By Michael C. Hudson
In this Insight, MEI Director Michael C. Hudson reports on his recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with with officials, policymakers, and scholars.
Anyone lucky enough to be dining in a world-class restaurant in Burj al-Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, or browsing in the opulent shopping centers of Abu Dhabi, as I was lately, might be pardoned for dismissing the Arab uprisings as an eruption from another planet and Iran as an errant asteroid far distant from the bubble of the Arab Gulf states.
Why then are some Emirati intellectuals uneasy, not to say worried, about the old question of Gulf security? Such an issue was left to the British to handle in the colonial days. After Britain pulled out in the early 1970s the United States, initially using the Shah of Iran as a buffer against nationalist and Soviet challenges, stepped in to keep the Gulf calm. Even after three Gulf wars—Iraq vs. Iran from 1980 to 1988; Iraq’s invasion of and subsequent expulsion from Kuwait in 1990-91; and the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq from 2003 to 2011—this region grew spectacularly and has even largely brushed off the global financial crisis of 2008.
Yet all is not well in this glittering paradise of wealth and consumerism. The recent news of a foiled Islamist plot to overthrow the government of the UAE provides concrete evidence to support the view of some Emirati officials and intellectuals that the neighborhood has become much more dangerous since the onset of the Arab uprisings and the looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Some concerned local analysts suggest that the surprising popular uprisings that toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen could happen in certain Arab Gulf states, and they point to the ongoing, unfinished protest movement in GCC-member Bahrain. They also look at Saudi Arabia, with a vast geographical expanse, a comparatively large population, a disaffected Shiʿi minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province, and a reputed unemployment rate for Saudi youth of 40 percent.
These analysts also imagine that Iran’s confrontation with Israel and the United States could get out of hand, severely damaging the Gulf states. Whether the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would actually initiate an attack on Iran’s nuclear and military facilities before the U.S. election November 6 is constantly debated in Washington and other capitals. Sensible analysts say no, but how sensible are Israeli decision-makers? The temptation to use election leverage to force Washington to support an Israeli military adventure must be strong, even though many Israeli military and security officials think it is a crazy idea. But if the crazy idea were to be acted upon, the consequences for the Arab Gulf states and the whole world could be severe, starting with oil supplies threatened and energy and shipping costs spiked. Such an attack could also lead to Iranian-inspired sabotage not just in oil fields but also in Gulf cities. And who is to say whether al-Qaʿida- influenced cells wouldn’t also participate in the mayhem?
But other Gulf analysts (probably a majority) dismiss these warnings, and they make a serious case. Confronted with an argument that Gulf leaders, after the uprisings began, poured vast sums of money into “buying off” possibly disgruntled subjects, an Emirati analyst retorted that such expenditures were normal and were not to be taken as a sign of nervousness on the part of the authorities. Still, the fact that Saudi Arabia spent some $170 billion between February and March 2011 to create jobs, construct new housing, and provide raises and bonuses for government workers and the unemployed, and that the other Gulf states made similar extraordinary expenditures, did seem to indicate an unusual outpouring of beneficence. Would these expenditures have happened had the Arab uprisings not occurred? Why would citizens of the UAE and Qatar, who benefit from the world’s highest levels of social benefits, go into their sweltering streets to protest the “lack of democracy”?
As for the Iran problem, one well-placed analyst assured me that Gulf leaders had carefully considered all the scenarios associated with an Israeli-U.S. military action, and they had concluded that the Gulf states would weather the storm. Why? First, because the United States, with its augmented military assets, would quickly reopen the Strait of Hormuz and protect oil shipping. To be sure, there would be a short-term crisis and resulting price spike, but transport and trade would return to normal fairly quickly. As for Iranian attacks or sabotage on the Arab side of the Gulf, it is thought that Iranian leaders would hesitate to alienate Arab and Muslim public opinion by attacking oil and U.S. military installations in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Oman. A certain fatalism colors their analysis. What can small powers do? For them, hopefully the Americans and Israelis (and the Iranians) will act sensibly.
Perhaps naively, I asked a group of specialists from Gulf countries why they would have any problem with Islamist parties emerging to play a decisive role in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries affected by the uprisings. After all, wouldn’t they be happier with more culturally like-minded regimes coming to power? I felt like a dentist who had just touched a nerve. The Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots don’t accept the Islamic credentials of Gulf regimes, despite their honeyed words, they said. A self-described pro-American Omani intellectual said that to his regret the vast explosion of protest against the infamous anti-Islamic video originating in the United States was not the work of minority fringe extremist groups but rather represented an accumulation of resentment against U.S. policies, especially on Palestine.
So we see writ large a duality tragically revealed in the Benghazi events. Are the uprisings, in the present stage, still driven by “citizen protest,” or have they been overtaken by the violent agendas of militant organizations exploiting an Islamist, or in the case of Bahrain, sectarian legitimacy? Elites in the Gulf states fear that it is the latter; hence they are trying to build a firewall against the spread of uprisings to their neighborhood through cracking down on political expression while offering new material benefits. While they may be suspicious of the post-uprising regimes, they also may be expected to offer them aid in order to buy influence. And in the case of Syria, the one uprising they support (not out of enthusiasm for reform but to combat Iranian and Shiʿi power), they are deploying their considerable financial clout to install a friendly new regime. On balance it appears that the Gulf monarchies are mounting, if not a “counter-revolution” against the Arab uprisings, at least a containment campaign. As for their other main security concern—Iran—they uneasily hope that the Americans and Israelis will take care of that problem without too much collateral damage.
Michael C. Hudson, Director of the Middle East Institute, is also Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University. He has written, edited, and contributed to numerous books, including Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (Columbia University Press), Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (Yale University Press) and The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon (Random House).
 “UAE Islamists Admit Forming MLY Wing,” The News (Pakistan), 21 September 2012, http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-1-133232-UAE-Islamists-admit-forming-mly-wing.
 “Saudi Royal Handouts Put at $170bn,” Emirates 24/7, 22 March 2011, http://www.emirates247.com/business/economy-finance/saudi-royal-handouts-put-at-170bn-2011-03-22-1.371394.
 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming?” Time, 18 September 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/09/18/syrias-secular-and-islamist-rebels-who-are-the-saudis-and-the-qataris-arming; Samuel Burke and Claire Caizonetti, “Qatar’s PM: ‘We Have a Plan B for Syria,’” CNN Blogs (Christiane Amanpour), 24 September 2012, http://amanpour.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/24/qatars-pm-we-have-a-plan-b-for-syria/;