Gulf states look eastwards as US influence wanes, says expert

Dubai: Since the election of US president Barack Obama, concern has been raised repeatedly in Gulf states about the US’ commitment to the security and the strategic importance of the region. More recent US positions however have sounded alarms in Gulf capitals that America may be abandoning its Gulf allies.

The US and the Gulf states’ very publicly diverging positions on the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, its reluctance to go to war with Syria and its most recent attempt at a rapprochement with Iran is likely to evoke fears of an American “grand bargain” with Iran at the expense of the Gulf.

Professor Tim Niblock of the University of Exeter, a leading academic of Gulf Studies, says the Gulf fears are there and they are well founded.

“There is a fear among decision making circles in Saudi Arabia that sooner or later the US is going to do a deal with Iran. That will leave Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states out in the cold,” he said.

Niblock foresees a possible regional re-alignment, where Iran’s relations with Western states would improve significantly as the Gulf Arab states focus their efforts on developing their relations with Iran’s ally China.

“I think sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later, Iran is going to find a way of reopening its links with Western countries. It’s strongly in its interest to do so,” he said.

The shift has already taken place economically, he argues, as China is set to become the Gulf states’ biggest trade partner this year, overtaking the European Union. “The US, on the other hand, is the region’s sixth trading partner”.

The strategic shift however may take longer, he adds, but it is likely, he said.

As the US disengages from the region, it may rely on its European allies to protect the sea lanes. Recent reports have suggested that the UK may make a return to ‘East of Suez’, and deploy a naval presence in the Gulf. The ‘East of Suez’ term was made popular in 1968, when Britian announced that it intended to withdraw its military presence east of the Suez Canal by 1971, effectively handing Gulf states full sovereignty.

“The British are serious,” said Niblock. “It seems to be proceeding at quite a high level… [but] whether the Gulf states will [consider] that to be as reliable as the US [presence in the Gulf], I don’t know,” he added. “In the past, Gulf states have not regarded European countries very seriously in terms of strategic involvement as they do the US”.

Full article: Gulf states look eastwards as US influence wanes, says expert (Gulf News)

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