November 15 – 16, 2016
This is a summary of discussions that took place at the inaugural Gulf Geopolitics Forum at Chatham House on 15–16 November 2016. The meeting brought together international experts in government and academia, along with policymakers, to assess the often troubled relationship between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours, while parsing US policy towards the Gulf. Participants also explored the state of play in the wider Middle East and North Africa – discussing shifting dynamics, relationships and emerging trends among the main actors with a stake there.
The meeting was the first of two events to be convened jointly by the Middle East and North Africa Programme and the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House, and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW). A second workshop will take place in Washington, DC, in February 2017.
The purpose of the meeting was to consider policy options for mitigating intra-regional tensions while building a more sustainable security environment in the Gulf. The key points of consensus among participants were as follows.
- The rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia greatly affects the stability of the Middle East. However, Saudi–Iranian tensions are not the sole cause of instability there and it should not be viewed solely through this prism.
- High-level communication between Iran and Saudi Arabia on technical issues of mutual concern could serve as a first step towards establishing an official dialogue and, potentially, better security arrangements in the Gulf and wider Middle East.
- The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the US has caused uncertainty among policymakers and experts alike over what his administration’s regional and wider foreign policy will look like.
- While participants generally agreed that much of the status quo was likely to be maintained as a default position, they also predicted a departure from some of President Obama’s policies in the Middle East, particularly if there is a recalibration of the US’s relationship with Russia, which would have many consequences, most notably in Syria.
- However, although the Obama administration is viewed unfavourably by the Gulf states, there is an open question as to whether Trump will be a better strategic partner. Most participants expected that he would not maintain the harsh tone and rhetoric he employed towards the Gulf states during his campaign.
- Meaningful Saudi–Iranian dialogue will ultimately be necessary to ease tensions between them and to reduce the role both countries play in driving conflict in the Middle East.
- Beyond geopolitics, Gulf leaders and policymakers need to focus on their own publics and address the issues that caused turmoil in other Middle Eastern states, including unemployment, good governance and popular participation.
- Rather than introducing short-term measures, the Gulf’s powers and global stakeholders must address its problems, including extremism, the refugee crisis and economic change, with a view to achieving long-term stability.
- Participants also discussed a series of likely ‘trigger events’, including major terrorist attacks on US soil or direct Saudi–Iranian confrontation, which might substantially alter the course of events in the region, increasing the volatility and conflict. This question – which will be discussed in more depth at the second workshop, and will play a central role in a forthcoming joint Chatham House and AGSIW paper – has become particularly acute since the elevation of the unpredictable and volatile Donald Trump to the US presidency.
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