The Arab region expanding from the Gulf to the Atlantic has endured, since the popular uprisings in 2011, several civil wars, political labyrinths, and fluctuations in the balance of power, which intersects, or clashes, with the agendas of certain superpowers and regional governmental and non-governmental actors. The Gulf crisis and the blockade of Qatar have exacerbated the situation, fragmented the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) unity, undermined the state members’ ability to face growing regional challenges, and hindered their strategic influence in the rest of the world. The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has raised new questions about Saudi Arabia’s domestic as well as regional policies.
The so-called “Arab Alliance” in the Yemen war has shrunk into a bilateral liability by Saudi Arabia and UAE in an attempt to defeat Houthis, restore legitimacy, and reduce the Iranian influence in the civil-war torn country. The open-ended war on civilians and human suffering continues for the fourth year in a country, which is considered “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world,” according to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. In Washington, the US Senate is pushing the Trump administration to withdraw from the war in Yemen and reconsider US-Saudi relations while several European countries decided to halt arms deals with Riyadh. As the blockade of Qatar nears its third year without achieving any of the Quartet’s objectives, Qatar continues its quiet diplomacy in the region and internationally.
The Saudi role has declined in the tripartite rivalry with Turkey and Iran in the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia is no longer trusted as the “big sister” that could guarantee the national security of the small members of the GCC. The most recent Gulf summit held in Riyadh December 9, 2018, failed to heal the rift between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama, on the one hand, and Doha on the other. Faced with this divergence between the Gulf States, some capitals have decided to form new alliances outside the Council driven by security, military and economic considerations. Some Gulf states have decided to open up to Israel on the verge of normalization of diplomatic ties, amidst enthusiasm for paving the way for the “Deal of the Century”, which reflects the extent of the strategic confusion growing in the Arab world and the Gulf region in particular. Qatar has decided to withdraw from OPEC and to focus instead on its plan to raise its LNG exports by double in the next six years.
On the other side of the Gulf, Iran remains to be an important stakeholder in shaping a new balance of power in the region. It builds on its policy of strategic expansion while seeking to overcome the impact of the US sanctions on its economy and to maneuver around the SWIFT policy. Whatever the impact of the sanctions on the Iranian economy may be, Iran’s military power will surely be the least affected given the growing arms race in the region. This arms race finds its justifications in the increasing lack of trust, not only between Iran and the Gulf countries, but also between the Gulf counties themselves. It is also fuelled by the United States’ Middle East policy, which continually urges a Gulf confrontation with Iran while encouraging a rapprochement with Israel.