Gulf Hegemony Reply

Stephen Walt says the smaller Gulf states aren’t colonies — J. Dana Stuster politely disagrees. 

By J. Dana Stuster

You don’t have to agree with Stephen Walt to respect him. I think that’s as good a place as any to start this post, given the Jerusalem Review’s Israeli readership.  Personally, I like his work. There are points where I disagree, or where I think he presses too far, but I respect his willingness to address controversial topics. Don’t stop reading just because this is a post about Walt — it’s not even about Israel, okay?

In a recent post on his blog at Foreign Policy (full disclosure: I’m an intern at FP), Walt asked, basically, why aren’t the smaller Gulf states somebody’s colonies? They’re strange anomalies in the realist system, he writes. They’re wealthy, have access to precious resources, lie along critical sea lines of communication — why wouldn’t some larger power just come along and pluck them up? He offers some potential reasons, and then he says something strange:

“A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else’s expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.”

Did you do a double take reading that, too? Notice the way Walt writes about the Gulf — it’s a collective noun, but what ensures that collectivity is one country: Saudi Arabia. The Saudis underwrite the collective security — internal and external — of the peninsula through a large deterrent military force and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Need an example? Look to Bahrain, conspicuously absent from Walt’s discussion of small Gulf states. As protests escalated early last year, Bahrain turned to its security patron, and in poured over a thousand Saudi soldiers as part of the GCC’s Peninsular Shield force. After years of trying to downplay their dominance, the fact that Bahrain was essentially a Saudi colony became glaringly apparent — and then was nearly formalized as discussions took place about potentially unifying the two countries.

The Gulf states that Walt writes about — the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar — are nominally independent, but their independence has been underwritten not by the “great power protection” they have received from Britain and the United States, as Walt mentions earlier in the post. (The United States continues to secure sea lanes in the Persian Gulf and maintains a military presence, but U.S. influence in these countries is lukewarm at best.) Instead, the great power protection comes from the regional power next door. The Middle East is not a closed system, but its regional politics for the past twenty years have been defined by the bipolar power relations of Saudi and Iranian spheres of influence. And within this system, Saudi Arabia has carefully subsumed its small neighbors without ever having to formally declare them colonies. Between the small states’ wealth and their security — guaranteed by Saudi Arabia — they’ve been off limits, leaving the Saudi-Iranian proxy war to play out at weaker points along the Saudi periphery. (There have been some fascinating hints of this in the Syrian civil war and in the power jockeying in Iraq and Yemen in the past two years, but both have been fairly opaque and under-researched and reported.)

After two decades, though, this system is in flux. Turkey’s ascendance in regional affairs under the Justice and Development Party government is placing it with a view to challenge the bipolar system. Saudi hegemony in the Gulf is faltering, and Qatar’s role in the Arab Spring — in its messaging through al Jazeera and its eagerness to intervene on behalf of the rebels in Libya — has demonstrated an independent foreign policy far more assertive than that of the Saudi royals. It will be very interesting to see if Qatar continues to try to break away from Saudi Arabia’s more conservative efforts to preserve the regional status quo in coming years. The balance of power in the Middle East may look very different a decade from now, and much of it will be determined by whether the revolutionary countries of the past two years, and those to come, can forge a political space in the region independent of the Saudi-Iranian cold war. In the meantime, though, the battlelines are set. The small Gulf states aren’t colonies? They practically are. We just don’t call them that. That would be rude.

Incidentally, Stephen Walt (@StephenWalt) just joined Twitter. You should probably follow him.

J. Dana Stuster is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Review. He is also on Twitter: @JDanaStuster.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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