The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
The September 14 attacks on the Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais have demonstrated that the United States will not necessarily respond in kind to a conventional attack that is launched or sponsored by Iran. The United States’ pragmatic partners in the Gulf are realizing that, ultimately, they are the ones who have to live with Iran in their backyard, not the United States. The attacks have also shown that the strategy of conventional deterrence, bolstered by tens of billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales, has failed. New thinking is required to accomplish the strategic objectives of maintaining the free flow of oil and containing Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the region.
In light of the new normal created by the September 14 attacks, the experience of the British Empire in maintaining its interests in the Gulf during the 19th century can provide some lessons for how the United States should cultivate its partnerships in the Gulf today. The crux of the British approach was to work through Gulf partners whenever possible, to empower local decision making and only impose facts on the ground when necessary. The 1835 Maritime Truce, origin of the term “Trucial States,” embodied this approach. British authorities preferred to act upon requests from local actors, not unilaterally, and strove to match actions with the strategic objectives of the day, using limited resources.
The U.S. approach in the last 60 years or so has been somewhat less nuanced. The focus on building relationships through arms sales and refraining from seeking to influence local decision-making processes has created an unnatural dependence on conventional deterrence. The September 14 attacks, which were quite limited in scale given the extent of Iranian drone capabilities, exposed this trust in conventional deterrence as misplaced. Both U.S. and Gulf Arab officials thought the oil supply was safer than it actually was, and the hesitance with which both the United States and its allies have responded suggests either that Iranian audacity was well-founded, or that an attack on oil infrastructure, in which no one died, did not cause as much strategic pain as the world expected.
Historical Precedent for a Different Kind of Intervention
Whether oil markets are more flexible and robust now than they used to be, it serves no U.S. interest to allow Iran to become emboldened. Furthermore, considering how oil markets rebounded after the attacks, the free flow of oil may be less important to the United States strategically than preventing Iranian regional hegemony. Iranian regional hegemony stands to threaten U.S. interests more than interrupted oil flow, partly because Iran has a market incentive in letting the oil flow. How, then, should the United States and its Gulf partners contain Iranian ambitions, given that conventional deterrence seems to have failed and the United States seems less willing to use its military might to reinforce that deterrent?
The history of the 1835 Maritime Truce between the tribal chiefs of the southern Gulf littoral may offer some important lessons. In the years prior to this truce, persistent maritime disputes between tribal elements in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman, and Sharjah strained the fragile economies of the Gulf almost to the breaking point. These economies depended heavily on pearl harvests, like the economies of today’s Gulf depend on oil, and maritime warfare sometimes broke out because indebted pearlers would flee to a different emirate, or because of political rivalry, mainly between Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The British interest lay in preventing the interruption of shipping and communication with India, so while the British bombarded the port of Ras Al Khaimah in 1819 to deter what they considered piracy, they let lesser maritime disputes between the emirates go unheeded in the years thereafter.
By 1835, the British concluded that it was impossible to keep intra-Gulf maritime conflict from impinging on shipping and communications with India. After three years without pearling harvests because of these conflicts, the economies of the emirates were near collapse, so the rulers themselves were willing to agree to a cease-fire. The British resident met with key Gulf rulers, and the rulers themselves agreed to a maritime cease-fire for 10 years, while making no agreement to resolve the political disputes underlying the maritime violence. Crucially, the British were put in the position of enforcing the terms of the truce, not with force, but by levying indemnities on those rulers whose subjects violated the moratorium on violence at sea. When Britain judged that one of the parties had violated the truce, it declared a monetary penalty against the accused perpetrator. Since the British would not use force to take this indemnity, this enforcement mechanism was akin to dispute settlement in the World Trade Organization, where an arbitrator declares a penalty and it is up to the parties themselves to ensure enforcement. In effect, the Maritime Truce encouraged security through norm reinforcement more than through rule enforcement.
Applying the British Model
The 1835 Maritime Truce did not resolve all the political conflicts in the Gulf, and it did nothing to prevent military actions on land, but it did hold the actors involved somewhat accountable for the disruptive actions that the British cared about, and it did so without assigning blame or causing actors to lose face. Likewise, U.S. and Gulf Arab decision makers could gravitate toward this model to curtail Iranian hegemonic ambitions.
It is now apparent that Gulf security will ultimately be crafted by those who live there, not by U.S. arms. The negotiations over this security stand a better chance of sustainable success if they take place primarily between Iran and the Gulf Arab states, with the United States as a go-between or facilitator, and not between Iran and the United States, with the Gulf Arab states on the sidelines. While the United States is hardly an impartial observer in this conflict, neither were the British impartial during the 19th century; they actively undermined the delicate balance of power between the Qawasim of Sharjah and the Bu Falah rulers of Abu Dhabi. More important is that the United States, like the British before, could focus on reinforcing the norms of behavior that Iran and the Gulf Arab states agree to themselves. Conciliatory gestures by Washington toward Tehran could make the Iranians more willing to deal, but the core of the agreement would be with the Gulf Arab states, not the United States. Although the United States could continue to guarantee core aspects of Gulf Arab external security, when it comes to overall Gulf security the United States would not mediate and enforce rules, but merely reinforce agreed-upon norms. To play this role, complete Iranian acquiescence to U.S. actions is not necessary. Rather, Iran need only exhibit begrudging acceptance that there are few, if any, other states that could play this role.
Under this framework of norm reinforcement, an agreement between Iran and the Gulf Arab states would proscribe some actions specifically, for example, attacks on oil infrastructure or shipping, uranium enrichment over a certain level, and the transfer of certain kinds of weapons. The agreement could carry a definite time limit, which would make it more acceptable to all the parties involved. Such an agreement would not paper over underlying political disputes, and it would give the parties involved a forum to work out disputes themselves while relinquishing very little sovereignty, like dispute resolution in the World Trade Organization. This would alleviate the pressure of having to respond to the outrage of the day. Furthermore, the United States could use economic statecraft to reinforce the agreement.
While Iran cannot be expected to submit unconditionally to the full range of U.S. and Gulf Arab demands, at least not without an “all-out war” that no one wants, the United States likewise cannot allow Iran to extort submission from the Gulf Arab states with the threat of regional hegemony. The 1835 Maritime Truce could provide a model for reducing conflict and establishing a more secure Gulf, with an agreement negotiated between Iran and the Gulf Arab states – an agreement that holds actors accountable for specific actions but does not assign blame for the underlying political dynamics. Under this model, U.S. military forces would remain in the region to act as a reinforcer of a local agreement, not as an implausible deterrent against a wide range of Iranian behavior. This would allow the United States’ Gulf Arab partners to take greater control over the future of Gulf security, and it would allow the United States to forge a more enduring, realistic partnership with the Gulf Arab states.
is a former faculty member at the UAE National Defense College. He is the author of “How Militaries Learn: Human Capital, Military Education, and Battlefield Effectiveness” and consults on military education, security cooperation, and Gulf affairs.
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