THE WEST'S EXPECTATIONS OF SUNNI MONARCHIES
By Brian M Downing
The unexpected Islamic State offensive into IRAQ has rattled capitals and altered political dynamics in the GULF. Led by SAUDI ARABIA, the Sunni monarchies were moving away from the UNITED STATES owing to its support for democracy in the region and its effort to reopen ties with IRAN, which the Sunni states deem a heretical land and a geopolitical threat.
THE SUNNIS, BY NECESSITY, HAVE NOW REALIGNED MORE CLOSELY WITH THE US, BRITAIN, AND FRANCE
Though the duration of this move is uncertain, persistent military problems in the region suggest it will last longer than the present crisis. WESTERN EUROPE is far less dependent on GULF oil than in decades past; the US has shifted mainly to CANADA and MEXICO for its energy needs and will be self-sufficient in about 16 years - a blink of the eye in strategic thinking. The WEST will certainly look for something in return from the last of the monarchies.
The Sunni states are unable to defend the region from the disciplined, aggressive, but relatively small, lightly equipped forces of IS. Despite lavish expenditures, extensive training programs, and impressive numbers of battalions and squadrons, GULF armies are deeply flawed by corruption, tribal and sectarian fissures, and poor leadership. There is no reason to expect reform, especially when outside forces are available to provide security.
Regional security is also limited by sectarian hostility, which has reached new highs with the demise of Sunni control in IRAQ and the rise of IRAN'S nuclear program. Shia troops from IRAN are unable to act decisively in IRAQ without triggering fears and reactions from Sunni states. Sunni troops cannot intervene without triggering the same responses in IRAN.
The GULF states are exporting less to the EUROPEAN UNION and the US and far more to CHINA and INDIA. Though CHINA and INDIA are rising powers in the world and eager to demonstrate it, neither is capable of projecting significant power inside the GULF. Furthermore, neither is eager to get involved militarily in such a nettlesome region.
THE SUNNI STATES HAVE MOVED CLOSER TO RUSSIA IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE RIFT WITH THE US
Several arms contracts have gone, not to traditional suppliers in the WEST but to RUSSIA - including sizable sales to EGYPT and LEBANON financed by SAUDI ARABIA. Though embarked on a mission to reestablish RUSSIA'S position as a major power, President VLADIMIR PUTIN is preoccupied with controlling eastern UKRAINE, and in any event is more closely aligned with SYRIA - second only to IRAN on the Sunni enemies list.
The Sunni monarchies, then, will need WESTERN military support for years to come. What will the WEST seek to gain from them?
The WESTERN perspective holds that the GULF states are badly in need of reform. Traditional elites cannot adapt to the rapidly modernizing societies beneath them. Further, one of the reasons for the poor showings by regional militaries is that the rank and file do not feel they have a stake in their countries. It is only a matter of time before there are more "Arab Springs", and more governments will fall.
The princes of the GULF see the events of the past few years as dire warnings. Democracy unleashes factionalism and tribalism, which causes separatism and disintegration. Government becomes paralyzed, society becomes decadent. Most ominously, militant Islam is allowed to agitate and proselytize openly. MUAMMAR GADDAFI, BASHAR AL-ASSAD, and SADDAM HUSSEIN at least held those forces in check and the fall of their authority is bringing ruin to the MIDDLE EAST. Such is the tendentious view from the palaces of the GULF princes, but some WESTERN policy makers may now be thinking twice about sudden moves toward democracy.
WESTERN pressure for reform is unlikely to meet with success, only half-hearted and oft-heard promises. They may, however, accede to other WESTERN requests.
EASING SECTARIAN HOSTILITIES
The IS threat is taking precedence in regional affairs, though an era of sectarian comity is not likely in the offing. Nonetheless, the momentum toward war between IRAN and the Sunni states has been halted and at least somewhat reversed. The three most powerful world powers - the US, CHINA and RUSSIA - all at present have good or promising relations with both sides and will maintain pressure on placing cooperation and oil production above ancient wraths.
This in turn may aid ongoing nuclear talks, as IRAN'S nuclear program has been driven in part by fear of another Sunni invasion such as the one that launched the IRAN-IRAQ War (1980-88), which cost IRAN at least 300,000 dead. Hardliners in IRAN, on the nuclear program and domestic issues as well, will be less forceful than in a time of sectarian tension.
Pressure on the US to destroy IRAN'S nuclear research sites comes and goes. The Obama administration will further deflect such pressure by citing the immediate danger IS poses for all MIDDLE EASTERN states, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and that IS confederates have reached the ISRAELI border along the GOLAN HEIGHTS.
Over the last year, SAUDI ARABIA has increased its arms purchases from CHINA and RUSSIA. Transactions with CHINA are related to balance of payments issues with a large oil importer, but they also convey RIYADH'S displeasure with the US - as do purchases from RUSSIA. RIYADH has also recently financed RUSSIAN arms sales to EGYPT and LEBANON.
The US, BRITAIN, and FRANCE may be successful in convincing SAUDI ARABIA and the other Sunni principalities to repay them for the campaign against IS, and for continued security assistance, with increased arms purchases. This would be a boon for WESTERN defense companies, especially FRENCH ones struggling in a weak national economy. The shift would also be a blow to the frail RUSSIAN economy, dealing with sanctions after the country's actions in UKRAINE.
WEST IS COMMITTED TO A COALITION OF ARCHAIC MONARCHIES THAT WILL ONE DAY FACE ANOTHER ARAB SPRING AND WILL PERHAPS EXPECT WESTERN HELP TO SUPPRESS IT
The US, BRITAIN, and FRANCE have begun a campaign - a limited but protracted and perhaps open-ended one - on the Islamic State, which is unlikely to bring great rewards, only modest though welcome increases in arms sales. There are potential and rather obvious costs too.
IS and individual sympathizers will seek to exact revenge for what they see as another round of interference aimed at exploiting and subjugating the region - this despite a highly publicized measure of ARAB involvement. Attacks may come in the region or in the home countries. Rebel groups in SYRIA are already distancing themselves from the WESTERN intervention, lest they be seen as complicit in western designs.
The campaign may also stimulate recruitment for IS and al-Qaeda at a time when they were experiencing desertions by fighters disillusioned with a cause that had seemed a noble cause of uniting the Muslim people but devolved into killing them.
Another longer-term cost is that the WEST is committed to a coalition of archaic monarchies that will one day face another Arab Spring and will perhaps expect WESTERN help to suppress it.