The hundreds of classified US foreign service cables leaked last week by Wikileaks provided much fodder for the newspaper industry, with disparaging remarks about European leaders, British princes, and other dignitaries proving particularly popular with editors and readers alike. But beyond diplomatic tittle-tattle, the cables have some serious stories to tell. They confirm many long held beliefs about usually secretive Persian Gulf politics, and cast light on a few new angles too.
Clearly the Gulf Arab rulers fear Iran above all else. But none are willing to take a public stand against Iran, instead preferring to wage a low intensity campaign to persuade US officials that a conventional war sooner rather than later is in the best interests of the region. Abu Dhabi even claims that Iran is an existential threat and compares Ahmedinejad to Hitler, while Saudi Arabia is similarly hawkish. Connected to the Iran threat, the cables also confirm that most of the Gulf rulers have open and warm channels of communication with Israel. If anything, the rulers view Israel as a natural ally against a common threat, despite simultaneously trying to persuade their citizens that all things Israeli are being boycotted (as per their constitutions) and that support for Palestine remains a key foreign policy objective.
Also linked to Iran and regional security, the cables prove that the Gulf Cooperation Council is a sham, at least when it comes to providing collective security. The Gulf monarchies have little or no faith in themselves or each other, despite their high-tech arms procurements and despite the GCC soon reaching its fourth decade. Instead, all hang their futures on special, individual relationships with outside protectors, notably the US. It really does seem that precarious. Qatar for example allows the US to operate its airbase at Khor Udeid rent free (and was happy for the facility to be used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq), while the UAE allows the US to operate an "Iran RPO" (regional presence office – tasked with "monitoring" activity in Iran) on its territory.
The cables provide a few other interesting insights. Conversations between US diplomats and the ruler of Dubai demonstrate how that Gulf state was always operating a foreign policy independent of Abu Dhabi (and de facto the UAE’s federal government), at least until its autonomy was wiped following the financial crisis in 2009. As such, the UAE was never a unified state, and certainly not a functioning federation, despite frequent noises to that effect. In many ways though the ruler of Dubai comes across as a pragmatic survivor: trying to balance a necessary alliance with the US with the needs of his substantial Iranian-origin population and Dubai’s many Iranian investors. Mindful of his emirate’s heavy dependence on Iranian trade and investment links, much effort was made to persuade the US that tightening sanctions on Iran would greatly harm the region. This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a few employees of an Iranian state-funded entity. While sitting under a portrait of the Ayatollah in a London warehouse district (a future blog entry in its own right, perhaps) we talked of this and that before a claim was made that Iran is "preparing for the worst" and that "Iran could move on from Dubai in just six months if need be." In other words Iran is readying itself to write off access to Dubai’s economy should sanctions intensify and the latter’s trade activities come under greater scrutiny.
As for domestic politics and democracy, the cables from the Gulf monarchies are generally disappointing. The ruler of Dubai, however, again provides a bit of colour by claiming that if elections were held tomorrow, then the Muslim Brotherhood would win. Such fearmongering statements are often made by Gulf officials to Western diplomats in order to promote the need for autocracy and to justify the various crackdowns on opponents. Islamists are certainly active in Dubai, but there is every indication that they wish to participate in a functional modern democracy and no indication that they would win a majority or stifle other candidates. The problem is that their voices (and those of all other opponents) are currently being suppressed.
There is similarly little said about human rights in the cables. I am hopeful that taxpaying Americans assume that their diplomats serving in authoritarian regimes are regularly bringing up human rights abuses or discussing the plight of political prisoners. But the leaked conversations show that US diplomats in the Gulf very rarely raise such matters, preferring to concentrate on the security of these regimes. Occasionally some mentions are made, but these come across as being afterthoughts, and there is no evidence that Gulf rulers have been coming under pressure in this regard.