A Time for Talks: Toward Dialogue between the Gulf Arab States and Iran
A Time for Talks: Toward Dialogue between the Gulf Arab States and Iran
The Gulf Arab states have perceived threats from Iran since the 1979 revolution. Frictions have lessened of late, offering an important opportunity. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should keep engaging Tehran with an eye to initiating the broadest possible talks on regional peace and security.
By The International Crisis Group
August 24, 2021
What’s new? President Joe Biden’s election augured a change in the U.S. approach to Iran, aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement. But restoring the deal, should it occur, will do little to address fears among Gulf Arab states of Iranian regional power projection through its non-state allies and ballistic missile program.
Why does it matter? Tensions in the Middle East have calmed of late but may rise again: any mishap could still spark a larger confrontation, even if none of the main actors seek open conflict. The players should use the reprieve to create a mechanism for preventing such incidents from spiralling out of control.
What should be done? The nuclear deal’s revival is critical for non-proliferation reasons, but the Gulf Arab states, Iran and Iraq should also seek to establish a regional dialogue to reduce frictions and the risk of accidental conflict. The U.S., European states and other external powers should help them in developing such discussions.
Shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. and Iran embarked on indirect negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However salutary it may be for non-proliferation and the fraught U.S.-Iran relationship, the deal’s revival (if it happens) will not eliminate tensions between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – which rose dangerously high under President Donald Trump. It remains unclear whether a reinvigorated JCPOA could be the basis for talks that would address Gulf Arab states’ primary concern: Iran’s regional power projection via its armed non-state partners and ballistic missiles. The U.S. and European governments should help reduce frictions by supporting the launch of an inclusive Gulf-led dialogue about how to prevent inadvertent conflict. Such a dialogue could also explore a negotiated end to the Yemen war. For their part, Saudi Arabia and the UAE should continue engaging Iran and seek broader regional discussions that include the other four Gulf Arab states as well as Iraq.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have grown increasingly alarmed at Iranian assertiveness.
The history of hostility between Iran, on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, will make progress difficult. The perception of an Iranian threat to Gulf Arab states’ security dates back to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Relations between the two sides have waxed and waned in the intervening period, often depending on the degree of U.S. military involvement in the region. At times, recourse to diplomacy has led to a relaxation of tensions. But 40 years on, and especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 popular uprisings that created a power vacuum in parts of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have grown increasingly alarmed at Iranian assertiveness, which they see as an aggressive bid for regional hegemony.
The negotiation of the 2015 nuclear deal between the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) and Iran only added to Gulf Arab states’ anxiety. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia acknowledge the JCPOA’s value as a brake on Iran’s nuclear program, they argue that it did not go far enough in delaying, much less preventing, a nuclear-armed Iran. Far more importantly, they have publicly disparaged the deal for focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the exclusion of what most worries them – Tehran’s non-state allies and its ballistic missiles. Both states view the JCPOA as a failure of diplomacy, contending that the deal emboldened Iran and gave it the money to expand its regional footprint, namely by ramping up its provision of arms to a network of non-state partners in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The two Gulf states’ fear of what they see as Iran’s gathering strength is compounded by the perception that the U.S. may be reducing its commitment to Gulf security. They criticised the George W. Bush administration for invading Iraq, a gambit they saw as destabilising the region and inevitably benefiting Iran; and they viewed the Obama administration’s unwillingness to rush to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s aid when he was deposed in 2011 as a sign of U.S. retreat from the Middle East. They were therefore heartened by Trump’s election, given his tough anti-Iran rhetoric. They cheered his May 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA and subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that aimed to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table in a weaker position by strangling its economy.
But in the end, Trump, too, disappointed. Leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were dismayed when the U.S. made only verbal responses to the attacks on tankers off the UAE’s coast in mid-2019, and the September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabian hydrocarbon facilities, both generally attributed to Iran. In response to the tanker attacks, the UAE departed from its strict adherence to an anti-Iranian line by sending senior security officials to Tehran to pursue ways to reduce tensions. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, did not change its messaging, but doubled down on its criticism of Iran as a threat to its security.
Another twist came with the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Qods Force, in January 2020. The Saudis quietly welcomed the killing. As for the Emiratis, Iran’s military retaliation for Soleimani’s death and other aspects of “maximum pressure” heightened their fear of being caught up in an open war they did not seek and realised would do great harm to their economies and societies. Subsequently, once the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, hitting Iran particularly hard, the UAE dispatched aid to its embattled neighbour – a good-will gesture laden with symbolism. But Abu Dhabi hedged its bets: later in 2020, the UAE strengthened its relationship with Israel in a move that, seen from Tehran, had Iran as its target.
Biden’s election has given the Gulf Arab states little solace. The Biden administration promptly made clear it seeks a different relationship with Saudi Arabia, one that emphasises restraining Saudi military actions in Yemen and demanding better respect for human rights inside the kingdom. During its first weeks in office, the administration reversed Trump’s designation of the Huthis in Yemen as a terrorist organisation. It suspended arms sales to the kingdom as part of a review of multi-billion-dollar weapons deals made under its predecessor. It also released an intelligence report implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, a move that confirmed many Saudi officials’ fears that the new administration was intent on weakening the longstanding U.S.-Saudi partnership.
The Biden administration then commenced an effort to return to the JCPOA in full prior to possible negotiations over issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and armed proxies, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE had called for. Seeing the writing on the wall, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi expressed no opposition to U.S. negotiations with Tehran in principle, but indicated, at least when discussions within the administration were proceeding about which approach to take, that they sought a seat at the table. They also said the aim should be a “grand bargain” that encompasses these additional topics.
The launch of direct security talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2021 – which appear to focus primarily on Yemen for now – are an important step forward for two states that cut all diplomatic channels in 2016. Noting the change in approach, Prince Mohammed indicated that his country seeks a “good relationship” with Iran. Regardless of whether the talks produce concrete results, they show that diplomacy between the two sides is possible.
Still, whether or not the U.S. and Iran succeed in resuscitating the JCPOA, Gulf Arab fears concerning Iran’s regional power projection will still be there. Iran justifies the expansion of its regional influence as a way of breaking out of prolonged isolation and sanctions, and argues that its conventional weapons program, which includes its ballistic missiles, is a deterrent in the face of a multitude of U.S. regional military bases and Gulf neighbours that spend far more on defence than it does. A renewed nuclear deal will not address these issues, and a follow-on agreement that deals with them squarely may be long in the making.
The two sides have other means of reducing both the risk of open conflict and stresses in the Gulf. Crisis Group has previously proposed the establishment of an inclusive regional dialogue, one that European states or the UN with U.S. backing could initiate but would be locally owned. The parties could inaugurate such a dialogue even as nuclear talks continue. It should address the issues that Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider most pertinent to their own security. The Gulf states least involved in hostilities – Oman and Kuwait – have a history of acting as mediators. With external backing, they are well positioned to bring their more powerful neighbours into talks aimed at making inadvertent conflict less likely. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have indicated they are not opposed to such a dialogue but would like to see the U.S. support it. Iran has previously tabled its own dialogue project while also calling for a withdrawal of outside forces from the region, prompting Gulf Arab officials to reject the initiative.
Now is the time to get started. For the sake of regional peace and security, it is imperative to build on the present bilateral tracks and slowly institutionalise the regional dialogue.
Abu Dhabi/Riyadh/Brussels, 24 August 2021
In the years preceding the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia shared strong security ties as part of Washington’s “twin pillars” strategy, which posed the two states as joint defenders of U.S. interests in the Gulf. The popular upheaval in Iran transformed the state from a pro-Western secular monarchy into a theocratic republic ruled by a Shiite jurist, a system known as velayet-e faqih, which was pronouncedly anti-West. The new Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued calls for similar revolts across the region, filling Gulf Arab monarchs with trepidation. In Saudi Arabia, in particular, the royal family feared that Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric would stir up the Shiite population in the oil-rich Eastern Province and challenge its position as protector of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. The Iranian revolution entrenched a contest for influence between the two powers, a Middle East cold war that continues to shape the region more than four decades later.
