The Gulf's Smaller States Use Their Wiles to Fend Off Bigger Rivals

10 MINS READNov 13, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
A man walks past the flags of the countries attending the Gulf Cooperation Council summit at Bayan palace in Kuwait City on Dec. 5, 2017.

A man walks past the flags of the countries attending the Gulf Cooperation Council summit at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City on Dec. 5, 2017. Kuwait and two other smaller members of the GCC, Qatar and Oman, are continuing to carve out a niche for themselves.

  • Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates will continue using their close relationship with the United States to try to reorder the policies of neighbors Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
  • In resisting this strategy, the three small Gulf states will strive to demonstrate their own value to the United States.
  • The United States will back differing alliances within the GCC to achieve its regional strategy, while working to prevent a formal breakup of the council.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Annual Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming year.

For decades, the United States has protected the small states in the Gulf from a succession of threats: the Soviets, the Iranian revolution and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But after the Arab Spring, a new challenge has emerged to their independence: their own Saudi and Emirati neighbors. Using the cover of Washington's anti-Iran strategy, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are aiming to bring the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council into line. Bahrain long ago joined their side, but Qatar most certainly has not — a fact that prompted a blockade on Doha over its refusal to crack down on dissidents that threaten Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other reasons. At the same time, the region's big powers are also eyeing Kuwait and Oman, perceiving their independence as a threat to their stability.

The Big Picture

America's new active posture in the Middle East has created an unusual opportunity for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Determined to reorder the Gulf Cooperation Council's policies to better preserve their security, the Saudis and Emiratis have attempted to convince the United States that divergent Gulf Arab policies are also a threat to American interests. The neutral states of Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, however, are each individually finding a way to counter this view and preserve their independence by demonstrating their value to the United States. 

But the key to the success of this strategy is the region's security guarantor, the United States. For a brief time, the Saudis and Emiratis appeared to bring the American president on board when Donald Trump temporarily backed their blockade of Qatar last summer. The action, however, only encouraged Doha to forcefully remind Washington of its value as a strategic partner, while Kuwait and Muscat also beat a path to the White House lest they also run afoul of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The actions are all part of the small Gulf powers' longtime strategy: Rely on an outside power — that has limited interest in altering regional political conditions — to preserve a sense of balance, thereby guaranteeing the smaller countries' existence in the face of aggression from the area's bigger powers. It's a tried-and-tested strategy, and for Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, it's working once more.

Preserving Independence With Outside Help

For much of history, regional powers often overlooked or ignored the eastern edge of Arabia, seeing little benefit in dominating the scattered pearling and fishing outposts on the coasts. Occasionally, regional powers in Iran, Mesopotamia or Anatolia would endeavor to extend control over the area, only for someone else in the area to subdue such ambitions. This process played out for centuries, from the Achaemenid Empire of Persia to the many wars between the Ottomans and the Safavids.

But that balance of power ended in 1820 when the British entered the Persian Gulf to secure the area's lucrative trade routes, and beyond, to control the jewel in the empire's crown, India. The United Kingdom adopted a different strategy in managing the Gulf, establishing protectorates rather than colonies and giving local elites space to build up their own institutions — and adopt the tradition of relying on external powers to keep them safe.

Not long after the beginning of the 20th century, the Safavid and Ottoman empires vanished, allowing the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to emerge and extend its control over most of the Arabian Peninsula. Without outside intervention, this growing power would likely have absorbed its small neighbors: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Trucial States and Oman. The rulers of the eastern fringe of Arabia, however, drew closer to Great Britain to preserve their independence. This protective power came in handy during the Buraimi crisis in 1952, when Saudi Arabia attempted to wrest control of what is now Al Ain from the Trucial States. Abu Dhabi and Oman raised the specter of a possible British military intervention to convince the Saudis to withdraw before hostilities began, resulting in Al Ain remaining part of what would become the United Arab Emirates.

This strategy continued after the United Kingdom withdrew from the region in 1971, bequeathing its place to the United States, which wished to preserve energy supplies and keep the Soviet Union out of the Gulf. Since the U.S. arrival in the area, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman have all showcased their value to the country by becoming its diplomatic, economic or political partners. Kuwait has mediated during the Yemen war and intra-GCC disputes, while Qatar has showcased its economic heft in Gaza, worked with the United States to oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and supported anti-government rebels in Syria. And even if the Iranian nuclear deal is now in tatters, Oman hosted the Iran-U.S. nuclear negotiations that eventually yielded the erstwhile Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

But after the blockade against Doha began in 2017, Kuwait and Oman — to say nothing of Qatar — each realized that their more assertive neighbors, as well as the United States, could imperil their independence. As a result, the trio have moved to find ways to again showcase their unique abilities that suit U.S. interests — and preserve their own independence.

