and subsequently, political union, was approved and publicly
announced as the “Riyadh Declaration.”4
The history of the GCC shows that when its member nations face seri-
ous external threats, their disagreements are often placed aside in order
to promote a more visibly unified front. The turmoil in the Arab world
has indeed pushed the Arab Gulf states to attempt to immunize them-
selves against possible risks and to strengthen their legitimacy, often
through the forum of the GCC. In May 2011, in a move that surprised
many people, the Supreme Council of the GCC invited Jordan and
Morocco, also conservative pro-Western monarchies, to present their
candidacy for membership in the organization. If eventually successful,
a questionable assumption in itself, the process is expected to be gradual,
and has already faced difficulties, particularly because of the opposition
by some members. The rationale behind such objection is, first and
foremost, economic considerations (Jordan, especially, has experienced
serious financial difficulties); Jordan’s prior support for Saddam Hussein
(Kuwait, in particular, has trouble forgetting such support); and, lastly,
because an increase in membership can potentially harm their status
within the organization. If this does materialize however, it can greatly
strengthen the GCC, notably in security-related areas, and can transform
it from a sub-regional into a regional organization.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

In September 2011, Jordan began formal talks regarding the param-

eters of its participation in the organization, and for the first time, the
Jordanian and Moroccan foreign ministers attended a conference of Gulf
state foreign ministers. At the same time, the ministers agreed to a five-
year plan for economic aid to Jordan and to the establishment of a GCC
committee to study the issue of membership. The lack of progress in this
regard is evident of the difficulties in obtaining membership. Currently,
it is unclear whether Jordan and Morocco will, in fact, join the organiza-
tion as regular members, which would require significant changes in the
charter and a series of founding agreements, or whether they will make
do with increasing cooperation – which is in any case close – on specific
issues, and in particular, on security. In that regard, there is also an old-
new initiative on the agenda that apparently includes Jordanian soldiers
in the armed forces of the Gulf states in exchange for generous monetary
aid to Jordan. The Jordanian army is considered the most professional of
the Arab armies, and Jordanian solders have served in the Gulf states on
various occasions in the past.5
The GCC emerged from the “Arab Spring” shaken by the uprising
in Bahrain but stirred into action and assertiveness. The country
remains an open wound and the soft underbelly of the organization,
but the GCC effectively demonstrated its military muscle and raised
the bar of its political ambitions with the intervention. The GCC has
demonstrated that it will protect the monarchical order of its members
from pro-democracy or pro-republican movements and will rebuff any
attempts by Iran to intervene in internal affairs of the GCC member
nations. As noted earlier, the increased ambitions of the GCC have
included offering membership to Jordan and Morocco, mediating the
transition in Yemen, backing military intervention in Libya, actively
supporting the opposition in Syria, and considering stronger unity
within the council.
The upheavals experienced by the Arab world and the heightened
struggle against Iran are causing the Arab Gulf states to try to adopt
different solutions, given their changing domestic and international chal-
lenges. When, King Abdullah’s previously mentioned call to transition
“from cooperation to unity” was made in December 2011, it was thought
that the summit of leaders, held in Riyadh in May 2012, might end with
a declaration of unification, even if only partial. However, despite this
expectation, the decision was made to postpone such a declaration in
order to allow member states additional time to analyze and learn the

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The Gulf Cooperation Council: From Cooperation to Unity? 

initiative, indicating the kingdom’s determination to promote a new

regional agenda. According to reports, this would seem to involve an
upgrading of existing GCC institutions as well as the establishment of
new bodies, while maintaining the sovereignty of all member nations.
The fact that to date the process has not gotten off the ground, even in
part, indicates how deep the divisions among the six really are.
Why did the unification idea resurface? Growing political and security
cooperation is increasingly seen as an urgent all-Gulf necessity. Although
little is known about the proposed union’s nature, it has been reported
that Bahrain will be the first to join. The Bahrain is also the only nation,
which publicly responded positively to the Saudi initiative. Riyadh and
Manama might hope that they can set up a core union of some of the
six member states and that the other members could join at their own
pace. Bahraini’s Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa,
for example, announced that he expects the formation of the Gulf Union
that would be the best move against growing threats to region and in
order to “have more consultations and coordination regarding various
political, security and economic coordination matters.”6
The rationale behind Bahrain’s first place in line is partly due to Saudi
Arabia’s concerns regarding Bahrain’s stability, considering its basic facts
of existence and, above all, its delicate sectarian balance. In addition,
the House of Khalifa is, geographically and historically, the most closely
related to Saudi Arabia, which supports Bahrain both economically and
in the security sector. Furthermore, over the years, members of the two
royal households have become linked to each other through marriage.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the two nations are the prominent
advocates of such union. Owing to these close relations between the two,
however, any official union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would
only formalize an already-existing tight and extremely close relation-
The Saudi foreign minister expressed optimism regarding the union’s
likelihood of success and made it clear that the decision has been made
against the establishment of special ties between Bahrain and Saudi
Arabia. This is to advance the overall objective that all GCC members
join rather than only one or two. Saudi and Arab newspaper editorials
have unanimously praised the initiative and spoken of the need for such
a union. Tariq Alhomayed, Editor-in-Chief of the Saudi-owned Asharq
Al-Awsat, noted that this union is “a necessity, not a luxury,” because of
common threats – first and foremost Iran – facing the Gulf states.7

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Beyond Iran’s attempts to drive a wedge between the six, the difficulty
of forming a more united security and foreign policy stems from Saudi
Arabia’s dominance and the resulting imbalance, as discussed earlier.
Some of the other five members fear that the realization of this Saudi
initiative will only strengthen their already more powerful neighbor and
have serious reservations about Riyadh seeking to impose its political
and economic agenda upon them.
The Gulf states’ increased activity is not free from classical considera-
tions of balance of power and ideological rivalry, namely, the attempts
to provide a Sunni counterweight to Shi’a Iran’s regional influence.
However, the Saudi attempt to unite the monarchies due to concern
of popular unrest, and the desire to create an alternative to the Arab
League, whose standing has consistently been slipping has so far not
borne any fruit. From the onset of the “Arab Spring,” the aging Saudi
leadership has understood that, within the next few years, it is liable to
find itself in a very different political environment in which, on the one
hand, subjects eventually become citizens with democratic rights, and,
on the other hand, sectarian conflict and instability rises. This elite sees
that the traditional means by which it shaped its strategic environment is
no longer sufficient and that it must shed its relative passivity in order to
diminish dangers to national security and even, if necessary, attempt to
take a more leading role in the Arab world.
The GCC nations’ inability to concede some of the hallmarks of
sovereignty and adopt a uniform political and security line has impeded
progress to this end, despite the growing threats, which were the
reason for establishment, and despite their similar economic, politi-
cal, and cultural structures. As a result, since its establishment in 1981,
expectations of the organization have waned. From hopes of a union
or federation or, at the very least, active cooperation, the organization
has, according to its critics, functioned as nothing more than a stage on
which to play out spectacles of Arab unity.

1 “The Charter,” The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, May 25,
2 Middle East Contemporary Survey (MECS) 1981–2 (Vol. 6), p. 459.

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The Gulf Cooperation Council: From Cooperation to Unity? 

3 Mohammad Al Asoomi, “GCC Seeks Common Good from Full Customs

Union”, Gulf News, May 14, 2014.
4 Glen Carey, “Saudi King Abdullah Calls for a Closer Arab Gulf Union,”
Bloomberg, December 19, 2011.
5 Yoel Guzansky, “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states: Can the Six Walk
Together?,” INSS insight No. 541, April 28, 2014.
6 Habib Toumi, “Bahrain, Saudi Arabia Stress Full Support to Gulf Union,” Gulf
News, July 16, 2014.
7 Tariq Alhomayed, “The Gulf Union and Those Who Harbor Reservations,”
Asharq Al-Awsat, May 13, 2012.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0007
Defense Cooperation
in the GCC
Abstract: The Arab Gulf states have systematically
worked to tighten their cooperation in various fields.
However, progress toward increased defense collaboration
continues to be slow due to a number of factors including
fear of angering neighboring countries, particularly Iran;
protecting state sovereignty; and reliance on other forms
of defense, such as national militaries and foreign allies.
The history of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
shows that when its member states face serious external
threats, their disagreements are often sidelined in order
to promote a more visible unified front. Nevertheless, past
experience also indicates, such efforts may be held hostage
by inner-GCC rivalries and therefore make only marginal
contributions to security in the Gulf.

Keywords: defense cooperation; Gulf Cooperation

Council; joint military force

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0008.

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0008
Defense Cooperation in the GCC 

Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced in the 34th

summit in Kuwait the formation of a unified military command for the
GCC’s joint military branch, the Peninsula Shield force:
“The Supreme Council agreed on the establishment of the joint military
command to the GCC member states and assigned the Joint Defense Council
to take necessary measures to put this agreement into effect according to the
relevant studies” the final communiqué stated.1

Since its founding in 1981, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates
(UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain have systematically increased
cooperative measures in many “soft” areas. Their progress toward mili-
tary cooperation, however, has been, and remains, slow.
It was the inability to agree upon security commitments and the
absence of consensus concerning the character of any such defense
framework that produced only vague allusions to the subject, reflecting
no more than the minimum each country was willing to contribute.
Yet eventually, the developments of the Iran–Iraq war caused a shift in
the organization’s position toward the Omani model, which called for
the establishment of a joint military force and the combination of air
defense capabilities and coordinated defense procurement, designed to
facilitate the organization’s military buildup and reduce their depend-
ence on foreign forces.
The attempted coup in Bahrain in late 1981, supported by Iran, and Iran’s
recent battlefield victories in its war against Iraq increased the Arab coun-
tries’ anxiety that Iran would carry out its promise to establish a foothold on
the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. These developments also caused some of
the countries to formulate regulations enabling them to implement emer-
gency conscription of their citizens and led them to ponder the usefulness
of joint military maneuvers under GCC auspices for the first time.
In the subsequent years, following various developments, including the
beginning of the Iranian campaign to expel Iraqi forces from its territory
and the Iranian attacks on installations in Kuwaiti territory, indications
that the views of the Arab Gulf states’ on joint defense cooperation were
beginning to converge started to appear. Abdullah Bishara, the GCC’s
first Secretary General, asserted at the concluding session of the organi-
zation’s third summit meeting that the GCC “had moved from a focus
on economics to a (focus) on security and military matters ...”.2
The first joint military exercise of the GCC countries took place in
October 1983 in the UAE. Bringing the military forces of all member

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

countries together for training under joint command only two years
after the organization was founded was a considerable achievement,
indicating that their intention in establishing a comprehensive organiza-
tion went beyond cooperation in “soft” areas.
The importance of the joint force, however, lay in what it signaled,
not in the military capabilities displayed by its component states. The
GCC countries were aware of their weakness and dependence on exter-
nal forces to maintain their security. Indeed, it was because of these
shortcomings, and in order to avoid arousing Iranian antagonism, that
the member countries prefaced any planned military exercise with a
disclaimer that maneuvers were not directed toward any party, and were
not a response to geopolitical developments in the Gulf.
The force’s training exercises, over the following years, did not indi-
cate a high level of military competence. Their objectives were modest,
particularly in comparison to the potential threats. Nevertheless, the
joint maneuvers, which gradually came to include naval and air forces,
became routine in the subsequent years and led to increased cooperation
between the GCC countries. Little information has been published on the
composition of the joint military force, each country’s share, its purpose,
or its budget. The exercises have not been conducted regularly, nor have
they taken place in all of the GCC countries. Following the Iran–Iraq
war, the principle of self-reliance was, to some extent, abandoned even
before it was put to an actual test.
Up to that point, the GCC made only marginal contributions to secu-
rity in the Gulf and its members, but the end of this conflict could have
served as a test for the GCC, whose record suggests little political effect
and featured a very loose association, to achieve its goals.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait ultimately became the turning point for Saudi
Arabia. Not only did friendly neighbors, such as Jordan and Yemen,
become enemies overnight due to their support for Saddam Hussein,
and not only did an ally (Kuwait) disappear from the map, but Saudi
Arabia itself was existentially imperiled. Furthermore, all the collective
security arrangements constructed during the 1980s collapsed. In a
speech several days following the occupation of Kuwait, the Saudi king
declared that Iraq’s action was “the most terrible act of aggression in the
modern history of the Arab nation”.3
Operation Desert Storm constituted a watershed in relations between
the United States and the Gulf countries. The other strategic options,
strengthening the GCC’s military capability, as proposed by Oman, or

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Defense Cooperation in the GCC 

joining an alliance with Egypt and Syria (“the Damascus declaration”),

were quickly abandoned. Simply put, the GCC countries neither believed
in the Peninsula Shield force’s defensive ability, nor did they trust the
military forces or political intentions of Syria and Egypt. In fact, as Saudi
General and Prince Khaled bin Sultan explained, “the number one lesson
of the crisis was that had the Gulf states been truly united they would
have been able to put up more of a fight on their own”.4
Ever since the force was founded, filling quotas remained a source
of friction among the GCC nations. Historic rivalries, disagreements
concerning objectives, and disputes over command have been, and
continue to be, major points of contention, detracting from the force’s
effectiveness. During years in which the military threat was less critical,
differing strategic perceptions among the GCC states, the intractability
of certain territorial disputes between them, interpersonal rivalries, and
the flawed understanding that a stronger organization might hinder
the ability to win essential inter-Arab support, resulted in diminished
cooperation and disagreements concerning the joint force. The outcome
was what appeared to be the limit of the GCC’s ability to contribute to
its members’ security, the purpose for which it was established. In light
of the aforementioned factors, the perception was that tighter security
relations would do more harm than good.
Even in its third decade, divisiveness persists over the force’s mission.
Such difficulties in reaching consensus will necessarily affect the ability
of the force to successfully fulfill its missions. In one case it was disputed
whether having a foreigner lead the force would constitute infringe-
ment on regional sovereignty, if it would challenge the “rights” of each
country involved. Consequently, the joint force operates today as little
more than a “skeleton” rather than a self-sufficient, standing army. Their
focus, according to Major General Mutlaq bin Salem al-Azima, the
commander of the Peninsula Shield force, is “organization and train-
ing and mixing units together to form a united force”.5 In the economic
sphere, conversely, the GCC countries took measured steps toward
greater cooperation, both between themselves and with external parties.
At the 21st annual GCC conference in December 2000, the GCC heads
of state agreed to several cautious measures that would ultimately lead
toward the adoption of a comprehensive joint defense strategy. It was
reported that a mutual defense pact had been signed, similar to NATO’s
chapter 5, binding the signatory countries to respond to an attack on a
member country as an attack on all signatory countries. Although no

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

official announcement was ever made and no document was published

on the subject, at the beginning of the GCC’s second decade, the
participants had agreed on paper to the creation of a defense pact.6 The
agreement obliged all the six states to provide military assistance to help
each other. It further established a joint military committee to supervise
cooperation and promote collaboration in joint military exercises and
coordination in the field of military industries.7
However, more than a decade after the original agreement was signed –
which included no timetable for its ratification – the GCC countries had
still not discussed the possibility of putting it into effect. They took only
modest steps toward implementation, manifested in frequent consulta-
tion but limited cooperation, usually at the bilateral level, all the while
fanatically maintaining their sovereignty and acting almost exclusively
according to their own particular national interests.
The joint force’s poor record over the years has led the GCC coun-
tries to conclude their annual conference in December 2006 with the
dissolution of its military branch in its current form. This was, in effect,
the cornerstone for a force based on a different format, although here,
too, discussions were prolonged and it was unclear when, if at all, the
force would begin to function, let alone have an effect on the members’
security.8 In that summit Saudi Arabia circulated a proposal that called
for the adoption of “centralized command and decentralized forces,”
and to disband the Peninsula Shield force as a collective single military
unit in the region. The announcement came following years of indeci-
sion and nonmovement. The kingdom proposed that each GCC state
should designate certain military units to be part of the new structure
and to station those units within each state’s national territory. The units
would then be linked to a unified central command. The six heads of
state agreed to consider a Saudi Arabian proposal to enlarge the force
to 22,000 soldiers, who would be stationed in their parent countries but
under a joint command and control system.9 The GCC countries reiter-
ated their decision to consolidate an alternative fighting framework, a
quasi-rapid deployment force, but it did not appear that any significant
progress toward this goal had been made. The gap between rhetoric and
action was again palpable.
Some change appeared evident when elements of the force – mainly
soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Kuwaiti ships
dispatched in order to guard the ports – entered Bahrain in March 2011,
ordered to support the royal family during instability brought upon by

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Defense Cooperation in the GCC 

widespread protest, primarily among the island nation’s Shia majori-

ty.10 Should the protests persist, it was believed, Iran’s influence would
increase and inspire unrest elsewhere. Such was the anxiety, that for the
first time, about 2,000 soldiers (1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from
UAE) from the force entered to secure “strategic sites” against internal
forces accused of attempting to overthrow the royal dynasty with foreign
(Iranian) assistance. In this regard, al-Azima noted that, “when a state
becomes preoccupied with its internal security, this increases its need
to secure its international borders”.11 In other words, although the force
entered to assist with an internal issue, the GCC perceived the threat as
originating externally. In addition to the obvious contribution made to
Bahrain’s security apparatus that was sufficiently bolstered to be allowed
to deal with the protests, a clear message was sent to Iran that Bahrain
was in the GCC’s sphere of influence and that the member nations had
not abandoned the idea of the joint military force. This sentiment was
driven home by the fact that some of the forces remained on the island
even after the emergency passed in June 2011 and that the countries
agreed to build a permanent base for the force in Bahrain.12
The force’s intervention in Bahrain also conferred a concrete meaning
onto the notion of a mutual commitment between the GCC countries. In
this context, a Saudi official noted that the entrance of the forces was an
“open-ended” and “initial phase”. Bahrain will, he continued, “get what-
ever assistance it needs”.13 Moreover, Saudi Arabian Minister of Foreign
Affairs, Saud Al-Faisal, told the Asharq Al-Awsat daily after the forces
had entered Bahrain that “the GGC’s strategy is to maintain the security
of all the (Arab) Gulf countries,” emphasizing that “this policy does not
concern only one country”.14
As aforesaid, the GCC countries were seeking to establish a perma-
nent front command for the force in Bahrain in addition to the main
headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Geopolitically, the purpose of this new
command is to highlight the GCC’s determination to prevent Iran from
exerting any influence in Bahrain. Moreover, it is likely that such a pres-
ence is also intended to send a message to the American administration,
which is apparently seeking to cut back on its military presence in the
region, that the Gulf countries are capable of maintaining their security
by themselves.15
The deployment to Bahrain is an example of one of the force’s actual
“successes,” despite the drawbacks and difficulties involved in establish-
ing and maintaining it. Still, there are other successes, notably the insti-

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

tutionalization of a joint staff under permanent command, the execution

of joint exercises, as well as other symbolic deployments. Another issue
on the docket is the establishment of a Gulf-wide police force, which the
GCC suggests will “boost security and help expand anti-terror co-op-
eration and co-ordination among member states”.16 Whether this force
will be based in Riyadh remains to be seen, yet in light of Saudi Arabia’s
domineering take on the strategic environment and the convenience of
an American safety net, the smaller countries’ perception of Saudi domi-
nance may have impeded the enforcement of mutual interests, particu-
larly the enablement of the joint force to effectively fulfill its purpose.17
Oman and Qatar have complained more than once, for instance, about
Saudi leaps to command, making decisions about structure, and provid-
ing the bulk of the force’s personnel.18
Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia’s military contribution to the force is
crucial; however, it also constitutes a significant portion of the GCC’s
collective military manpower, creating an imbalance that diminishes the
role of non-Saudi troops and provides the house of Saud with dispropor-
tionate say in the joint force. Such Saudi assertiveness was evident in the
GCC’s 34th annual meeting, where the state minister for foreign affairs
of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Nizar Madani, framed further integra-
tion of the council as “no longer a luxury, but a strategic necessity”.19
This urgency comes in the wake of Iran’s thawing relations with the
west, which, despite earning praise from the GCC, also elicited vocal
reservations.20 Gulf-wide unrest linked to Iran has renewed interest in
the reinvigoration of this loose alliance, but the Saudi initiative to turn
the GCC into a union – the “Riyadh Declaration”21 – has come up against
resistance, principally from Oman, a GCC member whose ambivalence
is colored by its non-Sunni and non-Shia identity, as well as its particular
proximity to Iran. “We are against a union,” the Omani foreign minister,
Yusuf bin Alawi, said at the eve of the 34th GCC summit. “We will not
prevent a union, but if it happens we will not be part of it,” bin Alawi
added.22 This rare public refusal, as well as the fact that, to date, any
progress has not gotten off the ground indicates how deep the divisions
among the six really are.
The joint military force has not altered the regional balance of power
and cannot in its present status replace dependency on national armies
and external allies. Although the GCC has made considerable inroads
in financial and economic cooperation, security coordination remains
elusive and after three decades, progress is marginal at best. Yet, the

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Defense Cooperation in the GCC 

GCC’s balance sheet might not be completely negative, certainly in

comparison with other models of inter-Arab cooperation. Furthermore,
given its performance in Bahrain in 2011, the force has proven its effec-
tiveness at managing internal crises, a role it will likely have to reprise.23
Beyond Iran’s attempts to drive a wedge between the six, the difficulty
of forming a more cohesive council-wide security and foreign policy
stems from the smaller members’ resistance to Saudi Arabia’s aforemen-
tioned dominance. A fear of Riyadh, strengthened by the implementation
of its initiative and eager to impose its political and economic agenda,
is second only to fear of Iran. Consequent intractability concerning any
perceived loss of sovereignty and political conformity has thus impeded
progress to any further integration. As a result, since its establishment,
expectations of the organization have waned. From hopes of a union
or federation or, at the very least, active cooperation, the organization
has, according to its critics, functioned as nothing more than a stage on
which to play out spectacles of Arab unity.

1 “34th GCC summit concludes,” Saudi press agency, December 12, 2013.
Available at:
(accessed on December 18, 2013).
2 Colin Legum, Haim Shaked, and Daniel Dishon (eds), Middle East
Contemporary Survey (MECS): Volume 7 1982–83 (New York: Holmes & Meier
Publishers, 1985), p. 450.
3 MECS 1990 (Vol. 14), p. 84.
4 HRH General Khaled bin Sultan and Patrick Seale, Desert Warrior: A Personal
View of the Gulf War by the Joint Forces Commander (New York: HarperCollins
Publishers, 1995), p. 475.
5 “A talk with Peninsula Shield force commander Mutlaq Bin Salem al-Azima,”
Asharq Al-Awsat, March 28, 2011.
6 “Congressional Research Service Report to Congress,” The Library of Congress,
February 18, 2001. See also Kareem Shaheen, “Defensive Shield for the Gulf
Since 1982,” The National, March 16, 2011.
7 Awad Mustafa, “GCC Announces a Joint Military Command,” Defense News,
December 11, 2013.
8 “GCC Joint Rapid Deployment Force To Be Set Up This Year,” Gulf News,
January 17, 2011.
9 James Calderwood, “GCC Summit Strengthens Regional Ties,” The National,
December 16, 2009.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

10 “Peninsula Shield Forces Arrive,” Gulf Daily News, March 15, 2011.
11 “A Talk with Peninsula Shield Force Commander”.
12 “HM King Hamad Allocates Land for Peninsula Shield Force Headquarters,”
Bahrain News Agency, December 4, 2013.
13 Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman, “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help
Put Down Unrest,” New York Times, March 14, 2011.
14 “Saudi FM Calls for ‘Prudence and Wisdom’ in Dealing with Regional
Crises,” Asharq Alawsat, July 6, 2011.
15 “GCC Force Plans Headquarters in Bahrain,” Gulf News, April 16, 2013.
16 Musaid Al-Zayani, “GCC Joint Military Command to Be Based in Riyadh:
Source,” Asharq Al-Awsat, December 13, 2013.
17 For further discussion see Thomas W. Lippman, Saudi Arabia on the Edge:
The Uncertain Future of an American Ally (Washington, DC: Potomac Books,
2012), p. 233.
18 Saideh Lotfian, “A Regional Security System in the Persian Gulf,” p. 126 in
Lawrence Potter and Gary Sick (eds.), Security in the Persian Gulf: Origins,
Obstacles, and the Search for Consensus (New York: Palgrave, 2002).
19 Dahlia Kholaif, “Oman: No Gulf-wide Union for Us,” Al Jazeera, December
15, 2013.
20 “GCC Members Agree to Establish Joint Security Command,” Asharq
Al-Awsat, December 11, 2013.
21 Glen Carey, “Saudi King Abdullah Calls for a Closer Arab Gulf Union,”
Bloomberg, December 19, 2011.
22 “Oman Will Withdraw from GCC if a Union Is Formed: Foreign Minister,”
The National, December 7, 2013.
23 See more: Yoel Guzansky (2014) Defence Cooperation in the Arabian Gulf:
The Peninsula Shield Force Put to the Test, Middle Eastern Studies, 50:4,

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0008
Part II
The Gulf States and Iran
When examining the relationships between the Gulf states
and Iran, it becomes clear that each Gulf state has basic
concerns when cooperating with Iran, on the one hand,
and attempting to preserve the framework of the GCC on
the other, which was established to a large extent because
of the Iranian threat. The assumption is that contrasting
threat perceptions have made it difficult to establish a
joint, institutionalized security strategy, and that the
cracks in the front of unity weaken the states’ ability to act
as a united bloc vis-à-vis Iran. Nevertheless, even when
the perception of the Iranian threat, with its different
dimensions, military build-up, nuclear ambitions, political
subversion, and terrorism, is essentially agreed upon, each
has chosen to hedge in relation to the different dimensions
and/or levels of the threat that it anticipates.
Between total defection and full cooperation, a sphere
of maneuverability exists, which states can exploit in order
to improve their security situation. Because they cannot
be fully convinced as to the intentions of their allies and
because their interests will never overlap entirely, they
often use strategic hedging. Less than full cooperation with
an ally and a certain amount of independence in foreign
relations is likely to be a beneficial course of action for
the small power, and certainly if it is seeking to create the
impression that it might reconsider its policy toward a

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0009 
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

state that its ally perceives as a real or potential competitor. In the weak
player’s view, this is enough to create a lever toward its stronger partners
in the alliance and improve its situation. However, in many cases, this
is merely an attempt that is intended to manage and contain perceived
The disadvantages of this strategy are, nevertheless, considerable. It
is liable to impair the effectiveness of the balancing process and, subse-
quently, that of alliance management. The states had an intention, even
if it was not declared, to enter into a joint security venture. When the
security of the region and the stability of the monarchies were endan-
gered, this was necessary. For more than 33 years, the GCC maintained
a considerable amount of coordination, and a certain amount of coop-
eration existed alongside an almost built-in lack of agreement among
members, who were working to maximize their individual security in
various ways that impaired the ability to establish an effective collective
security institution on the western side of the Gulf.
An important question in this context concerns the factors that allow
this policy of hedging to continue over time. If the country harmed by
such a strategy is a dominant player, it may force its weaker ally to reveal
its intentions; that is, it may insist that it take costly action in order to
demonstrate which side it is on. In addition, this strategy is not without
a price, as was demonstrated by relations between Saudi Arabia and
Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Oman. However, in a situation of high
uncertainty with narrow margins for error, an attempt to avoid harm and
survive becomes primary, even if it comes at a high price and impairs
the effectiveness of the alliances.The smaller Gulf states do, to varying
extents, hedge in dealing with Iran, sometimes even when the level of
external pressure is high and alliance literature predicts high levels of
cooperation. In spite of the advantages that the monarchies may gain
from this strategy, the desire to maintain as many options as possible
is likely to be more costly, because it requires resources to be directed
in opposite directions, both bandwagoning with Iran and balancing
against it. Furthermore, the gain may be small, because if the inputs
are not invested in the best way, the investment can go down the drain.
The argument behind the strategy of hedging is that it contributes to the
security of states as individual units, even if indirectly it could actually
weaken the effectiveness of alliances due to its ambiguous nature.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0009
Saudi Arabia
Abstract: The relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are
complex and play a very significant role in regional affairs.
They are influenced by the connections that both parties
have with the United States, especially in light of recent
moves toward an Iran–US rapprochement. They are also
influenced by sectarian tensions, as manifested in the proxy
wars fought with the sponsorship of both sides in various
regional conflicts. The most apparent example is Syria,
but the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are also
strained over the situation in Iraq.