Aiming to counter Iranian influence, Saudi King Abdullah led efforts in 1981 to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – an intergovernmental political and economic union comprising Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. To varying degrees, the GCC member states all saw Iran as hostile, but they did not formulate a unified policy toward it, partly due to rivalries and differences of opinion among them. Instead, they pursued divergent approaches to the perceived Iranian threat, often based on short-term, pragmatic calculations.
While Iran failed in exporting its revolution ... it proved highly successful at extending its sphere of influence.
While Iran failed in exporting its revolution and implanting velayet-e faqih in other countries in subsequent years, it proved highly successful at extending its sphere of influence as a regional power. It notably did so in Lebanon, where it worked with local allies to establish Hizbollah in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion. Meanwhile, it weathered the 1980 invasion of its own territory by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, two years into this war, succeeded in pushing the front onto Iraqi soil. Iraq’s military setbacks caused great alarm in Gulf Arab capitals, which started providing financial support to Saddam’s regime in an effort to shore up a wall against what they saw as Persian/Shiite aggression. Their funds helped stiffen Iraq’s defences, and the war sputtered to an inconclusive end in 1988. But the Iraqi leader undermined his relations with the country’s Gulf Arab creditors by refusing to repay loans incurred during the war.
Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent incursion into Saudi Arabian territory (the battle of Khafji) shifted Gulf Arab states’ attention from Iran to Iraq as the immediate regional threat. Half a decade later, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran improved under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who came to power with a mandate to broaden Iran’s foreign relations. Following Khatami’s 1997 visit to Riyadh, Iranian and Saudi leaders signed economic and security agreements, marking a new period of cooperation.
The end of Khatami’s tenure, and of better understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia, coincided with the U.S. invasion and military occupation of Iraq, which changed the power balance in the Middle East and turned the country into a site of U.S.-Iran struggle for influence. As the U.S., which saw itself as on a liberating mission, faltered in its efforts to rebuild the features of the Iraqi state it had removed, Iran found an opportunity to expand its political, security and intelligence networks in its neighbour, with which it had fought a devastating war that remained engrained in both sides’ collective memory. It also saw broadening these networks as a way to shore up defences outside its borders in response to murmurs from some quarters in Washington that Iran could be next on the invasion list.
The 2011 Arab uprisings accentuated the clash of interests between Tehran and Riyadh. Iranian state media lent vocal support to protesters in Bahrain, angering Saudi officials who already feared that the uprising in the small neighbouring state might spill over into the kingdom’s Eastern Province. Tehran’s later material aid to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria (where the Saudis and other Sunni powers backed Syrian rebels) and Huthi insurgents in Yemen (whom the Saudis saw as a serious threat on their southern border) led Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals to level additional accusations of Iranian interference.
Thus, Iran and several of the Gulf states were already at loggerheads long before 2015, when the Obama administration led other world powers in forging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, a deal allowing Tehran to pursue its nuclear program in exchange for its acceptance of strict international monitoring and other safeguards. Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposed the nuclear deal talks. Once the parties reached agreement on the JCPOA, they cautiously welcomed it, publicly congratulating the negotiators. But they also made clear to the U.S. and its negotiating partners, behind closed doors and in public, that they thought the deal would be insufficient to address the Iranian threat in the region – their real concern – by calling for sanctions on Tehran to remain in place owing to its “support for terrorism”. Over the next several years, the impasse between Iran and Gulf states deepened, as their respective interests collided in Syria, Yemen, the Gulf and elsewhere. At the same time, Gulf Arab divisions widened, culminating in the 2017 split between Qatar and a bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The rise of Mohammed bin Salman put Saudi Arabia on a more confrontational course toward Iran.
The rise of Mohammed bin Salman put Saudi Arabia on a more confrontational course toward Iran. In 2015, King Salman appointed his son as defence minister, after he had risen through the ministry’s ranks for several years. Months later, Prince Mohammed gathered a coalition to launch a military intervention on behalf of the internationally recognised Yemeni government against Huthi rebels aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had taken over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. After King Salman appointed him crown prince in 2017, Mohammed swiftly consolidated decision-making in his own hands, including by launching a crackdown on perceived opposition to his rule, in what the palace labelled an anti-corruption drive. Having sidelined potential rivals in the ruling family and in civil society, he came to dominate most domestic and foreign policy files, decisively shaping Saudi interaction with countries in the Middle East and beyond.
Bin Salman made containing and deterring Iran his top foreign policy priority. As an official described the approach: “We push back [against Iran’s influence] in areas where we can and try to keep them boxed in. We do this in Africa, the Arab world and elsewhere”. Saudi officials have not ruled out diplomatic means of improving relations. They believe, however, that Iran will not step back from developing ballistic missiles or rein in its non-state allies without U.S. pressure. Abu Dhabi holds a similar view of the threat posed by Iran but has been more willing to take steps to de-escalate tensions with Tehran owing to its perceived vulnerability to attack by its larger neighbour.
This report highlights Saudi Arabian and Emirati perceptions of Iran. It offers recommendations for bridging the gap between the two sides in tandem with the Biden administration’s efforts to chart a path toward reinstating the JCPOA. It is based on some 30 interviews with policymakers and diplomats in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Washington between December 2019 and March 2021. An earlier report examined Iran’s priorities in the region. Together, the two reports will form the background for Crisis Group’s work on building a regional dialogue, the importance of which was outlined in another previous report.
II.The View from Riyadh
Saudi Arabia relies heavily for its security on its long-time partnership with Washington. Its views of Iran are grounded partly in its anxieties about its relationship with the U.S., which have grown over the last two decades.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S.-Saudi partnership has been rooted in a U.S. commitment to safeguard the kingdom from external threats, in exchange for secure access to its oil reserves. One form these guarantees have taken is the transfer of billions of dollars in armaments. Between 2015 and 2020 alone, the U.S. agreed to sell over $64.1 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, amounting to an estimated 73 per cent of total Saudi arms imports. Both Riyadh and Washington see the arms transfers as a means of containing and deterring Iranian power projection in the Middle East.
The U.S. offers Saudi Arabia other forms of protection as well. In 1990, with Iraq having invaded Kuwait and its troops sitting just north of large Saudi Arabian oilfields, the U.S. deployed forces to the kingdom that stayed – in varying numbers – until President George W. Bush withdrew them in 2003. In 2020, the Saudis welcomed a contingent of U.S. military personnel back to the country. The detachment remains stationed at Prince Sultan air base in the desert, where Patriot missile batteries stand ready to defend Saudi Arabia from aerial attack. But the deployment’s principal purpose was to send a message to Tehran that Riyadh, with U.S. support, stands prepared to counter any threat – a U.S. attempt at restoring deterrence with Iran and bolstering the nervous Saudi leadership’s confidence.
The Saudi leadership often finds Washington impervious to its concerns about Middle East.
Despite the close bilateral ties, the Saudi leadership often finds Washington impervious to its concerns about Middle East peace and security. For example, Saudi leaders expressed alarm – in vain – at the George W. Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., warning officials in Washington that regime change would destabilise Iraq and create a power vacuum that Iran could exploit. They were dismayed again when President Barack Obama refused to protect Egypt’s beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, perceiving that the U.S. had become unwilling to stand by its traditional allies when their security was threatened. They also allege that the Obama administration blindsided Gulf countries in starting secret negotiations with Iran in Oman, eventually leading to the JCPOA. Obama’s team made things still worse, in Riyadh’s eyes, with its stated intention to pivot to Asia, thus de-emphasising U.S. relationships with Gulf partners.
Even under President Donald Trump, Riyadh was not completely reassured. Trump paid his first state visit to Saudi Arabia in part to demonstrate how much his policies would differ from Obama’s. His administration then withdrew from the JCPOA and pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which Riyadh fully supported. When the Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, the kingdom’s largest, were hit by missiles on 14 September 2019, the Trump administration was quick to blame Iran. But the U.S. did not retaliate for the attacks, heightening the Saudis’ sense that Washington was no longer a reliable partner.
