Home Op-Eds Gulf Crisis: The Only Thing They Have to Fear is Fear Itself

Gulf Crisis: The Only Thing They Have to Fear is Fear Itself

US Intelligence Accuses Russia of Hacking Qatari State News Agency. Gulf Crisis
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Rabat – In his 1933 inauguration speech as President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt implored Americans that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He sought to bolster the confidence of a Depression-weary populace.

The American people were stronger than this, Roosevelt thought. A certain regional superpower kingdom in the Middle East may feel some of the same malaise in 2017 that America felt in 1933. Oil prices, are at a fragile $54/bbl.

Shale oil production in the U.S.—a leading driver of $40/bbl oil just two years ago—reached an impressive six million barrels per day in September. Add to that double-digit structural unemployment for young people across the region and a six-year civil war in Syria and Yemen. It’s enough to make anyone long for the Cold War era when a regional security crisis was either America’s or the Soviet Union’s problem to solve. But winds do not blow as the ships wish.

For more than a decade, according to the Saudi narrative, Qatar, the world’s wealthiest nation on a per capita income basis, has asserted an increasing level of independence and adventurism on broad foreign policy issues. Some steps were daring—it established economic and trading ties with Israel back in 1996. Others, like allowing a Turkish military base on its soil, demonstrated more hubris than measured diplomacy from a faithful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member.

It is with foresight that Qatari leadership gauged the importance of the Arab Spring uprisings across the region—no matter the net results of those uprisings—as a fundamental departure from the past. For the Arab citizen, there now needs to be a return on their investment, a sense of value from whatever it is that the state is promising, be it internal security, jobs, the protection of traditional cultural values, food subsidies, redevelopment of urban poverty zones, whatever.

In 2010 and 2011, the man and woman on the street finally grew tired of administrative inertia. As Iran and its lethargic economy emerge from sanctions and an oversized administrative bureaucracy it too will feel the need to create a robust society to which people feel genuine connection, in addition to religious fidelity.

Five months into the blockade and the region is partly suspended in a diplomatic twilight zone. Qatar has (mostly) weathered the economic blockade, thanks in part to the newly opened $7.5 billion Hamad seaport facility and a fast growing economic and security partnership with Turkey. This last fact creates an obvious point for everyone in the region: Erdogan’s Turkey is expanding its influence on a wide range of issues, from Gulf security to the conflict in Syria to European Union immigration. MBS, you’re not alone in the spotlight during this current Gulf drama. Just ask Angela Merkel.

The gravity by which the Saudis view Qatar’s infractions is demonstrated by their recent rebuff of U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson as he attempted to prod the parties to resolve the crisis quickly so that the region could better focus on Washington’s real challenge: Iran.

Shared values transcend tactical disagreements

Any criticism of Saudi policy on Qatar doesn’t shortchange Saudi Arabia’s significant role on a wide range of regional issues, from Palestine to Syria, from combating terrorism to foreign investment. King Salman visited Moscow last month (the first ever visit by a sitting Saudi monarch) and Beijing in March; the Chinese are keen to be part of the much-anticipated IPO for ARAMCO, whose late 2018 public offering valuation may approach $2 trillion. Despite growing competition from American shale oil production, the Saudis are still the largest exporters of oil in the world.

The Hajj—now drawing more than 2 million followers—will develop added social significance as a broad cross-section of the Muslim world garners the means to attend the sacred gathering. What this means is that Saudi Arabia has an invaluable opportunity in the coming year: a second chance to make a first impression. That kind of economic, spiritual and diplomatic prowess entitles Saudi leaders to have a seat at the head of the GCC table but it also requires the ability to keep small disagreements small when so many structural internal challenges are presenting themselves.

The natural antithesis between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, like the decades-long Cold War paradigm, won’t be reconciled by a few regional security summits this year or next. But neither, too, will the challenges of juggling the numerous GCC priorities in 2017 be solved with symbolic blockades. Reigning in ad hoc militias in Syria, non-state actors prodding the Gulf on civil society issues, a growing muscular Chinese and Russian foreign policy related to energy, a Palestinian-Israeli peace process in tatters, and, finally, for the Saudis there’s the coming administrative upheaval of Vision 2030.

As the GCC grows beyond its petrodollar dependant past, the financial wealth that has accumulated among the Gulf States will feed a concomitant expectation for diplomatic influence, flexibility and fluctuating priorities among member states. Or, to quote John Foster Dulles, American Secretary of State during the 1950s: “The mark of a successful organization isn’t whether or not it has problems, its whether it has the same problems it had last year.”

There’s blame enough to go around for the regional unrest, from Iraq to Libya. Who gave money to whom, and when. A miserable return on investment can be found in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the chaos that followed. It gave place and purpose to a host of stateless rootless jihadi groups—both Sunni and Shiite—that found meaning in non-stop conflict and a religious bigotry that is incompatible with civil society goals that most of the region is now trying to nurture.

New Future

Last week, MBS announced plans for a new $500 billion investment in a new multi-sector economic megacity on the Red Sea. Its project title, NEOM, is an acronym, a mix of the Greek word for new and the Arabic word for future: mustaqbil. The current Gulf crisis is a stretch of turbulence on the road to that new future that serves the interest of no one, including foreign investors. While the investment markets are anxiously awaiting that ARAMCO public offering next year, direct foreign investment in GCC economies declined modestly between 2015 and 2016. That new $7.5 billion Hamad port facility has an unmistakable message during the current crisis: Qatar is open for business. Still.

Riyadh deeply resents the perceived adventurism of Qatar. And it may not feel the need for a backchannel surrogate from Doha or anyone else on matters of security, especially on issues related to Iran. But once the current patch of regional instability passes there will be a need to accept the fact that the Arab world of 2017 and beyond is very different from that of 1977.

U.S.-Cuba relations provide intriguing observations. American presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have used back channel dialogue with Havana, sometimes with third-party surrogates, to convey both stern warnings and core American interests while not publically appearing to lend significant legitimacy to a revolutionary regime that Washington believed was intent on destabilizing the region. Sound familiar?

As the charter of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, cooperation and coordination between members, “serve the sublime objectives of the Arab Nation.” Moving beyond the mindset of the oil boom 1970s and the consequences be damned 9/11 era will likely require members of the GCC to view the region’s challenges through a paradigm that gives just as much weight to soft power arm-twisting with non-state actors as to hard power military intervention.

“Mission Accomplished” rarely means just that. The new future that is fast arriving will likely include diplomatic and security contributions, big and small, from Kuwait City, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha that are just as relevant to GCC security priorities as those from Riyadh. And, possibly, just as sublime.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity. 

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