Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Diplomacy in the Middle East: Arab Allies Their Own Agendas

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Diplomacy in the Middle East: Arab Allies Their Own Agendas

Article excerpt

During Cold War, countries of the Middle Eat, like most around the world, were divided into allies of the United States and allies of the Soviet union US allies sought Washington's security protection and in general followed its lead except in policy toward Israel--n that topic, even the most staunchly pro-US countries diverged sharply from Washington. Countries aligns with the Soviet Union followed Moscow's lead and were hostile to both the United States and Israel.

Today the alignment of the Middle East is quite different, but in the way the United States envisaged after the disappearence the Soviet Union The number of Arab governments truly antagonistic to the United States dwindle o almost none once Saddam Hssen was removed from power in early 2003 and Libya's Muammmar Qaddafi rernounced the pursuit of nuclear weapons and turned to the West later that year Even Syria and the Sudan would like to establish better ties to the United States However, regimes that have long been friendly to the United States are increasingly reluctant to follow Washington's lead on any issue They are not enemies of the United States but they are not faithful allies, either Rather, they follow the policies they believe best protect their interests, regardless of what the United States wants.

This new independence from the United States is particularly evident among the countries of the Gulf in their policies toward Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian problem It has stymied Washington's attempts to build an anti-Iranian alliance Nor is it just the Arab allies that are refusing to march to the beat of the United States Israel too has ignored US opposition to its negotiations with Syria, turned to Turkey as a mediator, and pursued a truce with Hamas.

This diplomatic activity clearly goes against the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East, which have been based on a sharp, black and white distinction between friends and foes and on the conviction that using diplomacy when dealing with foes amounts to appeasement But the independenct diplomacy of the Gulf countries does not neccessarily go against US interests It is not self-evident that the United States can protect its interests and security in the Middle East better by confronting Iran, Syria Hamas, and Hezbollah, rather than by cooperating with governments that are secking to create a new balance of power and regional security system that does not depend on the United States.

The Threat of Iran

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the resulting fragility of Iraq--Which had been the only country in the region with the power to contain Iran's ambitions, and which still only functions because of the presence of over 140,000 US troops--have been gifts to Iran The consequential growth in Iranian influence has been a matter of great concern not only to the United States, but also to all nearby countries, particularly those in the Gulf Despite their palpable fear of Iran, however, these countries have strongly resisted entering into an alliance with the United States.

Beginning in the fall of 2006, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice undertook an effect to form an anti-Iranian coalition of "moderate"--or Sunni--regimes. After several months of desultory meetings beginning at the United Nations in September Washington managed to bring together the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar), Egypt, and Jordan--the GCCat a meeting in Kuwait on January 17,2007 The meeting produced a vegue commitment to "regional security and peace" by all participants, but no specifies Most important, the GCC has never convened, let alone been mentioned again.

Efforts by the Gulf countries were directed instead at seeking ways to defuse the threat of an increasingly influential Iran, namely by pursuing their own initiatives Saudi Arabia played a particularly important in the contacts with Iran, but other GCC members, notably Qatar, also contributed greatly Saudi diplomatic efforts to include Iran in the discussion of regional problems started after the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which left behind an unstable situation with good possibility of reignition. Repeated meetings between Saudi and Iranian envoys focusing on the situation in Lebanon eventually broadened to include other issues, culminating in early 2007 in an encounter between the heads of the respective national security councils: Ali Larijani for Iran and Prince Bandar bin Sultan for Saudi Arabia.


The Saudi Iranian dialogue continued in March 2007 as Saudi King Abdullah and Iranian President Mahomoud Ahmadinejad met face-to-face in Saudi Arabia, apparently without a clear agenda or outcome. By the summer of 2007, as Iran continued to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as the United States and Europe with its nuclear ambitions, the king was trying to act. He proposed that Iran and all Gulf countries that had announced their intention to develop nuclear energy sources work together to develop a common facility in a neutral country such as Swizerland to provide fuel for the entire region. Iran was bound to reject the suggestion, as the Saudis undoubtedlly realized. Still, the proposal was significant as a declaration by Saudi Arabia that countries of the region should trackle issues affecting them al on their own terms, rather than on those of the United States.

In December 2007, a series of events further underlined the Gulf countries' decision to deal with Iran as an integral part of the region, rather than to confront it or to try to isolate it diplomatically. First, at the initiative of the Qatari government, Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the 27th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha on Decenber 3 and 4. A few days later, during a meeting on Gulf security convened in Manama, Bahrain, by the London-based International Institute for Security Studies, Gulf countries again expressed the view that Iran was an integral part of the region and called to task US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, also present at the meeting, for condemning the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to regional security without even mentioning the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons. Finally, on December 18 Ahmadinejad took part in the pilgrimage to Mecca at the invitation of the Saudi king.