Now comes the Biden administration, which from Riyadh’s perspective has done little to reassure the kingdom of a continued U.S. commitment to its security. In the weeks following his election, Biden announced that the U.S. would end its support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, as part of a bid to restore Washington’s “emphasis on diplomacy, democracy and human rights”. His administration also announced sanctions and visa bans on Saudi Arabian nationals implicated in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a symbolic move intended to highlight his administration’s focus on human rights. Consistent with his campaign pledge to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, Biden withdrew an aircraft carrier and surveillance systems from the Gulf, in addition to one of the Patriot antimissile systems that his predecessor had deployed to Saudi Arabia. In June 2021, the Biden administration announced that it would be withdrawing antimissile systems from across the Middle East, including from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan, and reallocating its resources to tackle “challenges” from China and Russia.
Riyadh’s concerns about a threat from Tehran, detailed below, have deepened as its faith in U.S. security guarantees flagged.
A.Saudi Arabia’s Threat Perception
As the largest Gulf Arab state, the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and the GCC’s de facto leader, Saudi Arabia wields preponderant influence over these states’ positioning toward Iran. Over the years, Saudi officials have reiterated that they harbour no innate animosity for the Iranian government, pointing to extended periods of diplomatic ties and economic cooperation between Riyadh and Tehran. They have insisted, however, that Tehran take the first step by changing aspects of its foreign policy that, they say, pose a direct threat to Gulf Arab states’ security. Officials now say the kingdom would welcome de-escalation with Iran.
Saudi Arabia ... believes that Tehran has no place trying to project power in the Arab world.
Riyadh accuses Tehran of seeking to encircle Saudi Arabia with partners and proxies so as to dominate their shared neighbourhood. It believes that Tehran has no place trying to project power in the Arab world and has consistently called for Iran’s “unilateral withdrawal” from the area. It points to various aspects of Iranian behaviour as evidence of the desire to carry out this agenda. Primary among these is Iran’s regional power projection through non-state allies and other actors, from Hizbollah in Lebanon to the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary forces in Iraq, the Huthis in Yemen and, arguably, Islamic Jihad, if not also Hamas, in Gaza. Riyadh also sees Iran routinely stoking unrest among Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, who make up as much as one half of the population in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Next comes Iran’s advanced conventional weaponry, mainly its ballistic missiles and drones, as well as the arsenals of its local partners.
Another set of Saudi concerns – though of lower priority to Riyadh – relates to Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi leaders have also watched this program’s development with concern, because Tehran might, in their view, build weapons it could use to intimidate its neighbours; they consider the 2015 nuclear deal insufficient to constrain Iran’s perceived nuclear ambitions. The related issue of nuclear safety presents another pressing issue for the Saudis and their neighbours. Iran is not party to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety, meaning that it is not bound by international standards relating to nuclear design or monitoring. Its reactor at Bushehr on its southern coast is a stone’s throw from many Gulf capitals, leaving them vulnerable to the threat of environmental catastrophe.
1.The threat from Iran’s regional armed partners
Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of equipping “armed proxies” to export its revolutionary model and to undermine Saudi interests across the region, from the free flow of oil and gas to the security of neighbours such as Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. Saudi officials draw a straight line between Khomeini’s 1979 call for Muslims to revolt against their rulers and Iran’s support for armed non-state actors in the region. Riyadh views the dissemination of revolutionary rhetoric as intrinsic to Iran’s ideological messaging. In particular, it charges Tehran with inflaming sectarian tensions and seeking to turn Shiites to insurrection in the countries where they live.
Iranian leaders, for their part, say Iran’s regional policies are aimed at ensuring the Islamic Republic’s survival and extricating it from its four-decade isolation, while deterring adversaries that have superior military capability and Western support. They dub this policy “forward defence”, a means of increasing Iran’s influence in fragile states such as Lebanon and Iraq, where it can confront its foes through partners, instead of on Iranian soil or on its borders. In keeping with this presentation of its goals as defensive, Iran says it is no longer actively pursuing the export of its revolution.
Saudi Arabia, however, regards “forward defence” as aggressive, if not expansionist. Saudi officials cite several examples of Iran’s heightened influence abroad. Iranian support for Hizbollah, for example, helped this group develop a formidable political and military apparatus, curbing the influence of Lebanese parties close to Riyadh and skewing the country’s delicate political balance toward Tehran. In Syria, Hizbollah and other Iran-backed groups helped prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, keeping it in power and the country politically outside the Saudi-dominated Arab world. Post-2003 Iraq increasingly fell under the sway of the Iran-backed Hashd, allowing Iranian influence to extend right up to the kingdom’s northern border.
Events in Yemen in particular have strengthened the Saudis’ perception of encirclement by Iran. Since 2015, Iran has increased its political support to, and arming of, the Huthi rebels who are firing missiles into Saudi Arabian territory. Saudi officials are concerned that Iran’s influence in Yemen will enable it to establish a lasting foothold in the country and its institutions. “We cannot allow Iran to take over yet another Arab country”, a Saudi official said.
Riyadh also accuses Tehran of supporting political groups and small armed cells in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s own Eastern Province. It is particularly concerned that Iran seeks to incite the kingdom’s minority Shiites to open rebellion, creating a threat to its rule and oil production, given that most of them reside near the major oilfields. Although this view is dated and exaggerated, the perception that the country’s Shiites are a fifth column has remained embedded in decision-makers’ minds.
Cumulatively, Saudi Arabia argues, Iran’s support for these mainly Shiite actors across the Middle East has heightened sectarian tensions while posing a persistent challenge to legitimate authority. Saudi officials routinely cite Iran’s media broadcasting as proof of its intent to continue whipping up sectarian animosity. They regard the events surrounding Saudi Arabia’s 2016 execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr as illustrative. Large crowds ransacked and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran after these incidents, accusing Tehran of inciting sectarian discord and failing to protect its diplomatic facilities.
Saudi Arabia has also denounced largely symbolic Iranian actions. In Yemen, Iran posted its ambassador to the Huthi-controlled capital of Sanaa instead of Aden, the internationally recognised government’s seat. It also welcomed an “extraordinary and plenipotentiary” Huthi ambassador to Tehran in 2019 as Yemen’s official representative. The Saudis view these moves as demonstrating Iran’s desire to perpetuate enmity. As a Saudi official put it, “Iran keeps making the situation worse”.
The popular uprisings that coursed through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, and intermittently ever since, were a turning point in Saudi views of Iran. Other than calling for an “Islamic awakening” throughout the region, Tehran played no direct role in encouraging Arab peoples to rise up against their rulers. But it nonetheless attempted to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum to expand its influence in the Arab world, placing it on a collision course with Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.
In reality, the Gulf monarchies’ alarm at the 2011 protests was about self-preservation as much as grand strategy. They worried not only about Iran’s presumed ability to exploit sectarian divisions, but also about the Arab protesters’ attempts to link their struggles together as one. Their biggest fear was that Gulf Arab populations might join in the anti-government protests. Hence the uprising that most frightened Riyadh – and the one in which it accused Iran of having a direct hand – was Bahrain’s in February 2011. Seeking to discredit the protesters in Bahrain, who at first represented a cross-section of society and exhibited no sectarian tendencies, Saudi state television began to depict them as Iran-backed agents aiming to impose a Shiite Islamic republic and velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist). These portrayals led the popular uprising to assume more of a Shiite identity, as Sunni protesters peeled off for fear of unwittingly serving an Iranian agenda or being seen as Iranian puppets.
Shiite-majority Bahrain has a history of popular turmoil directed at the Sunni monarchy, but these movements have invariably been grounded in nationalist and reformist demands that transcend sectarian boundaries. It was only after the 1979 revolution in Iran that Saudi Arabia began stressing the Shiite aspect of these movements, citing occasional armed attacks as evidence that Tehran was fomenting unrest through covert Shiite cells. An independent investigation into Bahrain’s 2011 protests found little evidence of Iranian involvement but did little to dispel Saudi perceptions that Tehran was playing a role nonetheless.
