When the events of the Arab Spring were unfolding in the Middle East in 2011 pundits all over the world were silently awaiting when the unrest would finally break out in the Gulf. Although there was some semblance of the Arab Spring in Bahrain and Kuwait (even with suspicion falling on Iran), those events did not lead to dramatic power transitions as had been witnessed in Egypt or Libya. Three years later it became clear that the Arab Spring has affected the GCC but on an entirely different level.
Recent withdrawal of Bahraini, Emirati and Saudi ambassadors from Doha shows how big the ideological gap between the three and Qatar is. Behind the incident are many aspects that drive the sides apart, including Qatar's support for Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood (that is viewed by Saudi Arabia and UAE as a threat to their security). But beyond that is Qatar's decision not to authorize expansion of the U.S. Air Force contingent based outside Doha. This move by the new ruler Sheikh Tamim al-Thani was interpreted by the United States and fellow GCC countries as a shift in Qatar's regional priorities towards the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran has long been the primary concern of the GCC, but in November 2013 the Arab states of the Gulf were especially alarmed at the Iran nuclear deal concluded in Geneva. The recent incident in the GCC may have facilitated Iran's attempts to further weaken the unity. This will be possible along the lines of Qatar and Oman. An Iran-friendly Qatar sits on a gas field that it shares with the Islamic Republic, and cannot afford to carry out a blunt foreign policy towards Tehran.
Iran has long been the primary concern of the GCCBesides, on Wednesday, March 12, Iran's Rouhani traveled to Oman, the country that traditionally had good relations with Tehran and even reportedly conducted secret talks between Iran and the United States. The visit coming amidst a geopolitical clash in the GCC may be interpreted by Saudi Arabia as an attempt by Iran to gain more political leverage while the GCC unity is facing an uncertain future.
In the short term Iran may be eager to demonstrate its partner relations with Qatar and Oman to further aggravate the disagreement and to put Saudi Arabia at odds with fellow GCC states. In this game Iran may feel more comfortable than its counterpart as it has secured a confident position with international organizations and the West, who frostily admit that Tehran is implementing the nuclear deal in good faith.
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Iran's re-entry to oil markets and slow restoration of its economic power may also be a blow to the GCC. Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in particular, were forced to increase their social spending in the wake of the Arab Spring to prevent possible protests. Now their economic power is diminishing as Iran's reappearance on the market drives oil prices down, and this pushes the GCC countries closer to their break-even oil prices.
Last week (on March 8) the Lebanese Daily Star published an unconfirmed report that Rouhani had accepted a Saudi invitation to visit the country after Obama's visit to the country in late March. Tehran, however, denied that such an invitation had at all been made by Riyadh. At the same time Iranians reiterated that «the priority of (Iran's) foreign policy is based on good relations with ... neighbors including Saudi Arabia.»
As a result of this media trick, possibly initiated by Tehran, the Islamic Republic came about as a friendly neighbor implicitly proposing a thaw in relations with Saudi Arabia. The ball is on the Saudi side now, as they have to make a decision whether to send an invitation to Iran or not to send it. If such an invitation will be made, King Abdullah will recognise Iran's increasing role in GCC affairs, but will have a chance to hold a frank talk with Rouhani. If Saudi Arabia prefers not to host Rouhani in Riyadh, Tehran will have a carte-blanche to continue its policy of involvement in GCC with tacit agreement of Saudi Arabia.
In any case it looks like Saudi Arabia is driving itself in a zugzwang in relations with Iran when each move leads to deterioration of one's position. Tehran, on the other hand, is strategically well placed at the moment, which allows it to make bold geopolitical moves.
Things may start changing quickly however in the weeks ahead as several crucial events are to happen. First, the next round of high-level talks on Iran's nuclear program is to be held in Vienna on Monday. Second, the U.S. President's visit to Riyadh when Barack Obama may ask Riyadh to refrain from extreme Iran policies that may endanger the nuclear deal.