A map illustrates the United States two-tiered relationship with countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Bringing the GCC to Heel

Rather than territorial aggrandizement, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are ultimately seeking political security out of fear that dissident movements based in nearby states could harm Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Accordingly, the two have increasingly trained their sites on the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf while also striving to make the GCC more united and cohesive.

Immediately after the imposition of the blockade on Qatar, Doha lobbied the Trump administration to undermine Saudi-Emirati claims that it was supporting terrorism. On this front, Qatar's military and diplomatic connections with the United States, exemplified by the thousands of U.S. troops who are stationed at the Gulf state's al-Udeid Air Base, came in handy. But Qatar also spent 2017 and much of 2018 positioning itself as a useful dispenser of aid in places where the United States no longer wanted to foot the bill. After protests erupted in Jordan, a strategic U.S. ally, over an austerity-driven income tax bill, Qatar rapidly stepped in with investments to help stabilize the budget. It has readily provided cash to Gaza to keep the economic situation there from propelling Hamas into a war with Israel. In both cases, Qatari cash ultimately boosted U.S. interests.

The blockade represented less direct pressure against Kuwait, but the country still faced Saudi and Emirati accusations that its parliament allowed the Muslim Brotherhood too much room to maneuver. Riyadh, for one, cared little that Kuwait's emir was powerless to clamp down on political Islam due to the country's constitution and parliament or that he was unable to sever all ties with Tehran due to the links between many Kuwaiti Shiite elites and Iran. Repeating its misunderstandings of other countries' political systems — including those of Lebanon, Canada and the United States — Saudi Arabia prepared to force Kuwait to enact largely impossible policy changes. And hot on the heels after Saudi Arabia and Kuwait failed to resolve a long-standing dispute over oil fields in the neutral zone between their countries, Riyadh launched a brief Twitter campaign against its smaller neighbor, issuing a warning that the kingdom could try to undermine the latter's parliament.

But like Qatar, Kuwait also loosened its purse strings for Jordan during its summertime economic crisis, flexing its aid muscle to remind Washington that it, too, is an important ally in easing U.S. strategic burdens in the Middle East. At the same time, Kuwait also lent support to Saudi Arabia when the regional heavyweight found itself on the hot seat as a result of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

And Oman has also begun to see Saudi and Emirati efforts to limit its own independence, particularly after Abu Dhabi, Oman's key trading partner, began to tighten border controls and harass Omani businesses operating in the United Arab Emirates. Lacking the cash of Qatar or Kuwait to impress the Americans with aid, Muscat instead played its formidable diplomatic card last month by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the sultanate to discuss the Palestinian peace talks. The talks might not have produced much diplomatic progress, but it did show the sultan in public, as well as in Omani state media, with an Israeli prime minister who is close to the current White House. What's more, Oman also announced it would welcome a new British military base — the first since 1971 — in early November, once more demonstrating its strategic value to a United States that is seeking partners to lighten its security responsibilities. Oman has proved its suitability as a diplomatic venue and military post for both the United States and its allies — reason enough for America to desire its continued independence.

Kuwait, Qatar and Oman will work to project soft power in places where U.S. interests exist but where the United States does not — or cannot — exercise its power.

America's Two Alliances

Ultimately, the situation will result in the United States adopting a two-tiered approach to the GCC. On one hand, it will solicit support from the assertive Saudi-Emirati axis in opposing Iran. Together, the three will attract support from Israel, which is capitalizing on the Iran threat to grow closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But as the Saudis and Emiratis pursue their own regional objectives against the fellow Sunni countries of Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, the trio will work to project soft power in places where U.S. interests exist but where the United States does not — or cannot — exercise its power.

Accordingly, the United States can outsource the micromanagement of some secondary issues to this informal Gulf axis. For instance, Lebanon — a country whose economy is facing a debt crisis and which could suffer from the effects of Washington's anti-Hezbollah sanctions — is one flashpoint where Kuwaiti or Qatari cash could be useful. Jordan, where the economic crisis is almost certain to return, is another. And there is a role for Kuwait, Qatar or Oman in the Palestinian territories, as the United States seeks to prevent a Hamas-Israeli war, keep Gaza's economy afloat and breathe some life into the moribund peace process. Elsewhere, Iraq's reconstruction, as well as war-ravaged Yemen (especially as the humanitarian crisis there gains political salience in America's Congress), could use some assistance from the trio. Finally, the three may yet emerge as a venue for Iranian-American talks, should such a diplomatic breakthrough occur — even if such an outcome seems highly unlikely under the current administration.

The Gulf's big players will do their utmost to bring their more independent-minded neighbors into line. But as small as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman may be, their well-worn strategy of providing invaluable service to outside powers will stand them in good stead in their efforts to carve out a distinct regional role. In the end, the Gulf Arab neutrals will likely fend off Saudi and Emirati interference once more.

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