As the February 2011 unrest escalated, Saudi Arabia decided to intervene to stop the Bahraini monarchy from being overrun and prevent the protests from spreading to its own Eastern Province. On 14 March 2011, Gulf Cooperation Council Peninsula Shield Forces, consisting of an estimated 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops, along with approximately 500 UAE police, crossed the causeway into Bahrain, citing a GCC common security pact. The Saudi-led intervention formally aimed to help the Bahraini government in guarding vital installations; in practice, the troops freed Bahraini forces of that duty and allowed them to crush the protests, which they soon did.
Today, Saudi Arabia is especially concerned about ... Iranian encroachment in Yemen.
Today, Saudi Arabia is especially concerned about what it views as Iranian encroachment in Yemen, with which it shares a 1,800km border. In January 2015, four years after protests ushered in a GCC-mediated transition, the Huthis joined forces with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize power from President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s successor. The Huthis had longstanding rhetorical ties with Iran, but few or no operational links at that point. Saudi Arabia responded to the Huthi-led takeover of Sanaa by assembling a loose coalition made up of nine Arab and African states, supported by the U.S., behind a military intervention aimed at restoring the Hadi government. It was concerned that Iran was grooming the Huthis as a proxy force on its southern border. As a Saudi official put it: “The Huthis can have a role [in post-war Yemen], but what we can’t have is another Hizbollah in Yemen”. The campaign succeeded in reversing the Huthis’ territorial gains in the south, but also pushed the rebels to ask Iran for weapons and training and triggered a major conflict, plunging Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe.
Over the next six years, the Saudi-led coalition kept trying and failing to push back the Huthis, as the latter became increasingly aggressive in attacks on Saudi Arabia itself – in response, the rebels say, to Saudi airstrikes that have devastated Huthi-controlled parts of northern Yemen. The Huthis carried out repeated missile and drone strikes inside the kingdom. In March 2021 alone, these included attacks on Abha and Jeddah airports, Riyadh and oil infrastructure. A spokesman for the Coalition to Support Legitimacy – the Saudi-led grouping’s formal name – estimates that in the period between the start of the war and February 2021, Saudi air defence systems blocked 346 Huthi ballistic missile and 526 drone attacks upon the kingdom.
Saudi leaders routinely accuse Iran of helping the Huthis upgrade their missile and drone capabilities. The precise volume of Iranian military aid to the Huthis is unknown, but it has increased over the course of the conflict. In the war’s early days, the Huthis relied on weapons systems they captured during their 2014 takeover of Sanaa. Since then, they have used technologies that were not present in Yemen before the conflict and which weapons experts believe Iran has provided. The apparent transfer of Iranian technology to the Huthis and the greater frequency of attacks on Saudi Arabia spooked the leadership in Riyadh and helped prolong the war, as the Saudis doubled down on their military approach. The Saudis’ primary demand in ceasefire talks with the Huthis is that they sever their relations with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia’s policies in Iraq are ... driven primarily by its aim of repelling Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia’s policies in Iraq are likewise driven primarily by its aim of repelling Iranian influence. Iran used the security gap created by the 2003 U.S. invasion to empower militias that infiltrated Iraq’s nascent post-Saddam security institutions. Because of its opposition to the U.S. invasion and its distrust of the U.S.-created order, which was dominated by Shiite Islamist parties, Saudi Arabia long refrained from engaging with successive Iraqi governments. Instead, it funded Sunni opposition and insurgent groups in an effort to frustrate what it saw as a Baghdad political apparatus that tilted in Iran’s direction, a strategy that achieved little success.
Several developments convinced Saudi leaders to change course in Iraq. Among these was the election of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in 2014. The new leader seemed determined that the Saudis recognise him as independent of Tehran. His attempts to bring the mostly Shiite Hashd forces under state control bolstered Saudi confidence in him at a time when Riyadh also began to recognise the limits of its own approach. In 2016, Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad and moved to enhance its soft power through investment, increased trade and even a shift from supporting Sunni politicians to backing Shiite figures they deemed free of Iranian influence.
Following parliamentary elections in 2018, Iraq’s new prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, continued his predecessor’s efforts to strengthen ties with the Saudis. In April 2019, the two states signed thirteen agreements in trade, energy and political cooperation. In April 2021, Saudi leaders agreed to contribute $3 billion to an investment fund in Iraq. In recalibrating the relationship toward an approach centred on soft power and strengthening the Iraqi state, Riyadh sought to win over Iraqis and expose Iranian intentions as sectarian. Yet despite these efforts, Saudi Arabia’s core concern about Iran’s reach in Baghdad – which it exercises in large part via the Hashd forces – endures. Despite Iraqi authorities’ repeated pledges to disarm the Iran-backed paramilitary groups and re-establish state control over the entire security apparatus – an unlikely scenario in the immediate future – many Hashd groups are still operating, as evidenced by continued attacks on U.S. troops and facilities in the country. In addition, Riyadh is concerned by the prospect that the Hashd, or Iran through the Hashd, might target Saudi Arabia with missiles fired from Iraq.
Saudi policy in Lebanon is motivated by similar considerations. During the early 2000s, Saudi Arabia backed Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri as a bulwark against Tehran-supported Hizbollah’s political predominance. Following Hariri’s assassination at the hands of suspected Hizbollah operatives in 2005, Riyadh lent its aid to his son Saad, hoping that he might act as a substitute for his father in countering Hizbollah’s influence. In 2016, the younger Hariri began to fall out of favour in Riyadh, as a result of Saudi perceptions that he was ineffective as a counterweight to Hizbollah. Partly because the Saudis reduced their subsidies, Hariri fared poorly in the 2018 elections. Since then, Hizbollah has enjoyed even more influence in the Lebanese political system, affirming Saudi beliefs that the country is under Iran’s control.
The Syrian civil war, which started when the Assad regime met the 2011 popular protests with brute force, appeared to offer Riyadh hope that insurgents, with sufficient external assistance, might be able to overthrow a regime that had long aligned itself with Iran. The failure of disorganised Gulf Arab financial and weapons support to give the upper hand to various rebel groups (which were sometimes working at cross-purposes) corroded such hopes, which then collapsed entirely when Russia rose to Assad’s aid in 2015. Moscow’s intervention convinced Riyadh to end its investment in the insurgency. The regime survived, as did Iran’s influence, which it expanded through support for militias in Syria and its arms channel to Hizbollah in Lebanon. The presence of a network of Iran-backed militias in Syria is a concern for the U.S., Israel, the Gulf Arab states and, to some extent, Russia. Israel has targeted Iran-backed militias in Syria with airstrikes, curbing but not eradicating their influence.
2.The missile threat
To the Saudis, the Iranian missile threat of which they had long warned became shockingly real in the 2019 drone and missile strike on the Aramco oil facilities, which temporarily shut down half the country’s oil production. The Huthis in Yemen claimed responsibility, but then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined Saudi Arabia in naming Iran as the culprit, calling the attack “an act of war”. No one has produced conclusive evidence of Iranian guilt, but there is wide consensus that no regional actor other than Iran could carry out an attack of such scale and precision. The UK, France and Germany also pointed the finger at Iran. A UN report found that the missiles entered Saudi Arabia “from a northern direction rather than from the south, as would be expected in the case of a launch from Yemeni territory”. Another UN report concluded that debris at the site, including “parts of delta-wing un-crewed aerial vehicles”, or drones, was of Iranian origin. The Saudis said this suspected direct attack leaves “no doubt … about Iran’s hostile intentions toward the kingdom”.
