The Struggle For Influence Around The Arabian Peninsula


Thu, 07-10-2021 09:36 AM, Aden Time

Andrew Korybko (South24)

The Arabian Peninsula has emerged as arena of geopolitical competition in recent years. Prior to the 2011 theater-wide spree of Color Revolutions popularly called the “Arab Spring”, this region was regarded as among the most stable in all of Asia. The unrest in Bahrain that year prompted a Saudi-led military intervention and was the first recent sign of instability in the peninsula. The Yemeni War then began in 2014 after the Ansarullah/Houthis captured the capital of Sanaa. Another Saudi-led military intervention was launched to dislodge them after the group kept marching south and took over Aden. Saudi Arabia and its allies suspect that Iran played a clandestine role in aiding and abetting both conflicts as part of its regional proxy war campaign. 

The strategic situation around the Arabian Peninsula continued to evolve in the years since. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) officially recognized Israel in September 2020. Since US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, US-Saudi relations deteriorated after America withdrew military support for its ally's operations in Yemen and began reducing its presence in the region. This followed the UAE drastically scaling back its role in the conflict in mid-2019. Over the past few years, the Houthis have also scaled up their drone and missile attacks against the Kingdom. Peace in Yemen still remains elusive to this day though that might change in the future as will be explained later in this analysis. 

The continued uncertainty surrounding the Arabian Peninsula is of immense importance for the rest of the world. The Gulf remains the largest energy-producing region on the planet while the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea (GARS) is irreplaceable in terms of the role that it plays in facilitating maritime trade between both sides of the supercontinent. For all intents and purposes, this part of the Eastern Hemisphere can thus be described as one of the pillars of the global economy. There are several trends that influence stability in the Arabian Peninsula. The most significant is the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, which Riyadh regards as bilateral whereas Tehran suspects that the Kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies are acting as proxies of Tel Aviv. 

This leads to the next regional trend which is those two earlier mentioned GCC members' recognition of Israel. Iran interpreted this move as being aimed against it and warned that'll be regionally destabilizing. It's unclear whether Tehran fears that Tel Aviv might exploit those countries to intensify what the Islamic Republic suspects is Israel's proxy war against it or if Iran will asymmetrically respond to these fears by scaling up its own proxy wars, particularly in Yemen. In any case, regardless of the reasons behind that recognition, it contributed to worsening tensions between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula countries. The US' recent pressure on Saudi Arabia is the next most important regional trend since this complicated the Kingdom's national security even more. 

The last trend of significance is that the UAE is behaving more independently of Saudi Arabia. Observers used to regard Saudi Arabia as the UAE's “big brother”, but that perception is outdated nowadays. After all, if it that was still the case, then the UAE wouldn't have scaled back its role in Yemen two years ago. It also wouldn't continue providing political support to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) whose separatist goal Riyadh regards as further complicating its own goals in Yemen. The result of these trends is that they seem to have incentivized Saudi Arabia to enter into talks with Iran and consider the wisdom of seriously negotiating a political solution to the Yemen War. A successful outcome to the first talks might directly lead to a successful one for the second. 

Considering all of this, a few supplementary observations can be made. The first is that the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is manageable at least in theory though only as long as both parties sincerely have the political will to make it so. Bahrain and the UAE's recognition of Israel, however, is irreversible. Those decisions were made after carefully considering the pros and cons. Although they contributed to worsening tensions with Iran, the Islamic Republic cannot influence those countries into going back on their new policies. The UAE's independent policies as of late vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia also aren't expected to change as Abu Dhabi becomes a more confident regional player with transregional economic and military influence. The STC will also not be suppressed either. 

The US' changed stance towards Saudi Arabia under the Biden Administration is among the greatest differences between the incumbent American leader and his predecessor, but it's also consistent with the US' grand strategic refocusing on the Asia-Pacific in order to contain China. The Pentagon regards this as more of a priority than retaining its prior presence in West Asia in order to contain Iran. With this in mind, some shift of the American military presence in West Asia to East and Southeast Asia was likely inevitable with time but was temporarily delayed by former US President Trump for political reasons due to his arguably personal dislike of Iran and his son-in-law Jared Kushner's close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). 

Since the American military shift is already in motion and the country's diplomatic structures have begun putting pressure on Saudi Arabia in parallel with this, it's improbable that this trend can be reversed even though it might be more responsibly managed sometime in the future. The way in which it's been implemented thus far suggests that this process has been strategically weaponized to put pressure on Saudi Arabia into compromising on its regional interests. The US might be trying to get its ally to negotiate with Iran in good faith since it cannot rely on America to fully ensure its security interests like before, sincerely pursue a political solution to the Yemen War, and consider recognizing Israel sometime in the near future. 

These presumable motivations are interpreted differently by each regional stakeholder. Saudi Arabia probably regards it as an unpleasant surprise since its leadership hadn't expected their American ally to pressure them like this. The US is indirectly responsible for worsening its regional security interests due to its refusal to continue militarily supporting the Kingdom's Yemen War and the ongoing shift of some of its forces from West Asia to the Asia-Pacific despite not yet having successfully renegotiated the Iranian nuclear deal. These factors are influential enough to possibly compel Saudi Arabia into complying with at least the first two of America's presumable demands while the last one related to recognizing Israel might still remain very politically sensitive. 

As for the self-professed Jewish State, it too probably doesn't like that the US is focusing more on the Asia-Pacific at the expense of West Asia, but it's still in a comparatively better position than Saudi Arabia. Unlike the Kingdom which still comes under drone and missile attacks from the Houthis to this day, Israel has succeeded in stopping practically all attacks against it from Syria. Since Tel Aviv has ensured its immediate regional security interests better than Riyadh has (though this is due to its de facto alliance with Moscow more than anything else), it has more strategic flexibility in the Arabian Peninsula. Bahrain and the UAE's recognition of it last year was a huge diplomatic success and strengthens its presence in the Gulf right on Iran's doorstep. 

The Islamic Republic definitely doesn't approve of Israel's official political relations with its Gulf neighbors but is powerless to reverse this diplomatic development. Instead, it seeks to cleverly take advantage of the pressure that Saudi Arabia's American ally recently put it under in order to explore the possibility of a so-called “non-aggression pact”. In practice, this could result in a region-wide series of “mutual compromises” aimed at responsibly regulating their competition with an eye on most immediately making progress on negotiating a political solution to the Yemen War. Tehran might feel that talking with Riyadh in good faith could send a positive signal to Washington and thus help make progress on renegotiating the nuclear deal. 

Amidst all of this, the UAE finds itself in an advantageous strategic position. By mostly extricating itself from the Yemen War two years ago, it avoided coming under the US' political pressure on that pretext like Saudi Arabia has recently experienced. It also sent a positive signal to Iran that might have comparatively cushioned the diplomatic impact of its decision to recognize Israel. Although that move still provoked the Islamic Republic, it should still appreciate that the UAE is no longer an equal party to the Yemen War as Saudi Arabia is, which might indirectly help to manage their regional tensions. Furthermore, by continuing to politically support the STC, the UAE retains leverage in the war-torn country which bolsters its strategic autonomy vis-a-vis Riyadh.

Andrew Korybko
a Moscow-based American political analyst 

-Phoot: Anton Balazh

Arabian PeninsulaYemenSaudi ArabiaUAESouth YemenUSA