What behind Persian Gulf leaders’ détente

September 19, 2021 - 21:26

TEHRAN - A new, controversial photo featuring a casual appearance by leaders from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates has once again focused the debate on the driving force behind the prompt reconciliation among some countries in the region that have been at daggers drawn for years.

The photo was released Friday by Director of the Private Office of the Saudi Crown Prince Badr Al Asaker, possibly with the pre-consent of his boss as well as the Qatari and Emirati participants. 

“A friendly and brotherly meeting in the Red Sea brings together Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, and the UAE National Security Adviser in the UAE, Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan,” Al Asaker wrote on Twitter.

Most Saudi and Emirati, as well as Qatari outlets, were apparently instructed to marginalize the photo in their news coverage. They only gave it cursory attention despite its interest and importance to their local audiences. They did so partly because the photo was not meant to send a local message. Instead, it was intended to project an image of unity among the Persian Gulf Arab states that have been at loggerheads since at least 2017.

“Like nothing ever happened,” Washington Post Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly commented on the photo in a tweet. 

In reality, much happened between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, along with Cairo and Manama, cut off diplomatic ties with Doha in 2017 and imposed a blockade on the tiny Persian Gulf nation that pushed it closer to other regional players such as Turkey and Iran.

 At some point, Saudi Arabia even reportedly mulled a military attack on Qatar to oust the “Group of Two Hamads,” a derogatory appellation Saudi and Emirati commentators used in referring to former Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa and former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem to imply that the two influential men actually run the gas-rich country from behind the scene even after Sheikh Tamim assumed office.
All that now is water under the bridge and the leaders of these countries seem to be all smiles even after they went too far in damaging each other’s image through their media outlets. But what caused this reconciliation?

The whys and wherefores of the reconciliation may never be fully known. At the end of the day, politics in the Persian Gulf’s Arab states are more influenced by temperaments and personal moods than stately recalibration. It is well known among regional observers that a personal resentment on the part of a Persian Gulf Arab leader is enough to strain relations for years with another country. On the contrary, a cordial kiss and hug sometimes suffice to mend relations.

But to say that the recent casual photo was only a product of a change in the mood is simply an exaggeration. It was largely necessitated by many developments in the region which all served to reinforce a sense of abandonment among these states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE which now grapple with the receding shadow of the U.S. military presence in the region. 

In fact, they felt this abandonment first in the attack that knocked out half of the Saudi oil production on September 14, 2019. The Saudis blamed the attack on Iran, which, in turn, denied any involvement. Riyadh expected what the Saudis called a deterring credible response to Iran from the U.S. But the White House did nothing but condemnation. And this was the Trump administration with which the Saudi crown prince struck up a rapport through Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

Then came Biden, a president the Saudis resented coming right from the start. Biden made it crystal clear to the Saudis and their Emirati friends that his number one priority is not the protection of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. To make things worse for the Saudis, Biden even withdrew air defense systems from Saudi Arabia while the Saudis were openly beseeching him not to do so. The Saudis turned to Israel and Greece for defense systems. 

 Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, whose absence in the photo was quite remarkable, decided that the UK and France can fill the vacuum left by the U.S. He recently visited both countries and pledged huge investments in them in a bid to lure them to the Persian Gulf. 

“Analysts see the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to France as being tied to Emirati-French attempts to build a new alliance that could fill the void left by Washington’s disengagement from the [Persian] Gulf region,” The Arab Weekly, a publication close to the UAE, reported. “Since the inauguration of the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden, there has been an impression of dwindling American commitment to Gulf security.”

The publication has put bin Zayed’s visit to London in the same context. 

“The United Arab Emirates has been edging closer to Britain, in an attempt to create a regional and international front that could fill in the security and strategic vacuum left by the United States in the [Persian] Gulf region. Over the last few months, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made additional steps to shift its global focus away from the Middle East and more towards China,” it said. 

But the Saudi-Emirati efforts to bring European forces to the Persian Gulf are doomed to fail because the Europeans lack the strategic strength needed to project power in a region averse to foreign military presence.

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