Saudi officials argue that Iran’s development and dissemination of missile technology has left the kingdom vulnerable to additional attack, posing a more pressing danger even than its nuclear program. As an official put it: “We are more worried about Iran’s ballistic missiles, an issue nobody talks about”. In 2020, officials in Riyadh articulated concerns about fresh advancements in Iranian rocket technology. Gulf Arab states are within range of Iran’s existing missiles, but Riyadh also fears that Tehran could pass on new technologies, including those that enable improved navigation and targeting, to non-state actors such as the Huthis. Saudi officials worry that these actors may in turn use enhanced capabilities to target Saudi Arabian facilities (and U.S. military installations) more precisely, with greater danger of casualties and infrastructure damage and increased risk of triggering a regional conflict.
3.The nuclear threat and the JCPOA
Compared with Riyadh’s concerns about Tehran’s regional power projection, its criticism of Iran’s nuclear program is mild. It opposed the JCPOA talks.
The Saudis ... view the risk of Iran using any nuclear weapon it might obtain as low
The Saudis do have worries about Iran’s nuclear research, primarily the prospect that an emerging arsenal will fuel Tehran’s regional ambitions by allowing it to intimidate its neighbours and also make those ambitions harder to deter. At the same time, they view the risk of Iran using any nuclear weapon it might obtain as low, as they believe that U.S. deterrence is still strong when it comes to this type of threat. Second for Riyadh come concerns about nuclear safety – and, in particular, the fear that a nuclear accident in Iran would pollute the Gulf waters the two countries share or send radioactive material in the kingdom’s direction with the winds. Iran is the only country with a nuclear program that is not party to the IAEA’s 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety. As a result, it does not participate in the sharing of international best practices concerning the construction or upkeep of its facilities. It is, of course, motivated to ensure the safety of its own population and nuclear facilities, and it cooperates with the IAEA in this respect.
These concerns led Riyadh to express a note of caution in its initial public welcome of the 2015 nuclear deal, which the Saudis saw as both failing to address Iran’s regional power projection and giving Tehran the financial means to step up such activities by unfreezing assets and allowing it to resume oil exports. Under the JCPOA’s terms, Iran agreed to substantially limit its nuclear activity and allow inspections of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA. In return, Western states lifted some economic sanctions and gave Iran access to some $50 billion in frozen assets, as well as the right to resume selling oil on international markets. Saudi officials were concerned that by lifting sanctions, the JCPOA would unshackle Iran economically and militarily. The Saudis grew especially worried that Iran would funnel this money into its regional activities.
During the JCPOA negotiations, and the deal’s first year in effect, Saudi officials refrained from openly criticising what promised to be President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, lest they alienate their most powerful international ally and protector. Instead, they chose to express these concerns in private. Behind closed doors, they urged Washington to provide additional security guarantees in return for the JCPOA, and pushed for U.S. commitments in other arenas, such as Yemen.
During the May 2015 Camp David meeting between the U.S. and the Gulf Arab states, King Salman demonstrated his disapproval by sending deputies instead of attending himself. A post-summit communiqué, which reiterated core tenets of the U.S.-GCC strategic partnership, did little to assuage these concerns, and instead appeared to highlight the absence of a shared strategy for dealing with the most pressing regional threats in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Along with their neighbours, Saudi officials pushed for a written security agreement from Washington, which President Obama did not deliver. Instead, the parties announced joint military exercises and further cooperation in areas of concern, while Washington promised to fast-track weapons sales to its Gulf Arab partners.
Saudi officials grew more vocally critical of the nuclear deal following Trump’s election in November 2016, which brought a reversal of U.S. policy toward the JCPOA and a more confrontational approach vis-à-vis Iran writ large. In February 2018, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the deal failed to impose sufficient long-term restraints on Iran’s nuclear program, stating: “The so-called sunset clause in the JCPOA means that in eight to ten years’ time Iran could manufacture a nuclear bomb within weeks. We believe the sunset provision is very dangerous. We don’t trust that Iran will not try [to make a nuclear bomb] eight to ten years from now”. Three months later, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA and imposed crippling sanctions upon a range of Iranian industries as part of what his administration dubbed a “maximum pressure” campaign.
U.S. sanctions aimed to compel Iran to capitulate to the Trump administration’s demands – including stopping uranium enrichment, halting missile development and ending support for Middle Eastern militias – or face growing economic hardship. At first, Iran took no action in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, choosing to keep observing its commitments in hopes that the other state parties to the agreement would deliver on some of their promises. But after a year, Tehran initiated its own breaches of the agreement, which it said it would reverse if and when it saw the economic benefits envisioned in the deal. These actions left the agreement hanging by a thread, with European signatories scrambling to find ways to keep Iran on board.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign wholeheartedly. In an indicative remark, a Saudi official said: “We cannot ask the U.S. to deal [harshly] with Iran and then not support their policies when they do”. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud articulated Riyadh’s concerns about the agreement’s impact in the region, noting: “Iran used economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to continue its activities to destabilise the region, particularly by developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups”.
The Trump administration actively courted the Gulf Arab states to help ramp up pressure on Iran.
From its side, the Trump administration actively courted the Gulf Arab states to help ramp up pressure on Iran, for example by soliciting unified GCC support for extending the UN arms embargo in the Security Council in October 2020, despite the JCPOA stating that it would be lifted at that time. In a rare display of unity, the GCC states unanimously endorsed this measure, signalling full support for the U.S. position. The renewal effort nevertheless failed, and the embargo expired that month.
While Gulf Arab states viewed the Trump administration’s anti-Iran campaign positively and gave it their support, they realised that it raised its own dangers, including that they could be caught up in a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, or that Tehran would target them in an effort to impose a cost on both them and the U.S. The JCPOA’s end would also mean that Iran could move closer to producing a nuclear weapon, while U.S. pressure through sanctions did not appear to restrain Iran’s activities in the region and, in fact, increased the enmity between the two sides. The attacks on shipping and Saudi Arabian oil facilities appeared to be concrete examples of Iran’s readiness to retaliate for Saudi and Emirati support of U.S. “maximum pressure”. Despite these attacks, Saudi Arabia did not change its messaging toward Iran, instead doubling down on the necessity of “maximum pressure” in weakening Tehran.
In any case, Trump’s tack did not last. When Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. promised to overturn the Trump administration’s Iran policy, forcing the Gulf Arab states to rethink their approach – toward Washington, the JCPOA and even Tehran. After Biden initiated efforts to revive the nuclear deal, Saudi officials refrained from public criticism but argued that Iran’s breaches of its JCPOA obligations required an altogether new agreement that included further limits on Iran’s nuclear program. They reiterated that it was also necessary to restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program and “regional malign activity” – a reference to Iran’s power projection in states like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – in what others have referred to as a “better for better” deal. Finally, they made clear that they wanted to be included in any future discussions between the Biden administration and Iran on regional issues. Iran, for its part, has indicated that it seeks a dialogue on Middle East issues with regional states, not one with the U.S.
Following internal deliberations, the Biden administration decided to first seek to revive the existing deal and then to use that achievement as the basis for future negotiations over other matters. The chosen path involves talks in Vienna among the parties that remain in the JCPOA, with the U.S. participating indirectly from outside the negotiating room. Significantly, other states (like Saudi Arabia and the UAE) are excluded from the Vienna talks, as they are taking place under the aegis of the Joint Commission established under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which governs the nuclear deal’s implementation and contemplates participation only by state parties.
B.A Turning Point
Along with their belief that U.S.-Iran ties would improve under a Biden administration, Saudi leaders found Washington’s preferred sequencing of which aspects of the Iranian threat to handle first disconcerting, because they feared that discussions about Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional power projection might end up falling by the wayside. They decided that to keep international attention focused on the issues they care about most and get ahead of a potential U.S. request that they improve their ties with Iran, they would propose a negotiating track that would run parallel to the Vienna talks.
Within a month, they embarked on such a track. In April 2021, senior Saudi and Iranian security and intelligence officials, meeting in Baghdad alongside their counterparts in their respective foreign ministries, engaged in direct talks for the first time since the two countries cut ties in 2016. Brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, these discussions took place just days after JCPOA negotiators convened in Vienna. Conversation centred on the growing frequency of Huthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Regional dialogue can address the spectrum of issues dividing Iran from the Gulf monarchies.