Keywords: Iran; Iraq; Saudi Arabia; Shia-Sunni Islam;


Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0010.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0010 
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent years have been char-
acterized by religious-ideological antagonism, competing political and
geo-strategic interests, as well as an ongoing competition for regional
hegemony.1 With the beginning of the Arab Awakening the hostility
between the two states intensified, especially as the regional revolution-
ary wave arrived in Bahrain and Syria, creating a direct clash between
Saudi and Iranian interests and policies. What is more, the revolutionary
potential of the Arab Awakening, along with what Riyadh perceived as
Iranian attempts to consolidate regional achievements and influence,
largely roused Saudi Arabia out of its relative passivity in foreign policy
and led it to attempt to promote a new inter-Arab alignment as a poten-
tial counterweight to perceived looming Iranian threat.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are characterized by religious-
ideological antagonism and competition for regional influence. One of the
results of the current turmoil in the Middle East is that the hostility between
the two states and their struggle over the character of the region has sharp-
ened and intensified. These developments, as well as the need to take a more
leading role in the Arab world, pose an additional challenge to the kingdom
and may leave it more vulnerable to Iranian aggression than in the past.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a main threat for several reasons. The first
relates to Iran’s desire to promote a security system in the Gulf free of
foreign involvement – particularly that of the United States – in which
Iran will assume the position of leadership. That was evident, for exam-
ple, in Iran’s foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif ’s proposal of a new
mechanism for future Gulf security:
It is crucial that we build an inclusive framework for confidence and coopera-
tion in this strategic region. Any exclusion will be the seed of future mistrust,
tension and crisis. The core of any wider regional arrangement should be
limited to the eight littoral states. Inclusion of other states will bring with it
other complex issues, overshadowing the immediate problems of this region
and further complicating the complex nature of security, as well as coopera-
tion among us.2

The second refers to Iran’s view of itself as the more genuine repre-
sentative of the Muslim world and as the state that is challenging Saudi
Arabia’s role as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” Islam’s two holiest
sites. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability and the potential impact this
capability would have on shaping the regional agenda also threatens
Saudi Arabia because of the increased influence it would provide Iran

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Saudi Arabia 

within, for example, OPEC and over the Shiites minority population in
the Saudi kingdom (already presumably influenced to some degree by
When the Iran–Iraq War ended, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s relations
improved to some degree. Among the contributing factors was Ayatollah
Khomeini’s agreement to a ceasefire and his decision to prevent Iranian
pilgrims from traveling to Mecca, which, for the first time in a decade,
caused the Hajj to pass without disturbances.3 The interest of both
sides in warmer relations and in solving their differences strengthened
following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and even led to a restoration of
relations at the end of this conflict (March 1991). The cautious and wary
process of rapprochement between the Gulf states and Iran was acceler-
ated when Muhammad Khatami, who was seen as a moderate, became
president of Iran in 1997.4 The process was led by Saudi Arabia who,
for this purpose, worked to a certain extent to stop the incitement in
Saudi Arabia against Iran, and signed a series of cultural and economic
agreements with it.5
Such a measured process of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia
and Iran grew stronger once Crown Prince Abdullah took over effective
power in the Kingdom in 1995 due to King Fahd’s failing health. Saudi
Arabia’s détente with Iran was not well received among the other Arab
states in the region, and especially the UAE, which feared that the King-
dom and the GCC would, as a result, soften their overall position on
the issue of the three islands occupied by Iran but claimed by the UAE.
Saudi Arabia believed that, as long as Iran was not inciting its Shiite
population against the royal family, it could even serve to balance the
power of Iraq. Iran, for its part, saw the possibility for the improvement
of its relations with the Gulf states to translate into a more receptive
audience for its message of opposition to the US military presence in
the region. For this purpose, it publicly praised closer relations among
the states and even raised the idea of a new security framework in the
Gulf. In spite of the change in the dynamic in relations with Iran and
its more pragmatic policy, Saudi Arabia remained suspicious of Iranian
intentions. Evidence for such suspicions included the existence of a
pro-Iranian organization in Saudi Arabia, which was active among the
Kingdom’s Shiite population and whose membership received inspira-
tion, support, and guidance from Iran. Saudi Arabia suspected that this
organization, Hezbollah Al-Hejaz, was behind the June 1996 attacks on
the Khobar Towers.6

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Sunni–Shiite tensions

The Sunni–Shiite conflict plays a critical role in relations between the

two opposing sides of the Gulf in general and between Saudi Arabia and
Iran in particular. While the Shiites constitute only 10–15 percent of all
Muslims worldwide (130–200 million people out of 1.3 billion), specifi-
cally in the areas bordering the Gulf basin, they constitute around 80
percent of the population.7
Saudi Arabia has often accused Iran of providing support to its Shiite
minority and encouraging violent demonstrations during the Hajj in
order to attempt to undermine the regime’s standing at home and the
position of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world. Statements by senior
Iranian officials regarding the Saudi royal family’s lack of suitability
to serve as the protectors of Mecca and Medina were perceived in the
Kingdom as incitement, a threat to the nation’s stability, and having the
potential to cause internal unrest. Saudi Arabia hoped that the dialogue
with Iran would help curb its power and to maintain it as a balancing
force, even if this deviated from the US policy of dual containment.
The Saudis, who knew that the United States would come to their aid if
necessary, felt sufficiently confident to thaw relations with Iran, and they
believed that this would aid in the preservation of relative quiet among
the Saudi Shiite minority, which is almost entirely concentrated in the
northeast of the country.
Between 1979 and 1981, there were mass demonstrations by Shiites
in this area, and especially around al-Hasa and Qatif, who had been
influenced by the 1979 Khomeini revolution. Until then, the Shiites
had not actively expressed their frustration with the Saudi policies
of discrimination. The Islamic revolution breathed new life into the
Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, who perceived the revolution as an
alternative to their oppression. The conflict that began between the
Shiite population and the Saudi regime subsided when Khomeini died
in 1989, when revolutionary fervor in Iran decreased, and when the
Shiites in Saudi Arabia recognized the strength of the Wahhabi estab-
lishment and gradually pursued arrangements with the government in
order to improve their status (in 2005, e.g., Ashura commemorations
were officially legalized although small-scale celebrations had been
previously permitted). It should be noted that the Wahhabi school in
Islam disputes the Islamic credentials of the Shiites, and even their
Arab origin, which has led Saudi Arabia – the representative of this

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Saudi Arabia 

school – to place strict limits on the Shiites in the Kingdom. This was
meant to isolate them, inhibit their political expression, and restrict
their freedom of religious worship.
The US invasion of Iraq and the rise of Iran instilled hope in Saudi
Arabia’s Shiites that the royal family would grant them socio-political
rights, but this hope proved false. In Saudi Arabia’s view, the Iranian
threat is serious not only because of its ramifications for the balance
of power in the Gulf, but also because of its significant implications
for the Kingdom’s national security. In other words, if Iran has the
upper hand, the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family is liable to be
tested, both by radical Sunnis who seek to stop the Shiites and by
Saudi Shiites who, if Iran’s power increases, are likely to exploit the
situation in an attempt to undermine the stability of the kingdom.
The Shiites have remained a security problem for Saudi Arabia both
because of their geographic and ideological proximity to Iran and,
because the majority of their population is located near the largest oil
reserves in the world (due to more liberal hiring practices of the oil
company and despite attempts at replacement, many Shiites still are
employed in the oil industry, even if they do not necessarily benefit
from its profits).
In the wake of American pressure, Abdullah, both as Crown Prince
and King, took a series of measures to defuse tensions with the Shiite
minority including declaring a national dialogue and other attempts at
accommodation. In 2005 and 2011, elections were held for half of the seats
in the city councils, even in Shiite areas and permitted a small number
of Shiites to become members of the Shura Council, a consultative body
which, although prestigious, lacks real authority. At the same time, the
Al-Saud refused to recognize Shiism as a major strain of Islam and, to
this day, it has refrained from granting the Shiites the status of citizens
with equal rights. The basic discrimination against the Shiite population
in the kingdom, such as limitations for employment and restrictions on
worship, has remained unchanged and, from time to time, rises to the
surface, such as during the “Arab Spring.”

The Saudi Shiites and the “Arab Spring”

The Shiites gained a tailwind in the “Arab Spring,” and the Eastern Prov-
ince has experienced disturbances since the beginning of 2011 despite

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

efforts, including the use of force and economic incentives, to quell the
unrest. In February 2011, a violent incident occurred in Medina between
Shiite pilgrims and the Saudi religious police, and protests intensified
with the entry of Saudi forces into Bahrain the following month. The
protest movement, comprised almost entirely of young people, has held
mass demonstrations that, to date, have left almost two dozen people
killed. Many have been arrested and jailed, most without due process.
The funerals of those who were killed, as often occurs, became demon-
strations themselves, and displayed a show of force and discontent
unseen in the province since the Islamic Revolution.
Moreover, at least according to the Saudi Interior Ministry, the Shiites
have started to use firearms against security forces at an increasing rate.
Such behavior reinforces the hard-line views of key figures in the royal
house, chiefly former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Nayef bin
Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who fiercely opposed what they viewed as King
Abdullah’s conciliatory approach. They view Shiites as Iran’s lackeys
and support a zero-tolerance policy toward them. Nayef apparently also
pushed for the entrance of Saudi troops into Bahrain in order to suppress
the Shiite protest there, aware that the unrest could spill over into the
Eastern Province. On the other hand, such a method creates a cyclical
problem, whereby repression encourages increased radicalization that
then drowns out more moderate voices, among both the Sunni and the
Shiites. For example, following funerals of those killed in demonstrations,
thousands of Saudi Shiites took to the streets to protest both the deaths and
the Kingdom’s intervention in Bahrain. Not only did they call for toppling
the House of Saud, but they chanted that “Qatif and Bahrain are one.”8
The Saudi authorities have announced that they will crush any protests
with an iron fist and have accused “foreigners” – a code word for Iran –
of fanning the flames. Depicting the Shiite as a “fifth column” allows the
royal house to close ranks, prevent criticism at home and implement a
method of “divide and conquer.” In other words, it helps to frustrate any
cooperation between Sunni and Shiite reformists who might otherwise
agree. However, such a policy doesn’t necessarily preclude additional
segments of Saudi society, – women and students, for example – to
draw encouragement from the Shiites’ struggle and increase their own
criticism of the royal family, a scenario that would play directly into
Iran’s hands. This suggests that improving the Shiites’ conditions and
establishing a social contract with them would be Saudi Arabia’s best bet
for distancing them from Iran.

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Saudi Arabia 

As the tensions rise, there have been reports of alerts and reinforce-
ments of the Saudi security forces. Because any confrontation with Iran
is liable to enflame the entire Eastern Province, the Saudi royal family has
taken preliminary steps to prevent such an occurrence, such as through
the arrest of popular individuals with the capability of igniting the
population. Mansour Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry,
asserted that the security forces would not tolerate inciters “who serve
as pawns for the nation’s enemies,” a clear reference to Iran. And the fact
that al-Alam, Iran’s Arabic language TV station – highly popular among
Saudi Shiites – repeatedly called for demonstrations only underscores
the Saudi fears regarding Iran’s intent to upset the Kingdom’s stability.
However, the July 2012 imprisonment of Nemer al-Nemer, a charismatic
and radical preacher who figured prominently in the protest movement,
was particularly popular among the younger generation of Saudis and
spoke publicly against the ruling family, served to incite more protests
in the short term rather than mitigate unrest. On the other hand, their
absence can prove useful for future conflicts with Iran, given the clerics’
ability for arousing support.
In Riyadh’s view, the Shiite protest is linked to Iranian activity to
foment unrest among the Shiite minority. This unrest, Riyadh assumes,
is meant to demonstrate the cost of harming Iranian interests in the Gulf
or, further away, in Syria. Should the events escalate the Saudi dilemma
will only grow: how will it justify the support of the Syrian opposition
who protest long-standing oppression but maintain its own repressive
political situation at home? From the perspective of the aging royal
house, however there is no contradiction as long as the situation serves
to restrain Iran.
The Shi’ites remain, as aforesaid, a security problem for Saudi Arabia,
not only because of their geographical proximity and ideological affinity
to Iran, but because they are located near the world’s largest oil reserves
and production facilities. When he was still the crown prince, King
Abdullah took a number of measures to ease the tension with the Shi’ite
minority, including the announcement of a “national dialogue,” and
even permitted the entry of a number (six) of Shi’ite dignitaries into the
Majlis al-Shura. The Saudi Arabian royal house, however, did not go so
far as to recognize Shi’ism as an important group in Islam, and refrained
from granting the Shi’ites the status of citizens with equal rights. The
result is that the basic discrimination against the Shi’ite population in
the kingdom remains unchanged, and surfaces from time to time.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

In response to the unrest, the Saudi Arabian authorities declared that they
would use an “iron fist” to break the protest, and accused “foreign hands” –
a code name for Iranian involvement – of exacerbating the tension. Using
the narrative in which the Shi’ites are a fifth column helps the royal house
maintain a large degree of legitimacy – an accepted way of uniting its ranks
and preventing internal criticism.9 It is possible that improving the Shi’ite’s
living conditions and arriving at something like a social covenant might
help the House of Saud, because other opposition groups, encouraged by
the Shi’ites struggle, are liable to escalate their own protest.
The two million Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia have never threatened the
kingdom’s stability. Most of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia do not appear
to identify ideologically with the Iranian religious establishment. But
continued unrest is liable to lead to more active and violent patterns
of protests, at least among the younger generation, which resists the
traditional call for calm. Such an increase in violence can provide an
opportunity for Iran – if it hasn’t done so already – to try and exploit the
unrest for its own ends.

A regional chessboard

There were several factors behind Iran’s relatively pragmatic policy

during the 1990s and the beginning of the following decade: Khomeini’s
death, the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the disintegration of the Soviet
Union, and more. However, Ahmadinejad’s ascendancy to power
brought about an end to the “honeymoon” between Iran and Saudi
Arabia, which had, to some extent, characterized the presidential terms
of Rafsanjani and Khatami. It additionally led the Saudis to perceive Iran
as a more serious threat. Ahmadinejad’s presidency symbolized a clear
shift from the policy of his predecessors, namely, a return to an anti-
Saudi policy, slogans about exportation of the revolution, an emphasis
on the impending implementation of the Shiite messianic vision and,
in addition, the vision of regional hegemony. In a speech marking 30
years since the revolution, Ahmadinejad clarified his approach during
his speech at the grave of the revolution’s founder. “The Islamic revolu-
tion it is not limited to Iranian borders,” he explained. “The revolution is
lively and alive after thirty years. We are still at the beginning of the path
and greater changes are ahead. This thunderous revolution will continue
until justice is implemented.”10

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Saudi Arabia 

In general, Saudi Arabia prefers to neutralize dangers to its national

security by diversifying risks, refraining from the use of open military
measures and attempting to evade leadership roles. Diplomacy and money
are its preferred tools, along with attempts to act “behind the scenes.”
While the Kingdom is equipped with what was previously adequate tools
for maintaining regional and internal stability – tremendous economic
capacity, religious legitimacy, the loyalty of the National Guard and US
backing – the Saudi leadership may come to the understanding, particu-
larly following its current challenges, that these traditional tools may no
longer be sufficient or reliable and that new measures must be taken in
order to confront new internal and external challenges.
The improvement in the status of the Shiites in Iraq following the
ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Iran’s increasing involvement there
has heightened fears of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states regarding
the creation of an Iranian-Shiite crescent which will threaten the heart
of the Sunni world. It was not just Iraq that contributed to this fear, but
also the situation in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Riyadh warned the
United States prior to the US invasion that, should Saddam be removed,
Iran could increase its control along with its hold on the south, where
most of the population is Shiite. Saudi Arabia preferred an oppressive a
Sunni force to hold power in Baghdad in order to prevent any possibility
of strengthening the Shiites.
The US invasion of Iraq which, in the Saudi view, served Iraq to Iran
on a silver platter, led to an increase of Saudi aid to the Sunni minority
in Iraq, which was involved in a bloody struggle with Shiite militias
over the character of the Iraqi state (many Saudis traveled to Iraq to
fight both the Americans and the Shiites). This was congruent with the
Kingdom’s general policy of providing aid to Sunni entities in order to
counter Iranian influence. Iraqi prime minister al-Maliki even accused
the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz,
of establishing an armed Sunni force to oppose Shiite militias, which
intensified the fighting in Iraq.11 Saudi Arabia, for its part, has thus far
refrained from sending a resident ambassador to Baghdad, a clear sign
that it does not trust the Iraqi government.
The Saudi criticism of the invasion of Iraq has been replaced in recent
years by a denunciation of the hasty US Army withdrawal from the
country that allowed Iraq to be left in Iranian hands. The Saudis fear
that this will permit Iran to deepen its penetration of the Arab world and
more easily threaten its small neighbors along the Gulf coast.

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In general, Saudi Arabia has done everything it can to draw pro-

Iranian Middle East players into the Saudi-Sunni camp and to draw a
clear line, based upon sectarian divisions, between it and Iran. There
were several examples of this in recent years, such as the attempt to drag
Hamas under the Saudi umbrella, inter alia by sponsoring the Mecca
Agreement on internal Palestinian relations.

The Syrian civil war

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran’s main ally have deteriorated due to the
violent suppression of the protests in Syria, which began in March 2011.
Even prior to this, Saudi Arabia failed in its attempt to rescue Syria from
the clutches of Iran and create a united anti-Iranian bloc composed of
pro-Western, Sunni states. The protests in Syria have given the Kingdom
a new opportunity to attempt such a creation. It hopes that the weak-
ening of the Assad regime will help reduce the power of Iran’s Axis. In
this vein, the Saudi media has regularly criticized Iran’s less-than covert
attempts at supporting the Syrian regime.
Saudi Arabia’s current policy constitutes a change in its attitude toward
the Assad regime. After the rift between the two states in the wake of the
assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005, King
Abdullah led a policy of relative openness toward Syria in an attempt to
drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. He met with Assad three times in
2009 and went so far as to return the Saudi ambassador to Damascus. As
unrest in Syria grew, however, he recalled his ambassador back to Riyadh
in August 2011. This, along with its involvement in Bahrain, is evidence
that Saudi Arabia intends to stand up to the front headed by Iran and an
understanding that events in Syria have reached a level that now threatens
the overthrow of the Assad dynasty. Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar, has
also taken action in order to further weaken the Iranian–Syrian axis. The
two nations, for example, worked together to suspend Syria’s member-
ship in the Arab League and continue to provide financial and military
support to the opposition. These measures fit with the approach Saudi
Arabia has adopted since the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” which is
both more assertive than in the past, and expresses its attempt to reshape
the map of alliances in the region in accordance with its interests.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has preferred to avoid confrontation,
focusing on attempts at mediation in the Arab world for the purpose of

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Saudi Arabia 

eliminating dangers while attempting to avoid being aligned with any

side.12 In the case of Syria, the kingdom has preferred American lead-
ership. When this did not materialize, however, Saudi Arabia, with its
large coffers and affluent Sunni Islamic influence, entered the resulting
vacuum. As noted, its previous attempts at distancing Assad from the
Iranian axis were unsuccessful, but the rebellion against Assad gave the
Saudis an unusual opportunity to weaken Iranian influence in the area.
The Arab world began to adopt a tougher stance vis-à-vis Assad in the
summer of 2011, when the Gulf Cooperation Council called on Syria to
stop its “deadly suppression of citizens,” followed by an unusually sharp
statement by Saudi King Abdullah, who demanded that Syria “stop
the killing machine.”13 This new tone resulted from the King’s frustra-
tion with the Alawite minority regime (which he considers heretical)
regarding Saudi attempts at mediation, combined with the realization
that Syrian opposition achievements are likely to tip the balance against
Iran. The King’s anger increased following the killing of members of
cross-border tribes that were the tribal lineage of his mother and two of
his sisters, and the widespread killing of Sunnis during the holy month
of Ramadan. The strategic goal of overthrowing Assad (and weakening
Iran and Hezbollah) currently spearheads Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.
Its aim is to strengthen elements among the rebels, so that if and when
Assad falls, those elements will gain control over what remains of the
Syrian state.
The Arab Gulf countries tried to persuade the United States that the
Assad regime had crossed the red line announced by President Obama
in August 2012 and again in March 2013 concerning the use of chemical
weapons. According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabian intelli-
gence found proof that this weapon was used already in February 2013,
and presented this evidence to the United States.14 However, American
disinclination to get involved in Syria has caused the Gulf states to
doubt the credibility of the United States, their main “defense provider,”
to deliver. A manifestation, in their eyes, of America’s diminishing
regional influence. It was reported that the Saudi king, frustrated with
American policy in the region, sent Obama a message saying “America’s
credibility was on the line if it let Assad prevail.”15 Elements within the
Gulf states, notably in Kuwait and the UAE, started privately financing
different Sunni rebel groups – causing further radicalization and frag-
mentation within the rebel ranks in a rampant competition for funds
and influence.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

The Saudis are reportedly providing three billion dollars as an aid

package to the Lebanese armed forces, as a part of their effort to support
Pro-Sunni factions in Lebanon.16 These efforts are backed, according to
Hezbollah members, by an unprecedented intelligence campaign, led by
the Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan – to cripple the Shia organization’s
infrastructure, target its assets, and weaken Hezbollah’s political posi-
tion within the Lebanese political arena.17 This may very well be a Saudi
attempt to force Hezbollah to allocate more forces back to Lebanon and
away from Syria, while delegitimizing it on the home front as a destabi-
lizing and a sectarian force.
There are no Saudi illusions about a sweeping victory in Syria and
Lebanon. They too are aware of advantage in weaponry, organization, and
external support enjoyed by Assad and his allies. They hope, however,
that the support they provide will tip the scales in their favor, bleeding
their adversaries financially and militarily,18 as an historical payback for
supporting Shiite subversion over the years in Iraq, the gulf and in the
Saudi kingdom. Their enemies – the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbol-
lah – have been weakened on a daily basis, and are suffering economi-
cally, with thus far at little to no significant cost to the kingdom.
Concern based on past experience, however, indicates that ramifica-
tions of radical elements operating in Syria and Lebanon are liable to
boomerang back to the Gulf and upset stability between Shia and Sunni
communities in Iraq, Kuwait, and the Saudi Kingdom itself.19 Tensions
between Shiites and Sunnis are joined by tensions between parties
favoring stability and anti-Iranian hardliners within different regimes in
the gulf. Along, with many in the Arab countries, the hardliners believe
that the overthrow of the Assad regime could restrain Iran and “restore
Iran to its natural size,” hopefully without leading to a frontal confronta-
tion between Iran and the Saudis. This confrontation has been avoided
until now.
Those in the Sunni side vying for stability in contrast are alarmed at
the possibility that by funding fighters abroad, they might be fueling
extremists and Sunni radicals, such as al-Qaeda. With these seasoned
veterans bound to return to their Sunni homelands eventually, those
concerns might be realized in the form of subsequent radicalization and
implementation of terrorist tactics from abroad in the Saudi kingdom
and across the gulf.
The Saudis have at times acted as a revolutionary force and at times as
a counter-revolutionary force, depending on their interests. They engi-

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Saudi Arabia 

neered the deal on the removal of Yemen’s President Saleh from office,
were involved in consolidating the new regime in Tunisia, and helped
to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. On the other hand, they used force to
maintain the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain and sought to keep Mubarak’s
regime in power in Egypt. When this effort was unsuccessful, they gave
billions in aid to the military regime in Egypt, which recently regained
power. Saudi efforts in Lebanon and Syria to assist anti-Iranian parties20
are consistent with these trends. With the Saudis testing Iranian resolve
to the limit, despite the kingdom’s inferior demographic and geopolitical
position and Iran and its allies, cornered by a vast Sunni majority yet
more than eager to fight,21 it is unclear how and when this bloody dead-
lock will be resolved.
By the summer of 2014, analysis regarding the chances of yet another
dramatic shift in Saudi regional policy started to emerge: simply put, the
assessment was that Saudi Arabia had started to come to grip with the
reality of the Syrian battlefield and with Assad’s slow and steady tacti-
cal victories.22 In short, the Syrian regime had managed to improve its
position on the battlefield trough a number of important victories: first
the battle of Qusayr in the summer of 2013, then battles for the Qalamun
area and Homs in the first months of 2014, all keys to securing a safe
corridor between Syria and Lebanon and establishing a link between the
Syrian capital and the Alawite areas in the northwestern coastal areas of
the country. Accordingly, with the regime improving its odds and with
the main groups within the opposition still deeply divided and corned
into simultaneously battling the rise of radical groups such as ISIS as
well as the regime, many observers predicted a reversal in Saudi policy
and an attempt to attempt a more conciliatory strategy aimed at bridging
pre-existing differences with Iran.
Signs of these strategic adjustments included first and foremost
a number of more conciliatory statements toward Iran, beginning
with the May 2014 statement by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud
al-Faisal that his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, could
visit Riyadh “anytime he sees fit.”23 In addition, the removal of key
proponents of the aggressively anti-Assad Syria policy, such as former
intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and former deputy defense
minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, was also taken as a sign of policy

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

The nightmare of Iraq

The fall of major Iraqi cities to Sunni extremists belonging to the Sunni
group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, Now “The Islamic State”) may
well have implications beyond the borders of Iraq. The evolution toward
the dissolution of the country, which began following the US invasion
in 2003 and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, will intensify. If the
Sunni takeover of central Iraq is not stopped, it could lead to the estab-
lishment of a semi-independent Sunni area, with southern Iraq falling
easily into the hands of Iran. In such a situation, Iraq would become an
exporter of terror.25 All of Iraq’s neighbors have cause for major worry
about the immediate and long term implications of the recent develop-
ments. The weakening of the central Iraqi government’s hold on the
various parts of the country may serve Iran’s interest in extending its
influence and potentially create an Iranian-controlled land link with
Syria and Hizbollah. However, this victory by Sunnis, who did not rely
on Iranian aid, will not be seen as an achievement in Tehran. Indeed the
fall of important Shiite cities such as Najaf and Karbala into ISIS hands
would be an Iranian nightmare.
The Gulf states will also view with concern the deterioration of the
situation in Iraq and the territorial entrenchment of radical organiza-
tions that lack any commitment to the conservative regimes, despite
their Sunni affiliation. The weakening of the basically Shiite central
government in Baghdad, which will allow greater freedom of action for
sub-state terror organizations in the northern part of the Gulf, cannot but
be viewed with concern in the Gulf states, which are already distressed
by the diminished US interest in the region. It is too early to assess the
ramifications of the ISIS seizure of major oil refineries in Iraq; over time
this may impact on Iraq’s ability to export oil, and in turn, on the stabil-
ity of energy prices.
While the United States will need to take the leading role, it must
first take some decisions regarding the logic of providing the Iraqi
army with advanced weaponry, given the collapse of Iraqi army units
that were facing forces equipped with inferior weapons. The risk that
advanced weapons will fall into the hands of irregular forces and be
used immediately against the central government in Baghdad cannot be
ignored. A different but no less difficult question concerns Iran and the
new situation in Iraq. Iran could attempt to sabotage a joint effort if it
is not involved in any way and sees itself as deserving compensation in

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the nuclear realm, or at least an easing of the sanctions. Yet involving

Iran, regardless of its conduct in Syria and its close cooperation with
Hizbollah, appears impossible, and instead, dealing with Iran solely
in the context of Iraq is highly problematic. An interesting question is
whether this issue arose in the recent bilateral talks between the United
States and Iran or whether these talks dwelled only on the nuclear issue.
The attitude of the Gulf states on this issue is also unclear, even though
they may see the Iraqi issue as another opportunity to test the possibility
of turning over a new leaf in their relations with Iran.