The message could not have been clearer. Remarkably, the countries engaged in these discussions are not hostile to the United States. Saudi Arabia has long been in the US camp, relying on Washington for its security during the Cold War, while Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait all host US military facilities. Furthermore, all Gulf countries worry about the rise of Iranian power. They simply believe that US policy is not providing solutions but is only serving to ratchet up tensions.

Why has the GCC just now opened up to more dialogue with Iran? Is it simply the urgency of so many problems in the Middle East, not least Iraq, or are there other factors at work, such as the GCC's far stronger economic situation as compared to 1999? I thought it might be interesting to include a little bit of the history behind GCC-Iran relations in order to explain why this shifts has occurred, and why it has occurred now.

Lebanon and Syria

Gulf countries have also developed policies that thwart the US position on Lebanon and Syria. The Bush administration's policy in Lebanon is based on a Manichean interpretation of what is in reality an extremely complex situation. For Washington, Lebanon is a battlefield between the forces of democracy, represented by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the "March 14" alliance, and the forces of extremism, represented by Hezbollah and its foreign backers, Syria and Iran. Extremists pose a real danger, as demonstrated by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, by the subsequent targeting of anti-Syrian politicians, and by the war with Israel triggered by Hezbollah. Thus, the United States must support the March 14 forces against Hezbollah and its backers. Compromise is not possible.

Countries in the region, however, have taken the opposite position: compromise is the only way out. Even Saudi Arabia, which strongly backs the March 14 forces and above all the Sunni Future Movement, accepts the necessity of compromise, although it differs with Syria and Hezbollah on many regional issues.

For a few months after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the hardline US position appeared to be working as Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April. A strong, nationalist anti-Syrian reaction, coupled with international pressure, left Syria with no choice. Furthermore, for a short period, nationalism appeared to trump the usual sectarianism of Lebanese politics. But the parliamentary elections held in May and June demonstrated that sectarian divisions were as deep as ever. The alliances formed on all sides to contest the elections and to jockey for cabinet positions made it increasingly difficult to see the politics of Lebanon as a fight between democracy and extremism. Yet, the United States stuck to that interpretation.

The already weak government was further undermined in the summer of 2006 by Hezbollah's war with Israel. Since Israel did not win clear gains in the confrontation, Hezbollah emerged triumphant with a sense of entitlement to a larger role in government. When the March 14 forces did not agree, Hezbollah withdrew from the coalition, leading to a political paralysis that was only exacerbated by the expiration of the president's term and the incapacity of the parliament to elect a new one. Throughout the crisis, the Arab countries tried to mediate between the rival factions through the Arab League, but with no success. The United States continued to advise Prime Minister Siniora not to give in to Hezbollah demands but could not help it overcome the impasse.

In May 2008 the situation reached a critical point when tension between the government and Hezbollah escalated into a violent showdown that clearly demonstrated Hezbollah's superiority in terms of both weapons and organization in contrast to the powerlessness of the March 14 forces. Hezbollah forces overran part of Beirut, occupied the offices of the parties in government and of their media, then, having made their point, pulled back. This led Arab countries to intervene decisively, convening talks between the two sides in Doha, Qatar, After days of tense negotiations in which the prime minister (and foreign minister) of Qatar took a leading role, together With the Arab League, and agreement was reached. The agreement called for the formation of a government of national unity in which Hezbollah would receive 11 out of 30 portfolios. This was in fact the "blocking third" Hezbollah had been demanding since the 2006 war that would allow it a veto over major decisions. The two sides also agreed on the election law for the 2009 parliamentary election as well as on the prompt election of a new president acceptable to all sides.

What prompted Qatar to take such a proactive role in the Lebanon conflict? Why were they successful where others failed?

Portrayed by some as a victory for Hezbollah, the agreement in reality was an accurate reflection of the two side's strengths and weaknesses. It did not increase the power of Hezbollah, but simply recognized the extent of Hazbollah's power, so clearly manifested during the fighting in Beirut. But the agreement also confirmed the fact that Hezbollah, no matter how well armed and organized, could never govern Lebanon on its own and could only exercise its power from within a government of national unity.

While the Doha agreement was a victory for regional diplomacy, it was a defeat for the policy that the United States had followed since 2005. Washington's reaction thus was dismayed in private and a grudging acceptance in public of a fait accompli over which the United States had no control. Further underscoring the United States' loss of influence, Gulf countries also immediately embarked on a process to improve strained relations with Syria. At the beginning of June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar amid rumors that Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE were trying to arrange a reconciliation meeting with the participation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, France also moved to improve its relations with Syria, which had been chilly since Hariri's assassination, with President Nicolas Sarkozy sending senior diplomats to Damascus and inviting Assad to visit Paris in July.

