Gulf conservative states’ insistence that domestic reform movements are Iranian proxies striving to destabilize rather than democratize is debunked in a new analysis from a leading Washington think-tank.
“Shia movements in the Gulf …are still driven more by local concerns than by Iranian meddling,” according to “The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula,” a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Similarly, the pro-democracy reform movement in Bahrain is “driven largely by local discrimination and issues,” according to Anthony H. Cordesman and Robert M. Shelala II, the report’s authors. Contrary to local Sunni rulers’ claims, they observe that “Tehran was unable to successfully spread the Islamic Revolution or win large-scale Arab Shia support” within Gulf states.
But the report takes a cautious approach to democracy and rights issues on the Gulf, arguing that the US confronts major challenges in confronting Iran, the threat of terrorism, and a “tide of political instability” across the Middle East.
Accordingly, the US “must adopt ‘dual standards’ in dealing with each Arab Gulf state and the Gulf Cooperation Council collectively,” the report argues.
“The US must find the right balance between a narrow, short-term ‘pragmatism’ that focuses on the security threats posed by Iran and extremism and the need to help each state ensure its internal stability, modernize, and meet the needs of its people,” Cordesman and Shelala contend.
Would-be external actors must also take into account the region’s distinctive cultural and religious characteristics, the report suggests.
“The US and its European allies must recognize that US and Western values are not ‘universal’ values, that each state is both Arab and Islamic, and that the rate of modernization has to focus on evolution and not revolution,” the authors write. “The US must accept the fact that it must often give security priority over its own approaches to human rights and democracy.”
Rather than adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, external actors should consider the distinctive features of each Southern Gulf state separately, highlighting the “need to constantly adjust US policy to find the right balance [and] mix of ‘standards,’” write Cordesman and Shelala.
“Successful US efforts are going to take continuing US dialogue with each Southern Gulf state. It is going to take strong country teams that can both build more effective security forces and help each state move towards the necessary level of political, social, and economic modernization and reform. “
The US must work with Saudi Arabia and the GCC to try to find some workable approach to sheer scale of Yemen’s economic and demographic problems, its growing population of nearly 25 million, and its lack of effective governance and poverty. Such progress is likely to be negligible in real terms in the near future because of the country’s lack of effective governance, inability to absorb aid, corruption, and poverty. The sheer scale of Yemen’s problems also preclude any credible combination of US, Saudi and other aid efforts from buying Yemen out of these challenges and make real membership in the GCC a serious potential liability to the GCC.
The US does not need to make major changes in its security policies towards Saudi Arabia, but it does need to focus on the following challenges.
The US faces a difficult balancing act in Bahrain. Bahrain is a key security partner, its stability is critical to the GCC, and there is no stable substitute for its present regime. The US needs to take these strategic interests into constant account, as well as the fact that the problems in its regime – serious as they may be – are matched by an opposition that has elements that are unwilling to compromise and would be destabilizing, and some opposition elements with at least some ties to Iran.
Iran on the other hand will continue its attempts to exert influence in the Gulf, seeking to rival Saudi Arabian hegemony and GCC power. The emergence of Qatar as a second Sunni rival to Iranian influence in the broader Middle East can be expected to continue as the situations in Syria and Gaza grow more volatile. As the principal supporters of the belligerents in the Syria conflict, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the one hand and Iran on the other will be in a position to influence any resolution to the Syrian Civil War, though developments in that conflict are not likely to drive broader US-Iranian and Gulf-Iranian tensions.
Iran will continue its political and covert support to Shia opposition movements in Bahrain and Yemen, while looking for opportunities to exploit other Sunni/Shia rifts elsewhere in the Gulf. The Islamic Republic’s success in those endeavors could be mitigated by continued efforts on the part of the Arab Gulf states to avoid internal Sunni-Shia tensions, as well as by what some believe to be rights-driven Shia movements, rather than pro-Iran movements.
The Need for Country-by-Country Case Studies
If there is any single message that emerges from these statistics, it is just how different each Southern Gulf state is, and just how different the factors are that drive its internal stability, the ability of the US and Iran to compete, and the issues the US must be prepared to deal with in each partner country. As a corollary, it is also clear that military and internal security are only part of the challenges each state and the GCC must meet.