New Saudi assertiveness

US backing has, to a large extent, allowed Saudi Arabia to remain passive

for years on various political and strategic issues. The spread of the popu-
lar protests in the region, beginning in the end of 2010 to the beginning
of 2011, and the growing sense in Riyadh that American support for its
responses to threats to regime stability may no longer be guaranteed, has
led it to largely abandon the passivity that previously marked its foreign
policy, in an attempt to maintain the regional status quo. As part of this
effort, Saudi Arabia dispatched troops, under the flag of the Peninsula
Shield Force, to its neighbor Bahrain for the purpose of both preventing
the nation from becoming a constitutional monarchy and the Bahraini
Shiite protests from spilling over into the Shiites-majority areas in the
northeast of Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain is the state closest to Saudi Arabia, both geographically and
historically. The latest Shiite unrest in the tiny island nation, which
began in early 2011, was perceived as and publicly stated to be a rebel-
lion sponsored by Iran. As noted, it led Saudi Arabia (and the UAE) to
send a 2,000-strong military force across the King Fahd Causeway to
Bahrain – as far as is known, without prior coordination or agreement
with the United States. The dispatch of these troops suggests the inten-
tion to signal to Iran that Bahrain is within the Saudi sphere of influence
and to indicate to America its ability to act independently. The Kingdom
earned considerable diplomatic credit for this move. By contrast, Tehran
was viewed negatively, more so than in the past, for its support of the
Shiite unrest, including by states outside the region, who viewed public
support for the Bahraini opposition by Iran as similarly dangerous. Thus
far, the results of the protests in Bahrain have proven the limitations of

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0010
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Iran’s power and its difficulties in translating aid into political gains. In
addition, the events in Bahrain have been labeled a sectarian conflict,
which does not help Iran in its attempt to position itself as a hegemonic
force. Thus, Iran, for example, has attempted to shift its focus toward
Israel in order to deflect attention from the Sunni–Shiite conflict.
The dispatch of Saudi forces to Bahrain was severely criticized by Iran,
who compared it to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.26 In addi-
tion, the move led to a series of incidents, including an attack on the Saudi
embassy in Tehran.27 The following May, Iran was accused by Saudi Arabia
of murdering a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan and then again in Bangladesh
in March 2012, in what appeared to be a new low in relations between the
two states. Such a pattern of attacking Saudi diplomats and businessmen,
however, is not new. Iran has previously attacked and attempted to attack
Saudi diplomats in Lebanon, Turkey, Belgium, and Thailand and, in Octo-
ber 2012, Manssor Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to participating in an Iranian-
sponsored plot whose intention was to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to
the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, a year earlier.28 In addition, Iran may be
expanding its methods. In December 2012, ARAMCO admitted that it had
been the victim of a cyber attack the previous August, which was allegedly
conducted by Iran and aimed at disrupting oil and gas production.29
It would appear that the uprising in Bahrain has provided a sense of
urgency to Saudi Arabia’s desire to halt Iranian influence in the Middle
East. This is the context in which to view the call by Tariq Al-Homayed,
the former editor of Asharq Alawsat (the daily newspaper that is largely
the mouthpiece of the Saudi elite and owned by Prince Faysal bin Salman
bin Abdul Aziz), for a comprehensive effort to reduce such influence in
the region and “to send Iran back within its normal borders.” Accord-
ing to Al-Homayed, Iran would then be forced to deal with its domestic
Bahrain’s inability to cope with its Shiite uprising alone and Saudi
Arabia’s difficulties in fighting the Houthi Shiites, who started their
rebellion in 2004, which is characterized by continuous fighting of vary-
ing intensity, on their border with Yemen have challenged the Kingdom’s
security concept and led to a recognition that even a massive invest-
ment in advanced weaponry is not sufficient to provide relief from the
security challenges that they confront. The ouster of Egyptian President
Mubarak (a close ally of Saudi Arabia in recent years), the violent events
in Bahrain, the chronic lack of stability in Yemen, the dangers inherent
in the “Arab Spring” have increased Riyadh’s fear that the changing

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0010
Saudi Arabia 

regional dynamics will service Iranian, rather than Saudi interests. In the
Saudi view, Iraq’s backing for the Shiites in Bahrain; its support for Iran’s
OPEC policy against Saudi Arabia; its closer economic ties with Iran;
and other steps taken by the al-Maliki government, such as its support
for the Assad regime in Syria, prove the Saudi claim that Iraq is doing
Iran’s bidding, and in fact, has become an Iranian satellite. This is the
reason that Saudi Arabia opposed a comprehensive US withdrawal from
Iraq and sought to make it conditional on an extensive political reform
that would ensure that those doing Iran’s bidding would not have exclu-
sive control over state institutions.31
The rise of Iranian power in the region and Iraq’s development into
the first Arab Shiite state led Saudi Foreign Minister Turki al-Faisal to
speak sharply about Iran in a speech to Western diplomats in June 2011.
Iran’s “meddling and destabilizing efforts in countries with Shiite majori-
ties, such as Iraq and Bahrain, as well as those countries with significant
Shiite communities,” he insisted, “must come to an end ... Saudi Arabia
will oppose any and all of Iran’s actions in other countries because it is
Saudi Arabia’s position that Iran has no right to meddle in other nations’
internal affairs.”32 The late Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister
Prince Nayef, who was appointed to the former position in October 2011,
also attacked Iran in his first official statement as heir apparent, declar-
ing that there can be no compromise with Iran. Regarding the attempt to
assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Nayef remarked
that his country is prepared to confront any scenario with all necessary

1 Paul Aarts and Joris Van Duijne, “Saudi Arabia After US-Iranian Détente:
Left in the Lurch.” Middle East Policy, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2009, p. 70.
2 Mohamed Javad Zarif, “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority,” Asharq al-Awsat,
November 21, 2013.
3 The events of the Hajj in 1987 were especially violent, and in the clash
between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces, more than 400 people
were killed, most of them Iranian. This led to a break in relations between
Iran and Saudi Arabia.
4 Gawdat Bahgat, “Persian Gulf Security at the Turn of the Century:
Opportunities and Challenges,” Defense Analysis, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1999, p. 85.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0010
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

5 “Saudi Allows Iranian Ships to Dock at Jeddah Port,” The Daily Star,
February 26, 2012.
6 Bruce Riedel, “Saudi Arabia Moves to Take Down Syria, Iran and Hezbollah,”
National Interest, August 15, 2011.
7 Mapping the Global Muslim Population, A Report on the Size and
Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population, PEW research Center,
October 2009.
8 See, for example, “Saudi Shia Protesters Mourned by ‘Thousands’,” Al Jazeera,
July 12, 2012.
9 Christopher Davidson, “The Arab Sunset: The Coming Collapse of the
Monarchies,” Foreign Affairs, October 10, 2013.
10 MEMRI (Middle East Research Institute), February 2, 2009 (Hebrew).
11 Robert Kennedy, “Iraqi PM: Saudi Has a ‘Culture of Terrorism’,” Al Jazeera,
September 9, 2011.
12 Herman F. Elits.”Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy.” In L. C. Brown (ed.),
Diplomacy inthe Middle East: The International Relations of Regional and Outside
Powers (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), pp. 238–40.
13 Adrian Blomfield, “Syria Unrest: Saudi Arabia Calls on ‘Killing Machine’ to
Stop ,” The Telegraph, August 8, p. 201.
14 Adam Entous, Nour Mallas, and Margaret Coker. “A Veteran Saudi Power
Player Works To Build Support to Topple Assad,” Wall Street Journal, August
25, 2013.
15 Ibid.
16 Anna Barnard, “Saudis’ Grant to Lebanon Is Seen as Message to U.S.,” The
New York Times, January 6, 2014.
17 Nasser Chararah, “Hezbollah Escalates Rhetoric Against Riyadh,” Al Monitor
December 10, 2013.
18 Joby Warrick, “Syrian Conflict Said to Fuel Sectarian Tensions in Persian
Gulf,” Washington Post,December 19, 2013.
19 Elizabeth Dickenson, “Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for
Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home,” The
Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, December 6, 2013, p. 6.
20 Nasser Chararah, “Hezbollah Escalates Rhetoric Against Riyadh,” Al Monitor,
December 10, 2013.
21 Doyle McManus, “Syria and the Perils of Proxy War,” LA Times, January 12,
22 See Paul Pillar, “Iran and Saudi Arabia: Rapprochement on the Horizon?”
National Interest, May 15, 2014.
23 Glen Carey and Dana El Baltaji, “Saudi Foreign Minister Says Invited Iran
Counterpart to Visit,” Bloomberg, May 13, 2014.
24 F. Gregory Gause, III, “Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement? The Incentives and
the Obstacles,” March 17, 2014.

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Saudi Arabia 

25 Oded Eran and Yoel Guzansky, “The Collapse of Iraq: Strategic Implications,”
INSS Insight No. 560, June 15, 2014.
26 Mshari Al-Zaydi, “What Does Iran Want from Bahrain?” Asharq Alawsat,
March 20, 2011.
27 Turki Al-Saheil, “Saudi Embassy in Iran Subjected to Attacks,” Asharq
Alawsat, March 21, 2011.
28 Mark Norman, “Suspect in Saudi Ambassador Assassination Plot Pleads
Guilty,” CNN, October 18, 2012.
29 Reuters, “Aramco Says Cyberattack Was Aimed at Production,” New York
Times, December 9, 2012.
30 Tariq Al-Homayed, “Curbing Iranian Influence Without Conflict,” Asharq
Alawsat, June 23, 2011.
31 Tariq Alhomayed, “Iraq: Iran’s Alternative to Syria,” Asharq Alawsat, July 6,
32 Jay Solomon, “Saudi Suggests ‘Squeezing’ Iran over Nuclear Ambitions,” Wall
Street Journal, June 22, 2011.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0010
Abstract: While Kuwait is a state governed by a Sunni
monarchy and aligned with Saudi Arabia, it is located
near Iran, bordered by Iraq and has a sizeable Shiite
minority. Since gaining independence from Great Britain,
it has focused on maintaining good relations with all its
neighbors, including Iran and Iraq, which is perceived its
current Shia government as heavily influenced by Iran. Its
troubled history with the Iraq continues to make Kuwait
suspicious of its northern neighbor, especially following
the American troop withdrawal in 2011 and the security
situation there following the 2014 fall of major Iraqi cities
to Sunni extremist (i.e., “The Islamic State”).

Keywords: Iran; Iraq; Kuwait; Shiite; Sunni

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011.

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011
Kuwait 

Kuwait’s approach to Iran is close to that of Saudi Arabia’s. Kuwait’s

stance vis-à-vis Iran is influenced by its geographical proximity to both
Iran and Iraq, by Iranian subversive activity and alleged prior instances of
terrorism, and by the presence of large concentrations of Kuwaiti Shiites,
who constitute up to 30 percent of the population. Saddam Hussein’s
invasion of Kuwait awakened nationalist feelings among the Shiites and,
following the country’s liberation from Iraqi occupation, they swore
allegiance to Kuwait’s ruling al-Sabah family, although many continue to
have reservations regarding such a move. The Shiites are more integrated
into the social and economic systems in Kuwait than in Bahrain and
Saudi Arabia and can, therefore, be found in sensitive sectors, such as
the national oil company (a Shiite even served in the past as Kuwaiti oil
minister), the army, and the police. Nevertheless, many Kuwaiti Sunnis
continue to view them as a fifth column. Kuwait’s sensitivity to Shiite
activity in the country also stems from the fear that, in any conflict with
Iran – particularly one in which its nuclear facilities are attacked – it
could incite the Shiites in the emirate.
Kuwait was the first Gulf state to establish diplomatic relations with
the Soviet Union. It developed closer relations with the United States
only during the Iran–Iraq War. Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti interests,
especially during the 1980s, led Kuwait gradually to abandon the idea
of self-reliance and to increasingly look to the United States for military
aid, while simultaneously attempting to balance its reliance on external
actors (for the sake of security) with the preservation of independence in
its foreign relations.1
Kuwait’s attempts to neutralize dangers to its security focused, at least
until the Iraqi invasion, primarily upon mediation attempts and distri-
bution of economic aid, as well on the maintenance of proper relations
with the Arab world and the emphasis on its contribution to the “Arab
cause.” The invasion led Kuwait, along with its more northern GCC
colleagues, who shared the stronger fear of Iraq, to seek closeness to Iran,
at least temporarily, as a counterweight to the power of Baghdad. Such a
move, however, led to criticism by the more southern GCC nations who
perceived Iran as the greater threat. Like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait still sees
Iraq as a potential threat – greater now since the full American withdrawal
in December 2011. As a result, its steps toward normalization with the
new Iraq have been, and remain, slow, and many issues, including missing
persons from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, agreement over their common
border and completion of Iraqi reparations for war damages remain open.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Kuwait is still suspicious of Iraq because the government in Baghdad is

Shiite and is perceived in Kuwait as a satellite of Iran.
The year 2013 was the most violent year in Iraq since 2008, a reminder
that the war for Iraq is far from over. The Sunnis accused al-Maliki
of using false arrests and brutal suppression of protests, along with
systematic discrimination against them in all areas of life. They claim
that he is working to concentrate more and more government powers
in his hands, to bring the security apparatuses under his control, and to
exclude Sunnis from the political system in Iraq. The more the violence
increases, the more the legitimacy of al-Maliki and his government is
eroded, including in the eyes of the country’s Shiite population, which,
together with the security forces is the main target for terrorist opera-
tions by the radical Sunni organizations. However, the greater the force
used by the government to suppress the protests, the more likely it is to
lose the trust of the Sunnis, which see the dynamic as an attack by a Shiite
army on a Sunni population. The instability has arisen amidst fears over
the territorial integrity of the state. A number of provinces have already
declared their desire for autonomy, a right granted to them by the Iraqi
constitution. While the Kurds are establishing their independence in the
north of the country, the south remains an area under Iranian influence.
Iran sees Iraq, with its mostly Shiite population, as a natural area for
influence and an important link between the Islamic Republic and its
allies in the Levant, the Assad regime, and Hizbollah.
In a few occasions in recent years, it appeared that Kuwait’s relations
with Iraq had reached a new low, reminiscent of relations between the
states prior to Saddam Hussein’s ouster in the spring of 2003. Thus, for
example, Iraqi politicians criticize Kuwait for building a naval port on
the eastern part of the island of Bubian, close to the border between the
two countries, which Iraq claims will harm its economy by diverting
maritime trade to Kuwait. On several occasions, Kuwait even raised
its army’s level of alert and deployed it to Bubian and along its border
with Iraq. This was especially evident after threats from Shiites militias
(particularly the Hezbollah Brigades); attempted border crossings; a
shooting at the Kuwaiti embassy in Baghdad (after which the Kuwaiti
ambassador temporarily left Iraq); and rockets fired toward Kuwait from
the direction of Iraq.2
It was mainly the threat from Iraq that led Kuwait to entrust its security
to the United States. In September 1991, six months following its libera-
tion, the two countries signed a comprehensive security agreement and,

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011
Kuwait 

since then, it has been renewed every decade. Most of the US forces that
invaded Iraq in 2003 entered from Kuwaiti territory, which also served
as both a transit station for their withdrawal in 2011 and a base for the
permanent stationing of approximately 13,500 American troops.3 These
troops serve as “compensation” for the withdrawal from Iraq and provide
the United States with forces in a strategic hub that can allow a response
to various needs that may arise in the Gulf. Access has been granted to
US forces, for example, at major Kuwaiti bases, including Camp Arifjan,
Ali Al Salem Air Base, and Camp Buehring. This allows for the pre-
positioning of US equipment in such bases, training areas, and locations
for the provision of logistical reinforcement.4 Kuwait’s support for the US
war effort led to its being declared a “major non-NATO ally,” a designa-
tion that only one other Gulf state, Bahrain, has thus far been given. In
addition, Kuwait has begun working to restore its army to its pre-1991
Iraqi invasion strength, and has even begun to construct a naval force
with US assistance. Kuwait also remains a major customer for advanced
US weaponry and defense systems, and the value of their acquisitions has
gradually increased over the last decade.5 Most recently, such purchases
include a proposed $4.2 billion deal from 2012 for a missile system.6
Over the years, the ruling al-Sabah family has made use of diplomatic
and economic tools in order to appease hostile neighbors and to win the
acceptance of the Arab world. In this context, Kuwait has often been a
mediator in conflicts, which has contributed to its security by “putting
it on the map” and giving the impression of neutrality.7 The emirate has
also arbitrated several cases between its fellow GCC members, such as,
the conflict between the UAE and Oman over the former’s alleged “spy
network,” exposed in Muscat in early 2011.8 On March 5, 2014, Saudi
Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain announced that they were recalling their
ambassadors from Qatar because of its support for the Muslim Brother-
hood, which they see as a subversive organization that jeopardizes their
religious legitimacy and stability. Kuwait did not join the move in order,
again, to try and serve as a go-between.
Kuwait has also been careful to nurture relations, including those
related to security, with Arab states outside the GCC – an institution that
has thus far failed in providing a sufficient security layer for the nation.
It furthermore formed considerable security ties with Egypt and Jordan,
particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, both because of their centrality
and status within the Arab world, and because of their military’s size and
weaponry (primarily Egypt) and level of training (primarily Jordan).

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Iran’s swing between overt and covert hostility and aggressive inten-
tions toward Kuwait over the years, along with America’s policy toward
Iran, which is characterized by a push for sanctions and isolation of
the nation, have led Kuwait in recent years to see the current regime in
Tehran as a threat to its national security. This is despite the fact that this
sentiment is not usually reflected in public statements. Kuwait, like other
members of the GCC, has begun a certain activism directed toward
addressing the threat inherent in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It has been reported that Kuwaiti citizens have been arrested on
charges of collaboration with the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, and that
it has ceased refining Iranian oil. In April 2011, Kuwait’s foreign minister,
Sheikh Mohammad al-Salem al-Sabah announced that an Iranian “spy
cell” had been uncovered the prior year “whose task was not only to
monitor and record the (U.S.) military presence” but had “the intention
to explode vital Kuwaiti facilities.”9 Similar arrests and expulsions of
alleged Iranian spies have occurred along the years, which also resulted
in Kuwait temporarily recalling its ambassador to Tehran back to Kuwait
in April 2011.10 In addition, the Kuwaiti Central Bank has ordered that
activities by elements associated with Iran’s nuclear and missile program
be frozen, in partial compliance with sanctions. The worsening percep-
tion of the Iranian threat is probably also a result of the aforementioned
reports and assessments on hostile Iranian operations in Kuwait, which
are allegedly networks of the Revolutionary Guards who are potentially
ready to act if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked. The “Arab Spring” has
further worsened the Iranian threat to Kuwait, particularly due to Iranian
involvement in the riots in Bahrain. However, while Kuwait joined its
fellow GCC members in approving that troops are to be sent to Bahrain,
it did not, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, send its own ground forces.
The Emir and his government continues to attempt to appease Iran and
has declared that it will not serve as a base for an attack on Iran’s nuclear
facilities and that, in principle, it supports Iran’s right to obtain nuclear
energy for civilian purposes.11
In June 2014, Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al Sabah, paid
a two-day visit to Iran, following a formal invitation from Iranian Presi-
dent Hassan Rouhani. During this visit several cooperation agreements
were signed between the two states. This visit is seen as a Kuwaiti attempt
to improve the relation between Iran and its Arab neighbors, especially
Saudi Arabia.12 Thus, Kuwait’s fear regarding and behavior toward alleged
internal Iranian spying, the need to remain in line, to some extent, with

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011
Kuwait 

American policy due to the necessity of retaining the western nation’s

backing, and its public statements aimed at Iranian appeasement all
suggest that Kuwait is attempting to achieve a balancing act between the
interests of all relevant nations.

1 In the past, too, outside forces played a critical role in the defense of Kuwait:
Britain prevented an invasion by the Ottoman Empire in 1899; in 1920, it
prevented a Saudi attack; in 1961, British and Arab forces prevented Iraq
from conquering the emirates and remained there for two years.
2 Loveday Morris, “Rocket Attack on Iraq-Kuwait Border Escalates Tensions,”
Independent, August 29, 2011.
3 Ernesto Londono, “Panetta Visits Kuwait to Highlight Partnership,” The
Washington Post, December 11, 2012.
4 Associated Press, “US Plans Significant Military Presence in Kuwait to
Respond to Regional Conflicts,” Fox News, June 19, 2012.
5 Sam Perlo-Freeman, “Arms Transfers to the Middle East,” SIPRI Background
Paper, July 2009.
6 Michael Peel and Camilla Hall, “Gulf States Plan Fresh Arms Spending,”
Financial Times, November 19, 2012.
7 MECS 1988 (Vol. 12), pp. 436–40; MECS 1989 (Vol. 13), pp. 490–3.
8 BBC News, “Oman Uncovers ‘Spy Network’ but UAE Denies Any Links,”
January 31, 2011.
9 Reuters, “Iran Cell Planned Attacks in Kuwait, Minister Says,” April 21, 2011.
10 Al Arabiya, “Kuwait Unveils 8 Spy Cells Employed by Iran: Report,” April 1,
11 Press T.V., “Kuwait Against Any Attack on Iran,” July 20, 2011.
12 Behrouz Saeidi, “Emir of Kuwait Visits Iran for First Time Since Revolution,”
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 2, 2014.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0011
Abstract: In its recent history, Qatar has pursued a strategy
of diplomatic independence and boldness, sometimes
putting it at odds with its fellow GCC members. It uses a
variety of resources to project its views and state image
abroad, with the Al-Jazeera media outlet being particularly
significant. Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia are very
important to understanding its disposition toward Iran
and role in the GCC. The government has worked on many
occasions to broker negotiations between warring parties,
and it has taken a welcoming approach to Iran. This
engagement, in addition to its limited relations with Israel,
has drawn criticism from neighboring Gulf states.

Keywords: Al-Jazeera; GCC; Iran; Israel; Qatar; Saudi


Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0012.

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0012
Qatar 

Qatar has and still is operating outside the general GCC consensus and
maintained a degree of “neutrality” in its relations with Iran primarily
as a sort of insurance policy. Iran, for its part, saw ties with Qatar as a
potential bridge to the Gulf that was intended to help improve relations
with other Gulf nations, potentially drive a wedge between the GCC
states and their aspirations for unity, and encourage them to exchange
US support for that of Iran in a region that it perceives as its backyard. In
early 2011 much has changed, however temporarily, with the onset of the
“Arab Spring” and, in particular, the civil war in Syria – a prime Iranian
ally. The opposition to Assad has been publicly backed, with rhetoric,
money and arms, by Qatar.
Its complex relations with Saudi Arabia, its underlying fear of Iran, and
US backing has led Qatar to adopt a foreign and defense policy that is
independent, and to a large extent, unique. It pays lip service to the Gulf
consensus, for example, on the issue of the three islands occupied by Iran
and the need to strengthen the joint Peninsula Shield Force. However, its
policy on various issues has, at times, contrasted to the position of the
other GCC nations, including regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict,
Iraq (more so in the past), and Iran. The demonstration of this independ-
ent policy is not proportional to the geographic size of Qatar, but stems
from, at its very basic, a strategy for survival per se, as alluded to by the
Emir of Qatar in a 60-minute interview in January 2012. When it was
pointed out that it appears as if “the basis of [Qatar’s] foreign policy is to
be friends with everyone,” the Emir responded fairly succinctly: “Don’t
you think that this is a good policy for a small country?”1 Other factors
include a desire to strengthen its importance in the region, protect the
natural resources with which it is blessed and, perhaps even to derive a
measure of independence from Saudi Arabia. This policy enabled it to
maintain open channels with all parties in the Middle East, from Iran to
the Taliban and Fatah to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
As part of its policy, Qatar has made vigorous attempts at mediation in
different arenas in the Middle East, but has taken this tactic even further
in recent years. Its involvement has included Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan,
and the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah and it frequently uses
its extensive economic capabilities to promote its interests. A small coun-
try with vast resources, its per capita GDP is number one in the world,
estimated in 2014 at $102,000.2 Its effective use of the television station
it owns is particularly conspicuous. Since the day it was established in
1996, Al-Jazeera has been an important means of conducting Qatar’s

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0012
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

foreign policy and has served as one of its most valuable diplomatic and
political tools. It places Qatar on the map and gives it great power by
virtue of its high ratings in the Arab world and beyond (in recent years,
e.g., its broadcasts began to be received in the United States). However,
Al-Jazeera has also harmed Qatar’s ties with its fellow GCC members,
especially Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, because it has criticized
them in its broadcasts. In 2011, for example, an Al-Jazeera documentary
on the uprising in Bahrain (shown on its English channel) was attacked
by Bahrain.3
In fact, Al-Jazeera serves as a bargaining chip for Qatar in its foreign
relations in that it adjusts its reporting in order to win favor with certain
leaders, both inside and outside the Arab world, and criticizes others to
instil the understanding of the power its broadcasts can have over public
opinion, and to create pressure to change their policy toward Qatar.4
Thus, for example, more sympathetic TV coverage of the Saudi royal
family in Al-Jazeera broadcasts proved to be an effective tool for improv-
ing Qatari–Saudi relations. Furthermore, by providing extensive cover-
age of various conflicts in the Arab world, Al-Jazeera largely immunizes
the ruling family from criticism of the lack of democracy in the country.
In general, the “Arab Spring” places Qatar, in a problematic position.
On the one hand, it seeks to preserve its form of government and its total
control of domestic political processes. On the other hand, there is a
desire to adopt a position that ostensibly identifies with the Arab masses
who have taken to the streets in protest over corruption and oppression.
Thus, Qatar seems to have taken a twofold approach. In order to preserve
the monarchical form of rule, the Qataris, by way of Al-Jazeera began in
2011 to moderate its criticism of its fellow GCC members – particularly
on its Arabic channel – and, at the same time, increased its criticism
of Iran’s fellow members of the “radical axis,” with an emphasis on the
Assad regime.
As part of this trend, in September 2011, the Emir of Qatar fired
Al-Jazeera’s director, Wadah Khanfar, who is largely responsible for
its success, and replaced him with a member of the royal family. Such
a move underscored the control exercised by the Al-Thani over the
station. In addition, in order to show some form of solidarity with the
“Arab street,” Qatar publicly spoke out – and concretely supported, it was
later revealed – the uprising in Libya and has followed a similar path
regarding Syria. In connection to this, it helped to lead the suspension
of both countries within the Arab League, assisted in training forces

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0012
Qatar 

fighting against the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi5 and has
supplied money and arms to Assad’s opposition.6
Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia are critical for understanding
its foreign policy. In 1992, these relations deteriorated significantly
following a border incident between the two states. Relations worsened
in 1996, when Qatar accused Saudi Arabia of attempting to return the
former Emir’s father, Sheikh Halifa bin Hamed al Thani, to power, whom
the current ruler, Sheikh Hamed bin Halifa al Thani, had ousted in June
1995 in a bloodless coup. Relations were also harmed by Qatar’s low-level
diplomatic ties with Israel. In 2000, then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah
boycotted a summit meeting of the OIC, held in Qatar, in protest over
the fact that an Israeli representative had been permitted to stay in the
country. In 2006, the Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat reported, for the clear
purpose of embarrassing the Qatari royal family, that the Qatari prime
minister had paid a secret visit to Israel.
Although most of their territorial disputes were settled in 2008, Saudi
Arabia still refused to attend the Doha conference held post-Israel’s
Operation Cast Lead against Hamas militants Gaza in the winter of
2008/09, in protest over the presence of representatives from Hamas
and Syria. In contrast, Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas
since 2004, thanked Qatar for standing by the organization during the
operation. Qatar also worked to convene the Doha conference in 2009
with the participation of Iran and Hamas, in opposition to the posi-
tion of most of its fellow GCC members in general, and Saudi Arabia in
The former Emir of Qatar even invited Iranian President Ahmadine-
jad to the conference as an observer, in spite of the opposition of several
Arab states, including the UAE, who canceled its attendance because of
the invitation. The conference, which was called “summit of the radi-
cal axis,” called on Egypt to freeze its relations with Israel and on Saudi
Arabia to cancel its sponsorship of the Arab peace initiative launched
amid much fanfare in Beirut in the spring of 2002. This call clarified to
all the conference’s pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi stance.
Qatar, perhaps more than any other GCC state, perceived the collective
security arrangements attempted by the Arab Gulf states as hollow. Its
troubled relations with Saudi Arabia also led it to only minimal partici-
pation every security framework that was under Saudi influence. Most
of its attention was given to balancing the power of its strong neighbors
through the strengthening of its US backing, particularly in the field of

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

security. An indication of this was Qatar becoming, in 2002, the base for
a majority of the US forces that left Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s ties with radical elements harmed what low-level relations it
had with Israel and, to a certain extent, with the United States as well.
To Qatar, however, this was a small price to pay for the benefit inherent
in maintaining such ties, which help in its eyes, to immunize it from
harm. Thus, for example, it was revealed in September 2011 that a senior
Al-Jazeera official of Palestinian origin who was recruited by Hamas had
even offered to place Al-Jazeera resources at the organization’s disposal.
Israel’s General Security Services claimed that the interrogation of this
man, who was tried, convicted, and deported from Israel, proved that
Al-Jazeera served the interests of Hamas.7 The relationship between
Qatar and Hamas was made even more apparent following the move
of Hamas’s leadership in 2012 from Damascus to Egypt and Qatar,8 (the
latter of which being the location where Khaled Mashal, along with
radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, own an apartment) and the Emir’s visit
to Gaza in October 2012. While he was there he initiated a large-scale
rehabilitation project.9 This move, along with his call to reassess the
2002 Arab Peace Initiative following the November 2012 Israeli Pillar of
Defense operation in Gaza, further distanced Israel from Qatar and even
led a senior Israeli official to label Qatar a “bitter enemy.”10
Qatar, sometimes considered to be the “bad boy of the Gulf,” maintains
similarly good relations with Iran as it does with other radical elements,
such as Hamas, for comparable reasons, that is, both in order to increase
its importance in the region, and protect itself from threats. In this
context, it invited the Iranian president to the annual GCC summit
meeting held in 2007 in Doha, for the first time since the establishment
of the organization, and again extended a similar invitation to their
aforementioned 2009 Doha Conference two years later.
As part of its policy toward Iran, Qatar refrains from publicly criticiz-
ing the Tehran Statements by the former Qatari Prime Minister, Hamad
bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, following reports of fraud in the 2009
Iranian presidential election, that it was an “internal Iranian issue”
is particularly memorable and reflective of this notion. Qatar has also
worked toward developing closer relations with Iran, including through
bilateral security cooperation and reciprocal visits.11 In early 2010, for
example, the two states signed agreements that include expanded coop-
eration against terrorism and assurances that the territory of one will
not be used for an attack against the other.12 Such cooperation concretely

