The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, both members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), announced in mid-August that their ambassadors would once again be stationed in Iran after a six-year absence.
After being strained by the 2016 execution of prominent, outspoken Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, relations between Iran and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms are showing signs of thawing.
Angry protesters in response to Nimr’s death stormed the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran, prompting a coordinated response from several GCC states to cut ties with or downgrade their status with the Islamic Republic.
Negotiations that had been ongoing for years led to the reconciliation of two GCC nations with Iran last month. These developments also coincide with ongoing, occasionally halted negotiations between Tehran and Riyadh that are being held in Baghdad. There have been five rounds of talks thus far, with the most recent taking place in April and a sixth one soon to follow.
De-escalation in the Middle East
As regional powers started looking for alternate strategies to end their different proxy wars in West Asia during the previous two years, tensions in the Persian Gulf region began to deescalate.
The UAE has been in the vanguard of these efforts, agreeing to reestablish relations with Turkey last year after a decade of ideologically opposed positions throughout the region, as well as normalising relations with Syria.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) visited Ankara in June, following Abu Dhabi’s lead, and the two-day visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Saudi Arabia did much to enhance relations between the two countries.
While abruptly reversing course earlier this year, MBS declared that since Saudi Arabia and Iran are neighbours, it would be better for both to resolve their outstanding issues and seek out means of coexistence.
Such accommodative views were also reciprocated by Tehran as expressed by Nasser Kanani, spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, who said to reporters on August 22 that a positive regional climate is fostering a road of dialogue and communication that will lead to improved relations between the two countries eventually.
Previously, a similar trajectory led to the rapprochement between Iran and the UAE. The economic ties between the UAE and Iran justify these diplomatic overtures as Abu Dhabi is the largest exporter of goods to Iran. It’s important to remember that even when relations were at their worst, trade between the two nations never stopped entirely.
Why the Gulf monarchies are reversing their policies?
There are a number of causes that have led to this dramatic shift in stance towards Iran. A primary one is the worry that GCC monarchies can no longer rely on the unconditional security that the United States previously offered.
It is clear from US President Joe Biden’s focus on rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran that Washington wants to end its own protracted standoff with Tehran in order to focus on other more urgent national security issues elsewhere as in Taiwan and Ukraine.
Washington has scaled back its defence and security commitment to its long-standing partners in the Persian Gulf as it realigns its focus on powerful peer enemies like China and Russia.
Former President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” signalled the beginning of the end for this security guarantee. The 2019 Yemeni attack on Saudi Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and subsequent attacks on ships anchored in the UAE port of Fujairah made it strikingly clear that the region has to recalibrate its own security and foreign policy.
The United States complete failure to help its closest Persian Gulf allies who have spent billions to obtain US military protection, after the extraordinary Ansarallah strikes in Yemen had a significant impact on the GCC’s choice to cooperate with Iran.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee harshly chastised the US for failing to uphold its commitment to defend the Arab governments in the Persian Gulf. It accused Biden of compromising his commitment to Persian Gulf allies in a statement released at the beginning of August and skipping a chance to exploit the Abraham Accords and developments in West Asia to forge a unified front against Iran.
A number of other events, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, global energy shortages, and the issue of regional food security, have accelerated dialogue with Iran. Additionally, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraged further economic diversification away from reliance on oil revenues which forced the Arab countries to improve diplomatic relations with Iran.
Arab-Iran conflict can never happen
Israel and its new Arab allies were able to band together in the wake of the 2020 Abraham Accords in an effort to weaken Iran’s global influence. However, despite lots of encouragement from Tel Aviv and Washington, no monarchy in the Persian Gulf has the political will to take that confrontational regional step after two years of inert bravado about an “Arab NATO.”
Instead of calling for an open conflict with Iran following normalisation, Arab states like the UAE tried to benefit economically and commercially from Israeli IT and clean energy enterprises. Due to this, the idea of a Middle Eastern NATO was merely a theoretical one, and Abu Dhabi had no interest in starting a war with Iran.
Full normalisation with Israel has been resisted by other GCC members such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. They are aware that the fundamental purpose of an openly anti-Iranian front, backed by the United States and centred on Israel, is to improve Tel Aviv’s standing in Arab countries, where the majority of the people continues to be hostile toward the Jewish state.
They are also acutely aware that the United States will not spend its limited and valuable resources in West Asia to protect the Arab allies against Iran when the United States has already entered into an open confrontation with China and Russia.
“Realpolitik” in the Middle East
In addition, for many Arabs, Iran serves as an important counterweight to Israel in the region. The Persian Gulf, as well as the Levant and North Africa, have an interest in thwarting Israel’s numerous disruptive and bothersome regional ambitions. In this regard, Iran is a beneficial instrument, as it relieves Arab governments of the burden of performing the heavy lifting themselves, which would earn Washington’s ire.
In exchange, peace with its Arab neighbours will assist Iran in mitigating the consequences of sanctions and isolation attempts undertaken by the United States. Tehran also desires to keep these diplomatic lines available should the Vienna nuclear discussions fail.
Iranian President Raisi has made strengthening regional ties a central plank of his administration’s foreign policy since his victory in 2021. Additionally, Iran has proposed a regional security architecture that would be beneficial to all parties involved and eliminate the need for foreign military presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas.
Tehran is of the opinion that putting the region first in its priorities list, can improve ties with neighbours in all spheres and, more significantly, restore trust that has been eroded over time. The issue is whether its Arab neighbours, many of whom gained power as a result of western colonial operations, can break free from this reliance and develop their own security plans.
It’s not a terrible time.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have realised that the United States would not provide the kind of security assurance they had previously believed it would and that Washington is currently (and maybe forever) preoccupied with other matters.
Oil and gas prices have risen around the world in tandem with these occurrences as a result of western sanctions against Russia. Russia’s position as a pivotal member of OPEC+ has allowed it to keep prominent Persian Gulf producers on board with production and pricing regulations.
China is spending billions on infrastructure and internet access in the Gulf of Oman. China, Iran, and Russia all want to see regional states take charge of security in the Persian Gulf because of these countries dependence on the Gulf’s energy resources.
Now may be the time to introduce these novel concepts, but for Iran to make peace with its Arab neighbours, it is crucial that they have a shared understanding of the common challenges and interests they face.
The repercussions will be profound for everyone involved. Increased political, security, and geopolitical collaboration will follow Persian Gulf stability, leading to a more robust regional economy through interdependence.