Arab regimes on the western shores of the Persian Gulf are taking their first tentative steps towards normalising relations with Iran. The recent summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference in Tehran (December 9-11) helped ease regional tensions but given their unrepresentative character, the Arab rulers live in constant fear for survival.
This was reflected in the eighteenth summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which concluded in Kuwait on December 23. Excitement about a ‘new era’ in relations with Iran overshadowed several decisions the Arab rulers took pertaining to security.
The GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - UAE) heads approved an $88 million radar network that will link their air warning systems as well as a $70 million secure fibre-optic communications system. The former will be supplied by Hughes Space Communications International of the US while the latter by Sweden’s Ericsson. The sums involved though small compared with amounts generally spent on defence, reflect their continuing concern about security and long-term survival.
The host, Shaikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah of Kuwait was jittery about Iraq’s continuing defiance of UN resolutions and was in no mood to forgive the enfante terrible of the Middle East, Saddam Husain, for invading and occupying his shaikhdom in August 1990. But there was also unease about the continuing presence of US forces in the region.
The Americans are like the guest who came for breakfast and stayed till christmas. They appear in no mood to leave, having entrenched themselves not only in Kuwait but also in Bahrain where they have a major naval base, as well as in Saudi Arabia. There more than 50,000 US military personnel in the region. Additionally, the 50-ship armada prowling the Persian Gulf has another 15,000 personnel onboard.
The bulk of the cost of US military presence is borne by the regimes. It is this reality that has finally dawned on the Arab rulers: they are being taken for a ride. Uncle Sam is a difficult customer to satisfy. He not only insists on selling them military equipment, which their armies cannot use, but also wants them to pay for unwelcome US military presence there - at a price tag $50 billion annually.
Uncle Sam’s excessive demands have bankrupted many of these regimes. It is Washington which dictates over-production of oil to keep the price artificially low (the Saudis are the most obliging in this respect) and charges exorbitant prices for military hardware as well as the personnel sent to ‘train’ armies of the GCC States.
The US has deliberately created fear among rulers about Iran’s revolutionary government as well as kept the Iraqi issue alive by provocative moves through the UN. In league with Britain, the US keeps the Persian Gulf a zone of instability.
While the Arab regimes are mired in their own border disputes - their artificial nature was bound to create such problems - the west has amplified the dispute over the three islands in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Sharjah (part of the UAE ). The Kuwait-Iraq border dispute which exploded into full-scale war is one source of conflict, but there are others as well. Qatar has a border dispute with both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Thus, there are several potential trouble spots and no shortage of trouble-makers.
But the expression of a desire by the GCC to improve ties with Iran is important because it could mark the beginning of a new pattern of relations. Seen against this backdrop, the overtures to Tehran assume new significance. There is a growing realization in many Arab capitals that the US is mainly responsible for strained relations with Iran. If the trend catches on and a thrust towards normalization is created, this would change the direction of politics in the region. The implications of this for the US would be far-reaching.
So far Washington has successfully manipulated regional tensions to promote its own interests in the Middle East. Once these countries reorder their ties, US influence in the region would decline. That, however, is a long way off.
These countries are facing a serious financial crunch, running budget deficits despite earning nearly $70 billion in oil revenues annually. They have thought of a novel way to overcome this. Taking a leaf out of Uncle Sam’s tactics, they have urged Japan to invest in their countries. Out of Tokyo’s worldwide investment of $386 billion, only a fraction - $3.5 billion - is invested in the GCC States.
Japan has balked at the suggestion even if two-way trade between them peaked at $37.5 billion in 1996. It has argued that GCC countries improve laws on financial transparency and ease curbs on foreign investment, something these States are slow to implement.
Instead, GCC members have offered to ensure long-term, secure crude supplies for their Japanese clients in return for technological
assistance. ‘We supply Japan with more than 70 percent of its oil needs and the level is set to increase in the near future. We believe it is Japan’s duty to assist us in building an industrial base to diversify our sources of income,’ said one banking official in Bahrain.
They would not dare make the same demand of the US which has brought them to the verge of bankruptcy in the first place.
Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1998