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Qatar 

manifested itself, for example, through participation in a naval maneu-

ver held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Gulf in April 2010.
The head of the Qatari military delegation, present at the joint exercise
as an observer, stated that Qatar wishes to benefit from Iranian military
expertise.13 In a move that was particularly representative of Qatar’s
balancing act, in February 2010, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s
visit to Qatar coincided with the docking of two Iranian warships in the
port of Doha for the first time.14
The Iranian–Qatari cooperation also stems from the fact that the
two share the world’s largest natural gas field, North Field, or as it
is known in Iran, South Pars, whose size is ironically slightly larger
than Qatar’s territory. According to the agreement between the two
countries, each can produce gas from this field as it sees fit. Despite
this, as early as Qatar’s initial development of the North Field, senior
Iranian officials began making demands regarding some of the terri-
tory, claiming that Qatar was producing more gas than it was entitled
to and announcing that Iran would not allow others to exploit its
resources.15 It is possible that similar threats from Iran led Qatar to
announce in 2005 that it was ceasing all development work – but not
production – on the joint gas field. More recently, because of the fear
of Iranian sanctions directed toward their energy economy, which
were ultimately realized many states began transferring gas contracts
from Iran to Qatar, much to Iran’s displeasure. Because of this, along
with the fact that a greater portions of the field lies in Qatari territory
and their more sophisticated equipment, over the years the difference
in production between Qatar and Iran has dramatically increased in
favor of the former.
Despite its relations with Iran, Qatar maintains good relations with
the United States. In the early 1990s, for example, Qatar gave permission
for its territory to be used as a staging ground to push the Iraqi army out
of Kuwait. It also directly aided the coalition forces in repelling an Iraqi
attack near the Saudi oil fields. Furthermore, Qatar is home to the Al
Udeid air base, the largest base of its kind in the Gulf, and the As Sayli-
yah base, the largest US Army pre-positioning base outside the territory
of the United States. Both serve as forward headquarters of the United
States Central Command. Although Qatar signed the aforementioned
agreement with Iran, which ensures that the territory of one would not
be used to launch an attack against the territory of the other, it is difficult
to imagine any attack against Iran by the United States that would not

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

utilize, to some extent, these two bases.16 It is possible that their very
existence is one of the reasons for the attempts at rapprochement by
Iran and Qatar. In other words, the former hopes to potentially prevent
any attack against its territory from these bases in Qatar and the latter
believes that it can mitigate the potential ramifications of American
presence on their soil.
In spite of Qatar’s close security relationship with the United States,
tension has sometimes arisen, particularly because of its ties with radical
elements, including Hezbollah and Hamas. These ties, however, enable
the United States to use Qatar as a proxy for indirect dialogue and other
forms of communication with such radical elements. According to press
reports, for example, the Taliban established a presence in Doha17 while in
January 2012, a US representative met with Taliban diplomats in Qatar.18
This new location both allows for such meetings (including between
rival factions, such as the Northern Alliance), which will assist in the
stabilization of Afghanistan, and permit a move away from Pakistani
influence. In addition, reports surfaced, which suggested that Qatar was
even mediating between Iran and the United States on the issues of Iraq
and Afghanistan. (To date, these negotiations have stalled, due in part to
the closure of the Taliban offices in Doha.)
Arguably, the US military presence in Qatar makes it easier for Qatar
to adopt an active foreign policy because it is confident that its national
security will be maintained. This situation allowed it to both declare
Hezbollah victorious in the Second Lebanon War, assist in the recon-
struction of villages that were damaged during the war, and to invite
Israel’s then-foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, to attend an international
conference in Doha. (Although Livni did not attend the conference, she
did visit Qatar in 2008 to attend the Doha Forum, the most important
international conference in Qatar, and to meet with the Emir, his wife,
and Qatar’s Prime Minister.)19
By leaving the door open to various elements, Qatar is helping to
strengthen its standing in the region through engagement in diplomatic
and other forms of activism. In addition to the previously discussed
events, examples include its leading role regarding the Syrian civil war
(Qatar has been at the forefront regarding the suspension of Syria’s
membership in the Arab League has pushed to isolate President Assad,
and called for the dispatch of Arab forces to protect Syrian citizens). In
addition, its initiative to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia regard-
ing the failed assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador to the

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Qatar 

United States in late 2011 can be added to this list, as can Qatar’s addi-
tion of token naval forces to the joint GCC military forces that entered
Bahrain in March 2011 in order to protect the leadership from an inter-
nal uprising that was stirred up by Iran.20 At the same time, there were
reports regarding Qatari interception of Iranian naval vessels carrying
weapons and headed to Bahrain.21 In order not to damage Qatar’s rela-
tions with Iran, however, the official Qatari news agency claimed that
they were fishing boats. Such concrete intervention and action taken
against Iran and its interests, such as in Syria, on the other hand, may
suggest a shift from its prior balancing act, perhaps out of fear. Hedg-
ing bets tends to be easier to maintain during times of peace, but when
a nation’s interest is directly threatened, such as by the “Arab Spring,”
alignments sometimes change.
As previously mentioned, Qatar stepped up its activities during the
“Arab Spring.” Not only did it help to mediate in the crisis in Yemen,
which resulted in an arrangement that allowed for President Saleh’s
departure, it was involved in the establishment of a new government in
Tunisia, and helped, perhaps more than any other Arab player, to over-
throw the Gaddafi regime. During this time, Qatar was at the forefront
of pushing for military action by NATO in Libya and even dispatched six
fighter jets of its own (about half of its operational air force) as symbolic
aid to the no-fly zone and military campaign. Later, reports surfaced that
it also assisted in the training of Libyan opposition fighters. Furthermore,
Qatar was the first Arab state to recognize the oppositional National
Transitional Council of Libya, sold oil on this body’s behalf and supplied
it with extensive economic and military aid.22 This policy allowed it, on
the one hand, to divert attention from the Gulf, and on the other, to
prove that it is a respectable and responsible member of the international
community and in-line with the desires of the “Arab Street.” Indeed, this
investment has borne fruit – Western leaders spared no praise of what
they described as Qatar’s leadership and moral authority regarding its
actions in Libya and its policy toward Syria. These accolades, however,
have become more muted, as information regarding the identity of
recipients of Qatari aid, most notably extreme Salafist groups linked to
al-Qaeda has come to light and the West has begun to realize that their
own interests and values may now diverge significantly from those of
At home, too, Qatar seeks to anticipate and cope with criticism
directed toward it. Qatari’s then-Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, announced

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

in early 2012 that, in the second half of 2013, he would hold elections for
the Shura Council for the first time in the country’s history (currently,
all members are appointed). He explained this undertaking as stemming
from the great changes taking place in the Middle East. Such changes
made it impossible for the masses to be content with only reassuring
messages and necessitated a continuation of reforms. However, it is worth
mentioning that the leadership has been promising such elections since
2008 and, even should such elections occur, the Shura Council’s lack of
real power suggest little overall change. In addition, such promises are
tempered by other behavior, including the life sentence handed down to
a prominent poet for insulting the Emir.23 This suggests that support of
the “Arab Spring” is often contextual rather than absolute. The turmoil
that has taken hold in the Arab world has highlighted the growing
power of Qatar and the unique foreign policy that it has adopted over
the years, which includes active involvement in most of the focal points
of unrest in the region. This policy – a combination of opportunism,
ambition, and strategic maneuvering, backed by tremendous economic
power and a willingness to use it for political purposes – along with the
weakness of the prior centers of power inside and outside of the region,
have enabled the emirate to exploit this vacuum and reinforce its politi-
cal position. This position, also characterized by Qatar’s extensive ties
with a broad range of actors, allows for it to take the essential role of
mediator to a larger scale than its other Gulf colleagues who similarly
utilize mediation as a means of ensuring security. This is seen in Qatar’s
greater and more noticeable involvement in a range of issues, and its
utilization as an arbiter and middleman by other nations, such as the
United States and Iran. For this strategy to persevere, it is essential that
they continue to rapidly identify and back trends in the Arab street, so
long as they do not reach its doorstep or endanger its relationship with
its powerful neighbors. Because of its success thus far, it is likely that
Qatar will maintain its policy of keeping all options open as long as it is
able. On the other hand, such a balancing act can backfire. An example
is their role in the Syrian civil war. Despite warnings to mind their own
business, they moved forward with supplying financial and military aid
to the opposition. When a mall in Doha “accidentally” caught fire in
May 2012, reports from the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya reported that it
was, in fact, caused in retaliation for Qatar’s support for Syrian rebels.24
This begs the question of how far the nation will push their future
involvement in other issues.

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Qatar 

Challenges facing the new Emir

In June 25, 2013, in an unusual step, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
handed the leadership over to his then 33-year-old son, Prince Tamim,
who thereby became the youngest head of state in the Arab world. There
are indications that the new Emir will seek to gradually focus more on
internal affairs and development projects at the expense of the extrava-
gant foreign policy of the recent past, which has aroused criticism at
home. Behind closed doors, some in the emirate have urged that the
immense wealth be used to develop “roads in Doha, not Lebanon.”
Qatar’s readiness to use its immense economic power for political
purposes, coupled with the weakness of several regional actors in the
wake of the “ ‘Arab Spring’,” has put the emirate’s foreign policy in the
spotlight. Indeed, Qatar became a key country in the Middle East in
recent years, wielding significant influence far beyond its borders.
However, many are unhappy with Qatar’s “adventurous” foreign policy
and regional activism, not to mention its opportunism. Furthermore,
several internal and external developments are likely to have a negative
impact on Qatar’s standing.
In foreign policy, some of the emirate’s gambles were unsuccessful.
Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Qatar was close to the Syrian
regime. Once the civil war began, however, believing that regime’s days
were numbered, the al-Thani family turned its back on the minority
Alawite regime and its allies, Hizbollah and Iran, and began supporting
the opposition. Qatar’s support for the extremists among the rebels in
Syria (as previously in Libya) sparked criticism and damaged Qatar’s
relations with the United States, which fears the consequences of
strengthening these factions. Qatar has since reduced its involvement in
the crisis and its support for the rebels in general, while Saudi Arabia, its
large neighbor on the west, has become their principal supporter (e.g.,
Ahmad Jarba, who is close to Saudi Arabia, replaced Mustafa Sabbagh,
who is close to Qatar, as president of the National Coalition for Syrian
Revolutionary and Opposition Forces). Internally, the emirate has been
subject to international criticism, following the exposure of conditions
for foreign workers in development work for the 2022 football World
With the rise of political Islam, Qatar, to the dismay of its Arab Gulf
neighbors, tried to ride the Islamic wave by becoming close to its most
prominent representative, the Egypt of Mohamed Morsi, awarding it

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

some $8 billion in loans and grants. Yet for many years relations between
Qatar and Egypt were strained (Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once
asked “Why should I pay attention to a country with the population of
a small Cairo hotel?”) and the one-year honeymoon between Qatar and
Egypt during the brief Muslim Brotherhood era ended. When Morsi fell,
Qatar lost both a principal ally and considerable influence in Cairo and
the region. In an attempt to resuscitate its relations with Egypt, at least to
some extent, Qatar has tried, so far without success, to portray itself after
the military takeover in Egypt as having always supported the “Egyptian
people,” rather than any particular regime.
The new Egyptian regime was not impressed by this posture; it froze
LNG supply talks with the emirate, closed down the local branch of
Al-Jazeera, and arrested journalists employed by the network, rejected
Qatar’s request to increase the frequency of flights between Cairo
and Doha, and even in protest returned a $2 billion grant from Qatar
awarded to the previous regime and deposited in Egypt’s central bank
– an indication of the depth of the tension and the strained relations.
In late September 2013 the Egyptian government even issued an arrest
warrant against Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi, an Egyptian theologian living
in Qatar who is identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, on charges of
incitement that led to the killing of Egyptian policemen. Al-Jazeera has
lost some of its influence in sizable parts of the Arab world following its
coverage of the events in Egypt, which reflected a critical attitude toward
the military regime.
As a small country, Qatar must identify processes and trends and
keep ahead of its larger neighbors in order to promote its particular
agenda, which is driven by pure survival interests. It cannot be ruled out,
however, that the small emirate has reached the limits of its power and
is now facing opposition to its regional policies. It will have to adjust its
regional policy, especially toward Egypt, if it wants to retain its influence
in the Arab world. As long as the regime in Egypt is not yet entirely stable,
it will find it difficult to completely dispense with aid from Qatar. If and
when the situation in Egypt stabilizes, however, and there is no change
in relations between Cairo and Doha, the Egyptian military regime will
prefer doing without Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar, and settle
for the generous aid readily offered by Qatar’s oil-rich neighbors: Saudi
Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.
Qatar’s foreign policy was all about keeping as many doors open as
possible. Relations were maintained with all elements in the Middle

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Qatar 

East as an insurance policy, in part as protection against radical forces

in the region. This demonstration of an independent policy, which was
in inverse proportion to Qatar’s geographic size, resulted from its drive
to enhance its regional importance and protect its vast natural resources.
However, the emirate, home to some 300,000 citizens (in addition to
over one million foreign workers), has exceeded its natural boundaries
in acting as a major league player in recent years. Given its financial
power, it will be however hard to ignore it in the long term.

1 See interview with Qatar’s Amir regarding “staying friendly to everyone”:
“Qatar: A tiny country asserts powerful influence,” CBS News, January 15,
2 Central Intelligence Agency, “Qatar,” The World Fact book (updated on June
20, 2014).
3 Ian Black, “Bahrain Protests to Qatar over Al-Jazeera Film,” The Guardian,
August 7, 2011.
4 Robert Booth, “Wikileaks Cables Claim AlJazeera Changed Coverage to Suit
Qatari Foreign Policy,” Guardian, December 6, 2010.
5 Ian Black, “Qatar Admits Sending Hundreds of Troops to Support Libya
Rebels,” The Guardian, October 26, 2011.
6 See James Risen, Mark Mazzetti, and Michael S. Schmidt, “U.S.-Approved
Arms for Libya Rebels Fell into Jihadis’ Hands,” New York Times, December
5, 2012 and Reuters, “Qatar Calls for Support to Syria Rebel Fighters,”
December 12, 2012.
7 Anshel Pfeffer and Jacki Khoury, “Al Jazeera Official Admits Ties with Hamas
and Is Sentenced to Prison,” Ha’aretz, September 26, 2011 (Hebrew).
8 BBC News, “Hamas Political Leaders Leave Syria for Egypt and Qatar,”
February 28, 2012.
9 Yoel Guzansky, “Emir of Qatar Visits Gaza,” Maariv, October 24, 2012 as
translated by Al-Monitor on October 26, 2012.
10 Herb Keinon, “Senior Diplomatic Source: Qatar Is a Bitter Enemy,” The
Jerusalem Post, November 28, 2012.
11 FARS News Agency, “Iran’s Interior Minister Arrives in Doha,” March 8,
12 MEMRI, March 7, 2010 (Hebrew).
13 MEMRI, April 26, 2010 (Hebrew).
14 Atul Aneja, “Iran-U.S. War of Words Intensifies,” The Hindu, February 16,

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

15 MECS 1989 (Vol. 13), p. 569.

16 “Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani: ‘States in the Region Which House
U.S. Military Bases Should Know That These Bases Must Not Be Used against
Iran’,” Kuwait Times, January 28, 2010.
17 Yaroslav Trofimov and Nathan Hodge, “Taliban to Meet with Northern
Foes,” The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2012.
18 Barney Henderson, “Top US Envoy ‘Met Taliban Leaders in Qatar,” The
Guardian, February 8, 2012.
19 Barak Ravid, “Livni to Tell Gulf Leaders in Qatar: Iran the Threat, Not Israel,”
Haaretz, April 14, 2008.
20 “Qatar Has Sent Troops to Bahrain: Official,” AFP, March 18, 2011.
21 “Qatar Seizes Iranian Boats Carrying Weapons,” Gulf News, March 28, 2011.
22 “Qatar Admits It Had Boots on the Ground in Libya; NTC Seeks Further
NATO Help,” Al Arabiya, October 26, 2011.
23 Simeon Kerr, “Qatari Sheikh Advocates Region’s Reform,” Financial Times,
December 10, 2012.
24 Al Arabiya, “Assad Behind Deadly Mall Blaze in Qatar: Leaked Documents,”
October 1, 2012.
25 Owen Gibson, “Qatar Government Admits Almost 1,000 Fatalities Among
Migrants,” The Guardian, May 14, 2014.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0012
The United Arab Emirates
Abstract: The UAE has significant relations with Iran that
are precipitated by their vast commercial ties. However,
these relations are complicated by a long-standing
territorial dispute between the two countries. Since the
intensifying of sanctions on Iran, the UAE has been
compelled to lessen its cooperation with the Islamic
Republic. The Emirate of Dubai has been one of the
main points of Iranian commercial activity prohibited
by sanctions. In the wake of Dubai’s economic bail out,
though, the Emirate was leveraged into fuller compliance
with the international sanctions on Iran. While this has
diminished ties between the UAE and Iran, the Iranian
business community continues to use its neighbor to evade

Keywords: Global Financial Crisis; Iran; sanctions; UAE

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0013.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Over the years, the UAE’s position on Iran has been influenced by
their geographic proximity and extensive commercial ties, the Iranian
population located within the federation (estimated at around 400,000,
mainly in Dubai1) and, above all, by Iran’s systematic violation of the
UAE’s sovereignty on three strategic islands in the Gulf, particularly that
of the only inhabited island of the three, Abu Musa. The UAE’s strategy,
therefore, was to draw closer to the regional power that it perceived as
less threatening. Thus, during the Iran–Iraq War, the UAE supported
the Iraqi war effort, but the subsequent Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to a
measured rapprochement between the UAE and Iran due to fears of an
Iraqi attack.2 After Saddam Hussein withdrew its forces from Kuwait, the
UAE returned to supporting closer relations with Iraq, despite Saudi and
Kuwaiti resistance, as a way of demonstrating its opposition to Iran and
their unresolved territorial conflict. The UAE also expressed disappoint-
ment with the GCC’s inability to resolve the dispute and opposed any
rapprochement between the GCC – or its members – and Iran.3
This territorial issue concerning the occupied islands of Abu Musa,
Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, has always cast a pall over relations
between the UAE and Iran. The three are of particular strategic impor-
tance because they are near the Straits of Hormuz, close to international
shipping lanes in the Gulf and important oil and gas fields in the area.
Control over them provides Iran with the ability to interfere with the
freedom of navigation in the straits. These are the main reasons as to
why this dispute remains unsettled and of great concern to the parties –
and neighbors of such parties – involved.
Historically, Abu Musa, before the federation’s independence, was
under the rule of the Sheikhdom of Sharjah, while Greater and Lesser
Tunb belonged to that of Ras al-Khaimah. On November 30, 1971, one
day before the British forces withdrew from the Gulf, Iran occupied a
portion of Abu Musa and forcibly seized the other two islands. Not only
did they gain control of these strategic islands, Iran also demonstrated
to all Arab Gulf states their strategic vulnerability. Prior to the occupa-
tion, the ruler of Sharjah and the Shah of Iran signed a “Memorandum
of Understanding,” which allowed for joint administration of Abu Musa.
The leader of Ras al-Khaimah, conversely, rebutted attempts by Iran to
reach a similar accommodation over the Greater and Lesser Tunb, thus
resulting in their complete seizure.4 Since the agreement with the ruler
of Sharjah, however, Iran has systematically violated its provisions. In
1992, for example, it fully occupied the remainder of the island and

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The United Arab Emirates 

began to require that UAE citizens who wanted to visit obtain Iranian
visas in advance. In addition, Iran has attempted to strengthen its hold
by constructing a landing strip, increasing its military force stationed
there and, in August 2008, opening administrative and maritime secu-
rity offices. Two months later, in October, the two nations signed an
agreement that established a joint commission intended to resolve the
conflict.5 This agreement, however, did not prevent the Iranian president,
Mahmoud Ajmadinejad, from visiting the island in April 2012, the first
time an Iranian president had done so since the islands were seized in
1971.6 This visit was seen as a provocation by the UAE whose Foreign
Minister, Abdallah bin Zayid Al Nahyan, stated that Ajmadinejad’s
“provocative rhetoric exposed Iran’s false allegations regarding its keen-
ness to establish good neighborly relations and friendship with the UAE
and countries of the region”.7 Subsequently, UAE officials stated that his
visit both harmed the UAE–Iranian diplomacy that had been quietly
occurring, including the choice of negotiators for both nations, and
resulted in the withdrawal of the UAE ambassador from Iran.8
A subsequent visit, two months later by the commander of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards to the three islands did not help to improve the
situation. The fact is that Iran does not recognize the historical connec-
tion of the UAE to the islands and claims that its ownership of them is not
subject to any appeal.9 In December 2012, for instance, the spokesman for
the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated that “repeating baseless claims (on
the Iranian islands) has no effect on the existing realities”. The islands,
he claimed, were historically owned by Iran except for a brief period
when they fell under British rule in 1903. They were returned to Iran
in 1971, he continued, before the UAE was established.10 In contrast, the
GCC released a statement in the same month, following the conclusion
of their two-day summit, which both condemned Iranian interference in
GCC affairs and stated that Iranian action on the islands changed “none
of the historical and legal facts, all of which confirm the UAE’s right to
sovereignty on its islands”.11
The issue of the disputed islands has risen and fallen in importance
on the GCC’s agenda and continues to appear in all of the concluding
announcements of the annual GCC summits, as it did in the aforemen-
tioned statement from December 2013. In addition, although the GCC
established a tripartite committee, comprised of Saudi Arabia, Oman,
Qatar, and the Secretary General of the GCC, to resolve this issue in July
1999,12 thus far Iran has declined to meet with its representatives. Iran

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

has also refused suggestions for international arbitration or settlement

by the International Court of Justice.13
It is in the interest of both sides, however, to contain the conflict.
Iran, for example, does not wish to draw unnecessary attention to itself
because of the international pressure it already faces from, inter alia, its
nuclear program. The UAE, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the
limitations of its power and prefers to separate this dispute from other
issues, particularly those regarding economic relations. The UAE, along
with China, is Iran’s largest trading partner. In 2011, bilateral trade was
valued at $13.6 billion dollars (50 billion UAE dirhams).14 In general, the
UAE sees maintenance of open and extensive commercial ties with Iran
as a sort of insurance policy. Such a relationship also hugely benefits the
UAE economically. It was, in fact, this economic consideration that led
the UAE to adopt a pragmatic position toward Iran on the issue of the
islands. Recently, and in large part because of the increase in sanctions
against Iran, trade between the two nations has tipped in favor of the
UAE. In 2010, for example, the UAE exported or re-exported over $9
billion worth of goods to Iran, who only exported $1.12 billion worth to
the UAE.15 Much of this trade is based in Dubai. Its desire to prevent a rift
with Tehran also manifested itself in the extraordinary visit by Iranian
President Ahmadinejad to Dubai in May 2007, the first visit of its kind
by an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution.
Despite this, fears of an Iranian intention remain. According to a
leaked US cable from 2005, the UAE “does not believe the Iranian argu-
ment that they need nuclear energy for peaceful purposes when Iran has
vast oil and gas resources and is burning off as waste enough natural gas
to replace the power that would be produced at its nuclear power plants”.
Similarly, Under Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abdallah
bin Muhammad bin Batti Al Hamed explained that Iran was determined
to develop nuclear capability and was a “major threat”.16 Abu Dhabi, the
strongest and the wealthiest of the seven emirates, has taken a harder
line toward Iran than Dubai who, as previously mentioned, is primarily
responsible for the huge amounts of trade with Iran.
Following the 2008 economic crisis and Dubai’s subsequent financial
difficulties, Abu Dhabi came to Dubai’s aid. The motivation for the
bailout appears to be more than economic. Rather, honor and preserva-
tion of the UAE’s good name were also possible factors, as was a desire
to increase its influence over the “bad boy” of the federation. In fact,
it appears that the assistance extended to Dubai, along with American

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The United Arab Emirates 

pressure, forced the emirate to fall in line with Abu Dhabi’s more hawk-
ish approach toward Tehran. Subsequently, following the passage of
UN Security Council resolution 1929 on the issue of Iran (June 2010)
and continued pressure from the United States, the UAE began to act
more determinedly than in the past toward Iran. This included placing
restrictions on Iranian bank accounts in the federation as part of the
anti-Iranian sanctions, reducing docking services for Iranian ships in
the UAE ports, intensifying searches of Iranian containers, and even
refusing in several instances to refuel Iranian planes.
The UAE continues to make considerable effort to close the loopholes
and backdoors that were utilized by the Iranian regime in the past to
circumvent sanctions. Thus, in recent years the UAE began cracking
down on illicit trade between the nations, particularly on dual use
technology, that is, technology that can be utilized for the missile and/
or nuclear program in Iran. In 2010, for example, it was reported that
over 40 companies were closed in the prior 2 years due to prohibited
trade with Iran.17 Moreover, in September 2012, it was reported that the
UAE, along with Bahrain, had confiscated items heading to Iran, which
were possibly sought for its nuclear program, pointing to a certain level
of UAE conformity with Iranian sanctions.18 Similarly, in December 2011,
the Dubai-based Bank Noor, whose chairman is a son of the ruler of
Dubai and which had become a major bank for Iran – 60 percent of its
oil sales passed through this institution – announced that it would cease
handling Iranian transactions. Then, in March 2012, several banks in
the UAE announced that they would no longer trade in the Iranian rial
because its value had depreciated. Although the rationale of depreciation
is sound, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had also used deposits of
rials in banks in Dubai as a means of financing their operations.19

Iran: slowly rebuilding ties

This behavior is, of course, juxtaposed with the maintenance of trade
relations with Iran and the several Iranian banks that continue to oper-
ate, unhindered for the most part, in the UAE. It appears, therefore,
that the UAE is attempting to balance its fears of Iran and its desires to
reclaim lost territory with the benefits, including the “insurance policy,”
which comes along with Iranian trade relations. It is unclear, however,
how valuable this insurance policy will remain. Effects of the sanctions,

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

the rial’s depreciation and difficulties of financing trade with Iran have
resulted in lowered trade. According to some reports, exports to Iran
by members of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry have
reduced by over 75 percent in the past two years.20 Despite the UAE’s
trade relations with Iran, the federation has recently signed an agree-
ment to buy two military satellites from France, as means of defense
against Iran.21
When the United States and the European Union imposed banking
and oil sanctions, Iran’s central bank was no longer able to provide the
country’s Saderat and Melli banks in Dubai with hard currencies to open
letters of credit.22 While Tehran and Riyadh have strained relations due
to their intense rivalry in sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon,
the government of Hassan Rouhani has reached out to smaller Gulf
states calling for strengthened ties.
Prior to the signing of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran
(November 2013), Iran attempted to tone down the tension with its
neighbors. In an article published in Asharq al-Awsat, Iranian foreign
minister Mohamad Javad Zarif called on Iran’s neighbors to establish
a new regional order in the Gulf that would be free of intervention by
outside parties. In a clear reference to the American presence in the Gulf,
Zarif wrote, “The presence of foreign forces has historically resulted in
domestic instability within the countries hosting them and exacerbated
the existing tensions between these countries and other regional states.”23
Since the agreement was signed between Iran and the six world powers,
Tehran has been conducting a “charm offensive” aimed at the small Gulf
states. Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has traveled to the
UAE for talks with the nation’s leader in another attempt to reach out to
Gulf neighbors in December 2013 and again in April 2014. UAE Foreign
Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, paid a visit to Tehran in November 2013.
Iran might be using a tactic against the Gulf states similar to that
which it used during the negotiations with the international community
on the nuclear issue: exploiting the existing gaps between its adversar-
ies in order to prevent formation of a united front against it. Iran today
sees Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, as the main threat to its
stability and its regional ambitions. The Saudi kingdom is not only Iran’s
largest ideological and religious competitor, but also the main sponsor
of Iran’s rivals in the Arab and Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is also the
only state in the Gulf region that has the economic and military power to
constitute a threat to the Islamic Republic, and it is the most conspicu-

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The United Arab Emirates 

ous opponent of Iran, other than Israel, in its contacts with the leaders of
the international community (even if this opposition is expressed mainly
behind closed doors). Therefore, Iran is attempting to drive a wedge
between Saudi Arabia and its traditional allies in the Gulf so as to make
it difficult for the Saudis to unite the GCC behind them and in order to
isolate Saudi Arabia politically.
Rouhani adoption of a different rhetoric than that of his predecessor,
Ahmadinejad, has helped open the lines of communication between Iran
and the UAE. This was welcomed by the Abu Dhabi’s top diplomat, bin
Zayed, who said on April 16, “We look positively on the general approach
adopted by President Rouhani in his country’s relationship with the Gulf
Cooperation Council, and view this as an opportunity to strengthen
the historic relationship between us and do away with the problems
and differences that have marred it.”24 These are developments that Abu
Dhabi hopes will influence efforts to find a solution to the dispute over
the Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa islands.

