For the first time since 1995, in October the US produced more oil domestically than it imported from overseas. The US has been steadily moving towards greater energy independence and this shift will have a tremendous effect on the relations between the US and the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, primarily Saudi Arabia. If demand for their oil dries up, the Gulf states will find it increasingly difficult to sustain their entrenched traditional systems in a modernizing world. While the Gulf will remain strategically important to the US, the oil factor is set for a decline that will open new opportunities and consequences for the US-Gulf relationship.
If there’s any place in the world where money really can buy happiness, it’s the Gulf (if you’re in the right family). The extremely controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar for example, even had a senior FIFA official admit the decision was a mistake. On a more serious note, for decades the Gulf has successfully bought stability at home and influence on the international stage with their oil profits. Recently the Gulf countries have come under greater criticism for their treatment of foreign workers, antiquated laws towards women and divisive foreign policy agendas. In the long term, the Gulf states will continue to face mounting pressure against such controversial policies especially as the significance of their oil wealth declines.
Overview of the Gulf Monarchies
There are six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is more populated than the other five states combined and by far most influential. The Saud family has ruled for generations, as have the Al Thani in Qatar, Al Sabah in Kuwait, Al Said in Oman and the Al Khalifa in Bahrain. Each emirate of the UAE has its own ruling family and the head of government has always been held by the emir of Dubai. All six are Arab, though many have substantial foreign laborer populations. All the ruling families are Sunni with the exception of the Ibadi sect in Oman which is neither Sunni nor Shi’a. Bahrain is the only country to have a Shi’a majority populace, which has been the cause of major sectarian tension.
The US and Saudi Arabia especially have always had a very close, but very complicated relationship. The strategic partnership concerning oil and security in the region has come under further strain due to a variety of foreign policy differences on recent events in the region. The Saudis were alarmed by the exchanges between Obama and Iran’s new Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani, and the Saudis argue the US has not done enough to help the rebels against the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia has taken their own initiative in supporting opposition groups aligned to their own agendas, worrying American officials. Furthemore, while the US has reduced the amount of aid to the current military backed government in Egypt, Gulf countries have sent billions more.
However, this all pales in comparison to the longstanding relationships that have been in place for decades between the US and the Gulf monarchies in military and oil agreements. Also critical is the mutually beneficial collaboration between the US and the monarchies against terrorism.
While predicting the imminent collapse of the Gulf monarchies is a bit premature, the Gulf leaders of the future will increasingly find themselves forced to concede on some issues or else risk exacerbating the tensions within their states. The Gulf states operate in a strange, hypocritical world at times. For example migrant workers within the Gulf have been severely exploited, though leaders are still quick to send 10 million in aid to the Philippines for disaster relief. There’s no shortage of cash in the monarchies and they’re constantly investing more into their future, but such extremely modern business ventures coupled with their traditional political systems is becoming more and more incompatible. The Gulf states can throw money at their problems for now, but they cannot do it forever.
The US needs to take a stronger stand against human rights injustices within the Gulf. Exploiting workers, oppressive women’s rights policies and questionable foreign policy initiatives have largely been swept under the rug in exchange for allies in oil and regional security. The Gulf states should realize that improving their domestic issues benefits their standing in the international community, and the West should reiterate this point to them. As the US relies less on Gulf oil in the future, it should not step away from its Gulf partners but rather evolve those relationships. The US should pressure its allies in the region to improve their human rights issues, while continuing the critically strategic agreements in place.