The ice-breaking talks were a promising sign that regional dialogue can address the spectrum of issues dividing Iran from the Gulf monarchies. Shortly afterward, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that his country seeks improved relations with Iran – marking a significant change in tone. “Our problem is with Iran’s negative behaviour, from its nuclear program to its support for outlaw militias in the region to its firing of ballistic missiles”, he said, adding: “At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country and all that we hope for is to have good relations”.
While the talks are limited in scope, primarily discussing the Yemen theatre, they are a welcome development. The June 2021 election of the new, hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is unlikely to end Iran’s willingness to continue these talks, despite his declaration that the country’s ballistic missiles are “non-negotiable”. The Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards inaugurated the dialogue with Saudi Arabia, while members of the Guards and intelligence agencies joined foreign ministry officials in the discussions. While Tehran’s tone may change, therefore, its commitment to the conversation is likely to continue. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has indicated openness to continuing the discussion with Iran, stating that it will deal with the Raisi administration based on the “reality on the ground”.
The Biden administration has also started to look at preliminary plans to launch a Gulf-based dialogue about the issues that divide Iran and Gulf Arab states. For now, it is still early in the administration’s term to have a clear sense of its Gulf policy’s direction. Much of it will likely depend on how the JCPOA negotiations go.
III.The View from Abu Dhabi
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have generally been aligned in how they have viewed, and responded to, Iran amid the rising tensions of recent years, though there are some differences. Broadly speaking, Riyadh sees the putative Iranian threat as paramount, while Abu Dhabi sees it as highly significant for many of the same reasons, but sometimes ranks it lower than other risks – primarily the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups. Riyadh has also been more willing to confront Iran head on. The UAE’s vulnerability to an attack from Iran – owing to its location and dependence on trade – has made its leadership more reluctant to face off with or antagonise Iran, even when it has viewed Tehran as particularly dangerous. These differences in perspective have in some cases translated into policy divergences.
A.The UAE’s Threat Perception
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is concerned about Iran’s expanding regional presence and ballistic missile program, and to a lesser extent, its nuclear program. It also views Iran’s support of Shiite Islamist groups through the same lens as Riyadh. But the UAE’s relatively small size, vulnerability and economic interests lead it to perceive and approach regional threats somewhat differently from its much larger neighbour and ally.
Abu Dhabi’s abiding priority ... is to avoid being caught in the crossfire of a confrontation between Tehran and Washington.
Unlike Riyadh, Abu Dhabi’s abiding priority when it comes to Iran is to avoid being caught in the crossfire of a confrontation between Tehran and Washington. A regional conflict of any magnitude would have devastating consequences for the small country and imperil its economy, which is heavily dependent on the free flow of trade and shipping. The UAE also hosts 5,000 U.S. military personnel, mostly at Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra air base, where U.S. F-35 fighter jets and drones are also stationed. The attack on Fujaira port in 2019 and Iran’s targeting of U.S. troops and installations in Iraq in early 2020 as retaliation for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the senior Iranian commander, and its subsequent warning that it might target the UAE should the U.S. launch attacks from UAE soil raised fears in Abu Dhabi that Iran might make good on its threat in the event of an escalating clash between the two sides.
Though it has changed tack since the 2011 Arab uprisings, for most of its post-independence history, the UAE has pursued a non-interventionist foreign policy, based on its desire to maintain a core alliance with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as well as its ambition to expand trade ties with an array of regional powers, including Iran. This non-interventionist orientation enabled the UAE to balance the often-competing interests of its seven individual emirates. For example, the federation’s formal position of neutrality during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Abu Dhabi to avoid antagonising Riyadh (which actively supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), while allowing Dubai’s business relationship with Tehran to blossom.
The latter relationship has long been mutually beneficial, providing Dubai with commercial revenue and Iran with a lifeline to the outside world during periods of economic pressure triggered by sanctions. With oil reserves that are a fraction of those enjoyed by Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s trade networks are crucial to its financial stability. (The emirate has other ties to Tehran as well: Dubai is home to a large number of Iranian traders, and a substantial minority of the Emirati citizens in Dubai are of Iranian origin. ) As international sanctions on Iran increased during the early 2000s, Dubai emerged as Tehran’s primary trading partner. In 2017, after the JCPOA came into effect and led to partial lifting of sanctions on Iran, trade between the UAE and Iran peaked at $12.9 billion. The subsequent U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and the reimposition of sanctions on Iran compelled the UAE to tighten its banking regulations and restrict visas for some Iranian nationals. Although trade dropped to $3.9 billion in 2019, the UAE remains Iran’s second-largest import partner after China.
A more nettlesome factor in the UAE-Iran bilateral relationship is a decades-old territorial dispute and duelling claims over the status of three small but strategically significant islands. These islands – Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb – are located in the Strait of Hormuz, the corridor through which 20 per cent of the global oil supply passes daily. The islands’ contested status is a source of persistent tension between the two states. In 2012, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed described a visit to the islands by Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as “a setback to efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the issue”. Since 2011, the UAE has offered to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice for arbitration, a proposal Iran has not accepted.
Despite the myriad concerns that Abu Dhabi has about Tehran, there are other threats that concern the UAE even more. The Emiratis feel particularly imperilled by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups, which they see as disseminating a radical ideology that threatens the region’s stability – a concern magnified by the collapse of several Arab regimes following the 2011 popular uprisings. They worry that this movement might challenge their authority at home someday. The UAE particularly fears the Brotherhood because the movement has a social base in the Emirates as well as in important allied countries such as Egypt (though most Brotherhood leaders there are now in jail or in exile). As in Saudi Arabia, Emirati leaders also viewed with concern what they perceived as Washington’s abandonment of its traditional allies, Arab autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and feared that their own rule might be at risk as well.
When it comes to Iran, the UAE is generally not prepared to confront its powerful neighbour directly.
As a tactical matter, Emirati leaders approach the threats they face somewhat differently. When it comes to Iran, the UAE is generally not prepared to confront its powerful neighbour directly, owing to its sense of its own vulnerability; it therefore counters Iranian activities in the region mainly by joining the efforts of others, especially the U.S. When it comes to the Brotherhood, however, the UAE actively represses its members at home and, in a departure from its non-interventionist tradition, helps allies in battling the group’s branches or other Islamists across much of North Africa and the Horn.
B.A Notable Shift in Foreign Policy
Starting in earnest in 2011, a new generation of Emirati political leaders began to chart a more activist approach to reshaping the Middle East security landscape to the UAE’s advantage, which often focused on counteracting the perceived threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi was and continues to be central to this approach. Although he holds no formal position in the UAE federal government, he has consolidated his role as Abu Dhabi’s, and indeed the UAE’s, de facto leader since his 2003 elevation as successor to the role of crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Although his older half-brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is formally UAE president, it is Mohammed bin Zayed who steers policymaking, relying on an inner circle of trusted advisers.
After 2011, the Emiratis embarked on a series of aggressive initiatives abroad. In Egypt, the UAE worked with Saudi Arabia to help the military overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood member, in 2013. In Syria, following initial support for rebel groups, the UAE moved closer to the Assad regime, owing in part to the fact that UAE-backed rebels became mired in internecine rivalries with others backed by Qatar and Turkey, and in part to Assad’s gradual recovery of strength in the face of a quarrelling insurgency, especially after Russia’s 2015 intervention that turned the tide in the war. The subsequent rapprochement with Assad placed the UAE theoretically on the same side as Iran in the conflict, but the two states did not seem to draw closer together. The UAE also hopes that Assad may become an ally against a common adversary: Turkey.
