Troubled Waters: The Persian Gulf’s Changing Geopolitics

Troubled Waters: The Persian Gulf’s Changing Geopolitics
King Salman of Saudi Arabia opens the 36th session of the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 9, 2015 (AP photo by Khalid Mohammed).

From a multinational military intervention in Yemen’s civil war to ties with the United States, the countries of the Persian Gulf have adopted a more pro-active approach to regional issues in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal. This collection of analysis from WPR provides insight into Gulf countries’ domestic politics, the Yemen war and relations with Washington.

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The Domestic and Regional Policy Outlook

Nimr Execution Is Latest Unforced Error for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people, including Shiite cleric and opposition figure Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, got the new year off to a tense start. Following the incident, Ellen Laipson discussed its consequences for Saudi-Iran relations and sectarian tensions across the region, and stressed that the executions will deepen rifts between the West and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Folly: Domestic Crackdown, Global Export
While Saudi Arabia has increasingly cracked down on Islamic radicals domestically, it remains the major funder of Wahhabi ideology beyond its borders. That has radicalized many foreign Muslims, Carol E.B. Choksy and Jambsheed K. Choksy wrote last January, and the death of King Abdullah in January opened a window of opportunity for Saudi Arabia to change its ways.
Rather Than Reform, Bahrain Launched ‘Program of Mass Incarceration’
Although some Western nations have praised Bahrain’s “positive steps” toward political reform, the country’s human rights situation remains dismal. In September, Frederick Deknatel wrote that the government continues to close political space, harassing and jailing activists and opposition members.
UAE Adopts Assertive Role to Counter Threats, Court Partners
At first glance, the United Arab Emirates might look like Saudi Arabia’s wingman in matters of regional security, wrote Peter Juul in July. But looks are deceiving. The UAE is not a mere satellite of Saudi Arabia, but boasts an assertive foreign policy that aligns with Riyadh’s interests—particularly concerning perceived threats from Iran and Islamist groups.

A High-Risk Intervention in Yemen

Al-Qaida Is the Big Winner So Far From Yemen’s Descent Into Chaos

As negotiations between Yemen’s warring parties continue to stall, the country teeters on the brink of chaos. In December, Peter Salisbury wrote that territorial fragmentation and sectarian divisions in Yemen have empowered Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has positioned itself as the only group capable of protecting the country’s Sunnis.
Qatar’s decision to support the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen shows its solidarity with Riyadh and the GCC, Deknatel wrote in September. But that move is dangerous, as Qatar could be dragged into a stalemate with no clear endpoint, and will likely disagree with the United Arab Emirates, another coalition member, on the next steps.
In a surprising move last August, the UAE put troops on the ground in southern Yemen. Following the deployment, Peter Salibsury wrote that although Abu Dhabi has been assuming an increasingly militaristic posture, the extent of its engagement in Yemen—and whether it shares the goals of its Saudi ally—remains unclear.
Saudi Arabia’s coalition against Houthi rebels is one thing in theory and another in practice, Deknatel wrote last May, after airstrikes across Yemen shattered a brief cease-fire. In fact, Saudi forces are doing the vast majority of the fighting; the coalition gives Riyadh multilateral cover for its aggressive new foreign policy.

U.S.-Gulf Ties After the Iran Deal

U.S. Pushes Missile Defense to Reassure Gulf Partners

To reassure the GCC states that the Iran nuclear deal will not jeopardize their security, the U.S. is seeking to enhance their collective missile defenses, wrote Richard Weitz last August. Although past efforts have yielded minimal progress and numerous hurdles remain, recent developments, such as perceived threats from nonstate actors, could increase the prospects of regional missile-defense cooperation.
The U.S.-GCC summit last May revealed the subtle and often contradictory ways the U.S. and GCC countries still find themselves entwined in each other’s national security policies, Ellen Laipson wrote following the gathering. Still, the summit was just a small step toward shoring up relations between Washington and the six Gulf states in the aftermath of the Iran deal, and despite some progress, their interests are not perfectly aligned.

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