Spiraling tensions in the Persian Gulf have placed unprecedented strain on a regional security structure little changed since the 1980s, and have caused longstanding U.S. partners in the Gulf states to reassess the pillars of their defense and security relationships. The fallout from the attacks on maritime and energy targets in 2019 and the escalation in U.S.-Iran tension over the new year has led Gulf partners to question the deterrence value of U.S. security guarantees they had for years taken largely for granted. The muscular self-belief of the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi that drew the Saudis and Emiratis into a disastrous and unwinnable war in Yemen, approaching the start of its sixth year, has evaporated and been replaced by a sudden desire for dialogue and de-escalation with Iran. An unanticipated outcome of the gradual disengagement of U.S. interest, if not force, from the Gulf may, ironically, be a revival of diplomacy and a greater sense of realism and restraint in regional affairs moving forward.
The U.S.-led network of defense and security partnerships with Gulf states took shape in the decade between the Carter Doctrine (a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rather than the Islamic revolution in Iran) in January 1980 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and was locked into place by a series of defense cooperation agreements and force deployments in the 1990s. Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, a general feeling in Gulf capitals had been that the U.S. would be the regional security guarantor of last, or perhaps first, resort. That assumption was sorely tested during the early stages of the blockade of Qatar in June 2017, when President Trump initially castigated Qatar and applauded the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini-Egyptian move. For the first time in the post-1991 era, it was not the U.S. that acted rapidly to forestall a threat to a Gulf state, but Turkey. This reinforced the value of diversifying defense and security relationships and not being over-reliant on any single one that might ‘go rogue.’
Aside from causing shockwaves in Doha, the notion that a U.S. president might throw a partner under the bus was noted in Gulf capitals in 2017. Concerns were magnified by the perceived abandonment of Syria’s Kurds after a telephone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in October 2019. The cavalier and peremptory manner by which Trump appeared to dismiss the longstanding American partnership with the Kurds, and the way he was reported to have gone against political and military advice in doing so, made a deep impression in Gulf capitals. If Trump could abruptly abandon the Kurdish-led forces in Syria that had fought alongside U.S. forces in their battles against the Islamic State, might he not do the same, on a larger scale, to the Gulf states, as he had appeared briefly to do to Qatar in 2017?
The U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria took place against the backdrop of the pattern of incidents in and around the Persian Gulf that culminated with the missile and drone strikes against Saudi oil installations on September 14. Tensions in the region escalated almost immediately after the Trump administration launched its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran in April and May 2019, with the introduction of new sanctions on Iranian officials, further restrictions on exports of Iranian oil, and the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the Quds Force commanded by General Qassem Soleimani, as a foreign terrorist organization.
A series of ‘incidents’ of varying severity began within weeks to target the maritime and energy sectors linked to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two U.S. partners that had been the most hawkish toward Iran as well as the most closely associated with the Trump administration’s regional policy agenda. These included attacks on four commercial ships off the coast of the Emirati port of Fujairah on May 12, a drone attack against a Saudi oil pipeline on May 13, further attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13, and the shooting down of a U.S. drone on June 20 that reportedly violated Iranian airspace after having taken off from a U.S. airbase in Abu Dhabi. Most spectacular of all — and the most cathartic for U.S. partners in the Gulf — was the drone and missile strike on Saudi oil infrastructure on September 14 that targeted Aramco’s giant oil-processing facility at Abqaiq as well as the Khurais oilfield.
The swarm of drones and cruise missiles fired from an (as-yet) unknown location evaded Saudi missile defense systems and knocked out, albeit only temporarily, 5.7 million barrels of Saudi Arabia’s total of 9.8 million barrels per day oil production capacity. The scale and the success of the attacks underscored the vulnerability of the expensively procured defensive systems in Saudi Arabia and other GCC states against asymmetric, rather than conventional, threats. A Saudi ‘security analyst,’ speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, captured the sense of shock in the Kingdom when s/he stated that “The attack is like September 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer (…) Where are the air defense systems and the U.S. weaponry for which we spent billions of dollars to protect the Kingdom and its oil facilities? If they did this with such precision, they can also hit the desalination plants and more targets.”
Perhaps more shocking to leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE than the need to urgently reassess threat perceptions and defense capabilities was the Trump administration’s reaction to the pattern of attacks between May and September. The lack of a visible U.S. response to the attacks on shipping or to the assault on the nerve-center of the Saudi economy was all the more pronounced when compared with Trump’s response to the Iranian downing of a U.S. drone in June 2019, when the U.S. launched a cyberattack against Iran’s electronic warfare capabilities, or after the killing of an American contractor and the storming of the U.S. embassy compound in Iraq in December, when Trump ordered the drone attack that killed Soleimani on January 3, 2020.
Whether intended by the White House or not, the lesson taken by Gulf partners has been that the Trump administration is only likely to act to defend them if U.S. interests are directly involved or hit. This realization, especially among officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that they were on their own more than they may ever have thought possible prompted a flurry of outreach to Iran, both directly and through intermediaries, even before the spike in U.S.-Iran tension brought the region to the brink of war. A delegation from the UAE traveled to Iran in July 2019 to discuss coastguard and related maritime security issues, shortly after the UAE had announced a troop redeployment in Yemen as well. In the weeks after the Saudi attacks in September, the Saudi leadership made discrete approaches to their counterparts in Pakistan and Iraq in a bid to open back-channels of dialogue with Iran to de-escalate tension.
Since the Soleimani killing, diplomacy in the Gulf has intensified with the Qatari and Omani foreign ministers as well as the Emir of Qatar all traveling to Iran, and leaders in every capital, including Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, expressing the importance of de-escalating tension — a far cry from the bellicosity of comments by leading Saudis and prominent Emiratis in 2017 and 2018, directly targeting Iran. The effects of the demonstration of Iranian threat and concern at the U.S. response has had a restraining impact on regional leaders, especially as they gear up for Dubai’s World Expo 2020 and Saudi Arabia’s G-20 Summit. An ‘outbreak of diplomacy’ may not chime with the Trump administration’s desire to further ramp up pressure on Iran, but it does at least offer the hope that regional security arrangements might be based on more realistic power projections in the future than they have been in the past.