November 15, 2019
Prominent policy specialists from the Gulf dismissed on Monday Western criticism of a more assertive foreign policy by the region’s Arab powers, saying they aim to boost deterrence against Iran while maintaining scope for negotiations.
At the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, policy practitioners from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait stressed that fundamental compromise remained the only way in the long run to neutralise what they regard as the Iranian threat.
In its sixth year, the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, organised by the Emirates Policy Centre, is a major gathering of specialists from the region and abroad.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the opening session on Sunday that a comprehensive deal for a “new, more stable” order that tackles Iran’s nuclear programme, ballistic missiles and regional action was still possible through collective diplomacy.
When it comes to the nuclear deal, officially named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the countries involved “should not fall for the false choice between war on the one hand or a flawed JCPOA on the other,” Mr Gargash said.
In a session on Arab Gulf capabilities, the speakers rejected European policies that, in pursuit of maintaining the 2015 nuclear deal, sought accommodation with Tehran, regardless of Iranian action in the region.
But neither did they express confidence that the US was serious about curbing what Washington regards as Iran’s expansion in the Middle East.
They said Gulf countries have no choice except to strengthen their defensive military capabilities and keep advancing their economies, as well as the management of their oil resources, further widening the development gap with Iran, although there remain deep differences among the GCC on how to deal with Iran.
The speakers said that the push back against Iran had prevented Tehran’s proxies from gaining more territories in Yemen.
Gulf backing for the new post-Bashir arrangement in Sudan helped curb security influence that Iran had carved out with the Omar Al Bashir’s regime, they said, adding that the uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon show the failures of Iran’s Shiite militia proxies.
Saad Al Ajmi, a former Kuwaiti information minister who teaches at Kuwait University, said the region is divided between “hawks and doves” on Iran.
Outside this equation, he said, is Oman, which he characterised as having adopted a policy of “self-introversion”.
“As you notice, Oman is not even represented in this forum,” he said.
Mr Ajmi said even the doves should not underestimate that Iranian foreign policy has sought to over-extend the the influence of Shiite communities who are ultimately an overall minority in the region.
The Gulf, said Emirati political scientist Abdul Khaleq Abdulla, has transformed in recent years from being highly susceptible to outside influence to exerting external influence in its own right.
“We do not need lessons from outside. We know Iran. We have been trying to co-habitate with Iran since 1979,” Mr Addul Khaleq said.
He dismissed any hope that reformists could influence in any fundamental way foreign policy in Tehran, which he said is based on mix of sectarianism and the export of the 1979 revolution, and steered by the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Those who do not know this will not know how to deal with Iran,” he said, adding that the Iranian security threats justified the military spending in the region and the alliance with the US, in ways similar to the security challenge faced by South Korea.
Ebtesam Al Ketbi, head of the Emirates Policy Centre said that the attack on Saudi Aramco oil plants in September showed that Iran has little qualms about going on the offensive without having to worry about possessing similarly advanced facilities that could be damaged in retaliation.
She said Iran’s focus on projecting military prowess was misguided, with the focus in Arab Gulf countries on promoting technology and an open economy as well as sustainability yielding tangible gains for its inhabitants.
This should entice Iranian leaders “to move from a zero sum game to a win-win formula,” she said. But no assessment emerged from the debates that compromise would be reached in the short-term.