1 Reuters, “Iranian Expats in the UAE See Polls as a Pointless Exercise,” Gulf
News, March 1, 2012.
2 MECS 1990 (Vol. 14), p. 697.
3 MECS 2000 (Vol. 24), p. 623.
4 Karim Sadjadpour, “The Battle of Dubai: The United Arab Emirates and
U.S.-Iran Cold War,” The Carnegie Papers (July 2011), pp. 10–1.
5 Kenneth Katzman, “The United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for U.S. Policy,”
CRS Report for Congress, October 4, 2012, p. 14.
6 Associated Press, “Iran’s President Visits Disputed Island,” The Guardian,
April 11, 2012.
7 Raissa Kasolowky, “Analysis: Iran Commander’s Trip to Disputed Islands
Frays UAE Nerves,” Reuters, June 1, 2012.
8 Katzman, “Issues for U.S. Policy,” p. 14.
9 “Tehran Dismisses UAE’s Claims on Iranian Islands in Persian Gulf,” Fars
News, October 2, 2011.
10 Fars News Agency, “Iran Reiterates Sovereignty over Persian Gulf Islands,”
December 26, 2012.
11 Wam, “GCC Summit Rejects Iran’s Interference in Gulf States’ Internal
Affairs,” Emirates 24/7, December 25, 2012.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

12 The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf: Secretariat General,
“The GCC Process & Achievement,” 4th ed. (2009), p. 17.
13 Sadjadpour, “The Battle of Dubai,” p. 11.
14 Leila Hatoum, “U.A.E. Seeks Ways to Fund Iran Trade,” Wall Street Journal,
March 18, 2012.
15 See Embassy Abu Dhabi, “UAE-Iran Relations: An Uneasy Calm,” June
21, 2005, Reference ID 05ABUDHABI2815 and Sadjadpour, “The Battle of
Dubai,” p. 8.
16 Ibid.
17 Andrew England, Roula Khalaf, and Simeon Kerr, “UAE Probes Companies
over Illicit Iran Trade,” Financial Times, June 21, 2010.
18 Louis Charbonneau, “Exclusive: Bahrain, UAE Probe Suspicious Shipments
Headed to Iran,” Reuters, September 18, 2012.
19 Zvi Barel, “Pressure Grows: Persian Gulf States Refuse to Trade in Iranian
Currency,” Ha’aretz, March 18, 2012 (Hebrew). See also “United States Exposes
and Blocks Iranian Network for Bypassing Oil Sanctions,” Ha’aretz, February
29, 2012 (Hebrew).
20 Tom Arnold, “Dubai Traders Call for Relief on Iran Exports,” The National,
January 3, 2013.
21 Pierre Tran, “France Cleared to Sell Falcon Eye Satellite to UAE,” Defense
News, February 25, 2014.
22 Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran Seeks Closer Trade Ties with UAE as Nuclear
Talks Lift Mood,” Financial Times, June 29, 2014.
23 Mohamad Javad Zarif, “Our Neighbours Are Our Priority,” Asharq al-Awsat,
November 21, 2013.
24 Hasan al-Mustafa, “UAE, Iran Slowly Rebuild Trust,” Al-Monitor, April 28,

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0013
Abstract: Bahrain, the smallest Arab country, is perhaps
the most vocal Gulf state opposing Iran. The governing
monarchy, which is Sunni, is actually a minority in its own
country, which is majority Shiite. This has led to intense
mistrust of Iran on the part of the Bahraini authorities,
who prefer to maintain strong bonds with the other GCC
states as a means of bolstering its security. They fear
Iranian meddling in their internal affairs, which have been
marked with violence and oppression since outbreaks of
unrest during the “Arab Spring.” In order to further bolster
the state’s security, the government consents to hosting the
US’s Fifth Fleet and continuously strives to draw closer to
Saudi Arabia.

Keywords: “Arab Spring”; Bahrain; GCC; Iran;


Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0014.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0014 
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Beginning with the Islamic revolution and due to alleged Iranian

attempts to undermine Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family, Bahrain has long
been concerned with the Islamic Republic’s intentions. Although rough
estimates state that over 70 percent of the Bahraini population is Shiite
– in contrast to the Sunni ruling family – attempts at revolution, despite
Iranian influence have thus far not succeeded, primarily due to outside
intervention (i.e., by Saudi and Emirati forces) the lack of political cohe-
siveness among Shiites.
The House of Khalifa makes frequent use of the Iranian threat and
of accusations about a “Shiite plot” or “Shiite fifth column” in order to
reject any discussion of significant governmental reform. The Shiites, for
their part, accuse the House of Khalifa of establishing a system of politi-
cal apartheid and systematic racial and tribal discrimination. Rather
than forming a homogenous group, many of the Shiites in Bahrain are of
Arab descent and identify more with the Iraqi religious establishment in
Najaf than with the Iranian religious establishment in Qom.
The 2003 American occupation of Iraq, which undermined the
Sunni–Shiite balance of power in the country, encouraged the Shiites
in Bahrain (as well as in Lebanon and other places in the Middle East)
and gave them hope of increasing their power. The subsequent arrival of
the “Arab Spring” provided further encouragement as tens of thousands
of Bahrainis took to the streets in protest. According to some reports,
on one day in February 2011, about 20 percent of Bahrain’s population
demonstrated – percentage-wise this was more than in Tunisia and
Egypt combined.1 These attempts to take advantage of their brethren’s
achievements as well as the rising status of Iran and the Arab street to
challenge its oppressive leaders in order to change their inferior status
has, thus far, however, not succeeded.
Bahrain’s proximity to Iran, its sectarian composition and Iran’s
historical claims to the island make it an attractive target for Iranian
involvement and interference. The two nations have had periods of
tension, particularly regarding Tehran’s support for Shiite opposition
organizations and attempts at subversion since the Islamic revolution.
In 1981, for example, Iran supported an attempted coup in Bahrain and,
from 1994 to 1999, the widespread unrest among the Shiite population
has been termed the “Shiite intifada.”
Thus, over the years, Bahrain has toed the Saudi line, which is critical
of Iran. However, the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran that char-
acterized Khatami’s tenure as president led Bahrain in turn to soften its

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Bahrain 

tone toward Tehran. In 1997, the two even agreed to restore diplomatic
ties on the level of ambassadors.2 Nevertheless, hostile rhetoric from Iran,
such as repeated calls for sovereignty over Bahrain, alleged involvement
in stoking Shiite unrest during the “Arab Spring” and other attempts at
interference have harmed any potential reconciliation.
Iran’s claims of sovereignty over Bahrain, however, are not new and
rely mainly on the fact that provincial governors in southern Iran ruled
the island from 1602 to 1783. In 2009, for example, Nateq-Nouri, a close
advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that,
“until it received its independence, Bahrain was the fourteenth province
of Iran, and was even represented in the Iranian majlis.”3 This led to a
wave of protest and widespread expressions of solidarity with Bahrain in
the Arab Sunni world, culminating with a decision by Morocco to sever
its diplomatic ties with Tehran and accusing Iran of attempting to spread
Shiism throughout Morocco.4 Additionally, as recently as May 2012,
reports surfaced that the Khamenei-supervised newspaper Kayhan had
called for annexation of Bahrain following a GCC meeting in Riyadh,
which focused on the issue of union.5
During the “Arab Spring,” accusations by Bahrain of Iranian involve-
ment increased and, as a result, the island both recalled its ambassador to
Tehran in March 2011 (he returned over a year later, in August 2012)6 and
suspended incoming and outgoing flights to and from Iran, Lebanon, and
Iraq.7 In November of that year, the Bahraini foreign minister stated that
Bahrain was the “crown jewel” in Iran’s penetration campaign in the Gulf.8
Iran’s support of the Lebanon-based Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah is
also a source of contention. A leaked US cable from 2008 included claims
by the King of Bahrain that Hezbollah was training opposition groups
and, in November 2011, a terrorist cell, allegedly run by Iran’s Revolu-
tionary Guards, was exposed in Bahrain with plans to attack the King
Fahd Causeway that links Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, the Saudi embassy
in Bahrain and the Bahraini interior minister.9 In addition, as recently
as November 2012, Bahrain accused the organization of being behind
the bombings that killed two people in Manama.10 The following month,
pursuant to Iranian claims that Bahrain was using toxic gas against Shiite
protesters, Bahrain’s Minister of State for Information Affairs reiterated
the oft-repeated assertions of interference. Such Iranian claims, she
accused, were “signs of direct intervention by Tehran” in Bahrain.11
Owing to such Iranian meddling and hostility, along with its territo-
rial claims to the island, Bahrain perceives Iran as the number one threat

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

to its national security and is making efforts to strengthen the Gulf and
Arab front against Iran.12 Bahrain is one of the most – if not the most –
vocal member of the anti-Iranian camp within the GCC. Its rulers have
responded to every Iranian attempt to harm the interests of its fellow GCC
members, and they received full support when Bahrainian security was
threatened by the allegedly Iranian-backed Shiite protests of the “Arab
Spring.”13 Not only was their crackdown backed by GCC members, but
the intensification of protests in Bahrain and the fear that the rule of the
Khalifa family was in danger led the GCC, in an extraordinary gesture of
solidarity, to pledge $20 billion to help support Bahrain’s (and Oman’s)
economy after its standing as a financial and tourist center was harmed
because of the riots (a great deal of money was withdrawn from the island,
and representatives of international companies and financial institutes left
or considered leaving the country).14 Even more remarkably, the GCC sent
a joint military force to Bahrain in order to assist in securing of strategic
sites and the preservation of the Khalifa rule. Saudi Arabia contributed the
vast majority of troops (1200 armored forces) with some assistance from
the UAE (600 police) and a small naval force from Kuwait.15
The arrival of the so-called Peninsula Shield Force – created in the
1980s, but used in Bahrain to prop up the Al-Khalifa for the first time –
did help Manama to cope better with the threat of widespread Shiite
unrest. Owing to the arrival of the GCC troops, Bahraini security forces
were able to focus more on removing demonstrators from the street,
arresting (and re-arresting) primarily Shiite activists and demolishing
the monument in Pearl Roundabout, the focal point for protests. The
specific behavior of the GCC forces is unclear – some reports claim that
they were directly involved in the suppression of the unrest, while the
official GCC statement claims that they only guarded key locations and
Regardless of the specific details of their engagement, the entry of the
joint military force was intended not only to defend the Bahraini regime
and prevent the protests from spreading to the Shiite population of Saudi
Arabia, but also as a signal to Iran that Bahrain is not within its sphere of
influence. Iran, for its part, threatened that the Gulf states were playing
with fire by dispatching “occupying” troops, and delegated Basij activ-
ists17 to conduct “spontaneous” demonstrations across from the Saudi
embassy in Tehran and send a “humanitarian” flotilla to Bahrain, which
returned unsuccessfully.18 However, the GCC military and financial
assistance also exposed the limitations of power of the GCC’s smaller

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Bahrain 

member nations by demonstrating their dependency on the good will of

their larger partners in times of crisis.
According to the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission
of Inquiry that was established in July 2011 by the King and initially
presented the following November, the unrest that the GCC force was
sent to suppress ultimately resulted in 35 deaths directly related and 11
potentially linked to the events of February and March 2011 and related
occurrences.19 In addition, many people, primarily Shiites, lost their
livelihood. In addition, in spite of the relative calm since then, the unrest
has not entirely disappeared but, rather, has remained slow burning,
primarily because the hardships that incited the protests have yet to be
These security concerns, along with its size, geographic location,
sectarian composition, and depletion of its energy resources have also
resulted in Bahrain’s support of increased cooperation and integration
within the GCC and bilaterally with the other GCC member states.
The island’s neighbors, who fear that Bahrain’s problems, especially its
difficult relationship with their Shiite population may one day appear
within their own borders have therefore, been extending help to Bahrain
over the years in a struggle they see as their own. However, many of the
GCC member states’ apprehensions regarding GCC unity has frustrated
Bahrain’s ambitions for increased integration.
This lack of progress toward GCC unity has resulted in the House of
Khalifa turning both to Saudi Arabia as well as players outside the Gulf
to improve and ensure its security. Their close relationship with Saudi
Arabia has its roots in a variety of areas, including geographical proxim-
ity (there has been a bridge linking the two since the mid-1980s), shared
fears of Shiite uprisings, as well as historical connections, and family
relations (both the Saudi and Khalifa families are descendants of the
Anizzah tribe and, in 2011, they became connected through marriage20).
Thus, the dispatch of the Peninsula Shield Force with primarily Saudi
forces to defend Bahrain in March 2011 was not surprising.21
It is equally unsurprising that some Saudi forces have remained in
Bahrain. In July 2011, Dr. Sami Alfaraj, an advisor to the GCC and Presi-
dent of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies explained that the Penin-
sula Shield Force’s “large de facto presence currently in Bahrain ... could
evolve into a permanent military base.”22
Bahrain, for its part, recognizes Saudi Arabia’s important role, both
as its protector and financial supporter. Saudi Arabia allows Bahrain to

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

refine and sell Saudi oil since its own resources were depleted. In addi-
tion, Bahrain has been the only member nation to publicly endorse Saudi
King Abdullah’s call for GCC unity in December 2011. “I ask today,”
Abdullah stated, “that we move from a phase of cooperation to a phase
of union within a single entity.”23 In May 2012, following a special GCC
meeting on unity, the King of Bahrain announced that they were “look-
ing forward to the establishment of the Gulf Union”24 although decisions
were put on hold.
Bahrain is also working to improve its security ties with players
outside the Gulf in order to maintain its Sunni minority government
role, but also potentially as a tool to balance Saudi influence and to place
their eggs in other baskets. Bahrain maintains close ties with the United
States, who upgraded the island in 2001 to a “major non-NATO ally.”
In 2004, the two countries signed a free trade agreement as well as a
defense treaty that was extended from its October 2011 deadline to 2016.25
Bahrain was chosen as the home of the Fifth Fleet, a factor that not only
contributes to Bahrain’s security, but also constitutes a not-insignificant
economic achievement for the royal house, which enjoys income from
rental and supplies of various services to US military personnel (who
number some 5,000 soldiers). In the wake of the events that took place
in Bahrain, reports surfaced, and were subsequently refuted by the US
Navy and other officials, that America considered transferring the Fifth
Fleet to a neighboring nation because of the unrest.26
Due to the strategic importance of Bahrain, the United States
remained rather quiet concerning the demonstrations and crackdowns,
releasing only generic statements regarding respect to human rights
as opposed to the forceful announcements it made during protests in
other nations.
The US Congress did, however, temporarily suspended sales of some
US-made weaponry to Bahrain in October 2011. The atmosphere of the
discussions indicated that future approval of such deals were liable to
be made conditional, more so than in the past, on the Bahraini govern-
ment’s effective and transparent handling of issues related to human
rights violations by its security forces. Although arms intended for crown
control were excluded from the resumption of such sales to Bahrain in
May 2012,27 it is possible that this sets a precedent for stricter guidelines
for Congressional approval. Despite the Congressional tighter supervi-
sion of arms to Bahrain, the overall response from the United States
toward the regime’s repressive measures remained weak.

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Bahrain 

This also stemmed from fears that free elections in Bahrain will give
rise to a pro-Iranian parliament opposed to keeping US troops in the
country. Although the presence of the Fifth Fleet and the consequences
of a potential relocation can be a lever for Washington to exert pressure
on Bahrain to carry out political reforms, such measures are also likely
to constitute an achievement for Iran and further weaken the willing-
ness of Bahrain and the other Gulf states to rely on US security support.
Thus, the lack of calls to remove the Al-Khalifa family, the resumption of
weapons sales to Bahrain, and America’s silence toward the appointment
of a nominee from Bahrain to the advisory committee of the United
Nations Human Rights Council in September 2012.28 All resulted in an
increased anger among Bahrainis toward American continual backing
of the regime.29
The fact is that the strategic importance of Bahrain is inversely propor-
tional to its size. At a time when the United States has withdrawn its forces
from Iraq and withdrew most of its combat forces from Afghanistan its
less than optimal relations with Saudi Arabia following the events of the
“Arab Spring,” and the continued presence of Iran as both a significant
threat and as competition for hegemony in the Gulf, the presence of US
troops in Bahrain is particularly pertinent. Nevertheless, the US pres-
ence is also dependent on the internal stability in Bahrain and, therefore,
on the relations between the Shiite majority and the Sunni monarchy.
Since the state of emergency on the island ended in June 2011, there have
been clashes between security forces and Shiite demonstrators on an
almost daily basis. In early 2012, it was reported that the US embassy in
Bahrain had transferred its staff and their families to another neighbor-
hood in Manama because of safety and security concerns.30 Although a
Shiite-run government potentially threatens the US presence in Bahrain,
deterioration of the current security situation, and continued unrest in
general, also poses serious risks.
Despite all this, Bahrain also attempts to avoid Iranian aggression by
permitting Iranian businesses to operate in the country and frequently
announcing that it will not allow its sovereign territory to be used in
order to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This appears to have done little
to prevent continued efforts of Iran to undermine Bahrain’s sovereignty
as accusations, including attacks on the internal reconciliation process
promoted by the Bahraini crown prince, persisted. In a speech on the
occasion of Eid al-Fitr, Khamenei expressed his concern for the situation
of the oppressed Bahraini people, claiming that the regime in Bahrain

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

breaks its promises to its people. Furthermore, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati

described the internal reconciliation process in Bahrain as pointless in
a sermon in Tehran and stated that the Muslims (i.e., the Shiites) must
occupy the island and drive out the Americans. Furthermore, as previ-
ously stated, in November 2012 Iran’s deputy foreign minister accused the
Bahraini government of using toxic gas to repress the demonstrators.
Bahrain also fears that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power will provide
Bahraini Shiites with greater confidence to act against the government
and undermine internal stability. There is no reason to think that Tehran
would not take advantage of the basic weaknesses of the Gulf Arab
regimes and their complex relationship with their Shiite population
in order to encourage and inspire identification with Iran and demon-
strate its ability to undermine their stability should its nuclear facilities
be attacked. In fact, the fear of Iran was one of the factors that led the
Bahraini regime to respond severely to protest by their Shiite subjects.
Although the King opened the political system to greater participation,
this appears to have only fuelled the demand for greater political reforms
and consequently prompted an even, harsher security clampdown as
a result. The government also grants citizenship to as many Sunnis as
possible (some of them among Syrian refugees) in an effort to balance
the ratio of Sunnis and Shiites in the population.
Iran’s previously discussed territorial claims on Bahrain also
regularly feeds the suspicions of the other Gulf states as to Iranian
intentions. The instability in Bahrain has once again made clear the
depth of the Sunni–Shiite–Arab–Iranian conflict, and its centrality in
the political arenas on both sides of the Gulf. Despite its status as the
smallest Arab country, Bahrain can serve as a barometer for measur-
ing both the tension between Sunnis and Shiites and between Iran and
the Arab world, and also the ability to promote political reform – even
basic reform – in the region as a response to unrest. Even if the changes
announced by the King of Bahrain in January 2012 are relatively far
reaching in terms of the Arab world, his powers relative to the entire
system of government, including the parliament, have remained
unlimited. In other words, the parliament lacks real legislative powers
and freedom of expression and assembly, particularly for the Shiite
population, remains limited.
Furthermore, recommendations issued in the Bahrain Independent
Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, which was expected to serve as
a platform for reconciliation, have been largely ignored. The Bahraini

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Bahrain 

government administered only three of the 26 recommendations and

partially implemented 15 others (2 could not be properly evaluated due
to a lack of information).31 This, as well, has caused continued frustra-
tion, demonstration, and unrest.
In this context, it would appear that Bahrain’s stability is far from
assured. Not only does the history of the sectarian struggle on the
island teach us that attempts by the Sunni royal house to contain Shiite
protest through increased participation in the political process has not
prevented violent protests from continuing, but that such increased
participation may have even made them more frequent and severe. This
situation plays and will continue to play into the hands of Iran who will,
more likely than not, also continue to be accused by Bahrain of interfer-
ence. In 2011, the King stated that Bahrain was the victim of a 30-year
external plot. Although he did not explicitly mention Iran, it is clear
who he meant and it will not be surprising to see similar statements like
this in the future.32 At the same time, they are likely to preserve certain
diplomatic and business relations in order to avoid, as much as possible,
direct confrontation. Thus, the hedging will continue.

1 Sean L. Yom, “The Survival of the Arab Monarchies,” November 12, 2012 in
Mark Lynch (ed.), “Arab Uprisings: The Arab Monarchy Debate,” POMEPS
Briefing 16, December 19, 2012.
2 MECS 1997 (Vol. 21), p. 294.
3 The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israeli
Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center, March 8, 2009. See also
Embassy Manama, “Bahrain as “Iran’s Fourteenth Province,” February 17,
2009, Reference ID 09MANAMA91.
4 Al Jazeera, “Morocco sever relations with Iran,” March 8, 2009.
5 Saud al-Zahed and Elia Jazaeri, “Iran’s Khamenei-run Newspaper Calls for
Bahrain Annexation After GCC Union Talks,” Al Arabia, May 16, 2012.
6 Reuters, “Bahrain Returns Its Ambassador to Iran,” August 12, 2012.
7 “Bahrain Suspends Flights to Three Countries,” Arab News, March 23, 2011.
8 Agence France Presse, “Iran Wants Bahrain as its ‘Crown Jewel’: Minister,”
The Daily Star, November 1, 2011.
9 The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, “A terrorist
cell was recently exposed in Bahrain which planned to attack Bahraini
and Saudi Arabian targets Bahraini and Saudi media to Iran, may be part

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

of a terrorist campaign waged by Iran against Saudi Arabia and its allies,”
November 30, 2011, 2.
10 The Daily Star, “Bahrain Arrests Bombing Suspects, Blames Hezbollah,”
November 7, 2012.
11 Joanna Paraszczuk, “Bahrain, Kuwait Accuse Iran of ‘Interference’,” The
Jerusalem Post, December 20, 2012.
12 Elizabeth Dickinson, “Cables Illuminates U.S. Relations with Bahrain,
Potential for Unrest,” Foreign Policy, February 17, 2011.
13 Joe Parkinson and Sam Dagher, “Bahrain’s Crackdown Wins Neighbors’
Support,” Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2011.
14 See Nour Malas and Joe Parkinson, “Gulf states Plan Aid Package to Bahrain,
Oman,” Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2011 and Agence France Presse and
Associated Press, “$20b GCC Aid Package for Oman and Bahrain,” Khaleej
Times, March 10, 2011.
15 Kenneth Katzman, “Bahrain: Reform, Security and U.S. Policy,” Congressional
Research Service, November 6, 2012, 9.
16 Ibid.
17 The Basij is a paramilitary force in Iran.
18 “Peninsula Shield Forces Arrive,” Gulf Daily News, March 15, 2011.
19 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, “Report of the Bahrain
Independent Commission of Inquiry,” Final Revision, December 10, 2011,
20 The son of the King of Bahrain, Khaled bin Hamad Al Khalifa, married the
daughter of the King of Saudi Arabia, Sahab bint Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on
June 16, 2011.
21 “The Saudis will seek to preserve the Al Khalifa regime in Bahrain even by
military means.” Yoel Guzansky, “The Riots in Bahrain Are Playing into the
Hands of Iran,” NRG, February 21, 2011.
22 Shenaz Kermali, “The GCC is Expanding Its Army, But for What?” Al Jazeera,
July 2, 2011.
23 The Daily Star, “King Abdullah Calls for Gulf unity,” December 20, 2011.
24 Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Saudi Arabia Seeks Union of
Monarchies in Region,” New York Times, May 14, 2012.
25 Thomas Lippman, “Washington’s Uneasy Alliance with Bahrain,” Washington
Post, August 5, 2011.
26 Habib Toumi, “US Navy Dismisses Reports It Is Moving out of Bahrain,” Gulf
News, July 22, 2011.
27 BBC News, “US Resumes Some Bahrain Arms Sales for ‘External Defence’,”
May 11, 2012.
28 CNN, “Bahraini Wins Human Rights Seat Amid Protests, Teen’s Death,”
September 30, 2012.

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Bahrain 

29 Kareem Fahim, “As Hopes for Reform Fade in Bahrain, Protesters Turn
Anger on United States,” New York Times, June 23, 2012.
30 See Agence France Presse, “US Relocates Bahrain Embassy Staff in Safety
Move,” January 23, 2012 and Rebecca Torr, “Diplomats Move to Calmer
Areas,” Gulf Daily News, January 25, 2012.
31 Project on Middle East Democracy, “One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s
Implementation of the BICI Report,” November 2012.
32 Jane Kinninmont, “Bahrain” in Christopher Davidson (ed.), Power and
Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies (New York: Columbia University Press,
2011), 56.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0014
Abstract: Oman maintains a generally neutral foreign
policy that balances between the demands of various
regional actors with which it seeks positive relations.
Oman’s economic ties with Iran are increasingly extensive,
as are its security ties. The pragmatic nature of the foreign
policy of Oman can be attributed in part to its relative
weakness and its geographical location at the head of the
Arabian Peninsula side of the Straits of Hormuz. Thus in
its view open relations with Iran are needed, in a manner
that other Gulf states are not required.

Keywords: GCC; Iran; Oman; Straits of Hormuz;

United States

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0015.

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0015
Oman 

Strategically located across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran and with a
relatively modest oil output, Oman has often adopted policies that distin-
guish it from its GCC counterparts and prefers in many cases to “sit on
the fence.” Its foreign policy not only faithfully represents its geographic
location on the edge of the Gulf and its relatively modest economic and
military capabilities, but also the unique sectarian composition of its
population (a majority of the population are Ibadis, a relatively moderate
strain of Islam, which seeks to be distinguished from both the Shiites and
the Sunnis).When Sultan Qaboos, who was educated at the United King-
dom’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, took over from his father in
1970 in a palace coup, he ended the relative isolation of Oman (in 1971, e.g.,
Oman finally joined the United Nations and the Arab League) and began
to implement a pragmatic foreign policy. Since that time, the relationship
between Oman and Iran has been characterized by their relatively close
ties in both the commercial and security sectors, both of which have only
grown stronger in recent years. It is possible that its relative weakness and
its geographic location are the factors that led the nation to embrace a
more conciliatory line than the other Arab Gulf states toward its large
neighbors – in the past toward Iraq, and today toward Iran. Oman, for
example, (along with Qatar) maintained a certain distance from the GCC
consensus on Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era by calling for the sanc-
tions to be lifted and maintaining low-level diplomatic ties.
Geographically speaking, Oman’s independent foreign policy cannot
be separated from the fact that it shares the entrance to the Gulf – the
most important naval passage in the world – with Iran. The main ship-
ping lane (primarily due to the depth of the water) lies along the 400
kilometers of land between Oman’s capital of Muscat and their border
with the UAE, and continues to the Oman’s Musandam Peninsula,
which overlooks the strategic entrance to the Gulf. It is through this
entrance and along this shipping lane by which tankers enter and leave
the Strait of Hormuz, which sees 90 percent of oil exports from the Gulf
(some 35 of all seaborne traded oil).1 Therefore, not only are they the
neighbor of Iran and, at the edge of the Gulf, relatively separate from the
remainder of the GCC nations, but they are directly tied to this essential
waterway both economically and politically. Oman, in fact, sees itself as
one of the guardians of the waterway. “We are doing our best,” Oman’s
foreign minister stated in March 2012, “to keep this waterway open for
the benefit of international trade and flow of energy to the rest of the

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

As a result, Oman has often searched for ways to increase and ensure
its security and, therefore, has supported closer security cooperation
among the Gulf states. However, the Iran–Iraq War and the Iraqi occu-
pation of Kuwait strengthened its assessment that the GCC lacked the
ability to cope with significant military threats and led Oman to propose
an expansion of the joint GCC military force and, at the same time,
increase cooperation with foreign players, particularly that of the United
States and Britain. Oman was actually the first among the Gulf states
to sign, in April 1980, an agreement (renewed in 2010) that permitted
the United States to pre-position war equipment within its territory and
utilize a majority of Oman’s airfields, including the one in the capital,
with advanced notice and a stated purpose.3 In addition, three days
following the signing in 1980, the United States utilized Omani territory
in the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Although
such an agreement and relationship with the United States was initially
undertaken in opposition to the opinion of its fellow GCC members,
who were more hesitant then about close relations with Washington,
following the occupation of Kuwait, the remaining five GCC members
allowed more liberal use of their territories by US military forces, which
undermined the unique status Oman had enjoyed until then. Never-
theless, since 1980, the sultanate has provided the United States with
strategic support for all of its military operations in the Gulf and nearby,
including permission to establish US military installations on the island
of Masirah in the Indian Ocean, which is under Omani sovereignty.4
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, for example,
the US military presence in Oman temporarily increased from a few
hundred to several thousand troops, mainly in support of the American
war effort in Afghanistan. More recently, however, the US military foot-
print in Oman has been reduced – primarily due to the conclusion of the
Iraq war and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite this, and despite
the extensive Omani support provided to the United States under the
terms of their agreement, some Omani officials may prefer to further
curtail the visibility of America’s presence due to fears of angering Iran.
More specifically, Oman would prefer to detach itself from any potential
attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
This desire to avoid angering its strong neighbors also led Oman to
publicly oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – despite the logistical aid
it quietly provided to US forces – and to refrain from publicly opposing
Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps the best description of Oman’s attitude

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Oman 

toward Iran was expressed by a former Omani diplomat to Washington.

