The GCC: The Tripartite’s Big Barter In The “Eurasian Balkans”
State Of Play
Moscow has been courting Abu Dhabi and Riyadh for investment after the EU initiated its anti-Russian sanctions, and while there remains a lot to be desired from this policy, it has still borne some fruits in Russia’s Muslim-majority regions such as Tatarstan. Most importantly, however it signaled that Russia was willing to put aside its regional political differences with the GCC over Syria in the name of pragmatic mutually beneficial economic partnership, which while commercially driven, is in and of itself a diplomatic outreach that represents one of Moscow’s many new foreign policy maneuvers. In connection with this, Russia made a lot of moves towards Saudi Arabia in the summer run-up to its participation in the anti-terrorist mission in Syria, and while these were not met with any obvious dividends and relations seem to have even floundered since then, they still importantly symbolize Moscow’s new and experimental strategic thinking which could one day be revived at an opportune time.
On the contrary, while there remains a lot of promise for Russian-Emirati ties (especially in the defense industry) and the intensification of Russian-Saudi ones can’t entirely be ruled out, things are far less positive when it comes to Moscow’s views towards Doha. The Qataris humiliatingly attacked the Russian Ambassador in the capital’s airport in 2011, and since then relations have never quite been the same. While all things are possible in the world of international diplomacy and geopolitics, out of all the GCC countries, Qatar is the one which could be said to have the least likely chance for prospectively improving relations with Russia. Even the January 2016 visit of Emir Thani to Moscow didn’t succeed in patching things up, though it did create a publicly presentable pretense for doing so sometime in the future. If Russia could enter into some type of pragmatic cooperation mechanism with Qatar (possibly in the framework of Syria’s conflict resolution process), then it might be able to eventually reach a common denominator of agreement that could set the foundation for a more robust relationship that would ideally allow both sides to move past their controversial history in the same manner as Russia and Turkey bravely decided to do as well.
Iran has the least constructive state-to-state relations with the Gulf Kingdoms, but it also wields the most direct influence over them because of its mighty military potential and the inspirational role that it has in serving as a role model for the region’s oppressed Shiite population. Tehran’s soft power thus extends into the Shiite-majority island of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority and oil-rich Eastern Province, much to the fear of the exclusionary monarchs in Manama and Riyadh. The Saudis have even gone as far as assembling a global “anti-terrorist” coalition which essentially functions as an aggressive instrument for it to wield against Iran, while it could contrarily be said that Russia’s air force deployment in the northwestern city of Hamadan (regardless of its duration) is Tehran’s most symbolically visible deterrent against future conventional Saudi hostility.
On the positive side, however, Iran has mutually beneficial commercial and financial ties with the UAE, which operated as its informal access point to the global economy during the sanctions period. Iran’s diplomatic counterpart to the UAE’s commercial usefulness in the GCC is Oman, which has historically been neutral in the organization’s Saudi-initiated disputes and is credited for covertly facilitating the historic Iranian nuclear agreement. The two countries are so close that not only are they both signatories to the multiparty Ashgabat Agreement for the creation of an Arabian Sea-Central Asian trade corridor, but Iran is even building a pipeline to Oman from which it plans to supply the country and export LNG on the international market.
Concerning Qatar, it can be said that Iran’s relationship with this kingdom is cordial but nowhere near the level of strategic cooperation that would otherwise be possible if Doha were interested in it. Both states own part of the Pars gas field, the largest offshore deposit in the world, and they thus can’t clash because of the mutual destruction that this scenario could bring to their economies, but this hasn’t stopped them from waging a bloody proxy war in the region. The two states are ideologically incompatible on two levels; on the first, Qatar’s monarchism is the opposite of Iran’s republicanism, while on the second, Doha’s patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist militancy abroad threatens the stability of Tehran’s secular allies in Damascus and Baghdad.
Ankara has the best relations with the GCC out of the entire Tripartite, which includes hosting Saudi military aircraft in Incirlik and opening a base in Qatar. Both of these moves were very strategic in nature, with the first coming as tensions came to a head in Syria and there was over-speculative talk of a conventional invasion of the country, and the second ironically being an anti-Saudi balancing move by Doha. To explain, the Saudi-Qatari rift that characterized most of 2014 was about conflicting ideologies, with Riyadh fearful that Doha’s patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood would boomerang back to the Gulf and lead to unrest within its own borders.
The July 2013 removal of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was a striking defeat for Qatar and Riyadh thought that it would lead to Doha distancing itself from the terrorist group. When it didn’t, however, Saudi Arabia exerted more GCC pressure on its neighbor and eventually succeeded in forcing the Qatari Emir to ‘make peace’ with the King in September 2014 and expel the Muslim Brotherhood to Turkey. The Qataris continued to harbor a grudge about that, and they thus thought that the introduction of Turkish troops to their soil would act as an additional safeguard against any asymmetrical moves that the Saudis might try against them in the future if Doha ever decides to reassert itself against them or doesn’t succumb to any requests demanded of it.
The US is the supreme out-of-regional power in the Gulf and the only state capable of rivalling Iran for influence, but even so, Washington’s presence has been on the backslide for the past year in the aftermath of the nuclear deal with Tehran. The region’s monarchies, traditionally very close to the US, viewed the agreement with suspicion and rightfully thought that Washington had made too many concessions to Tehran in order to cozy up to its Western-friendly “moderate” leadership in preparation for a grand geostrategic reorientation. However justified, these fears have yet to amount to anything tangible, and instead, the multipolar “conservatives’” latest pushback indicates that it might go down in history as one of the US’ most spectacularly failed gambits. Regardless of whatever ends up happening vis-à-vis US-Iranian relations, there’s no realistic prospect of the Pentagon moving its CENTCOM air headquarters in Qatar nor its naval one in Bahrain, and these two tiny kingdoms will occupy a prime geostrategic importance for the US no matter what happens, and especially if political relations with the Saudis deteriorate (though military ties with Riyadh are expected to still remain very strong).