The final blow to US policy was the announcement on May 21 that Syria and Israel, with the assistance of Turkish mediation, were holding indirect talks aimed at resolving the issue of the occupied Golan Heights and at reaching a peace agreement. The United States had discouraged the resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks, suspended in 2000, because they went against its policy of ostracizing Syria.

Hamas and the Palestinian Problem

The US policy toward Hamas has also been thwarted by the new Arab diplomacy. Since the Palestinian elections in January 2006 unexpectedly resulted in a victory by Hamas, an Islamist movement that does not recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the United States, with the Support of the European Union, has imposed sanctions on the Hamas government while trying to bolster the power of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of its rival Fatah. The goal of the policy is to convince Palestinians not only that a Hamas government cannot deliver but also that they will pay a price if they continue to vote for a movement deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and European countries.

Most Arab governments had a very mixed reaction to the election of Hamas. On one hand, Hamas was an Islamist organization with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, the kind of organization they were trying to contain in their own countries. On the other hand, Hamas was also part of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, while Fatah, since the death of Yassir Arafat, has been floundering. Saudis took the lead in trying to solve the dilemma by promoting reconciliation between the two organizations. The effort culminated in an invitation by King Abdullah for the leaders of Fatah and Hamas to meet in Mecca in February 2007. The talks resulted in the Mecca agreement that opened the way to the formation of a government of national unity.

The agreement did not last long, however, in part because of the inherent rivalry and mutual suspicion between the two organizations, in part because the agreement received no international support beyond the Arab world. Although Fatah and Hamas formed a government of national unity, neither the United States nor the European Union recognized it as legitimate and thus lifted sanctions. Hamas official Ismail Haniyya was still prime minister, and Hamas still refused to formally recognize the state of Israel--although the platform of the unity government hinted, without stating explicitly, that the government would abide by agreements with Israel negotiated by the Palestine Liberation Organization and ratified by the Palestinian National Council. Furthermore, Israel continued to target Hamas leaders for assassination and to jail Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, while the United States continued to arm and train security forces under the direct control of Abbas.

Not suprisingly, the Mecca agreement soon fell apart. By June 2007, as Hamas and Fatah supporters were fighting each other in the open in Gaza, Abbas dismissed Haniyya from his position as prime minister-a move of doubtful legality--and Hamas responded by seizing control of Gaza while Fatah remained in control of the West Bank. Saudi efforts had thus come to naught, leaving Hamas and Fatah more hostile to one another than ever, Gaza and the West Bank under different authorities, and the Palestinians without an effective government or a leadership capable of speaking for them as a whole. The Saudi and Arab attempt to steer an independent course concerning Hamas and Fatah was clearly defeated by the United States, European countries, and of course, Israel.

Arab countries did not give up on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Emboldened by the success of the Doha negotiations between Hezbollah and the March 14 forces in Lebanon, Gulf countries turned their attention back to that issue but agreed that this time the Arab League, rather than any individual country should take the lead in the effort.

A parallel Egyptian effort to negotiate a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, led on June 19, 2008, to a commitment by Hamas to stop attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip and by Israel to reopen the crossings into Gaza so the territory could be supplied with food, fuel, medicine, and other essential items on a regular basis. Inherently fragile, like all such agreements, the ceasefire was also weakened by a clear lack of US support--the best reporters could pry out of a State Department spokesman when the ceasefire was first announced was a grudging statement to the effect that the United States welcomed anything that kept more Israelis from getting killed.


The countries of the Gulf have been trying to forge an independent approach toward major regional problems, one that is not hostile to the United States but at the same time represents a rejection of the policies the United States has followed. They have chosen diplomacy and reconciliation in their own relations with Iran, and they have tried to act as intermediaries and peacemakers in Lebanon and Palestine. Efforts in Palestine have been the least successful because of strong opposition by the United States and Israel.

This new independence of Gulf Countries will be a challenge for the next US administration. Washington can no longer assume that the Gulf Countries will follow its lead even if they do not like its policies. Flush with oil revenue and a growing demand for oil from emerging economies in Asia, Countries of the Gulf region no longer have to subordinate their interests to those of the United States, and they are showing that they do not intend to. But this new assertiveness and independence are also an opportunity for the United States to work with Gulf countries to tackle the major problems in the region, which US policy alone has so far been unable to resolve.

MARINA OTTAWAY is the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for international Peace.

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