One of the UAE’s most visible interventions took place in Yemen. In 2015, the Emiratis joined the Saudi-led coalition to push back the Huthi assault on the southern port city of Aden. Subsequently, however, the Emiratis diverged from the Saudis in their primary objective. Riyadh wanted to reverse the Huthis’ control of Sanaa and the northern highlands. Abu Dhabi, by contrast, wanted to combat the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda in the south and to secure a political role within the pro-government coalition for its preferred armed groups fighting against the Sunni Islamist Islah party, elements of which have Muslim Brotherhood ties, even if it would have to back groups, such as the Southern Transitional Council, that championed the cause of southern independence.
Subsequent events fractured the Saudi-Emirati alliance in Yemen further. In 2018, the UAE oversaw a military campaign along Yemen’s Red Sea coast that aimed to dispossess the Huthis of the economically, strategically and symbolically important port city of Hodeida. International pressure forced the UAE to abandon its offensive and submit to a UN-brokered deal to demilitarise Hodeida and surrounding areas. The UAE then withdrew most of its troops from western and southern Yemen in mid-2019. It no longer saw a military path to the Huthis’ defeat if Hodeida was off the table as a military target, particularly given political headwinds in Washington following the killing of Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
C.Living with an Ascendant Iran
As in Yemen, the UAE started out fully aligned with Saudi Arabia’s approach to dealing with Iran’s nuclear program but later quietly took its own tack.
When the nuclear deal was struck in 2015, Emirati officials, like their Saudi counterparts, criticised the JCPOA for excluding consideration of Iran’s support for non-state actors and its ballistic missiles. The UAE shared the Saudi perception that the JCPOA, and possibly an attendant growing accommodation between Iran and the West, would serve to embolden Tehran by giving it access to funds, which it could then use to recruit, train and equip paramilitary groups across the region. The UAE therefore backed Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw the U.S. from the deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign. The UAE hoped that this duress would bring Iran back to the negotiating table and secure a broader deal that would take its concerns into account.
But Abu Dhabi had not foreseen that this pressure would lead to increased confrontations in the Gulf, and when it did, the UAE changed its approach. A series of attacks on ships off the Fujaira coast in 2019, generally attributed to Iran, highlighted to Emirati leaders the UAE’s vulnerability to Iranian assault and the risks of regional conflict resulting from the Iran-U.S. standoff. On 12 May 2019, two ships of Saudi Arabian origin, a Norwegian vessel and an Emirati one, were damaged by explosions in UAE territorial waters. In a presentation to the UN Security Council, representatives of the three affected states cited evidence that “the ships had been targeted using limpet mines, dispatched by trained divers who had been deployed from fast boats”. The UAE stopped short of pointing the finger at Iran, instead blaming a “state actor”. U.S. officials were less diplomatic, accusing Iran of dispatching a small flotilla to attack the ships. Taking the same line, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, noted that “the responsibility for this action lies on the shoulders of Iran”.
Subsequent events heightened the Emiratis’ concerns. After the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, the head of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps promised a “crushing response” to any U.S. military attack in the Gulf. Iranian officials also intimated privately to Abu Dhabi that an Iranian hit on the UAE would destroy its economy.
Feeling an increasing sense of vulnerability amid mounting fears that the country could get caught up in a confrontation between Iran and the U.S., UAE officials recalibrated their approach. While still backing the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Abu Dhabi also began to explore ways of defusing tensions with Iran bilaterally. In June 2019, it dispatched its national intelligence director, Ali al-Shamsi, to Tehran, for the first of several visits. In 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spoke directly with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, a conversation Zarif characterised as “substantive, frank and friendly”. The UAE also tried to calm tensions with Iran by shifting the tone in its official media toward conciliation, avoiding inflammatory statements. For example, the UAE deliberately avoided blaming Iran for the shipping attacks in hopes of de-escalating tensions and fending off further such actions.
Some Iranian officials appeared less than convinced by the tamer rhetoric. One said: “The UAE sends its security officials to Tehran to de-escalate tensions, while its ambassador in Washington goes around town fanning the flames”. In previous years, this ambassador, Youssef al-Otaiba, had pointedly criticised Iran in print, calling it “hostile, expansionist and violent” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Notwithstanding Iran’s scepticism, the UAE did appear increasingly willing to embrace diplomacy.
Notwithstanding Iran’s scepticism, the UAE did appear increasingly willing to embrace diplomacy as its tone changed. In September 2019, following the Aramco attack in Saudi Arabia, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote in the Financial Times that Abu Dhabi welcomed a European initiative to help reduce tensions in the Gulf after the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) issued a joint statement pinning responsibility for the attack on Iran and calling for new comprehensive talks about Iran’s nuclear program and regional power projection. “With persistence, the E3 can open up a new channel of communication and establish greater trust”, Gargash said. “Our objective is to end this perpetual crisis. The UAE, Iran and other states can share the Gulf as normal neighbours, if not as the best of friends”.
The UAE also engaged in humanitarian diplomacy. In March 2020, as the COVID-19 death toll in Iran surged, Abu Dhabi sent a military aircraft to Tehran carrying 7 tonnes of emergency assistance, as well as medical experts from the World Health Organization. A second shipment with 32 tonnes of medical equipment and supplies followed later that month. Iran responded to the moves by observing that the pandemic had brought “more reason and logic” to its relationship with the UAE.
At the same time, the UAE continues to be concerned about Washington’s commitment to its security. It has taken its own steps to bolster its security position vis-à-vis Tehran.
In September 2020, Israel and the UAE signed the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement – a normalisation agreement that made the UAE the fourth Arab state to recognise Israel. The agreement also brought the two countries’ longstanding security relationship out into the open and broadened it in areas of cyber-cooperation, intelligence sharing and technology. The Trump administration was keen to claim credit for the Accords as a major diplomatic achievement, and their timing suggested an effort to boost the president’s re-election campaign. But the UAE and Israel had ample reason of their own to pursue closer relations, including a mutual concern that Washington could further unleash Iranian power by returning to the nuclear deal and through a military drawdown in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Accords also allowed the UAE to buy F-35 fighter jets, which the U.S. had previously sold only to Israel as part of a policy ensuring that Israel keeps a qualitative military edge over Arab states.
But for all the calibrations it has made and measures it has taken, Abu Dhabi continues to be concerned, much like Riyadh, about both the threat Tehran poses and Washington’s commitment to the region. It worries that the Biden administration has prioritised finding a resolution to the nuclear impasse over the Gulf states’ desire to contain Iran. It also fears that should a deal be reached to reinvigorate the JCPOA, the Biden administration will not actively pursue the continuation of talks to address Iran’s missile program and its activities in the region, despite assurances to the contrary.
Against this backdrop, the UAE has focused all the more on avoiding directly antagonising Iran, working instead to build a dialogue with the Islamic Republic. The two countries held de-escalatory bilateral discussions about maritime issues in Tehran in July 2019. Abu Dhabi is also open to an inclusive, Gulf-based dialogue with Iran, of the sort discussed below. Like some of the other small Gulf Arab states, however, it would not want to enter such a risky undertaking without U.S. support.
IV.De-Escalating Tensions in the Gulf
A.A Climate Favourable to Diplomacy
The prospect of broad, inclusive dialogue between the Gulf Arab states and Iran was remote until recently. But for a number of reasons – some noted above – the climate for diplomacy has improved, even if the parties have made little concrete progress so far.
First, President Trump’s Iran policy created real potential for regional war, thus focusing attention on what the costs of conflict would be for countries in the neighbourhood and beyond. The “maximum pressure” campaign did not bring Iran back to the negotiating table and did not contain it, as the Saudis and Emiratis had hoped. Instead, Tehran embarked on its own violations of the nuclear deal and ramped up military actions in the region by its own forces and its non-state allies and partners, who attacked Saudi Arabian oil installations and tankers off the UAE coast. Since the “maximum pressure” strategy precluded the pursuit of dialogue that could help prevent open conflict, the danger of deliberate or accidental confrontation rose in the Trump presidency’s later years, even though none of the states in the region desired that outcome.
[Saudi Arabia and the UAE] increasingly believe that they cannot rely on the U.S. to come to their defence.