The most important actor for the Tripartite’s coordinated outreach to the GCC is undoubtedly Turkey, but this is wholly contingent on it not entering into a “Sunni Cold/Civil War” with Saudi Arabia as a result of Ankara’s possible multipolar engagement with “Syraq”. If it’s able to retain the peace with Riyadh despite the Kingdom’s obvious setbacks relative to Turkey’s suggested outreaches towards its southern neighbors, then this would propel it into the position of being the Mideast’s intra-civilizational balancer between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. To remind the reader in case they’re not familiar with the author’s previous works, the whole Sunni-Shiite split was a carefully devised scheme orchestrated by the US and Saudi Arabia for geopolitical gains and has nothing inherently ‘natural’ about it, so it’s entirely possible for it to be resolved with time provided that the proper actors take the lead in responsibly pursuing this. Turkey could play this role because of its recent multipolar reorientation towards Iran and its existing partnership with Saudi Arabia, making it the crucial kingmaker if circumstances allow and possibly giving it a chance at ending the War on Yemen.
The other related kingmaker ‘bartering’ that could take place is if Turkey doubles down on its relationship with Qatar amidst a decisive deterioration of ties with Saudi Arabia. Doha, which is already resentful of Riyadh as it is, might feel emboldened by the Turkish military base on its soil and American strategic passivity to restart its direct patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood, which would fill the Saudis with rage and instantly plunge the GCC back into an intra-organizational Cold War, though one in which post-sanctions Iran has more influence within the UAE and Oman. In fact, if Turkey and Iran were to coordinate their policies, Ankara might even use its military and ideological leverage over Doha to get it to enter into a gas partnership with Tehran, which would by practical and forthcoming diplomatic extent likely end up bringing Qatar and Russia on the same page concerning the global energy market and LNG. If the three countries – Russia, Iran, and Qatar – were to forge a gas-exporting ‘cartel’ via the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) just like Saudi Arabia and others did with OPEC, then it could revolutionize the natural gas industry and tighten the bonds between all the participating members.
Saudi Arabia would sourly be sitting on the sidelines anxious with worry about losing control over its own regional integration mechanism due to the Tripartite skillfully managing to bait some of the smaller members away by playing to their insecurities of having been bullied by Riyadh. As a consolation, Russia might be then be able to exploit this game-changing geostrategic rearrangement in the Gulf to push forward a defensive weapons deal with the Saudis, which would then allow Moscow an opportunity to contribute to the restrained military balance between Riyadh and Tehran in the exact same manner as it presently practices by arming rivals Baku and Yerevan, New Delhi and Beijing, and Beijing and Hanoi. In fact, the introduction of Russian defensive arms to the Saudi market could create the same sense of panic to the US as American offensive ones have done to Russia in India, though it’s far less likely that Moscow would ever be in a position to strategically displace Washington in Saudi Arabia like its rival is progressively attempting to do in India. Even so, if none of the above kingmaker proposals come to pass, Russia could still have a possibility to sell defensive arms to Saudi Arabia as a ‘goodwill’ ‘ice-breaking’ gesture after its air deployment in the northwest Iranian city of Hamadan, especially if this becomes indefinite due to Russia being kicked out of a pro-Western Color Revolution-‘governed’ Armenia. If successful, then this unprecedented outreach could set Moscow on the first step of a long journey towards positioning itself to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran after earning both of their trusts, which might even bring an end to the War on Yemen (for which it’s much more neutrally attuned to do than Turkey is).
There’s so much that can go wrong in this arrangement that it’s much more likely for the dark scenarios to happen than the positive win-win “bartering” proposed above. First off, the onset of a Turkish-Saudi Cold War (or framed differently, a “Sunni Cold/Civil War”) could stop Ankara’s Gulf advances in its tracks and isolate it to Qatar, with the rest of the kingdoms standing solidly behind Riyadh in opposing what they publicly spin as a “sell-out” plot by their “fellow Sunni” leader to side with their rival Shiites. Qatar might even kick Turkey’s military out of the country or severely restrict its operations to the point of effectively nullifying it if it doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the Saudis. The reverse of this scenario might see Qatar being the GCC “bad guy” if it feels “left out” by a Turkish-mediated ‘ceasefire’ in the Sunni-Shiite “Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and Iran and decides to play the role of regional spoiler by cooperating even more closely with the US than it presently does in order disrupt this process.
The other event that could happen to sabotage the Tripartite’s efforts is that one of its three members acts outside of coordination with the others and does something with the GCC that instantly leads to a security/strategic dilemma which unravels the incipient bloc’s solidarity by undermining the fundamental trust between its members. For example, this could happen if Turkey all of a sudden allowed the other GCC countries’ air forces to launch “anti-terrorist” attacks out of Incirlik, Russia suddenly moved towards concluding a surprisingly quick arms deal with Saudi Arabia for offensive weaponry, and/or Iran entered into a gas-exporting coordination agreement with Qatar that excludes Russia. Neither of these are likely, but they simply serve as examples of what could happen to undermine the Tripartite from within, and it can be assured that the US and its allies will try as hard as they can to make the Gulf region the self-dug grave of this rival geopolitical bloc, no matter what schemes they eventually cook up in their attempts to offset it.