“Iran is a big neighbor,” he explained, “and it is there to stay.”5 Similarly,
the sultanate did not heed Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s call to boycott the
summit meeting held in Qatar during Operation Cast Lead, which was
attended by Iran and the heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Economic and commercial ties with Iran have also increased. These
are, in Oman’s view, necessary in order to preserve the security of the
straits. The economic relations between the two states began to gain
momentum in the first part of the previous decade and, in the countries
even discussed a project to export Iranian natural gas to Oman by way of
a pipeline between the two nations. Also, despite claims that it adheres
to such sanctions, Oman has not obeyed some of the harsher measures,
including the bar on bank financing of trade.6 Thus, official and illicit
trade has continued, albeit at a reduced level due to American pressure
and the significant devaluation of the Iranian rial.7 In September 2012,
at the 14th Iran–Oman Joint Economic Commission in Tehran, the two
nations reportedly signed a Memorandum of Understanding intended to
increase economic cooperation.8 Such cooperation, Oman’s demonstra-
tive neutrality and its noncompliance with most requests, particularly
from Saudi Arabia, that it cool its relations with Iran, have contributed
to this bilateral relationship.9
Oman has also moved beyond fostering only economic ties but has,
rather, since the end of the 1990s, maintained low but steadily increasing
security ties with Iran. Sultan Qaboos’s official visit to Iran in August
2009 after Ahmadinejad’s second inauguration as president – the first
visit by the ruler of Oman since the establishment of the Islamic Repub-
lic – led to the signing of several agreements, including an agreement
on security cooperation and coordination. In August 2010, another
agreement was signed. Since then, Oman began to allow Iranian ships
to sometimes dock at ports in the sultanate and to hold joint maneuvers
and exercises with Iran in the area of the Gulf of Oman.10 In 2011, for
example, the two countries held two large joint exercises, after which
there were numerous visits by Iranian vessels to Omani ports.11 Iran
President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Oman in March 2014 on his first
official visit to an Arab country since taking office.
Iran, in fact, has attempted over the years to emphasize the impor-
tance of these security ties, perhaps with the intention of driving a wedge
between Oman and its GCC counterparts and harming its relationship
with the United States, who has not viewed Oman’s relations with Tehran

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

favorably.12 Muscat, for its part, has not forgotten the Shah’s assistance
in suppressing the communist insurgency in the Dhofar province of the
Sultanate (1964–75). Understanding the danger that communism posed
to him at home, the Shah dispatched an Iranian battle group, replete with
much-needed helicopter lift capability in 1972 to help protect the Sultan-
ate as well as secure his throne from communist-inspired subversion.
Qaboos then exploited the foothold he provided Iran in the sultanate
in order to reach an agreement on their shared maritime border in the
Strait of Hormuz.
Moreover, this neutrality has made it easier for Oman to serve as a
mediator and middleman between the Gulf states and Iran and between
the West and Iran. The fact that they enjoy the trust of both sides allows
it, perhaps more than any other actor in the arena, to play these decisive
roles and pass messages between the sides on various issues. During the
Iran–Iraq War, for example, secret ceasefire discussions between the sides
were held in Muscat13 and Oman played a major role behind-the-scenes
in returning the Iranian prisoners of war who fell into American hands
during the naval clashes that took place between the two countries at
the end of the war. More recently, there was both American and Iranian
preference for Oman as a mediator in the release of the three American
hikers who were taken into custody by Iran in Iraqi territory and Omani
assistance in negotiating the release of three French aid workers held
hostage by Yemeni tribesmen.14 This role – and their successes – ulti-
mately resulted in Oman acting as mediator between Iran and the West
on the issue of the former’s nuclear program.
From Muscat’s perspective, its skills in maneuvering diplomatically,
the maintenance of open channels of communication with all sides, and
closer ties with the most threatening players have led to recognition of
its regional and international standing. In addition, it appears that Oman
has reaped the fruits of its pragmatic policy toward Iran – characterized
by its policy of neutrality, opposition to aggressive measures against
Iran and toning down of GCC decisions against Iran – and lessened the
risks to its national security.15 The sultanate, for example, has not been a
target for Iranian acts of subversion and terror, as opposed to its fellow
members of the GCC. (Another reason for this absence, however, may
relate to the Indian origin of the Omani Shiite minority, which makes
it less open to closer Iranian relations or incitement.) Oman is not,
however, ignoring the positions of the United States and the other GCC
members (particularly that of Oman’s neighbor, the UAE) toward Iran,

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Oman 

and it does see Iran as a potential threat to its security. Oman’s relation-
ship with Tehran does not solely serve Oman’s economic interests but is,
rather, also a part of their survival act. At the same time, it fears its large
neighbor to the west, Saudi Arabia, primarily because of its exportation
of the Wahhabi Islamic school of thought to Oman. These fears manifest
itself in certain governmental policies. “We don’t allow Saudis to work in
our community,” explains the manager of research for the State Council,
a body that advises the Omani government.16 Against this background,
Oman also takes advantage of its ties with Iran as a lever of influence
vis-à-vis Riyadh and as a way to neutralize potential threats against itself
in general.
Domestically, Oman faces challenges connected to the social unrest
that reared its head in 2011. There is also the matter of succession. Qaboos,
who is ill and has ruled Oman for over 40 years, does not have children
and did not establish a modern, orderly succession process. This raises
doubts about Oman’s ability to meet the range of challenges that still
await it. And, despite the fact that this balancing act may assist Oman
in surviving, its good relations with Tehran also interferes in the inter-
national pressure mounted against Iran and, more specifically, disrupts
the unity of the Arab world and the GCC, which have coalesced against
Iran. The trend toward greater closeness – particularly in the security
sector – between Oman and Iran, however, may provide a useful hint
of what can be expected from other Gulf states should Iran successfully
obtain a nuclear program.

1 US Energy Information Administration, “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,”
August 22, 2012.
2 Martina Fuchs, “Oman Warns on Military Confrontation with Iran,” Reuters,
March 18, 2012.
3 Kenneth Katzman, “Oman: Reform, Security and U.S. Policy,” Congressional
Research Services, November 20, 2012.
4 Kenneth Katzman, Oman: Reform, Security and U.S. Policy, Congressional
Research Services, March 1, 2011.
5 Michael Slackman, “Oman Navigates Between Iran and Arab Nations,” New
York Times, May 16, 2009.
6 Saleh Al-Shaibany, Reuters, “Even in Oman, Iran Traders Feel Sanctions
Pinch,” Al Arabiya, February 16, 2012.

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

7 Ibid. and Marcus George, “Iranian Smugglers Squeezed out by Currency in

Freefall,” Reuters, October 3, 2012.
8 IRNA, “Iran, Oman Sign MoU on Economic Cooperation,” Zawya,
September 17, 2012.
9 MECS 1993 (Vol. 17), pp. 560–1.
10 “Iranian Fleet of Warships Dock in Omani Capital,” Fars News Agency, March
16, 2011.
11 Joshua Himes, Iran’s Maritime Evolution, Gulf Analysis Paper, Center for
Strategic and International Studies, July 2011.
12 MECS 1999 (Vol. 23), pp. 462–3.
13 Martina Fuchs, “Oman warns on military confrontation with Iran,” Reuters,
March 18, 2012.
14 See William Young, “Omanis Arrive in Iran to Aid 2 U.S. Hikers, Paper
Reports,” New York Times, September 26, 2010; Matt Bradley and Nour Malas,
“Iran Releases Two American Hikers,” Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2011
and Fuchs, “Oman warns.”
15 MECS 1988 (Vol. 12), p. 450.
16 Michael Slackman, “Oman Navigates Between Iran and Arab Nations,” New
York Times, May 16, 2009.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0015
The Other “Gulf ” State: Yemen
Abstract: “At the eve of the fourth year of unrest and
instability in the Middle East, Yemen is on the verge of
the abyss. Elite power struggles, sectarian rebellions, tribal
clashes, spreading separatism, and Islamic fundamentalist
terrorism in the country have combined to create a
chaotic reality in which alliance formations and lines of
confrontations change regularly and at a feverish pace.
The intensification of the Houthi Rebellion in late 2014 has
bolstered the sectarian dimension of the country’s internal
clash. While the eyes of the international community
remain focused on the struggle against the “Islamic State”
organization, a challenge with local and international
implications continues to intensify on the doorsteps of
Yemen’s neighbors and the countries of the West. The
primary concern has to do with the possible collapse of the
Yemeni state, which is located in close proximity to the oil
producers of the Persian Gulf and major shipping routes.

Keywords: AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula),

Houthis, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sunni-Shiite

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0016.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0016 

 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Yemen has long tried to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional
institution uniting the Arab Gulf states, but to no avail. Removing the
opposition of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (because of Yemen’s support for
Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War) is likely to ease Yemen’s way
to joining the organization. This would supply cheap Yemeni labor to
nations starving for workers and help these nations bring Yemen into the
fold of the pragmatic bloc.
To a great extent, the solution to Yemen’s grave situation is in many ways
regional and lies at the door of Yemen’s Arab neighbors, especially the
wealthy Gulf states. Yemen’s problems are theirs as well, because there too
the income from oil conceals structural weaknesses that are destined to spur
future government instability. Thanks to the upheaval rocking Yemen since
the start of the “Arab Spring,” Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
scored some serious gains. The Yemeni extension of al-Qaeda, made up of
Saudi nationals who found refuge in Yemen, Yemenis, veterans of the war
in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq “alumni” and activists released from
Guantanamo, has been described by US analysts as the most active and
most dangerous of all al-Qaeda affiliates. The organization’s extensive inter-
national terrorist activities include an attempt to blow up a US passenger
plane over Detroit on Christmas 2009; an attack on a Japanese oil tanker
sailing the Straits of Hormuz by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, identified
with al-Qaeda; and another attempt to down a US aircraft, which was foiled
by the Saudi Arabian intelligence services in April 2012. Moreover, the US
soldier who carried out a massacre in Texas in 2009, killing 13 members of
the US armed forces, was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior member of
the organization, with whom he had been in contact before the attack.
The increased use of drone strikes in Yemen is, in al-Qaeda’s view,
a particularly tough challenge, as it has eliminated many organization
members, including senior commanders. Al-Awlaki himself was killed
in a drone attack in September 2011. Nonetheless, the drones at times
also strike noncombatant civilians, as was reported last week when 15
people, returning from a wedding, were accidentally killed in an attack
near Yakla, considered one of al-Qaeda’s strongholds. Incidents like
that, used by the organization to recruit new volunteers, serve as prime
propaganda material to create distrust between the Yemeni government
and the local population and arouse resentment against US involvement
in Yemen, as per the new strategy recommendations.
Al-Qaeda’s relative freedom of action has stemmed from the lack of
an effective Yemeni army presence, as the military was forced to retreat

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The Other “Gulf ” State: Yemen 

from many areas in the countryside to confront the unrest in Sana’a and
al-Qaeda’s successful takeover of large areas in the southeast. For its
part, al-Qaeda has shifted emphases in its mode of operation and moved
away from focusing on classical anti-regime terrorism to guerrilla and
revolt designed to create a permanent hold on sections of the country
and promote a political and administrative system based on sharia
while exploiting the central government’s weakness. In the areas under
its control, al-Qaeda personnel (“Ansar al-Sharia”) began to function as
local administrations, supported and joined tribal leaders, instituted a
system of conflict resolution among tribes, and even provided various
services such as security, fresh water, food, basic health services, and a
religious school system. Heavy military pressure, however, forced the
organization to retreat from the regions it controlled and return to an
extent to the classical terrorist modes of operation that characterized its
activity before the onset of the “Yemeni Spring.”
The United States, which views Yemen as an important arena for
thwarting the intentions of al-Qaeda affiliates to seize control of strate-
gically important areas in the Middle East and Africa, must take into
consideration al-Qaeda’s plans and changes in their operational strate-
gies. This is particularly true in light of the assessment by security and
administration sources in the United States that al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula are the most dangerous among al-Qaeda’s senior affiliates. The
assessment stems from the organization’s several attempts to carry out
dramatic, mass-casualty attacks against Western civilian aviation targets
outside of the Arabian Peninsula, thereby adopting the international
operations strategy of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, the organization assists
the Somali al-Shabaab, another of al-Qaeda’s dangerous offshoots,
responsible for the September 2013 attack on the mall in Nairobi, Kenya
that killed 67 people. The recent decision of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the
current leader of al-Qaeda, to appoint Nasir al-Wuhayshi as his deputy
and the coordinator of joint terrorist efforts of all the affiliated organiza-
tions and al-Qaeda supporters has made the war against the Yemeni–
Saudi organization especially important, a war the West can ill-afford to
Al-Qaeda has never threatened the stability of the government in
Yemen. The fight of the Shiite Houthis in the north and the fight of the
separatists in the south are a greater challenge to the government’s stabil-
ity and the territorial integrity of the Yemeni nation. (In the past, the
Yemeni government even sought skilled al-Qaeda personnel to fight the

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

Houthis and used Western aid money designed for the war on terrorism
to tackle other issues it deemed more serious.) Nonetheless, al-Qaeda
successes are tantamount to a direct challenge to the stability of the
Yemeni government and a wake-up call for the president and his allies
in the Gulf, that the success in ousting the organization from most of the
areas it had seized does not mean that the battle is over.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0016
Part III
Stability and the “Arab Spring”
Abstract: By utilizing a variety of internal and external
survival strategies, the regimes in power, which were
already labeled as anachronisms in the second half
of the preceding century, have managed to maintain
their stability. The political arrangements behind these
autocratic states, however, are coming under growing
pressure, with considerable sections of the population
challenging the ruling elites. A balanced policy composed
on the one hand of willingness on the part of sultans and
emirs to open the political system in response to what
the times require, and on the other hand the public’s
willingness to settle for half of its aspirations, can aid the
monarchies in their battle for survival.

Keywords: “Arab Spring”; GCC; oil; rentier states

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0017.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0017 

 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

As the prior chapters demonstrated, each state’s approach to Iran was

reflective of its individual perception of the threat that Tehran posed
as well as, inter alia, internal considerations, foreign policy goals, and
balance of power concerns. Their techniques for managing other
perceived threats, particularly those connected to the “Arab Spring,” are
equally dependent upon unique factors including internal unrest (or lack
thereof), demographic composition, available resources, and differing
interests. Despite the fact that the leadership of the six Gulf monarchies
has remained unchanged, to say that the “Arab Spring” “bypassed” these
nations would be a misnomer. In this regard, many similarities exist in
their approach, either in measures taken to mitigate unrest, in responses
to actual unrest or both. Each state, however, implemented a fairly unique
response, comprised of various tactics, and dependent upon the charac-
teristics of their nation and their interests. This section will provide a
discussion of the various external and internal techniques employed by
the Gulf nations once the unrest of the “Arab Spring” arrived and will
examine the pivotal role that social networks plays in the regard. It will
also focus on the question of succession in Saudi Arabia. Avoiding a
power struggle among the various rival claimants and appointing new
leaders capable of guiding the kingdom through a time of daunting chal-
lenges is essential for ensuring the stability of the regime.
It is worth noting that the GCC nations are not nation–states, but
rather tribal states. The tribal nature of the states is apparent in the social
contract between the regime and the citizens. In nation–states, the citi-
zens are loyal to the country and the regime that represents it because
they see themselves as part of an “imagined community”. In tribal states,
on the other hand, the loyalty of the tribes to the regime is part of an
unwritten social contract between the ruling family and the other tribes,
which guarantees them free or subsidized social services such as health
care, in return for loyalty to the ruling family. Therefore, there is no real
political sphere in these countries, and opposition to the ruling family is
seen as opposition to the entire social system.
One of the first measures implemented by most of the GCC nations,
and ones that would periodically recur, were financial in nature and
generally intended to, inter alia, placate the population and address
some of their concerns. Many of these concerns were prevalent
throughout the region, and included dissatisfaction with high levels of
unemployment, low wages, and insufficient or expensive housing. In
February 2011, for example, two days prior to the February 14 Bahraini

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Stability and the “Arab Spring” 

“Day of Rage,” King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa issued a Royal Decree
that gave each family in Bahrain 1,000 BHD. The official explanation
was the “occasion of the tenth anniversary of the approval of the
National Action Charter”1 but it is likely that this was an attempt – that
ultimately proved futile – to prevent further unrest. Similarly, the
Saudi King issued a $37 billion benefits package in February, which
included salary increases, improved unemployment benefits, and
affordable housing. The next month he revealed another $93 billion
worth of benefits.2 Also in March, the president of the UAE followed
in the footsteps of the Bahraini and Saudi leaders when he issued
5.7 billion UAE dirhams (approximately $1.55 billion) intended for
improving the water and electricity networks in the poorer sections of
the country.3 In addition, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, side-by-side with
additional reforms (see later), issued periodic financial measures. For
example, a 43 percent rise in the private sector minimum wage along
with increases in unemployment benefits and student stipends were
announced. These were followed by increases in pensions and allow-
ances to military and security members in March and a 60 percent rise
in the private sector minimum wage in April.4
All of the GCC nations engaged in some form of suppressive measures
although these varied from arrests of activists or protesters, enactment
of laws intended to curtail freedoms and legitimize action taken against
those who engage in any behavior deemed undesirable, and crackdowns
on demonstrations if they occurred. There were, however, some themes
that widely repeated themselves. Perceived insults to the Emir, for
instance, appear broadly unacceptable with specific incidents prompting
strong measures in response by the ruling families in Qatar and Kuwait.
Such measures were also meant to act as a future deterrent, demonstrat-
ing in the process the inherent stability and power of the dynastic rule.
In Bahrain, for instance, external forces under the auspices of the joint
GCC Peninsula Shield Force were welcomed into the island nation in
March 2011 in order to guard strategic sites, thus freeing up Bahraini
security for confronting and dispersing demonstrations, engaging in
mass arrests and manning checkpoints, to name a few. On February
14, 2013, for example, a few days following the commencement of new
rounds of dialogue between the government and the opposition, clashes
between security forces and protesters who were marking the second
anniversary of the uprisings resulted in the death of a teenager and police
officer and the arrest of three Bahraini photojournalists.

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Saudi security forces, on the other hand, found themselves initially

clashing with primarily Shiite protesters in the Eastern, oil-rich province
demanding better treatment and release of political prisoners. Any indi-
vidual deemed to be an activist also became subject for potential detain-
ment, such as various women who chose to defy the driving ban and the
founders of the illegal Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.5 In
Qatar, not only was Sultan al-Khalaifi, a blogger and human rights activ-
ist, detained in March 20116 along with the well-known poet, Moham-
mad al-Ajami, the following November, but a new draft media law was
approved, which prohibits the publication of material deemed offensive
to the ruling family or which endangers state security.7
Kuwait, as well, was no exception. At times its security forces
confronted protesters – both the stateless “bedoun” population and those
demonstrating against perceived governmental misconduct and elec-
toral concerns – with violence, resulting in injuries and arrests of those
involved. Periodically, activists, and particularly those adept at using
Twitter, often found themselves detained, questioned and/or arrested,
including Mishari Buyabis, who was interrogated about his support
for opposition head Ahmed al-Saadon as early as February 2011, and
Ayyad al-Harbi, who was one of six individuals arrested and ultimately
sentenced to a two-year prison sentence in January 2013.8 In addition, in
April 2013, the government sentenced one of the most popular opposi-
tion leaders, Musallam al-Barrak, to five years in prison for insulting the
Emir in a speech.9 Oman, who deployed the army in order to confront
certain demonstrations, also arrested a number of activists for behavior
such as “insulting the Sultan” – Ismail al-Muqbali was, for example,
one of those charged with such a crime on May 31, 2012 and ultimately
sentenced to 18 months in prison.10 By February 2013, there were still
more than 40 activists in jail.11 If 40 activists remaining imprisoned seems
like a high number, in the UAE, whose almost entire experience with the
“Arab Spring” has revolved around the arrest of activists connected to
their local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Al-Islah, began
a trial in March 2013 of 94 individuals accused of plotting to overthrow
the government. They include prominent members of society, including
a cousin of the ruler, judges, teachers, academics, and students.12
Despite the prevalence of suppressive measures, reform, and dialogue,
in the various ways it manifested, was also a technique employed to miti-
gate unrest, create an appearance of change, and present the leadership
as one sensitive to the demands and concerns of their people. Bahrain,

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for example, established the BICI in July 2011 whose mandate was to
investigate the events of February and March 2011 and issue recommen-
dations. Their report was released the following November citing, inter
alia, multiple violations of due process, such as arbitrary and prolonged
detention without formal charges; the use of “unnecessary and excessive
force, terror inspiring behavior and unnecessary damage to property”
by security forces; abuse and torture of many detainees; discrimina-
tion against and excessive dismissals of particularly Shiite workers
and students; and a lack of connection between Iran and the events in
Bahrain, along with 26 suggestions in connection to its findings.13
However, it should be noted that, while the Bahraini government
claims that 18 of the recommendations have been implemented, third
parties argue that the number is significantly lower.14 The government
has also attempted a (national) dialogue with the opposition, that started
in July 2011 but which has been plagued with disagreement, walk-outs or
threatened walk-outs, and skepticism.15
Conversely, Saudi Arabia’s approach in this regard centered on
gradual change concerning women’s rights. Measures include granting
the women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections,16
transitioning certain stores to female-only employees17 and appointing
30 women to the unelected and advisory Shura Council.18 Likely, these
incremental but clearly visible changes aim to deliver the message that
the King considers their concerns and is willing to engage in measured
reform without the need for unrest or violence.
Sultan Qaboos of Oman, on the other hand, is an example of a leader
who responded quickly and with more widespread reform than his
fellow GCC rulers. Some point to such reform as one of the reasons that
the protests died down by May 2011. Beginning in March 2011, and not
including the aforementioned financial measures taken, the government
inter alia created a Public Authority for Consumer Protection to monitor
prices, profiteering, and quality; granted autonomy to the Public Pros-
ecution department; abolished the Ministry of National Economy, which
was largely seen as corrupt; established a National Audit Committee;
announced that the Majlis would be granted legislative and regulatory
power; and initiated various cabinet reshuffles.19 By December 2012, the
first ever municipal elections were held and 1475 candidates competed
for 192 seats in 11 municipal councils.20 Even Qatar and the UAE, two
countries who did not witness demonstrations, engaged in some kind of
reform or appearance of reform. Qatar, for example, announced plans to

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hold the oft-promised elections for the Shura Council in the second half
of 2013,21 although these have yet to materialize. The UAE, in February
2011, increased the size of the Electoral College, a body that is chosen
by the government and elects half of the Federal National Council’s
Finally, at times, some of the monarchs looked to fellow GCC nations
for support in internal matters and as a way to prevent broader regional
unrest. The previously mentioned entrance of the Peninsula Shield Force
into Bahrain is probably the most obvious example in this regard. More-
over, the Saudi king call the GCC to move from cooperation to unity
in December 2011, the welcoming attitude from the Bahraini leadership
to the proposal, and the discussions that occurred the following May
regarding potential Saudi–Bahraini unity as a precursor to full GCC
unification, clearly shows concern regarding Bahrain’s internal stability
and potential external unrest and the perception of the GCC (in this
case greater unity) as a tool to manage both.
The GCC provision of $10 billion each to Bahrain and Oman in March
2011 and Kuwait’s pledge of $250 million in aid to Bahrain in September
201223 supports this attitude. Even if nothing tangible resulted from the
unity discussions, the GCC nations, at least on the surface, became more
united during the “Arab Spring.” Together they, for example, expressed
opposition to Gadhafi and Assad and approved the aforementioned
support for Bahrain and Oman. This front of unity, however, often
conceals underlying disagreement and diverging policy. Particularly
concerning the Muslim Brotherhood and other “Islamists,” and espe-
cially following the “Arab Spring” and the rise and involvement of these
movements, some of the GCC states have begun to move in opposite
directions and adopt quite different policies.

The impact of social media in Saudi Arabia

While Saudi Arabia may so far have evaded the significant manifesta-
tions of the Arab upheaval, the age of social networks has not bypassed
the gates of the kingdom. Since 2012, the number of active Internet users
has grown by 300 percent. One-third of Saudi citizens are today regular
users of social networks, and the number of Twitter and YouTube users
in the kingdom is the highest per capita in the world, which indicates
how “connected” the kingdom’s residents are. The average age of Saudi

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social media users ranges from 26 to 55, with male users (87) far
outnumbering female users.
In other parts of the Arab world, the dominant forces using social
networks can be seen as forces who seek to challenge the existing social
and political structures, they represent a particular segment of civil
society: both men and women, they are young, middle class, and mainly
educated urbanites with liberal and democratic tendencies. In contrast, in
Saudi Arabia, the trend is the opposite. The conservatives, radical forces,
religious clerics, and mouthpieces for the regime are more dominant on
social networks and use them for indoctrination and mobilization and
as a platform for public messaging. Indeed, most social network users in
the kingdom are consumers of religious content.
Conservative forces have learned to use social networks to comple-
ment the traditional tools of mosques and television networks to preach
sermons to the faithful in Saudi Arabia and abroad, to recruit Salafi and
jihadi fighters, and to warn against “abusing” social networks. Accord-
ing to a poll conducted in the kingdom published in December 2013,
20 percent of Saudis use the Internet for reading and watching religious
content, while only 8 percent do so for “political purposes.”24
However, Saudi’s more liberal forces are also active on social networks,
using this medium for campaigns to improve the status of women and
minorities in the kingdom. While they do not yet call for meaningful
changes in the existing governmental structure and do not promote
democratic, liberal ideas, they do work to promote the rights and active
participation of young people and women within the existing structures.
As such, they are gradually undermining the source of traditional
There are also the “king’s men” – politicians, scholars, and journalists
who, directly or indirectly, serve as mouthpieces for the royal house.
The large majority supports the policy of the palace, explains it, and
barely sounds any criticism against it. Thus, for example, while only
infrequently does the regime express public dissatisfaction with US
policy in the region, the “king’s men” are “permitted” to expose the rift
and the serious crisis of confidence between the countries. For example,
on the revolution in Egypt, prior to the ouster of President Mohamed
Morsi, while the royal house avoided taking a public position against the
Muslim Brotherhood, the “the king’s men” warned against the danger
and encouraged the Egyptian army to stage a coup.25 The radical clerics
are the largest and most popular group in Saudi Arabia. Each of the three

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leading preachers, Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, Sheikh Muhammad al-Arifi,

and Ahmed al-Shugairi, has between five and eight million social media
followers. The focus of this group’s discussions can be divided into three.
The first is sectarian and directed against the Shiites; the second is anti-
Semitic and anti-Western; and the third is conservative and directed
against women and progress in general. The sectarian discussion is the
most dominant, and there is a call, through both new and traditional
media, for a jihad against heresy. The clerics are fully opposed to the
secular Sunni leaders in the Middle East, and call for their overthrow.
They are enthusiastic supporters of al-Qaeda in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq
and sworn supporters of Hamas in Gaza. (This was the case until the
organization turned to Iran for aid.) In addition, they are the strongest
and most vocal opponents of improvement in the status of women. There
are even increasing demands for additional draconian laws to increase
the empowerment of the religious police and enhance their authority.
The Shiite activists on the net who launched new media campaigns
drew their inspiration from the Shiite protests in Bahrain. In early 2011
the Shiite groups, who are found primarily in the eastern province of the
kingdom, demonstrated and called for the overthrow of the monarchy.
These demonstrations were suppressed by force, and several protest lead-
ers and activists, led by Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, were jailed without trial.
Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook accounts of Shiite activists were closed, and
in the wake of the brutal suppression, this group went underground.
Consequently, most of its activities take place far from the eyes of the
Saudi women, intellectuals, young people, and students living in the
West: this group does not directly challenge the monarchy, but seeks to
expand the rights of women in the public sphere by integrating women
into politics, business, and teaching. The most popular online campaign,
Women2Drive, calls for women in Saudi Arabia to be allowed to drive
and speaks out against the clerics. However, while the online discourse
in the West sometimes sees these “changing forces” as promises of
redemption and seeks to enhance their visibility, their online power and
influence do not compare to that of the radical and conservative camp in
Saudi Arabia, online and elsewhere.
Most of the Salafi jihadi discourse in the Middle East originates in
the Gulf states. In addition, the training and funding of elements iden-
tified with al-Qaeda comes from the Gulf states, primarily from Saudi
Arabia, and is sometimes offered openly on the Internet. Along with the

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“changing forces” in the Middle East who have found in social networks
the ultimate platform for messages of reform, there are conservative-
radical powers that use those tools to spread radical and religious ideol-
ogy and mobilize the masses. The relative success of the social networks
in Saudi Arabia is explained by the widespread use of smartphones, local
culture, and climate conditions, as a result of which people do not often
go to public spaces.
A further reason is actually connected to the many prohibitions on
the Saudis: the tight censorship and surveillance have turned the social
networks into an alternative communication tool for many, which
compensates for the ban on gathering in public places. The social
networks offer an alternative to movie theaters, pubs, and theaters, which
are banned in the kingdom.
Young people represent approximately one-half of the Saudi popula-
tion, and the virtual platforms offer them access to information that in
the past was the exclusive province of the official establishment. More
than five million Twitter users in the country understand better how
conservative and archaic the kingdom is. It can be argued that the exten-
sive use of the networks serves the regime because it allows the subjects
to let off steam. Nevertheless, the royal house and the official religious
establishment see social media users as a real threat that requires close
monitoring, especially regarding content that is damaging to Islam and
the royal house. Social networks have also given the regime tools to
monitor citizens who previously were more anonymous.
Furthermore, the fact that the protests happen mainly on the new
media platforms makes it easier for the government to monitor users
and deter them from political activity, although the greater the number
of users, the more difficult it is to monitor and manipulate them. And
while many in the monarchy and the religious establishment make use
of social networks for various purposes, this does not prevent them from
prohibiting the citizens from doing so. Thus, for example, the mufti of
Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, strongly criticized Twitter users,
describing them as “a bunch of clowns” who are making use of the tool
“to corrupt values and to spread lies and rumors.” Nor has the royal house
stopped there: a December 2013 report by Human Rights Watch reveals
that the regime has blocked and monitored many sites and arrested key
activists, with the goal of discouraging others from joining their ranks.26
It is impossible to know if and when the Saudi “social media revolu-
tion” will spill over into the real world. The main fear of the royal house

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is that social networks will serve as a catalyst for the outbreak of protests,
and indeed, the social media revolution gives a voice to the subjects that
undermine the legitimacy of the monarchy. In spite of the conservative
nature of the kingdom, many Saudis are not satisfied with the status quo
and hope for change, even if they demand it from behind their smart-
phone or computer screen.