Secondly, the Gulf states’ fear of open confrontation with Iran has grown more acute, driven in large part by Saudi and Emirati perceptions that the U.S. commitment to the region is waning. Whether or not they are correct, both countries increasingly believe that they cannot rely on the U.S. to come to their defence. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh fret that, once again, the high priority Washington places upon the JCPOA will cause it to ignore their concerns about Tehran’s regional power projection. From their perspective, it has become all the more critical to find ways to de-escalate tensions with Iran through their own bilateral efforts.
Thirdly, should the U.S. negotiate a return to the JCPOA, Saudi Arabia and the UAE worry about the immediate aftermath. They recall the initial period after the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, when they perceived Tehran as willing to flex its muscles, for example carrying out a number of missile tests, though Iran had already been doing so regularly. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi therefore are motivated to try to pre-empt this eventuality by engaging in de-escalatory discussions with Iran first.
Fourthly, the Gulf states’ humanitarian diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic has helped set a more positive tone between their capitals and Tehran. Oman and Qatar sent multiple cargoes of medical aid to Iran, while Kuwait donated $10 million in humanitarian support. The UAE’s decision to send two aircraft loaded with medical supplies and technical equipment to Iran in March 2020 aimed to send the message that it held no innate animosity for its larger neighbour.
Finally, advances in regional diplomacy are creating a new regional atmosphere more favourable to dialogue. In January 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain restored their ties with Qatar through the Al-Ula agreement, ending a three-year estrangement that had prevented a concerted approach toward Iran. While differences remain, the countries appear to be working to overcome them gradually. Saudi Arabia also made diplomatic overtures to several regional states with which it previously had strained relations, including Turkey and Syria, in addition to Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made clear their willingness to engage bilaterally with Tehran in limited de-escalatory discussions without preconditions. The UAE-Iran contacts in 2019, and the recent launch of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad, however limited, are positive steps forward, and can help set a foundation for broader dialogue.
Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, won Iran’s presidential election in June 2021. It is likely that he will continue Iran’s regional engagement with its neighbours, regarding the current bilateral tracks as a low-cost endeavour that has the support of the senior leadership and Revolutionary Guards, though the new president has not yet clarified his intentions in this regard.
B.A Path Forward
The best way to reduce tensions in the Gulf is an inclusive security dialogue.
The best way to reduce tensions in the Gulf is an inclusive security dialogue of the sort that Crisis Group and others have already proposed. The prospect of regional conflict, coupled with their perception of Washington as unreliable, have as noted already prompted the Saudis and Emiratis to pursue a limited, tactical, bilateral de-escalation with Tehran. While those bilateral efforts are well worth continuing, it is time to build upon them to develop a regionwide effort that can help avoid an inadvertent slide into conflict.
Some governments have already tiptoed in this direction. Spurred by escalating tensions in the Gulf from 2019 onward, several regional and European governments have begun to take an active interest in the need for, and possibility of, a new Middle East security dialogue. Initiatives proposed by Russia and Iran both centred on the need for a collective security dialogue in the Middle East. Some European governments have also started discussions among themselves to test the waters. But a greater level of coordination and effort will be required to make such a dialogue happen. This undertaking would be highly worthwhile.
For their part, the Gulf Arab states should take the initiative by inviting Iran to join a multi-track dialogue to address the matters that they view as most pressing. Smaller and relatively neutral GCC powers that have the trust of countries on both sides of the Gulf, such as Oman and Kuwait, should be the lead conveners. But for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to be ready for such a step will require preparation of the sort that they have not yet made: neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE has publicly outlined the concessions each would be prepared to make to Iran as part of such an exchange or what they would demand in return. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should have an in-depth internal discussion about what their red lines are and what they are willing to give. They should also consider having these discussions with the GCC’s other members so that they can present a united front that is hard for Iran to pick apart.
Iran, for its part, should delineate its own objectives for talks with its Gulf Arab neighbours, even as it confirms that it is willing to continue bilateral dialogue with the Gulf Arab states, including about the issues most important to them. Iran’s Raisi has said he wants to improve ties with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours, but he also added that Iran’s regional partnerships and ballistic missile program are non-negotiable. Those statements were mainly directed at the U.S., however. While they may reflect his administration’s tougher position on these issues, including in potential discussions with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours, they do not indicate that Iran is now unwilling to engage its neighbours, which is a step worth encouraging.
Iran’s policy of bilateral discussions with its neighbours is unlikely to change.
As mentioned, Iran’s policy of bilateral discussions with its neighbours is unlikely to change with the change in administration. But the JCPOA’s fate looms over Iran’s foreign policy writ large, with negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 agreement in limbo since June, and tensions between Tehran and Washington, as well as U.S. regional allies, still high. While the Iranian government may seek to insulate its outreach to Gulf rivals from these wider dynamics, pursuing parallel paths of de-escalation vis-à-vis its neighbours and escalation with the West over its nuclear program is unlikely to succeed.
But if nuclear diplomacy continues, a core group of European countries, with UN and EU support, should help spearhead dialogue efforts by dispatching special envoys to the region for discreet engagement with the six GCC states plus Iran and Iraq, as well as other interested stakeholders (including the U.S., Russia and China). These emissaries would explore the possibilities for progress and assess the obstacles thereto in order to lay the groundwork for a regional dialogue. They can do this work while also pursuing negotiations over a mutual U.S.-Iran return to compliance with the JCPOA. As part of these efforts, it will be key to secure the Biden administration’s backing. While, as noted, Gulf states should convene and lead the dialogue, the U.S. must be involved, since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are so wary of discussing security arrangements without the U.S., given its role in protecting them. A source close to the UAE government said: “Dialogue with Iran should include the United States as a guarantor”.
Full regional participation should not be required to begin the dialogue. Rather, it should go ahead with the key participants, with the hope that others will wish to participate once momentum builds.
As the talks get off the ground, countries in the region should pursue confidence-building measures. While the current limited, bilateral talks between countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran will inevitably help in building direct contacts between them, and thus lessen tensions, it is important to put in place other confidence-building mechanisms, such as mutual changes of tone in national media or in government rhetoric, a step that the Emiratis and Saudis have already begun taking. Other steps could include facilitating religious pilgrimages to Mecca (in the case of the Saudis) and Mashhad (in the case of Iran) and agreeing not to meddle in the other side’s internal affairs, for instance forswearing support for separatists or armed groups (something both sides could undertake).
One important step could be agreement on a joint statement that would enshrine the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations. This reiteration of UN Charter principles could be reassuring given that the two sides often accuse each other of interfering in their respective domestic affairs. Another step would be to discuss the establishment of a military-to-military deconfliction mechanism. The inability to communicate instantly when incidents occur, whether involving Iran and Gulf Arab states or Iran and outside powers like the U.S. or Israel, opens the door to miscalculation and thus escalation.
To make the dialogue maximally effective, it should as noted take place on multiple parallel tracks. Splitting the tracks will help ensure that difficult but pressing regional issues – such as ending the conflict in Yemen and restoring stability in Iraq – are discussed as well as other less complicated issues, such as cultural and educational exchanges. The parties could reserve still another track for areas of mutual concern, such as the regional drug trade, environmental problems, water scarcity and public health – particularly important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The objective, which remains distant for now, is an inclusive regional security arrangement in which all states – regardless of size, military prowess, alliances or political structure – can prosper and feel secure.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not want a conflict with Iran. Yet four years of escalatory Trump administration policies only increased the likelihood of one. European stakeholders – supported by the Biden administration – should hasten to facilitate diplomatic talks between the two sides, with the goal of reaching concrete agreements on issues of concern. The Gulf Arab states should then convene multi-track discussions and explore where there is room to make progress. Dialogue may not yield immediate agreement on the matters that most concern the Gulf Arab states. Yet initiating talks is an important first step toward de-escalating tensions between Tehran, on one side, and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, on the other – and toward establishing the forum as an enduring institution that can help safeguard long-term regional stability.
Abu Dhabi/Riyadh/Brussels, 24 August 2021
Appendix A: Map of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran