By Bhopinder Singh
February 10, 2017
President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order on the immigration ban from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Libya) for the next 90 days and the suspension of refugee-entry for the next 120 days, has expectedly shocked and riled the world and drawn accusations of a ‘Muslim ban’. As global leaders from Canada, UK and Germany weighed in, expressing their concern over the brazenness and the implied religio-specificity of the order, leaders from the influential Gulf Sheikdoms were conspicuous by their pusillanimous and vacuous stand on the US order.
Even though the world’s largest body of Islamic nations, the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) spoke of “grave concern” and warned that “such selective and discriminatory acts will only serve to embolden the radical narratives of extremists and will provide further fuel to the advocates of violence and terrorism”, the muted acquiescence and understanding showed by Saudi Arabia and UAE are reflective of the subservience of the Gulf monarchs to the US.
Even though Trump spoke to the Saudi King, Salman bin Aziz Al Saud, after the executive order was issued, accounts from neither side suggested that the immigration subject was even broached, whereas the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan defended the US order as a “sovereign decision” and added, “Some of these countries that were on this list are countries that face structural problems”. The other influential voice in the region, Qatar, was equally considerate towards the US move and hoped that it would “do the right thing” regarding immigration. Kuwait went one-up and enforced its own ban from five Muslim countries ~ Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. On the contrary, Iran which surprisingly finds itself in the list of seven countries to be subjected to the US ban, was unequivocally forthright in slamming the move with its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stating that the move “will be recorded in history as a great gift to extremists and their supporters”.
The Saudi Arabian regime posits its moral supremacy and the accompanying national narrative owing to the historical and geographical relevance of the Kingdom to the birthplace of Islam. This has afforded the Saudi monarch the singular honour of attaching the symbolically revered title, “Custodian of the two holy mosques”. This religious sanctification along with oil-generated affluence (Saudi Arabian reserves are about one-fifth of the world’s total conventional oil reserves), has ensured that the Saudis are the leading voice in the Islamic world. Historically, it has been in the forefront of shaping the Arab multilateral forums like Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, Muslim World League, Organisation of Islamic Countries and supporting the envisaged Arab Customs Union and Arab Common Market. Often the ‘cheque-book’ diplomacy of the Saudi Arabian regime ensured that the less affluent Islamic countries were given financial largesse ~ over $70 billion has been doled out by Saudi Arabia since the 70’s under “overseas development aid”. UAE, Qatar and Kuwait with similar bounties of nature and stacked treasuries of affluence have been ‘net donors’ to various ‘Islamic’ causes like Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc. However, politically and militarily, the Gulf Sheikhdoms are in a complex situation, wherein, they remain indebted and physically sustained by the invaluable security cover provided by the US. The contradictions within the region are exemplified by the US arming, protecting and guaranteeing the sovereign integrity of the various Gulf nations, along with the parallel arming and supporting of the historical nemesis of the Arabs, Israel (both sides have F-15’s, F-16’s, AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters, Stinger Missiles, etc.).
This eerie silence and tolerance by the Gulf Sheikhdoms is attributable to three principal threats to these regimes. First, the unleashed strains of utra-religosity that come in the form of organisations like ISIS, Al Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, etc., who are intrinsically anti-monarchists and active in the rebellion against the existing governance systems. The US and the Western powers aid the fight-back and suppression of such entities, as these militant organisations also have an inherently anti-West agenda and routinely threaten Western interests and assets in the region.
The second threat to the Gulf Sheikhdoms comes from the sectarian angularity of the emergence and assertion of Iran and its proxies like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, etc. In the fight to contain the spectre of a rising ‘Shia-crescent’ in the Gulf Peninsula, the US with its own anti-Iran agenda and posture is aligned to the sensibilities of the Gulf Sheikhdoms (even more stridently under President Trump’s watch).
The third threat to the Gulf monarchies is the implosive restlessness and internal tendencies that recently accompanied the Arab Spring. These popular uprisings later petered out with the subsequent mayhem and lack of alternative solutions that they generated. Given these factors, the US and the Sheikhdoms converge, agree and are aligned on the ostensible commonality of their respective threat perceptions, hence give the long rope of patience to each other.
With the US already over-committed across the globe (from containing China, Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan, etc.) and simultaneously tackling the economic pressures overall, it can ill afford escalating further economic and military chaos with potential disruption to its energy supplies from this oil-rich area. This had propelled the US to defend Kuwaitis in ‘Operation Desert Shield’, in the First Gulf War. The US has since stationed troops on Saudi soil, besides having the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet based out of Bahrain, and maintaining large air installations in Qatar, UAE and Oman. Even though the presence and footprint of the US soldiers in the region has fuelled radical militancy, and has been essentially counterproductive, immediate withdrawal of US troops would severely jeopardise the ability of the Sheikhdoms to sustain themselves.
So, regime-survival instincts, a possible sectarian angle, as all the Shia-ruled nations like Iran, Iraq and Syria are among the banned nations, along with the plausible theory of protecting commercial interests of the Trump corporate empire in the Gulf Sheikhdoms, has ensured a convenient quid pro quo, wherein maintaining ostensible ‘normalcy’ and acceptance is in the mutual interest of both the US and the Gulf Sheikdoms. Thus, invaluable US support to these repressive, undemocratic and authoritarian regimes of the Gulf Sheikhdoms, with the required leniency and legitimacy that is critical for their internal and external survival, buys reciprocal silence on matters like the immigration ban, which unquestionably irks the common man on the streets of the Gulf Sheikhdoms.
Bhopinder Singh is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Island and Puducherry.