The challenge of succession in Saudi Arabia

All the GCC states face succession challenges, Saudi Arabia’s ones are
significant. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appears to be in failing health.
The Saudi royal house is making extraordinary efforts to project an image
of business-as-usual. But the lack of transparency regarding succession
has fueled speculation about who will be designated heir once Crown
Prince Salman takes over. The kingdom is facing a succession crisis. King
Abdullah is 91 years old this year and his half-brother and designated
replacement, Crown Prince Salman, is 78. Neither man is in good physi-
cal health. There are particular concerns about Salman’s mental abilities.
For that reason in March 2014 the King appointed Prince Muqrin, Ibn
Saud’s ingest son alive to be the second in line to the throne or deputy
crown prince making him second in the line of succession behind his
brother Salman.
King Abdullah’s advanced age and failing health, highlighted by the
need for various operations, causes apprehensions about the future
stability of the oil giant in the face of rising domestic and international
challenges. The median age of Saudi Arabia’s population is 26, younger
than the global average. Yet like Abdullah, those at the top of the King-
dom’s royal pyramid are old and often ill. Even Salman, next in line to
the throne, is widely reported to be in declining health. In June 2010, for
example, he reportedly underwent spinal surgery abroad, and has had at
least one stroke. Such quickly aging and ill-leadership certainly can have
geopolitical implications.
Until now, the maintenance of governmental stability was linked to
lateral succession, in which power is transferred from brother to brother,
usually based on seniority, rather than from father to son. Such tradition
has ensured the choice of a successor with experience in management
and leadership, but has also resulted in an aging pool of potential heirs.
In addition, the practice of polygamy, particularly common among

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royalty, has resulted in an ever-increasing number of potential claimants

to the throne and the lack of a clear age distinction between generations.
Sons of Ibn Saud’s elder sons, for example, are older than their uncles,
calling into question the definition of seniority. (Khalid ibn Faysal ibn
Abdulaziz, for instance, born in 1941, is older than his uncle Muqrin
ibn Abdulaziz, who was born in 1943.) Similarly, Ibn Saud has great-
grandsons who are older than his grandsons.
As a result of the increasing age of the ruling generation, it was
decided as early as 1992, in the Basic Law of Governance promulgated
by then-King Fahd, that a successor could also be selected from among
the “descendants” of Ibn Saud’s sons. Although such an appointment has
yet to occur, the age and lack of experience of the remaining living sons
of Saudi Arabia’s founder suggests that the throne must be passed to the
next generation. To date, however, few have been elevated to positions of
real power.
This changed on November 5, 2012 when Mohammed bin Nayef (born
1959) was appointed to the crucial position of minister of the interior,
replacing his uncle Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. The appointment places him
in a critical position which had, until now, only been held by the current
ruling generation. Prince Mohammed’s placement could accelerate
the long-awaited rise of the next generation of leaders to positions of
real power in the Kingdom, including the kingship. As Deputy Interior
Minister, Mohammed effectively led the crackdown on Islamist militants
in the Gulf state since September 11, 2001. His experience and position
will make him one of the leading candidates for the throne when succes-
sion passes to his generation.
There is a complicating factor: Mohammed’s father and Crown Prince
Salman’s shared mother (Nayef and Salman are part of the “Sudayri
Seven,” the seven sons of Ibn Saud’s wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri).
Prior practice suggests that alternating successors from familial branches
has been used to check the power of groupings within the family such as
this one. At this point, however, each of the Sudayri Seven and their sons
could constitute separate branches in their own right. King Abdullah’s
son, Mutaib (age 62), the head of the National Guard, may be another
potential option. King Abdullah promoted him in 2013 to be the first
ever National Guard minister, elevating command of the kingdom’s elite
security force to the ministry level and placing his son in the cabinet.
The mere appointment of a crown prince from the younger generation
may raise fears among his counterparts that power and succession will

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shift to a particular familial branch, at the expense of others. Alternating

heirs among various lines and increased appointments from the pool of
grandsons to higher positions could potentially mitigate discontent.
Successful management of this generational transition is one of the
most important tasks for the royal family. Avoiding a power struggle
among the various rival claimants and appointing new leaders capable of
guiding the kingdom through a time of daunting challenges is essential
for ensuring the stability of the regime. The increase in potential heirs
increases the possibility of behind-the-scenes struggle, although an effort
to maintain consensus, or the appearance of consensus, will continue to
be sought as a means of ensuring stability.
Saudi history recalls that succession disputes and internal rivalries
led to the weakening and downfall of the second Saudi state, which
was likely recalled by Ibn Saud as he systematically excluded collateral
branches from the line to the throne. It was, perhaps, with this lesson
in mind that King Abdullah established the Allegiance Commission
in 2006 to approve the crown princes, comprised of the founder’s sons
(and, once they are decreased, of their eldest sons). According to the
rules, the King will suggest three candidates and, should disagreement
occur, a voting will take place. This will theoretically create the consen-
sus necessary. (Although used to confirm Prince Nayef ’s nomination,
the Allegiance Commission was not called together following Crown
Prince Salman’s appointment and the aforementioned policy has been
put into practice only once – in the case of prince Muqrin.)
Another important step is transferring the crown to a third-generation
prince who will keep up the pace on political and social reform aimed
at reconciling conservative Islamic traditions with the growing youthful
population. Although certainly not moving at the speed that Western
observers hope for, reform progressed under King Abdullah in the
historically incremental manner that it often has. Such gradual change
allows for the ruling family, in most instances, to obtain approval from
the religious establishment. This preserves a relationship that serves as
the basis of the regime’s legitimacy, and prevents serious backlash from
conservative sectors of society.
Under Abdullah, Shiites are now permitted to openly celebrate the
sectarian holiday of Ashura and the country’s first co-educational
university opened its doors in 2009. Following the “Arab Spring,” huge
financial aid packages appeared along with reforms targeting women’s
rights – an arena with the most room for change – which progressed in

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a very visible, albeit gradual, manner. Women will, for example, be able
to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections – without the permis-
sion of their male guardians – and there are efforts to promote increased
employment among women, who account for over 50 percent of univer-
sity graduates but only about 15 percent of the workforce.27
The challenges that will face King Abdullah’s heir and the next genera-
tion of leadership are daunting: a high percentage of young and unem-
ployed citizens, a decreasing dependency by the United States on Saudi
oil, America’s pivot toward Asia, the ever-present threat from Iran and, of
course, the continuing turmoil in the Middle East. Balancing the need to
address these concerns with the interests of the religious establishment
and conservative sectors of society is essential. But increasing rivalries
will accompany a transfer of power to the next generation, particularly
once great-grandsons become contenders. This could result in a more
cautious approach and a greater difference of opinion among the ruling
family. Still, the present situation allows for room for additional reform
and sufficient income to continue policies of domestic appeasement, and
so any prediction of widespread protest or turn to constitutional monar-
chy is probably a rush to judgment. The fact that three crown princes
have been nominated in less than a year highlights the more immediate
problem. Until the current leadership nominates a crown prince from
among Ibn Saud’s grandsons, the opportunity to settle the questions of
succession – and for a new generation of leaders to address critical chal-
lenges – will remain limited.

Monarchies: not immortal

Although the Arab Gulf states did not fully escape the turmoil in the
Arab world, they did, thus far, manage to avoid the need for comprehen-
sive change to their existing political arrangements. All have approached
the unrest through varying methods ranging from cosmetic and incre-
mental changes to considerable financial incentives to repressive internal
security measures. Such responses, however, could not be successfully
implemented in Bahrain, where the instability refused to die down due
to extensive inter-sectarian tensions. The regime’s ability to survive was
directly related to the GCC’s financial and military reinforcement and
its status as an essential American ally in the region. Nevertheless, over
time, the Gulf monarchies may not be able to avoid an acceleration of

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reforms, beyond superficial change, in response to continued external

and internal pressure.
Under the unwritten social contract in these rentier states, the regimes,
which enjoy revenues from natural resources, grant goods and services
to their citizens and do not impose any taxes whatsoever on them, but
also grant them no political rights. Relations between society and state
therefore remain subject to a principle in which the ruler takes care of
his subjects, who agree not to take part in the government and consent
to the curbing of their freedom of speech.
The leaders of the Gulf states have distributed billions of dollars since
the outbreak of protest in the Arab world for precisely this reason.
According to this explanation, the rulers in the Persian Gulf are in effect
bribing their subjects. In return, they receive, or do not require at all,
internal legitimacy for their rule. Arrangements of this type guarantee
comfort and prosperity for people and stability and order for the regimes,
as long as the rentier state manages to channel its oil profits into satisfy-
ing all its people’s needs. By the nature of things, any future disturbance
in this arrangement will lead the people to ask for additional political
rights for themselves, which up until now they have not been given.
Despite economic and other advantages, several royal families have
realized the need to begin implementing gradual changes in the exist-
ing political order. For example, a few days before the elections for the
local councils (responsible only for marginal matters, and half of whose
members are appointed to their positions), King Abdullah granted
women the right to vote and be elected in the next local elections sched-
uled for 2015. He also decided that women would enter Majlis al-Shura,
an exclusive institution founded in 1993, which lacks the authority to
criticize the government or enact laws. In January 2013, King Abdullah
published an order stating that 30 women would be added to the Majlis
al-Shura (out of 150 members).28 He remains determined, however,
not to hold even partial elections for this council, whose members are
appointed by him.
These measures are primarily cosmetic, but they nevertheless signal,
both internally and externally, that the monarchs are willing to go a
considerable distance in order to adapt to the rapid changes occurring
in the region, and even to anticipate them. The leaders of the countries
themselves are not sure whether, when, and in what way the Arab
upheaval will hit the Persian Gulf in full force. For this reason, they are
spending enormous sums for the purpose of taking the sting out of any

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potential popular uprising. Anxiety about more serious rebellions in the

future is not completely unjustified, since several of the elements behind
the uprisings in other places are also present in the Gulf.

1 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), “Report of the Bahrain
Independent Commission of Inquiry,” December 10, 2011 (initially presented
November 23, 2011).
2 See Ulf Laessing, “Saudi King Back Home, Orders $37 Billion Handouts,”
Reuters, February 23, 2011 and Jason Benham, “Saudi King Orders More
Handouts, Security Boost,” Reuters, March 18, 2011.
3 Nour Malas, “UAE Citizens Petition Rulers for Elected Parliament,” Wall
Street Journal, March 9, 2011.
4 James Worrall, “Oman: The ‘Forgotten’ Corner of the “Arab Spring”,” Middle
East Policy, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 2012), pp. 106–7 and Elizabeth Dickinson, “A
Calm Arab Summer Follows Oman’s “Arab Spring”,” The National, February
11, 2013.
5 BBC News, “Saudi Arabia Court Jails Activists Qahtani and Hamid,” March
9, 2013.
6 Al Jazeera, “Amnesty: Qatari Blogger Detained,” March 5, 2011.
7 Alex Delmar-Morgan, “Qatari Poet Sentenced to Life in Prison,” Wall Street
Journal, November 29, 2012.
8 Mona Kareem, “Kuwait Cracks Down on Dissent, Twitter,” Al-Monitor,
January 25, 2013.
9 Mona Kareem, “Kuwait’s Opposition on Trial,” Al Monitor, April 17, 2013.
10 Peter Salisbury, “Insulting the Sultan in Oman,” Foreign Policy, October 19,
11 Elizabeth Dickinson, “A Calm Arab Summer Follows Oman’s “Arab Spring”,”
The National, February 11, 2013.
12 David Hearst, “The UAE’s Bizarre, Political Trial of 94 Activists,” The
Guardian, March 6, 2013.
13 BICI, “Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry,” pp.
14 See Eric Wehrey, “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy,”
The Carnegie Papers, February 2013, p. 20 and Project on Middle East
Democracy (POMED), “One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation
of the BICI Report,” November 2012.
15 See, for example, Habib Toumi, “Bahrain Dialogue Arguments Persist,” Gulf
News, April 22, 2013, and Abeed Al-Suhaimy, “Bahrain Opposition Walk Out
of National Dialogue Session,” Asharq Al-Awsat, June 14, 2013.

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16 Neil MacFarquhar, “Saudi Monarch Grants Women Right to Vote,” New York
Times, September 25, 2011.
17 Abeer Allam, “Saudi Arabia Looks to Female Workforce,” Financial Times,
August 9, 2012.
18 Asharq Al-Awsat, “Newly Appointed Shura Council Member Hails King
Abdullah’s ‘Historic’ decree,” January 12, 2013.
19 For this and further examples, see Worrall, “Oman: The ‘Forgotten’ Corner,”
pp. 101, 106–7.
20 Sunil K. Vaidya, “Good Initial Turnout for Oman Elections,” Gulf News,
December 22, 2012.
21 Al-Jazeera, “Qatar to Hold Legislative Elections in 2013,” November 1, 2011.
22 The electoral college is chosen by the government in the sense that not all
Emiratis are allowed to vote. As of the increase, for example, and according
to lists released in July 2011, only 47,444 members from Abu Dhabi can vote.
The second-half of the Federal National Council’s members are appointed by
the rulers of the Emirates. The body itself has no legislative power. See Nour
Malas, “UAE Citizens Petition Rulers for Elected Parliament,” Wall Street
Journal, March 9, 2011 and WAM, “UAE Electoral College List to Be out on
Monday,” Emirates 24/7, July 10, 2011.
23 Mona Kareem, “Kuwait: Between Sectarianism and Revolution,” p. 14 in
“What Does the Gulf Think About the Arab Awakening?” European Council
on Foreign Relations, April 2013.
24 “Saudis Hooked on Twitter,” Asharq al-Awsat, December 18, 2013.
25 Orit Perlov and Yoel Guzansky, “The Social Media Discourse in Saudi
Arabia: The Conservative and Radical Camps are the Dominant Voices,”
INSS Insight No. 511, February 5, 2014.
26 “Challenging the Red Lines: Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia,”
Human Rights Watch, December, 2013.
27 Yoel Guzansky and Miriam Goldman, “Too Many Saudi Princes,” The
National interest, December 7, 2012.
28 Habib Toumi, “Saudi King Appoints 30 Women to Shura Council,” Gulf News,
January 11, 2013.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0017
Part IV
Is the Enemy of My
Enemy My Friend? Israel
and the Gulf States
The fact that the Gulf states are considered politically
moderate: that they have never fought Israel (Saudi Arabia
sent support troops in the June 1967 “Six Day” War and
Kuwait did so in the October 1973 “Yom Kippur” War, but
they were never involved in combat with Israeli forces);
that there is no territorial dispute between the sides; and
that they are considered pro-American, leads many people
in Israel to see them as partners. The Gulf states are in fact
likely to give momentum to peace agreements between
Israel and the Palestinians, and when such agreements
are reached, they may even help to finance them. Further-
more, Saudi Arabia is apparently the only country in the
Arab world that can give the Palestinians the religious
and political legitimacy to reach an agreement, first and
foremost concerning core issues, particularly the question
of Jerusalem.
Israel is likely to receive important commercial
benefits (although more modest than what many people
believe) from trade relations with the wealthy Gulf states.
Between 2003 and 2011, the bloc of Gulf states was the
third largest destination for Israeli goods in the Middle
East, after the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Trade

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

with them was generally conducted through a third party, which makes
it difficult to receive up-to-date statistical information. However, the
estimated value of the trade was more than 500 million dollars a year.1
Nevertheless, the assumption is that the true extent of trade is much
larger than reported. Israel also enjoys a certain access to markets in
the Gulf because the Arab boycott does not apply to products that do
not have an Israeli label. The authorities in the Gulf are aware of this,
but they prefer to look the other way. At the same time, as early as
2005, Saudi Arabia made a commitment, as part of the negotiations for
it to join the World Trade Organization, that it would end the second-
ary and tertiary boycotts of Israeli goods. While compliance with the
boycott by international corporations has lessened over the years, the
Saudi commitment opened the door for leading automotive, food, and
electronics companies, which until then had refrained from maintain-
ing business ties with Israeli companies as a result of the boycott, to
invest in Israel.
The Gulf states, for their part, are likely to benefit from certain prod-
ucts that Israel can offer. From time to time, there are reports of Israeli
companies contributing indirectly to the security of these states by train-
ing local military forces and offering advanced military technological
solutions.2 Although the economic potential of relations is likely to be
relatively small, the two sides can also cooperate on technology for irriga-
tion, medical tourism, desalinization, and as noted, military knowhow
and weapons. In this context, it should be noted that there are reports
that Israeli companies have extensive ties with the Gulf states. Thus it was
reported, inter alia, that ImageSat, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Indus-
tries, is supplying the UAE with images from its satellites,3 and that Israeli
company Aeronautics has won a bid to supply drones to Abu Dhabi.4 The
chances of establishing formal, open relations between the Arab Gulf
states and Israel are expected however to remain subject to the Arab
consensus and the internal politics of the GCC. In addition, relations
between Israel and these states cannot have a significant impact on the
peace process, especially because of their lack of direct involvement in the
conflict. Among the Israeli public, too, the attractiveness of normalization
with the Gulf states has faded to a large extent. We can say that the cold
peace forced on Israel by the states that have signed peace agreements
with it, Egypt and Jordan, “harmed the ability to present normalization
with countries such as the Gulf states as adequate compensation for Israeli
territorial concessions.”5

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0018

It is interesting that the two Gulf states with the closest ties to Iran –
Qatar and Oman – are also those that maintained formal relations with
Israel. Among the things that contributed to this are the loose frame-
works of the GCC, which allows the members to formulate a separate
foreign policy, including in relation to the question of reconciliation
with Israel. This fact, as well as the inability of the Gulf states to reach
agreement concerning Israel, may actually serve Israeli interests because
the common perception is that a unified policy by the GCC states would
not be in Israel’s favor. It appears that even in the future, if states such as
Oman and Qatar make gestures toward Israel, other states in the Gulf,
especially Saudi Arabia, can be expected to continue to display hesitation,
if only because of the possibility that open rapprochement with Israel
may anger the religious establishment of the monarchy and conservative
elements in the kingdom. The saying that Saudi Arabia will be the last
country to sign a peace agreement with Israel is as correct today as in the
past, although there is a wide distance between full diplomatic relations
and total separation that the parties can exploit. The strengthening of
relations between Israel and the Gulf states has the potential to soften
the Palestinian position. It could also help in funding joint Israeli–
Palestinian projects and in allowing these states to offer to host political
negotiations and thus to give legitimacy to other Arab states that seek
to jump on the peace bandwagon. Furthermore, publicly establishing
relations with the Gulf states is nevertheless likely to make Israeli public
opinion more positive toward concessions in the framework of the peace
Although relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states suffer
because of a lack of progress in the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, it
appears that the common threats they face are leading them to continue
with contacts. Senior officials from the two sides are continuing to hold
meetings, especially outside the borders of the region, and Israelis are
continuing to visit the Gulf for various purposes. Thus, for example,
Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure, Uzi Landau, visited Abu
Dhabi in January 2010 and Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Minister of Industry,
Trade, and Labor, was in Doha in May of that year. A short time after the
assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud Abdel Rauf al-Mabhouh in
Dubai in early 2010, an event widely attributed to Israel, Qatar proposed
restoring diplomatic relations with Jerusalem in exchange for Israel’s
approval for carrying out reconstruction work in Gaza. It appears that
Israel’s opposition to the proposal stemmed, inter alia, from Egyptian

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

pressure, over Qatar’s terms, and from Qatar’s ties with radical elements,
particularly Iran and Hamas. (According to Israeli sources, Qatar is
providing Hamas with some 200 million dollars per annum.)6
According to reports, these ties and virulently anti-Israel comments on
Qatar’s home station, Al Jazeera,7 led to a decision by Israel to cut off ties
with Qatar completely and to close its diplomatic mission in Doha once
and for all in March 2011, to ban Qatari passport holders from visiting
the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and to stop cooperation between
Qatar and Israel’s defense industry. Two months later, in May 2011, it was
reported that the prime ministers of Qatar and Israel had met in Paris
but had not succeeded in breaking the deadlock in relations between the
two states. Nevertheless, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was
quoted as saying that Qatar would continue its relationship with Israel
as long as the latter was serious about the peace process, and he pointed
out, as evidence of the continuing ties between the two states, Al-Jazeera
photographs of Israelis visiting Doha.8
The Arab Gulf states, in spite of their religious conservatism and
their fear of Iran, are close to the United States and seek to maintain
stability in the region. An Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement would
likely contribute to such stability, and therefore, they would appear to
be natural supporters of such an agreement. However, their leaders’ fear
of extremist elements in the region, such as Iran and its proxies, which
are likely to undermine the stability of their regimes, makes it difficult
for them to establish formal relations with Israel, certainly as long as no
peace agreement has been signed. Furthermore, the elites in the Gulf
are not interested in angering the Arab street, which traditionally tends
to oppose normalization with Israel, and they prefer to remain on the
safe ground of the Arab consensus. While public opinion is not the
main concern of these elites, nevertheless, they are interested in receiv-
ing certain legitimacy from it. Therefore, they would find it difficult to
completely ignore it, especially given the turmoil that has taken hold of
the Middle East since early 2011 and the greater weight given since then
to the Arab street. Any progress on the Palestinian–Israeli track would
make it easier for the Gulf states to move some of their relations with
Israel to the public plane, even though currently, being public about
relations with Israel would provide them only modest benefits, and such
a move might have negative consequences both at home and abroad.
Their basic weakness makes it critical for them to maintain legitimacy
among the Arabs.

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0018

Iran: a common threat?

The Arab Gulf states and the State of Israel have a common interest in
strengthening their relationship to weaken the influence of radical forces
in the region, irrespective of progress in the Israeli–Palestinian peace
process. A bloc of states sharing the same strategic outlook could serve as
a counterweight to negative Iranian involvement in the region. In spite of
condemnations of Israel by rulers in the Gulf states, the two sides do not
perceive each other as a threat. The Palestinian issue is far from being at
the top of the Gulf states’ priorities; Iran’s ambitions to develop a nuclear
program as a means of achieving hegemony in the Gulf is their main
concern, as it is Israel’s. These states, which recognize the international
community’s difficulties in stopping Iran on its way to achieving nuclear
capability, and which are interested in avoiding angering their neighbor,
prefer to work behind the scenes on this issue.
What has connected the two sides in recent years more than anything
is that growing fear of Iran. While in the past, it was argued that coop-
eration between Saudi Arabia and Israel would not expand to topics
of strategic importance, such as Iran’s aspiration to obtain nuclear
capability,9 nevertheless, it has been reported that several Gulf states,
including Saudi Arabia, are holding secret contacts with Israel that
include mainly an indirect intelligence dialogue, but also a direct one. It
is possible that this dialogue does not directly touch on Iranian nuclear
development, but it is not inconceivable that the two sides are working
to expose and foil activity by Iran or its proxies in the region. Thus, for
example, it has been reported in recent years that officials from Israel
and the Gulf states have met and discussed the Iranian issue: former
Mossad head Meir Dagan met with Saudi officials, and Prince Bandar
met with Israeli officials outside the kingdom. There has also been a
series of reports on cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and
on security coordination on the possibility of an Israeli military action
against Iranian nuclear facilities, which the two sides hastened to deny.10
The fact that the reports appeared for the first time in the Iranian media
may be a sort of warning by Iran to Saudi Arabia, or an attempt to reveal
the connection between it and Israel in order to sabotage it. Researchers
in the Gulf also claim that the Arab states there are holding consulta-
tions and intelligence exchanges with Israel, in particular on the Iranian
threat.11 In the eyes of the Arab rulers in the Gulf, Israel may be vital to
regional security, especially since the United States is engaged in a proc-

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

ess of diluting its forces in the Middle East. The leaking of diplomatic
cables from the US State Department by WikiLeaks revealed once again
the centrality of the Iranian threat in the eyes of the Gulf states, as well as
the tougher line that several of them have taken in order to contend with
Iran. The cables also revealed some of the ties between the Gulf states
and Israel in the Iranian context. Thus, for example, they revealed intel-
ligence cooperation between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE, which the
WikiLeaks documents described as an ongoing secret dialogue.12
We cannot rule out the possibility that Israel and the Arab Gulf states
are coordinating policy on one level or another, including toward the US
government, whose policy on the Iranian issue is not entirely consistent
with their position: both Israel and the Gulf states fear contacts between
Iran and the United States, and they would like the United States to take a
much firmer approach to Iran. The Gulf states recognize Israel’s military
power and its close ties with the United States, and therefore, for this
reason as well, they see a value in maintaining some level of coordina-
tion with Israel.
After the signing of the November 23, 2013 interim agreement between
Iran and the P5+1,13 a flux of reports and commentaries has suggested that
a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is underway. Indeed,
both countries are eager to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capabil-
ity and would like to curb Iranian attempts to attain regional hegemony.
In addition, both are perturbed by recent developments in US policy,
particularly the reluctance to use force against Iran and Syria, and signs
of a gradual shift away from the problems of the Middle East. However,
in spite of the convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia,
full normalization is not on the agenda as long as there is no significant
political breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same
time, there is a wide range between full diplomatic relations and a total
lack of contact, and the two countries can take advantage of this.
With the publication of the Fahd initiative in 1982, Saudi Arabia
abandoned, at least officially, the policy that had until then rejected
Israel’s right to exist. Following the Madrid conference in 1991, a certain
rapprochement took place between the two countries, and they partici-
pated in five working groups to deal with regional issues − water, the
environment, economics, refugees, and arms control. The Abdullah initi-
ative of 2002, the basis for the Arab Peace Initiative, went a step further,
promising Israel “normal relations” with the Arab and Muslim world if
it met a number of conditions. Israel initially rejected the initiative as a

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basis for dialogue with the Arab world, though subsequently a number
of senior Israeli officials, including President Shimon Peres and Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert, expressed support for the positive aspects of the
initiative while mindful of the problematic issues (e.g., normal relations
were made contingent on completion of the peace process, a withdrawal
to the June 4, 1967 lines, and a solution of the refugee problem on the
basis of UN General Assembly resolution 194).
Apart from the Abdullah initiative, Saudi Arabia has remained on the
sidelines of attempts to promote the peace process between Israel and
the Palestinians (and Syria as well). Perhaps, then, the initiative was
intended to counter the kingdom’s negative image following the attacks
of September 11, 2001. Oman and Qatar, which are generally outside
the consensus in the Gulf Cooperation Council, had formal − albeit
partial − relations with Israel. Israel had diplomatic missions in both
countries that were ultimately closed in the wake of the second intifada
and Operation Cast Lead.
On several occasions, the Saudis have announced that they have no
intention of making another move that could be interpreted as a gesture
toward Israel, and the kingdom has even pressured the small monarchies
to follow suit. Similarly, in recent years the Gulf states have refused to
comply with the US request to take confidence-building measures toward
Israel in order to create a supportive regional atmosphere for the Israeli–
Palestinian political process. At the same time, however, WikiLeaks
documents indicates the aforementioned “ongoing and secret dialogue”
on the Iranian issue. Likewise, it was reported that Israeli companies have
assisted Gulf states through security consulting, training of local military
forces, and sales of weapons and advanced systems and technologies. In
addition, senior officials from both sides have held ongoing meetings in
and outside the region. The reports also indicate that Israel has softened
its policy on weapons exports to the Gulf states as well as its attempts
to restrict sales of advanced weapons by the United States to the Gulf
states, in part as a signal that it sees a potential for partnership more than
a possible threat. In addition, Israel is enjoying a certain amount of access
to markets in the Gulf, as long as the products do not have Israeli labels.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states recognize Israel’s military power as
well as its close ties with the United States (and its influence in Congress),
and they see the value in maintaining some level of coordination with
it. However, normal relations − the Saudis’ preferred phrase − are not
possible, they claim, as long as there is no significant breakthrough in

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

the political process with the Palestinians. Yet if and when Israel and the
Palestinians reach a full or partial political agreement, it is far from clear
that this will necessarily lead to a “political spring” between Israel and
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has
made demands by the West for reform, openness in relations with Israel,
and a contribution to regional stability contingent, first of all, on a solu-
tion to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, the peaceful
but cold relations with Egypt and Jordan and the upheavals in the Arab
world have to some extent harmed as aforesaid the wherewithal of any
Israeli government to present “normalization” to the Israeli public as
proper compensation for “painful” concessions in the political process.
To Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the cost of open relations with
Israel at this time may be higher than the benefit, given the position of
the Arab street, which rejects recognition of Israel and relations with it.
The Arab monarchies in the Gulf are currently benefiting from the fact
that covert, unofficial relations allow them to enjoy the advantages of ties
with Israel without having to pay a price in public opinion, which has
become more vocal since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring.” In addition,
common interests are not common values. To a certain extent, covert
relations are also more comfortable for Israel: Israel as such need not
confront the moral aspects of ties with absolutist monarchies, and can
even present Saudi hostility as another barrier to the confidence-building
that is essential to promoting the peace process and producing the fruits
of peace.
Some have argued recently that Saudi Arabia and Israel’s shared disap-
pointment with President Obama’s policy toward Iran and Syria consti-
tutes a convergence of interests for formulating some kind of partnership
between the two countries. However, Israel would do well to distance
itself as much as possible from initiatives to form a common front with
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others against the Obama administration. The
perception that there is a united front against the United States could
harm relations with Israel’s primary ally, which in any case are in a
sensitive period. Moreover, a growing threat from Iran will not neces-
sarily make it easier for Saudi Arabia and Israel to cooperate. Shared
interests do not denote an identical view of the strategic environment.
Thus, for example, the agreement with Iran and the fear of the Islamic
Republic could lead Saudi Arabia, for lack of any other option, to hedge
closer to Iran in a measured fashion, and later, to be more vocal about
the Israeli nuclear issue, since “if Iran, then why not Israel?” In addi-

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tion, Saudi Arabia may hope for an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear
infrastructures, but it harbors reservations about any appearance of
operational cooperation with Israel, lest it be required to pay the price
for an Israeli attack. And on a more basic level, there is a psychologi-
cal and religious barrier that complicates confidence-building between
Saudi Arabia and Israel and the establishment of a stable infrastructure
for relations, with limited potential gains.14
It is not clear how and to what extent the developments in the Israeli–
Palestinian arena and in the Gulf will cause the Arab states there to
change their dual policy toward Israel: formal opposition to normaliza-
tion of relations with Israel, on the one hand, and active, but secret ties,
on the other. While the two sides are limited in their ability to cooperate
openly and avowedly, their identical threat perception, especially toward
Iran, has the potential for more extensive cooperation, even without a
direct connection to progress in the Israeli–Palestinian diplomatic proc-
ess. Furthermore, Israel, like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, is
anxious about the turmoil the Middle East has been undergoing since
early 2011 and about the undermining of the regional status quo, and
this anxiety could lead the two sides to find another common interest
to deepen their tacit alliance. It can be assumed, therefore, that even if
cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states today revolves around
security issues and is kept secret, there is a possibility that it would be
expanded to other issues in the future.
At this stage, the relationship that has developed between the two sides
should not be underestimated, especially as these are ties between states
that do not recognize each other formally. However, we should not exag-
gerate the added value of these ties: the Gulf states today have no interest
in turning the covert “alliance” with Israel into an open one. From their
point of view, keeping the relationship covert allows them to follow
Israel’s policy on the Iranian issue and to get credit with the United States
because of the fact that they speak to the Israelis, and on the other hand,
to avoid criticism from radical elements at home because of these ties.
It would appear that only progress in the peace process between Israel
and the Palestinians can bring about a thaw in relations between the two
sides once again and allow more formal ties to be established.
While Saudi Arabia thus sees the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as a factor
undermining stability, it perceives Iran as its main security and ideologi-
cal problem. Furthermore, the basis for understandings between Israel
and Saudi Arabia has expanded following the interim nuclear agreement

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

signed by the major powers and Iran (November 2013), which was not
viewed positively in Israel or Saudi Arabia, and the agreement to disman-
tle Syria’s chemical weapons, which gave legitimacy and precious time to
the Bashar Assad regime. In addition, there are shared interests in the
need to curb Iranian influence, the illegitimacy of the Assad regime, the
support for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regime in Egypt, and the basic approach
that relies on the United States. These common interests, together with
the shared fear of the consequences of the Geneva agreement with Iran
and an Iranian–American rapprochement, do not have the power to lead
to open cooperation and normal relations between Saudi Arabia and
Israel, but can strengthen the covert coordination and the understand-
ings between them.
Moreover, even this form of relationship is important, especially
since these are ties between states that do not officially recognize each
other. Dialogue helps maintain regional stability, and will certainly not
hurt in promoting a political settlement. Yet it is highly doubtful that
Saudi Arabia, which purports to lead the Gulf states, will grant Israel the
elements of normalization straight away, and any attempt to change the
relations from covert to overt could damage them. True progress in the
political process between Israel and the Palestinians may expand the
basis of common interests and allow Israel to demand greater support
from Saudi Arabia to promote political initiatives and assist in building
the Palestinian state, even if a comprehensive permanent status agree-
ment is not achieved.

