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Concern and frustration in the Gulf

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America is still the Gulf states' indispensable ally, but the indecisiveness of Obama's policy in the Middle East is starting to foster frustration and concern in the Gulf capital cities. This is where Romney might have a card to play.

Muath Al Wari
1 November 2012

2008 is a long time ago. You might remember a Senator Barack Obama proclaiming he was not just going to win the Democratic primary and the general election, but that buttressed by the “power of millions of voices calling for change” he would proceed to repair and remake the world. This message of hope and grand transformation broke through the wall of apathy with which American elections are viewed in this part of the world. Something entirely new occurred, Arabs - some even in the corridors of power - were excited about the young Illinois senator who was about to be sworn-in as America’s 44th president. Things would change. The George W. Bush administration was not particularly irksome for Gulf capitals, as they could, and did, work with Bush quite effectively - as they did with many before him in spite of their disagreements with US foreign policy. Obama however preached a different gospel altogether. Maybe the time had finally come when America would re-evaluate its general posture towards the Arab world, when it would be a humbler superpower, one that listened more often that it dictated - this was the promised land.

Four years later, the man affectionately known around here as Abu Hussain has no time for sermons on the mount. No, this is a time for specifics: measurable, clear, and concise objectives that make up his case for re-election, and this is exactly what Gulf capitals are looking for. For there are two fundamental lenses through which the Gulf capital cities view the elections: America remains the indispensable ally, and this is no time for grand transformations but for a cold and calculated focus on several issues of concern - chief among them is of course Iran. The reluctant US leadership pivoting to Asia is raising eyebrows in the Gulf. The backdrop of this pivot is an increasingly unstable Iran, a Syrian stalemate, and of course the newly ascendant currency of Islamism. Mitt Romney had it right, the region is in tumult and what is certain is the uncertainty.  

The Obama administration has put together the toughest sanctions regime in history against Tehran. The Iranian economy is cratering, clear fissures are emerging in the leadership, and Iran might be forced back to the negotiating table. But still, a clear red line has not been set by Washington. What Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about at the United Nations resonates here: the leadership in Tehran needs to understand that there is a limit to the patience of the international community. Nothing so far suggests that the sanctions are dissuading Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons programme and Israel is not alone in its anxiety. Statements that any deal "would require an end to the nuclear program" are not as tough as they sound. Whether the US will tolerate some levels of enrichment or demand a complete suspension of any and all enrichment activity remains to be seen. 

How the US will deal with Islamists in the region is another concern. The prevailing view is that the kind of political Islam espoused by movements in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially Syria is extremely destabilizing. While some may still cling to the view that electoral politics will lead the Islamists towards moderation and pragmatism, the Gulf is increasingly coming to the realization that any such moderation will have to be the result of external influence. Consequently, the vagueness of US policy towards Islamists is troubling. While nobody desires an all-out confrontation, the view is that the US must acknowledge the notion that these parties as they operate are extremely detrimental to an already fragile regional order and modify their approach accordingly. 

Finally, the potential spillover of the Syrian crisis is calling for a more active and decisive US policy towards the civil war taking place there. The lack of initiative and leadership displayed by Washington has created a vacuum in which a motley crew of potentially devastating interventions are being pursued by a variety of actors. The aftermath of these interventions following the collapse of the Assad regime is alarming for the Gulf. The scale of life losses and destruction coupled with the radicalizing effect the conflict has on some elements of the opposition is equally concerning. On those critical issues the GCC are looking towards the American elections for signs of how the next four years will play out. While the caution and reluctance displayed by both candidates might be due to the election, that does not do much to address the concerns of the Gulf. The expectation, indeed the hope is for a more decisive, clear, and cooperative policy, the only option however is to wait it out. What is still certain is that America is the indispensable ally, what is uncertain is how much longer that will be the case. 

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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