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The US administration’s deal with Iran on its nuclear program, which ends sanctions and paves the way for rapprochement with Tehran, was viewed by some as a rather low move by Washington against its longtime allies in the Gulf, who were loyal for over five decades. As a result, some in the region believe the deal requires the Gulf states reconsider their relationship with the US.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries with the US is not an ordinary one and is a prime example of what diplomacy can achieve in our region. Those who aren’t aware of what it has achieved do not value it and do not have a deep understanding of politics. Relations are usually established within the context of mutual interests and are based on respecting charters and agreements, including non-written ones; they must not be viewed on the basis of mythical conspiracy theories nor endowed with more interpretation than can be tolerated or supported in terms of prior commitments. The relationship with Washington is thus not based on nationalist, religious, or emotional ties. Its pillars are oil, commerce, and political consensus over several issues—though not all; there are some major issues on which the Gulf states and Washington differ, and those differences will continue to exist. Sure, Gulf–US ties are not as strong as those between Washington and, say, Britain, but they still much more solid than the relationship the US has with some other Arab and Islamic countries.
The Americans have found in the Gulf states a set of stable regional allies—allies who honor their agreements, unlike other countries in the Middle such as Libya and Iran, which are much more unstable, and hostile. Washington has found consensus with the Gulf states on most issues and there is a long list of examples on which we can find agreement between them. Even when the Saudis have disagreed with the US over strategic issues, such as ending the authority of American companies over Saudi oil company Aramco, the dispute was resolved in a cordial manner that suited both parties. Compare this with Iranian, Libyan, and Iraqi oil-related disputes, which have remained controversial, and sometimes unresolved, for decades.
If we put the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Washington—which was formulated in 1945 by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Al Saud and President Franklin D. Roosevelt—within its correct context, we will fully appreciate its benefits by making note of all the crises we have faced in the region since then. Note, however, that the relationship between the Gulf and Washington actually dates back to World War I. However, at that time, the Americans refrained from getting involved in political and military endeavors outside their continent and left the arena open for European powers. Gulf countries, in cooperation with the US, overcame dangerous ordeals since the 1950s, confronting the Nasserist tide and the Ba’athists in Iraq in the 1960s, the communists in South Yemen in the 1970s, the Khomeinists in Iran during the 1980s, and the Iraqi invasion in the 1990s—and they have also addressed Iranian threats since 2000. Without major alliances, it is difficult for countries to overcome such threats, which were also linked to major international alliances during the Cold War. It is no coincidence that regional countries still standing on their feet actually have similar policies and alliances—this includes the Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco. Aside from Algeria, all other regimes in the region have collapsed or totally morphed.
The economic situation is similar to the political one. It is no coincidence that Gulf countries produce 15 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) while Iran has been incapable of producing no more than 3 million bpd despite its best efforts and the help it has received from Russia and China during the last 30 years. Iran failed because the US refused to grant it the technology and expertise to develop its production, and it failed even though the Iranian topography is similar to that of its Gulf neighbors. Iran is home to the second-largest oil reserves in the Middle East, right after Saudi Arabia. Iraq comes third, some even say first, but due to its struggles with the West and its alliances in the region, it has failed to develop a viable domestic oil industry.
This is the result of political relations and not specific business deals.
Of course, there have always been disagreements between the Gulf and Washington, over several issues, most notably Palestine. This issue remains highly problematic but it has not been allowed to sabotage the entire relationship because the Gulf states are aware that Arabs who allied themselves with the Soviet Union did not succeed in achieving any victories, nor did they gain any rights, or retrieve land, for the Palestinians. There have, of course, been other disputes between the Gulf and the US, but most of them have been temporary blips. For example in 2001 Saudi Arabia refused to grant Washington the right to use its territory to attack Afghanistan (while Iran accepted). At the same time, however, over the past decade Saudi Arabia has provided the Americans with ample information and intelligence to aid in Washington’s war against Al-Qaeda.
At the current stage of the relationship, there is a heated dispute between the Gulf countries and the US—on the nuclear agreement with Iran. This represents lowest point in the history of the Gulf–US relationship. However, it will most likely not lead to a rupture between them, nor even a reevaluation of the relationship from either side—at least that is what I think. Those who recently wrote articles gloating about what happened or condemning the relationship altogether do not see beyond this crisis. Of course it will require serious diplomatic efforts in order to be resolved. But this is not the first time the US government has taken decisions in the region which have stood squarely against Riyadh’s own positions. After all, this should be par for the course considering that each country has its own unique interests.