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Anxiety in the Gulf

Author: Judith Kipper
March 1, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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Judith Kipper is a Middle East specialist associated with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She has recently returned from a 3-week visit to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait.

If the Bush administration is going to continue to get the necessary support, tacit or otherwise, for an extended and difficult war on terrorism, the political consequences of its words and deeds must be taken into account in planning the next phase. Anxiety in the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia is unmistakable to American visitors who are welcomed with generous hospitality. Some feel that the United States is bullying its friends, preparing to attack other Arab states, threatening allies with it’s either- you- are- with- us –or- against- us and axis- of- evil rhetoric which fuels sentiments that this is a war against Islam. Most are convinced that the United States simply does not understand the importance of the Palestinian issue for the Arabs who believe that the US has given Israel power over the peace process. The perceived US indifference to the suffering of the Palestinians and other sensitive issues in the Gulf include the killing of Afghan civilians, a strong conviction that the US media is waging a campaign against American allies, particularly Saudi Arabia which offends many who believe it is aimed at slandering Islam.

Every conversation in the Gulf begins with the Palestinian issue and accusations of a US double standard. “You helped in so many places, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, we cannot understand American policy in the Middle East and we cannot explain it to our population,” a theme echoed with despair in Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, “…this is dividing the US from its friends and breeding hatred and rage.”

Access to television coverage of the antiradar in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the war in Afghanistan – more than the Pentagon permitted US television to cover-has severely inflamed Arab public opinion in the same way that television coverage of Vietnam fueled the anti-war movement in the US. During the Gulf war, satellite television was non-existent in the Arab world. Today, viewers have a choice of many Arabic networks, which are seen by millions of Arabs.

Arabs recognize America’s legitimate need to protect itself in the war on terrorism and most abhor the Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, but that understanding does not extend to what is seen as American insensitivity to civilian casualties in Afghanistan or what appears to be unconditional support for Israel’s attacks –mostly with US weapons it is pointed out-on the Palestinians. “The lack of a peace process is very embarrassing, “ admitted a Gulf official,” the US is not using its clout to initiate change. Anti-Americanism has been here for a long time because the Arabs feel bombarded by hatred. For the vast majority of Arabs, the Arab-Israeli conflict is the main issue.”

Crown Prince Abdullah’s vision for the Middle East reflects just how important the Palestinian issue is for the Arabs. His concern preceded the events of September 11. The President responded to the Crown Prince with a public statement of support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But, the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians and the inexplicable absence of US mediation was reason enough for the Saudi leader to take the lead in an attempt to revive the peace process.

Most Arabs have the impression that the US has an over militarized policy in the Gulf and claim they see nothing visible demonstrating American values of tolerance and openness on social and cultural issues, education and the media. A dominant image of the US among Arab elites and others is of a hegemonic power, which is big, selfish and ready to meddle without a genuine sense of responsibility. “The US. virtually deletes the historic dimension,” an Arab analyst said, “History is part of the Arab psyche. Is the US ignorant, arrogant or innocent?”

The crisis of September 11 touched everyone and for the Arabs, it has unleashed negative historic memories of the crusades, which further fuels, the fear of a war on Islam. US objectives in the war on terrorism are anything but clear in the Gulf states. This confusion has created a genuine fear about who is next ... Some fear that US Congressional elections in November are a distraction which will allow Washington to lose sight of its objectives leaving behind unfinished business. .

The Gulf states including Saudi Arabia are slowly creeping out of the denial, rage and grief they experienced after September ll. Their tendency to blame the United States for their problems without much sense of accountability is beginning to change. Conservative tribal societies in the Gulf have experienced extraordinary domestic change and external challenges since the petrodollar boom in l974. The Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, September 11, the ups and downs of the oil market which threaten Gulf economies, a demographic explosion and the advent of Arabic satellite television have challenged Gulf monarchies to modernize while attempting to protect the traditional Islamic foundation of their societies. Some Gulf leaders including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah have publicly called on the Arabs to “ conduct self scrutiny, review our attitudes and repair errors…not ...to blame others instead of confronting the crises and taking responsibility for our role. Changing such a painful reality is not possible without changing ourselves.”

While the Gulf states are vulnerable, threats to their stability are exaggerated, but the events of September 11 do raise serious and now unavoidable questions about the evolution of these societies. How to become modern Islamic states in a globalized world will require the Gulf states to examine why a militant and violent ideology in the name of Islam resonates among so many of their citizens. This is no longer just a question of serious concern in the Gulf. The real and shared threat of the Al Queda brand of terrorism is a danger for the Gulf, the United States and the international community.

As the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia begin to look more closely at their important domestic problems (lack of economic reform, unemployment and more than 50% of the population under the age of 20 in most states), the United States cannot continue to conduct its business as usual and expect to protect American interests and alliances in this strategic region. US military forces in the Gulf are a source of stability like those in Asia and in Europe, but that alone does not give Washington the essential tools to conduct its policies effectively.

The United States has largely ignored the Gulf states except during crises or when Washington needs help. Yet, despite strains resulting from lack of consultation and some real policy differences, the Gulf states have remained loyal allies of the United States. Gulf states including Saudi Arabia have supported peace moves and initiatives between the Israelis and Palestinians, sometimes quietly, more recently publicly, and they have agreed to American military requests and requirements. While dependent on the United States for their security, the Gulf states are beginning to recognize that they must address their citizens’ aspirations to assure domestic tranquility and development. The US can play a major role in this process by working with the Gulf states on economic reforms, professional training and exchange programs.

Building a new foundation of trust after September 11 is the responsibility of and in the interest of both the United States and the Gulf states. Telling the truth to each other, even when it’s difficult especially when interests may be in conflict is vital to US-Gulf relations. The US cannot raise sensitive issues and requests too frequently with leaders without first establishing a routine process of consultation at all levels. The virtual lack of any meaningful public diplomacy to allow the US to explain its policies and actions is damaging American interests in the region. Embassies have neither the human or financial resources to do the job and new security- conscious American compounds make anything but official interaction difficult, if not impossible. American expectations of Gulf allies must be carefully calculated and presented with cultural sensitivity to be effective. Being tough when necessary is not only acceptable, it is desirable providing difficult issues and tasks are presented in an appropriate context. In the long term, it is the only way the US can protect its interests in the on-going war on terrorism.


Judith Kipper is the Director of the Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations and Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.

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