Changing Alliances in the Middle East

24 November 2014
Published in

By Laith Saud

November 24, 2014

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) made headlines recently by listing The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Relief and the Muslim American Society (MAS) as ‘terrorist’ groups. All of these groups share several things in common: They all unequivocally and officially condemn terrorism, they provide humanitarian aid, charity or advocacy to parts of the Muslim world and they maintain pro-Palestinian positions. The UAE’s recent designation of these groups has literally put it at odds with every major pro-Palestinian advocacy or civil rights group in the western world. Theories have been offered for why this happened, but we will see that the UAE’s motive to realign itself in the region means distancing itself from the Palestinian cause.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Strategic Concerns

Many analysts argue that the motivating force behind the UAE’s ‘terrorist designation list’ is contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB); in the United States, CAIR, MAS and others have often been associated with the MB, if for no other reason, their promotion of Islamic causes. Contempt for the MB does not however explain the willingness of the UAE to be so severe and frivolous as to denounce American Muslim civil rights groups as terrorist groups. It must be noted the United States does not list CAIR or MAS as such and in fact, seeks their assistance in combatting terrorism as well as improving relations with the Muslim world. A deeper explanation can be found in the regional re-configuration of alliances that directly affect both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  With US overtures to Iran increasingly common, the Gulf is anticipating a new. Such reconciliation is perceived as being inherently inimical to Saudi and UAE interests, because of the Gulf’s large Shi’i population and Iran’s tremendous influence over Shi’is.        

The Rise of Iran

Since the 2003 American led invasion of Iraq, relations between the Arab Gulf States and the United States have increasingly strained. It was inevitable that removing Saddam Hussein would strengthen Iran in the region. Generally speaking, Iran is a predominantly Shi’i country and of great influence in the Muslim world. The east coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the west coast of Iran along the Persian Gulf create a horseshoe of potential political turmoil – illustrated by Bahrain, with the long time Shi’i protests there. The Gulf States were thus adamant in their opposition to the invasion, warning the US of the rise of Iran.

The invasion of Iraq initiates major political shifts in the region, however the sectarian consequences are the most widespread. I was born in Iraq, to a Sunni father and Shi’i mother – Iraq was a very secular and cosmopolitan society and at least one third of Iraqi marriages were between Sunnis and Shi’is. This all changed after 2003. American policies in post-invasion Iraq paved the way for extensive Iranian influence over not only Iraqi politics, but also society.

Several things contributed to this: Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army and police force, created a security vacuum filled by Iranian backed militias. Secondly, the most prominent political figures to accompany the American invasion were exiles that spent decades in Iran, cultivating ties with its regime. Today Iran exercises unprecedented influence in Iraq which has turned the latter – a once avid secular and influential state in the region – into an Iranian satellite with similar theocratic tendencies. This influence affects the whole Gulf region.

Iraq’s once strident secularism is now a shadow of its former self. Iranian influence underlies the ‘sectarianization’ of Iraq’s educational institutions. And Iraqi Sunnis are now a sidelined and persecuted minority in a mixed country, amidst predominately Sunni Arab countries. Arabs blame Iran for this persecution. In Syria, the Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has been slaughtering Syrians en masse for three years, again, with the support of Iran. And finally, in Israel/Palestine, Iran has withdrawn support from HAMAS for the latter’s support of the Syrian revolution, turning Iran’s ‘resistance’ to Israeli occupation into a fig leaf covering for different Iranian ambitions in Iraq and Syria.   All of Iran’s gains in power over the last ten years have amounted to it losing a great deal of credibility in the Arab Street. Iran’s once popular image has been reduced to one of a realist state, maintaining strategic influence in Iraq and Syria through supporting violent militias and dictatorial regimes. This willingness on the part of Iran to show its cards has led to what some analysts refer to as the Iran-Iraq-Syria axis.  

The Arab Spring        

If 2003 is a pivotal year in Arab politics, 2011 is as well if not more so. 2011 is of course the year of the Arab Spring and during that period, traditional concerns over Israel or Iran were sidelined by a new threat – Arab Democracy. When in 2012, Egypt’s first free and unfettered election brought a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Saudi Arabia and the UAE acted swiftly to curb MB power and interjected themselves into Egyptian affairs.