Economics, demographics, politics, and social change are at least as important to each country’s future, and both they and the US must constantly remember that competition with Iran is only one of many priorities.
It is also important to note that while the US and the Arabian Gulf states share a common interest in deterring and defending against Iran, no Gulf state has identical strategic interests with the US or its neighbors.
As is the case throughout the Middle East and the world, the US only must adopt “dual standards” in dealing with each Arab Gulf state and the GCC collectively. The US must find the right balance between a narrow short term “pragmatism” that focuses on the security threats posed by Iran and extremism and the need to help each state ensure its internal stability, modernize, and meet the needs of its people.
Saudi Arabia differs from most countries in the world in that it’s ruling and economic elites seek modernization and reform but do so in the face of much of its clergy and an extremely conservative population. Reform comes slowly from above, and not from popular pressure.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling elites are divided, however, and often act out of narrow self-interest and in ways that are corrupt and abuse power. King Abdullah has pressed for reform in all these areas, but it will come slow and outside pressure often does as much to mobilize opposition as aid the case for change. That reform will also come in a Saudi way, in a Saudi form, and largely at a Saudi pace. No amount of US pressure will make Saudi Arabia like the US.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious Sunni puritan state whose political legitimacy depends as much on its religious legitimacy as popular support, and plays a critical role in offsetting the threat from violent religious extremism. No amount of pressure will suddenly make it liberalize in religious or social terms – particularly outside pressures under the guise of human rights that is a thinly disguised effort to open the country to Christian proselytizing.
Tensions Over Saudi Shia
While the Shia remain a small demographic within the broader Saudi population, much of this population is in its Eastern Province, the key strategic petroleum region in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia feels Iran has deliberately encouraged recent uprisings witnessed in key Shia parts of the country.
While the Kingdom has made progress, Saudi Arabia’s Shia still suffer from social, economic, and political discrimination that has led to periodic unrest in parts of the Kingdom. This treatment of Shia in the Kingdom is reflected in the US State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report, which highlights the illegal detention of key Shia, the incarceration for over 14 years of a Shia for “apostasy” with an additional five years for “criticizing the judicial system and the government’s human rights record,” prohibitions on gatherings in mostly Shia areas, and a small Shia representation in the country’s Consultative Council.
These tensions between the Saudi government and the Shia community are not a recent phenomenon. Relations between the two were particularly tense at the end of the 1970s.The Islamic Revolution in Iran is believed to have escalated Sunni-Shia tensions but not to have driven them – which was more a result of a repressive governor in the province.
There were also incidents in Bahrain, but again driven largely by local discrimination and issues. Tehran was unable to successfully spread the Islamic Revolution or win large-scale Arab Shia support.
They have, however, taken a new form following the beginning of the current political upheavals in the Arab world, as calls have come for greater Shia rights within Saudi Arabia, and as Sunni-Shia tensions have escalated in Bahrain. One prominent Shia figure – Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – has gone so far as to speculate about the Shia parts of the east breaking away from the rest of Saudi Arabia, which led to calls for his arrest in 2009. He has been accused of also disrespecting the passing of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud. Shortly thereafter in July 2012, the police allegedly shot and then apprehended him. The arrest triggered protests, which saw the shooting deaths of two men. Adding to this incident, it is reported that all of the ten fatalities in the Kingdom linked to the uprisings that spread across the Arab World starting in 2011 were Shia.
Riyadh claims that Iranian meddling in the Kingdom is responsible for such Shia unrest, but it is unclear how much leverage Tehran now has in driving Shia actors in the Kingdom. For one, religious leaders from Iraq have made greater inroads with Shia in Saudi Arabia than have their Iranian counterparts.
According to Iran expert Ray Takeyh with the Council on Foreign Relations, it appears that Shia movements in the Gulf – not including Iraq – are still driven more by local concerns than by Iranian meddling. A number of US official experts share this view.
The above brief extract is taken from “The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula,” a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).