In the Aftermath of the Presidential Visit:The Gulf Emirates and American Interests in the Middle East
After nearly three years of bloodshed between the Israelis and Palestinians, there is once again an opportunity to advance the stalled peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. President Bush stated his commitment to both Israel's security as a democratic Jewish state and to the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. The administration that initially shunned nation building has now entered into what will be a long and, periodically, bloody process of democratizing Palestinian society.
The fact that President Bush met with both Sharon and Abu Mazen without a simultaneous suicide bombing should be considered a great success. The president's ability to get the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to agree to condemn Islamic terrorism should also be viewed as a major accomplishment. Nevertheless, Bush, like the Arab leaders and the Israelis, will be judged more by results than by words.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is not the only arena in which the United States will exert its influence. Indeed, the removal of the Iraqi dictator will reshape not only the geopolitics of the Holy Land, but also of the Persian Gulf. The American success in Iraq has eased Israel 's longstanding fear of an attack on its western border; the two polities that will see the most immediate gains after the war, however, are Bahrain and Qatar, two small but incredibly wealthy island nations in the Gulf. It was thus no accident that Bahrain's King Hamad was present at the Sharm el Sheik summit and that President Bush's last stop was Qatar , where he paid a courtesy call to the emir.
For too long, the United States has relied upon Saudi Arabia as its main ally in the Persian Gulf. Following September 11th and a series of revelations regarding the Saudi Kingdom's role in spreading radical Islam and Wahhabi ideology throughout the Muslim world, Washington realized that it could no longer maintain the status quo with Riyadh. This fact was not lost upon the leaders of the smaller Persian Gulf states - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, in particular - all of whom, it should be stressed, helped facilitate the American military build-up in the region. The United States needs solid allies in the Arab world right now and has thus hedged its bets on solid economic and political alliances with Bahrain and Qatar , both of which will gain financially from their pro-American stance. Bahrain has a major U.S. Navy base and will be an increasingly important strategic base for the United States , particularly given recent American tensions with the Saudis. By allowing Centcom to be based in Doha , Qatar became the most openly pro-American state in the Arab world.
Aside from housing CENTCOM , Qatar will likely be tasked with playing the middleman between Washington, Tel Aviv and the Arab League. Indeed, it was no coincidence that just weeks after the end of hostilities in Iraq, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani met with his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, at a very public meeting in Paris. Israel and Qatar have maintained trade relations since the mid-1990s and, despite enormous pressure from other Arab states, Qatar refused to close the Israeli trade mission in Doha following the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in September 2000. Sheikh Hamad has hinted at the possibility of a Qatari-Israeli peace treaty.
Qatar will likely be the next Arab state to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel and, thus, the Qatari decision to have such a public meeting with an Israeli official was calculated to demonstrate to Washington that Doha's foreign policy would not be dictated by either the Saudis nor by the ‘Arab street.' Interestingly, Qatar is a primarily Wahhabi country, but is far more tolerant than its Saudi neighbors and, considering its natural gas sales to Israel, is not opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
Bahrain, on the other hand, will likely not enter into such an open relationship with Israel, particularly given Manama's need for better relations with neighboring Iran, a state that the Bahraini leadership considered responsible for the Shiite uprisings of the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, Bahrain's monarch, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is pro-American and is willing to promote close ties with Washington in order to serve his country's interests.
The war with Iraq, however, has left Bahrain in an unusual position. While it no longer has to fear an Iraqi scud missile attack, it now faces serious questions on the domestic front. With Saddam Hussein removed from power, Bahrain is now the only majority Shiite Arab state that is ruled by a Sunni. While the violent demonstrations and uprisings by an aggrieved Shiite population seem to be a thing of the past, Manama must realize that it must continue down the road of democratization and reform. At the same time, in order for Washington to forge good ties with Iraqi Shiite, it will likely need to pressure Bahrain to enhance the rights of Bahraini Shiite.
Much as in 1991, a successful American war against Iraq has allowed for the possible creation of a new Middle East , one not held hostage to the whims of violent dictators. Unlike twelve years ago, however, this Bush Administration has realized that the best partners in the Persian Gulf may not be the biggest states, but the wealthy, smaller ones that have much to gain from taking a pro-American stance and very little to gain from being hostile to Washington. Despite numerous differences between the parties, Bahrain, Iraq, Israel and Qatar may yet emerge as a new, prosperous, and pro-American bloc in the heart of the Middle East -a new Baghdad Pact. This is a strategic policy course that the United States would be wise to consider and one that would well serve our energy, financial and security interests.