Turkey and Qatar on the other hand openly supported the democratic process in Arab spring countries, giving rise to the Turkey-Qatar axis, which is characterized by moderation and maintaining strategic ties with the United States, while still pursuing policies that are very appealing to the Arab Street – such as supporting Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Strategic Horizon

 Turkey and Qatars’ open support for the democratic process made them de facto sponsors of the MB in Egypt, causing a fallout between Turkey/Qatar and the other Gulf states. But this only suggests that the alliance is strained, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have no interest in a protracted enmity between themselves and fellow Sunni neighbors, evidenced by recent events that have reconciled these regional powers. The real problem that Saudi and Emirati strategists are trying to get their heads around is the increasing cooperation between the US and Iran.

It must be remembered that the US and Iran have cooperated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ Analysts are advancing greater cooperation between the two. The UAE and Saudi Arabia seem more and more like outsiders looking in and should US-Iranian ties strengthen, they both fear American protection will wane, making them more susceptible to Iranian interference. Thus, these two rich states are now looking in the direction of Israel – with whom they share an ostensible mutual interest in combatting Iran’s rise.

The Saudi-UAE-Israel (and Egypt) axis is becoming increasingly obvious in the last few years. Both countries saw the rise of the MB as problematic. For Israel, the MB represented a stalwart ally to the Palestinian cause, a group that, although moderate, would never have been as compliant in assisting Israel in its illegal siege of the Gaza Strip, as deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak did. Yet this was the greatest fear of the Saudis and Emirates as well; these countries relationship with the United States is predicated on maintaining the status quo in the region and in world petrol markets.

The events of the last ten years or so have thrown traditional alliances into the mixer, with the US leading the way. The United States has reached out to Iran in an unprecedented way, including President Obama’s recent letter to Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei that stresses mutual interests in the region; this stress on mutual interests alienates Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iran and the US have an expressed cause in fighting ISIS, but they are also in lockstep in supporting the avowedly Shi’i government of a mixed Iraq, the US has pulled back on its desire to see Iranian ally al-Assad go and the US is fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, which assists the Iranian back Houthi rebels.

And these interests extend beyond the Arab world, into central Asia and the Caucuses – Saudi Arabia and the UAEs’ value to the US lay in the ability to stabilize the global oil market in barrel cost and shipping. Iran on the other hand possesses similar oil and gas wealth yet out reaches these Arab Gulf states in many other valuable ways, leaving the latter to look for new ways to maintain their strategic significance to the US or others. The answer to this problem is in Israel. And the Saudis and Emirates are increasingly speaking the “same language” as the Israelis.

As the US seemingly replaces the Saudis (and by implication the Emirates) as a long-term regional all these two Gulf states are situating themselves within a more pro-Israel axis, as we see emerging more and more out of Egypt and the pre-requisite to any future alliance with Israel means vociferously condemning pro-Palestinian advocates in the US and Europe, where demands for justice for the Palestinians is gaining ground. This is the major reason why the UAE took such drastic measures in condemning American and European civil rights and charity groups, to demonstrate definitively that they are leaning in a new direction. The Saudi’s may not have the same list of ‘designated terrorists,’ but they do lead the way in this new policy shift.

Of course, in the long run, the turn towards Israel will fail for three major reasons: First, demanding justice for Palestine is a fundamental part of the Arab worldview, in which Israel’s presence is a reminder of the colonial legacy – unless Israeli behavior and policy toward their Arab residents change, this will continue to be the case. Secondly, Israel is not as anti-Iran as perception might lead many to believe; the Israelis have shared interests with Iran over the last three decades

Lastly, whereas Iran’s place in the region can never be doubted, Israel’s inability to bring the Palestinian issue to resolution can only mean one thing – Israel’s future in the region is tenuous when we consider the fact that Israel faces several demographic challenges that it will eventually not withstand. (. In short, with time, Israel will become a moot point. In the meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAEs’ pursuit of a short term solution for the long term problem of facing Iran will continue to pinch the Palestinians and their advocates, between the fingers of geo-politics. And we should all expect that more anti-Palestinian posturing will emanate from these countries in the same way as it has, at times, in the US.


Laith Saud is a Senior Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies and co-author of An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century. You can follow Laith on Twitter


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