1 Yitzhak Gal, “Israeli Trade with Middle East Markets in 2011: Healthy
Growth Despite Adverse Political Environment,” Iqtisadi, Vol. 2, No. 1,
January 2012.
2 Yossi Melman, “Matti Kochavi Protects the Oil Wells in Abu Dhabi,” Ha’aretz,
September 18, 2008 (Hebrew); see also Zadok Yehezkeli, “Guardians of the
Gulf,” Yediot Ahronot, March 12, 2010 (Hebrew).
3 Yossi Melman, “The New Crisis with Turkey,” Ha’aretz, November 10, 2011
4 Orah Koren, “Foreign Sources: Aeronautics Wins Bid for Unmanned Aerial
Vehicles in Abu Dhabi,” The Marker, January 12, 2012 (Hebrew).
5 Former INSS director Oden Eran at a conference on Iran and the Gulf states,
Institute for National Security Studies, May 31, 2011 (Hebrew).

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Is the Enemy of My Enemy My Friend? Israel and the Gulf States 

6 Attila Somfalvi, “President Peres Attacks Turkey for Financing Hamas,” Ynet,
January 28, 2012 (Hebrew).
7 Eli Bernstein, “Israel Decides to Cut Ties with Qatar,” NRG, Ma’ariv, August
25, 2011 (Hebrew).
8 Al-Jazeera, September 10, 2011.
9 Sarah Yizraeli, “Saudi-Israel Dialogue: What Lies Ahead?” Strategic
Assessment, Vol. 10, No. 2, Institute for National Security Studies, August
10 Anshel Pfeffer, “Mossad Chief Reportedly Visited Saudi Arabia for Talks on
Iran,” Ha’aretz, July 26, 2010. See also Barak Ravid, “Report: Saudi Arabia
Agrees to Israeli Attack on Iran through Saudi Territory. Prime Minister’s
Bureau: Report Mistaken,” Ha’aretz, July 5, 2009 (Hebrew).
11 “Gulf Arab States Deem Israel Key to Security,” Middle East Newsline, July 27,
12 Barak Ravid, “WikiLeaks Documents: Tzipi Livneh’s Relationship with
UAE Foreign Minister,” Ha’aretz, November 29, 2010 (Hebrew). See also
Yossi Melman, “Bahraini King Admits Mossad Ties,” Ha’aretz, April 10, 2011
13 Geneva interim agreement, officially titled the Joint Plan of Action.
Implementation of the agreement began 20 January 2014: Fredrik Dahl and
Justyna Pawlak, “West, Iran activate landmark nuclear deal, January 20,
14 Udi Dekel and Yoel Guzansky, “Israel and Saudi Arabia: Is the Enemy of My
Enemy My Friend?,” INSS Insight No. December 22, 2013.

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Conclusion: The Rising Gulf
Abstract: The Gulf is a major front for addressing the
dangers that can be expected to affect the future of the
Middle East and beyond. The emerging trends there will
increase its importance as a theater of events critical
to global security, stability, and prosperity. So far, the
capability of the Gulf regimes, to cope with the regional
turmoil, along with the relative weakening of traditional
Arab political centers has helped to turn the Gulf states into
the most stable and influential forces in the Arab world.
However, it also intensifies competition among them for
influence and prestige that undermines efforts toward
increased cooperation.

Keywords: Gulf states; Iran; security cooperation;

United States

Guzansky, Yoel. The Arab Gulf States and Reform in

the Middle East: Between Iran and the “Arab Spring”.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
doi: 10.1057/9781137467836.0019.

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0019

Conclusion: The Rising Gulf 

The undermining of the regional status quo in the wake of the Islamic
revolution in Iran and the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq War increased the
six states’ fears and brought a realization that a regional institute that
includes a framework for security must be established. The establishment
of the GCC was the result of earlier processes between the states, and
its goal, as declared in its founding charter, was “to effect coordination,
cooperation and integration between them in all fields.”1 The conquest
of Kuwait was not only a demonstration of their weakness but also an
expression of their different threat perceptions, which made the organi-
zation unable to fulfill its roll. The fraternity and public solidarity shown
by the organization’s leaders cover up competing and contradictory
interests and differing views of the strategic environment. Therefore,
different initiatives, such as bringing Jordan and Morocco into the ranks
of the organization or transforming it into full union, have not succeeded
thus far.2
Although the Gulf states took steps in the direction of military and
security cooperation prior to the establishment of the GCC in 1981, the
pace of progress was still fairly slow. This was a result of the cautious
and calculating nature of the rulers who were sensitive to any change in
the status quo, despite the clear advantages of cooperation and given the
threats directed at them (which were inversely proportional to their size,
location, and military capabilities). Nevertheless, the events of the late
1970s and early 1980s increased the pace of cooperation and contributed
to a change in its character, as the states believed that they were capable
of putting aside the disputes that had cast a shade over their relationships
in favor of cooperating on the basis of common interests.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Bahrain are coop-
erating with Iran, on the one hand, while attempting to preserve the
framework of the GCC on the other, which was established to a large
extent because of the Iranian threat.3 The assumption is that contrasting
threat perceptions have made it difficult to establish a joint, institution-
alized security strategy, and that the cracks in the front of unity weaken
the states’ ability to act as a united bloc vis-à-vis Iran. Nevertheless, even
when the perception of the Iranian threat, with its different dimensions,
is essentially agreed upon by the states, each has chosen to hedge in rela-
tion to the level of the threat that it anticipates.
The capability of the Gulf regimes, so far, to cope with potential
protest, along with the relative weakening of traditional Arab political
centers, such as Cairo and Damascus, has helped to strengthen the trend

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 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

that has turned the Gulf into a more central arena for conducting the
inter-Arab agenda. The Gulf is a major front for addressing the dangers
that can be expected to affect the future of the Middle East as well as the
broader global arena.
The GCC’s security is closely connected to the dependence of the Gulf
states on outside protection and the necessity for foreign actors to have
access to the Gulf ’s economy. Since their independence, the Gulf states
have been buyers, rather than suppliers of security. Their lacks of strate-
gic depth, built-in military weakness, and hostile neighbors have led the
Gulf states to increasingly rely on British and later American military
presence for deterrence and defense. US involvement in the Gulf has
included regular arms sales, the pre-positioning of equipment, ongoing
training and preparation, the establishment of central bases, and even
direct military intervention. “Passing the buck” to the United States, has
made it easier for the Gulf nations to, over the years, adopt a policy that
combines the elements of both competition and cooperation vis-à-vis
In recent years, Iran has focused a significant part of the international
community’s attention on itself, primarily because of its nuclear ambi-
tions and the ongoing attempts to negotiate over the issue, but also
because of its involvement in various domains in the Middle East and
the potential negative consequences that may result from its activities.
This situation placed the Arab Gulf states at the forefront because of their
proximity; historical enmity; their fear that, should it possess a nuclear
capability, it would enable Tehran to set the political, economic, and
strategic agenda in the region; and the concern that they will be placed
in the line of fire of any conflict between Iran and outside actors, such as
the United States or Israel.
The GCC policy toward Iran’s nuclear program is not without its
contradictions. On the one hand, the six monarchies support a diplomatic
solution that would effectively end the standoff between the United States
and Iran but, on the other, they fear that such a solution may come at the
expense of their interests. In their view, the result of a US–Iranian agree-
ment (that may contain US security guarantees to Iran, even if implicitly
or confidentially) could be de facto recognition by the United States of
Iranian dominance in the Gulf. As Tariq Alhomayed, then-editor of
Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, argued in an editorial in December 2012
that “the most important demand and reward that Iran is seeking is to
have a greater role in the region, at the expense of our [Saudi Arabia and

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0019
Conclusion: The Rising Gulf 

the Gulf ’s] security and interests.”4 “Furthermore, the Arab Gulf states do
not want alongside them a Shia nuclear state, such as Iran, that would
likely result in Tehran dictating the regional agenda.” At the same time,
they fear a scenario in which, in the absence of an attractive diplomatic
option, Iran’s nuclear facilities are subject to an American or Israeli strike
and Iran chooses to retaliate against one or more of the Gulf states.
Nevertheless, all of the Arab monarchies in the Gulf see open relations,
to varying degrees, with Iran as a way to hedge their bets and mitigate
possible future attacks. Their main objective is to remove themselves
from Iran’s potential line of fire. In order to avoid a direct conflict with
Tehran, they have declared on several occasions that they will not allow
their territory to be used for an attack against its nuclear facilities.
Despite these pronouncements, if a third party does, in fact, decide to
employ force against Iran, it is reasonable to assume that one or more of
the GCC states will discretely allow the use of already-existing US bases
and facilities on their territories in the course of such an operation. If the
Gulf rulers are convinced that military action is the only way to prevent
Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, it is likely that at least one of them
would permit the United States to use their territory for that purpose as
discreetly as possible and probably with public denial. In their view, it
may be better for them to absorb an Iranian response, no matter how
painful, then to live in the shadow of the Iranian nuclear threat.
Classic balance of power and sectarian considerations are interwoven
into Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf states. They are also manifested
in the efforts of some of the GCC nations, which rose following the
“Arab Spring,” to curb Iran and form a Sunni front as a counterweight
to its influence. The Shiite uprising in Bahrain that began in early 2011
created a sense of urgency surrounding such efforts. The Bahraini unrest
appears to have been an influential event in the Sunni–Shiite conflict,
and provided the opportunity to reshape the rules of the game with Iran
and create a precedent for inter-GCC intervention.
The 33 years that have passed since the establishment of the Coop-
eration Council for the Arab States of the Gulf show that when external
threats increase, cooperation on issues of foreign and defense policy
similarly increases and tension between the tends to decrease, even
though the pace of security–political coordination has not yet caught up
with economic cooperation. This remains true today as well, as the Gulf
Arab regimes understand that, if they wish to continue to maintain their
legitimacy, they must make an effort to forgo their disputes and present a

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0019
 The Arab Gulf States and Reform in the Middle East

unified position on the critical issues they face. In the face of the regional
unrest and the Iranian threat, for instance, the territorial disputes among
the GCC states have seemingly been placed on the backburner in favor of
more unified positions toward regional issues. Any related border issues
that do arise tend to be resolved efficiently, with an absence of territorial-
related squabbles that characterized the pre-“Arab Spring” era.
The “Arab Spring” revealed the depth of the struggle between the six
Arab Gulf states and Iran, and it sharpened the need to both formulate
a unified approach toward Iran and abandon the relative passivity that
has characterized their conduct thus far. One can, in fact, identify a
certain adjustment of their strategy and the adoption of a more assertive
and, at least superficially, unified stance that is resuscitating their loose
alliance. The entry of their joint Peninsula Shield Force into Bahrain
and the generous 20$ billion aid package granted to Bahrain (together
with Oman) were intended, first and foremost, not only to protect the
regime and prevent the protests from spreading to the Shiite population
of Saudi Arabia, but also to signal that the island nation remains within
the GCC’s sphere of influence.
Iran, even if it did not start the violent incidents in Bahrain, continues
to exploit and publicly back its Shiite opposition and demonstrations,
which refuses to die down. Iran’s fingerprints, and accusations of its
fingerprints, are also evident in other friction points in the Gulf, such as
in Kuwait and Bahrain, where Iranian spy rings were allegedly broken
up and which led to a letter of complaint and protest by the six GCC
states to the UN Security Council, calling for an end to Iranian inter-
vention in their internal affairs. In several extraordinary meetings and
in an unprecedented move, the leaders of the six states also publicly
condemned the “blatant Iranian intervention” in their internal affairs
and “Tehran’s machinations against their national security,” a significant
deviation from their traditional policy of public restraint in connection
with Iran and a certain novelty in the fact that, for the first time, they
presented a unified front on this matter.
Outside the Gulf, too, the six Arab states have in recent years demon-
strated greater unity and assertiveness. Thus, they gave backing to Secu-
rity Council resolutions on the issue of Libya; tangibly supported, if only
symbolically, NATO’s no-fly zone against Gaddafi through the UAE and
Qatar’s dispatch of limited fighter planes; and engaged in intensive efforts
at mediation in order to stabilize the situation in Yemen, ultimately
leading to an orderly, GCC-led transfer of power. They also adopted a

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Conclusion: The Rising Gulf 

more assertive policy toward Syria in the hope of seeing the Assad regime
fall, and simultaneously weakening Iranian. GCC financial, military, and
diplomatic support of the Syrian opposition, led by Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, has been undertaken in the hope that, if Assad will fall, it will mean
the loss of a staunch and important Iranian ally and the chance to both
undermine the “radical axis” and enlarge the Sunni camp.
The Arab Gulf states are entering a new era in which Iran is gaining
strength and the United States may no longer be as steadfast an ally as in
the past. In such a situation they could, as in the past, continue to equip
themselves with advanced weaponry, attempt to close ranks, and even
develop their own (civilian) nuclear programs, as some of them already
started, but it would remain difficult – if not impossible – to match Iranian
power on their own, even united. Many fear that there may be a scenario
in which they would be forced to contend with a nuclear Iran alone. In
response, and despite the unified front that is presented, each state often
maintains varying positions based on individual cost–benefit analysis
and in an attempt to diversify risk. This will likely result in the continua-
tion and deepening of hedging tactics, that, on the one hand, maintain, or
even enlarge, the dependence on foreigners, and on the other, establish a
stable relationship with the Islamic Republic as feasibly possible.

1 “Charter of the GCC,” GCC Secretariat General, <
2 For more on the GCC and the security of the Gulf see: Gregory Gause, The
International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2010), 241–50; Lawrence Potter and Gary Sick (eds.), Security in
the Persian Gulf: Origins, Obstacles and the Search for Consensus (New York:
Palgrave, 2002), Chs 3 and 10 and Gregory Gause, Oil Monarchies: Domestic
and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf states (New York: Council on Foreign
Relations Press, 1994), 119–45.
3 Ramazani, The Gulf Cooperation Council; Joseph Kostiner, The GCC States and
the Security Challenges of the Twenty-First Century (Ramat Gan: The Begin-
Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, 2010) and Gause, The
International Relations of the Persian Gulf, 7.
4 Tariq Alhomayed, “The Negotiations Will Come at Our Expense,” Asharq
Al-Awsat, December 2, 2012.

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Appendix: Major Events in
the History of the Gulf States
Event State Date

Bahrain approves new Bahrain February , 

A national holiday Kuwait February , 
commemorating the
rise of Al Sabah family
to power
Official anniversary for Kuwait February , 
liberation of Kuwait
from Iraqi occupation
Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Bahrain March , 
is appointed as Emir
after his father’s death
Saudi military forces Bahrain March , 
enter Bahrain to help
the Bahraini Sunni
royal family quiet the
Shi’a protests
King Faisal is Saudi Arabia March , 
murdered. His brother
Khaled takes the throne
The “Arab Peace Saudi Arabia March –, 
Initiative” is approved
by in an Arab League
A series of Al Qaeda Saudi Arabia May , 
terrorist attacks hit
Riyadh, killing  and
injuring 


 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0020

Appendix: Major Events in the History of the Gulf States 

Event State Date

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) United Arab May , 
is established Emirates
Kuwaiti independence day marking the Kuwait June , 
establishment of the Kuwaiti parliament
and the Kuwaiti Dinar
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Qatar June , 
Al Thani hands over power to his son,
Sheihk Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Ssheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Qatar June , 
removes his father to become the Emir
of Qatar
Qabus removes is father to become the Oman July , 
sultan of Oman
Abdullah bin Abd el Aziz declared king Saudi Arabia August , 
after the death of King Fahd
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait Kuwait August , 
Official holiday marking the rise of United Arab August , 
Sheikh Zayed Emirates
Saudi Arabia declares national holiday Saudi Arabia September , 
marking the establishment of the
kingdom by Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud
Bahrain’s Independence Day Bahrain August , 
Khalifa bin Zayed, Sheikh Zayed bin United Arab November , 
Sultan’s elder son is declared president Emirates
of the UAE after his father’s death
The grand mosque in Mecca is seized Saudi Arabia  November–
by a group of armed extremists December 
claiming their leader was the Mahdi
The establishment of the United Arab United Arab December , 
Emirates out of the seven gulf emirates Emirates
of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman,
Fujairah, Umm al-Quwain, and Ras al
Qatar’s independence day marking the Qatar December , 
rise of Jassem bin Hamad Al Thani to
power. (Qatar previously celebrated
its independence day on September
rd, marking the end of the British

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0020
Abu Dhabi, 9, 20, 82–85, 127, 128 Arab Spring/regional turmoil/
Abu Musa island (see also Arab upheavals, 2, 4, 8,
Greater Tunb and Lesser 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 42, 45,
Tunb), 4, 9, 43, 67, 80–85 50, 56, 64, 67, 68, 73–75,
Abdullah, King, 16, 25, 26, 88–90, 93, 106, 110–118,
43, 45–47, 50, 51, 69, 92, 120, 121, 128, 132, 133
120–123, 124, 132, 133 ARAMCO (Arab-American
Afghanistan, 11, 12, 17, 20, 72, Oil Company), 10, 56
93, 100, 106
Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud, 48, Bahrain
69, 82, 85, 101 Demography, 27, 61, 88
Asharq Al-Awsat (pan-Arab Iranian coup attempt, 31, 88
Daily), 27, 35, 84, 140 relations with Iran, 2, 4, 83,
Al-Alam (News Network), 47 88–95, 93, 94, 95, 139
Al-Assad, Bashar, 16, 19, 50–57, relations with Saudi Arabia,
62, 67–69, 72, 116, 136, 143 27, 46, 50, 55–56, 91
Al-Faisal, Saud, 16, 35, 53, 57 relations with the United
Al-Jazeera (News Network), States, 15, 63, 92
66–68, 70, 76, 130 Shia uprising, 26, 34–37, 42,
Al-Nahyan, Abdallah bin 46, 56, 57, 73, 91, 93–95,
Zayid, 81 110–114, 116, 121, 139, 140
Al-Khalifa, Hamad bin Isa, 113 United States Fifth Fleet, 9,
Al-Maliki, Nouri, 49, 57, 62 10, 92
Al-Saud, Nayef, 46, 57, 121, 122 balance of power, 2, 10, 28, 36,
Al-Saud, Muqrin, 49, 120–122 45, 88, 110, 139
Al-Thani, Hamad bin Khalifa, BICI (Bahrain Independent
73, 75, 130, 145 Commission of Inquiry),
Al-Thani, Tamim bin Hamed, 94, 113
75, 145 Bishara, Abdullah, 31
Al-Qardawi, Yusuf, 76 Britain
Al-Qaeda, 4, 17, 52, 73, 105–108, British presence in the Gulf,
118 3, 8–9, 23
Arab Gulf (see Persian Gulf) British withdrawal from the
Arab League, 28, 50, 68, 72, Gulf, 9, 10, 20
99, 144 Bush, George W., 12

 DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0021

Index 

Carter Doctrine, 11 relations with Qatar, 66–77

China, 82 relations with Saudi Arabia, 4, 41–57
Clinton, Hilary, 71 relations with the UAE, 79–85
relations with the United States, 3,
Damascus declaration, 33 10–16, 72
Dhahran, 10, 12 sanctions, 17, 64, 71, 83, 84, 101
dual containment, 12, 44 Iran–Iraq War, 3, 11, 20, 31, 32, 43, 48,
61, 80, 100, 102, 137
Egypt, 11, 12, 15, 16, 33, 53, 56, 63, 69, 70, “Islamic State” (ISIS), 53, 54, 60, 105
75, 76, 88, 101, 115, 126, 127, 132, 134 Israel
energy resources (oil production, Abdullah initiative/Arab Peace
reserves, natural gas), 2, 3, 8, 9, 11, initiative, 130, 131
14, 17, 54, 71, 91, 99 Fahd initiative, 130
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 67
Facebook, 116 peace process, 56
Fahd, King, 43, 55, 119, 130, 143 Relations with the GCC states, 6,
Faisal, King, 10, 142 125–134
ties with Qatar, 69, 70, 72
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Yom Kippur War/oil embargo
As a Regional institution, 3, 19–25, 10, 17
63, 81, 127
common currency, 24 Jordan, 25, 26, 32, 63, 126, 132, 137
Defense & military Cooperation, 11,
22, 23, 30–37, 63, 90, 100 Khamenei, Ail, 89, 93
Gulf Union, 25–28, 91, 92, 114, 140 Khaled bin Sultan, 33
Jordan and Morocco membership, Khatami, Mohammed, 43, 48, 88
25, 26 Khomeini, Ruhollah Mostafavi
relations with Iran, 15–18, 39, 40, 81, Moosav, 43, 44, 48
102, 137 Khobar Towers, 12, 43
relations with the United States, Kissinger, Henri, 10
15–18, 138, 138 Kuwait
invasion/occupation of, 11, 23, 32, 56,
Hamas, 50, 67, 69, 70, 72, 101, 116, 127, 61, 63, 71, 80, 100, 137
128 relations with Iran, 4, 31, 60–65
Hezbollah, 43, 51, 52, 62, 72, 89 relations with Iraq, 61, 62
Hormuz, straits, 9, 80, 99, 102, 106
Hussein, Saddam, 11–13, 25, 32, 49, 54, Lebanon, 16, 49, 52, 53, 56, 67, 72, 75,
56, 61, 62, 80, 99, 106 84, 88, 89, 116

Iran Mecca, 43, 44, 50, 143

Islamic Revolution, 2, 3, 11, 20, 24, 88 Mubarak, Hosni, 15, 53, 56, 76
nuclear program, 2, 4, 8, 13, 15, 24, Muhammad Reza Shah, 10, 80
42, 61, 64, 71, 93, 94, 100, 103, 129, Muslim Brotherhood, 15, 16, 63, 67, 76,
132, 133, 138, 139 112, 114, 115
relations with Bahrain, 87–95 Morsi, Mohamed, 16, 75, 76, 115
relations with Kuwait, 60–65 Medina, 44, 46
relations with Oman, 98–103 Morocco, 25, 26, 89, 137

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0021
 Index

NATO, 33, 63, 73, 92, 140 relations with Israel, 125, 126, 127,
129, 130–134
Obama, Barak Hussein, 13, 16, 51, 132 relations with Oman, 101
Oman relations with Qatar, 67–69, 75–77
Ibadi Islam, 4, 36 relations with the United States, 10,
Musandam Peninsula, 99 15–18
Nuclear negotiations, 102 Shiite population/Shia unrest, 43–48,
relations with Saudi Arabia, 36, 40, 90
99, 103 Shura Council, 45, 113
relations with the United States, 100, succession & regime stability,
101, 102 118–121
succession, 103, 110, 118–121 Sunni-Shiite Tensions,
relations with Iran, 4, 98–103 44–48
ties with Israel, 127, 131 Vis-à-vis Iran, 10, 16, 41–57, 84, 88,
Organization of the Petroleum 89
Exporting Countries (OPEC), 43, Wahhabi school of Islam, 44, 103
57 Sharjah, 9, 80, 143
Organization of Islamic Cooperation Social media, 114–118
(OIC), 20, 69 Strategic hedging, 39, 40, 73, 95, 141
Pakistan, 56, 72 Syrian civil war, 5, 16, 26, 42, 47,
Peninsula Shield force, 3, 11, 12, 33, 34, 50–53, 55, 57, 67, 68, 69, 72–75, 84,
55, 67, 90, 91, 111, 114, 140 94, 106, 116, 130, 134
Persian Gulf, 5, 31, 105, 122
Taliban, 13, 67, 72
Qaboos, 99, 101–103, 143 Tariq Alhomayed, 27, 138
Qatar Tunisia, 15, 53, 73, 88
Al Udeid air base, 71 Twin Pillar, 10
FIFA world cup, 75 Twitter, 112, 114, 116, 117
GCC dynamics and politics, 21, 24,
31, 36, 40, 99, 101, 127 United States
relations with Iran, 73–77, 128 energy independence, 17,
Support for the Muslim 121
brotherhood, 15, 16, 63, 67, 76, 112, military aid/security cooperation &
114, 115 arms sales to Gulf states, 14, 17, 62,
63, 71, 72, 92, 100, 138, 141
Ras al-Khaimah, 9, 80 Pivot/rebalancing towards East-Asia,
Rentier state, 110, 122 17, 129–130, 141
Rouhani, Hassan, 64, 84, 85, policy toward Syria, 51, 134
101 relations with Gulf states & presence
Russia, 9, 12, 16 in the Gulf, 7–13, 15–18
relations with Iran, 42, 72, 74, 83, 84,
Saleh, Ali Abdullah, 4, 17, 53, 73 130, 131, 138
Saudi Arabia United States Central Command
GCC polices & dynamics, 20–22, 25, (CENTCOM), 10, 71
27, 28, 31–37, 81, 85, 91 USS Cole, 12

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0021
Index 

United Arab Emirates (UAE) (see also Yemen

Abu-Dhabi) Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Al-Islah/Muslim brotherhood, 63, 112 (AQAP)/Ansar al-Sharia (see
Dubai, 4 Al-Qaeda), 17, 105–107
relations with Israel, 126, 130 Houthi Shiites/Iranian involvement,
sanctions on Iran, 82, 83 105–108
UAE-Iran disputed islands (see also Yemeni Spring, 4, 17, 26, 53, 56, 105–108
Island of Abu Musa Island/Greater
Tunb and Lesser Tunb), relations Wikileaks, 130, 131
with Iran, 2, 9, 43, 79–85, 137 World War II, 9

DOI: 10.1057/9781137467836.0021