How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In May, in an hour-long interview aired on state television, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman declared that dialogue with Iran was “impossible.” The Shiite republic could not be trusted, he warned, since its foreign policy was guided by the messianic aim of converting and controlling the entire Muslim world. The prince’s fiery rhetoric, however much it dashed hopes that the two geopolitical rivals could reach a settlement in their standoffs in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, was of course not surprising. With the exception of Oman and to a lesser extent Kuwait and Qatar, the Arab Gulf states have long charged Tehran with manipulating, arming, and stoking unrest among Arab Shiite populations both within and outside of conflict zones. As a result, most Gulf governments openly regard Iran as their foremost national security threat.
Whether Gulf citizens agree with such a view, however, is less clear. Scholars have extensively studied elite threat perceptions in the Middle East and Gulf regions, yet very little is known about how ordinary Gulf Arabs perceive Iran and the extent to which their views reflect the internal and external narratives projected by their respective governments. The existing public opinion survey data, collected in the Gulf region after the 2011 Arab Spring, suggest that most Arabs hold broadly negative views of Iran across a number of cultural and political dimensions, and that these opinions depend crucially on individuals’ sectarian identification, with Shiites generally holding substantially more positive views of Iran. But dislike or even hatred toward Iran and its policies is distinct from fear of the country as an assumed political–military aggressor. Moreover, Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program is today but one of several competing state and non-state threats to Gulf national security: also figuring in are the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Sunni-dominated terrorist organizations; economic stagnation due to low oil prices; and, from the standpoint of some, continued foreign intrusion by the United States and other Western governments.
To address this gap in knowledge, I, along with colleagues at the University of Michigan, conducted an original survey across five of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. (The United Arab Emirates declined to participate in the study.) Between 2016–17, we commissioned face-to-face surveys with more than 4,000 Arab Gulf citizens, interviewing large and nationally representative samples of citizens aged 18 and older in each country. Among other things, respondents were asked to identify the “greatest challenge to the security and stability of the Gulf countries” from among the following options: “the spread of terrorist groups such as Daesh [the Islamic State] and al-Qaeda”; “the Iranian nuclear program”; “economic problems due to low oil prices”; and “interference from Western countries.” (The order in which the four options were presented was randomized to avoid biasing the results.) The survey also asked the respondents about their general political orientations and attitudes toward the GCC as an institution.
The results of the survey reveal two important and surprising findings. First, in spite of the many similarities among the Arab Gulf countries, its citizens not only differ in their orientations toward individual security challenges, but they also display substantial cross-national differences in general feelings of security versus insecurity. In Oman, for example, almost half of all those surveyed—46 percent—said that no country poses a challenge to the nation’s stability and security, compared with 22 percent of citizens in Qatar and a mere two percent of Kuwaitis.
Second, and even more remarkable, are Gulf citizens’ perceptions of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. When the question of external security is broadened to include nontraditional threats from transnational terrorism, Western interference, and economic crisis, Iran all but disappears from the picture. With the exception of Bahraini citizens, the overwhelming majority of respondents in each country identified the spread of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda as the greatest security challenge for the Gulf, with proportions ranging from 53 percent of citizens in Oman to 68 percent in Kuwait (which only several months prior to the survey had been the victim of a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque). Iran and its nuclear program came in a distant second in Qatar and Kuwait, where a respective 23 percent and 21 percent of respondents considered it a top threat. In Oman it was only the third-most cited threat, at 15 percent, ranking behind economic issues stemming from the oil crash. Even in Saudi Arabia, concerns over Iran are secondary to terrorism, with only 25 percent of Saudis saying that its Shiite neighbor poses the top threat to the region.
In the small, Shiite-majority kingdom of Bahrain, where official concerns over the existential threat from Iran reach their most hysterical (in part thanks to the country’s 2011 Shiite-led uprising) a mere one in 20 citizens consider the Iranian nuclear program to be the greatest threat to Gulf security and stability. Instead, the most prevalent security concern among Bahrainis is “interference” by the West—which is to say by the United States—in GCC affairs. Supporters of the Shiite opposition view the United States as an enabler of state repression due to its diplomatic support of and weapons sales to the Bahraini government. At the same time, many Sunni loyalists are convinced that Washington has formed a duplicitous alliance with Iran against Bahrain and other Sunni Arab countries. Western meddling is far less likely to be identified as the Gulf’s paramount security problem in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The survey data thus reveal dissonance between widespread, negative opinions of Iran in the Gulf and the identification of Salafi-inspired extremist organizations as the top security threat, since these are groups that purport to defend Sunnis against Iran, among other things. The contradiction highlights the complex constellation of identities and allegiances that ordinary Muslims in the Arab world are forced to navigate in a highly uncertain time, often with a thin line distinguishing protector from threat.
Significantly, the results also suggest that Gulf citizens have not bought into the self-serving political narrative, promoted by the beleaguered Gulf governments since the 2011 Arab uprisings, that Iran is the main source of their domestic ills. Indeed, since then, accusations of Iranian interference in GCC affairs have served as the primary soundtrack of the region’s politics. Underlying this charge, of course, is a subtler message: that the protest movements that emerged—and that were forcibly snuffed out—in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, were not organic mobilizations of men and women spurred by legitimate grievances and demands, but rather manufactured conspiracies by citizens knowingly or duped into working for foreign interests. It seems that whereas government rhetoric focuses on the largely hidden or intangible forces of Iranian expansionism and Shiite empowerment, ordinary citizens appear much more concerned with the tangible aspects of their everyday lives, including in some countries the real threat of terrorist violence, economic insecurity due to a shrinking social safety net, and the presence of Western military forces.
The Gulf governments have applied an analogous logic to the economic woes now affecting their societies as a result of the 2014 crash in oil prices, which survey respondents in the GCC’s two poorest states, Bahrain and Oman, cite as a greater challenge to regional stability than Iran’s nuclear program. Gulf governments have accused Iran of further depressing prices by refusing to reduce its output. And GCC budget shortfalls—which resulted in cuts to citizen welfare benefits—were blamed, in part, on the need for heightened police and military spending to respond to the Iranian threat, such as in Syria and Yemen. The common implication is that the problems facing Gulf states today are not primarily of their own making (born of stalled reform agendas, economic mismanagement, or some other internal cause), but are exogenous obstacles erected by a malicious adversary.
Indeed, in the same hour-long television interview in which the Saudi crown prince ruled out negotiations with Iran on solving regional conflicts, he also made a vigorous defense of his signature economic reform program known as “Vision 2030,” a sweeping 15-year plan to reduce state spending, diversify the economy, boost entrepreneurship and self-reliance among citizens, and raise money by privatizing prized state assets including the national oil company Saudi Aramco. Only a week earlier, the state had restored financial allowances for government workers and military personnel that had been slashed under the first round of austerity measures. The unpopular cuts lasted only seven months before the government reversed course, which some outside observers interpreted as a capitulation to public pressure. Bin Salman’s rhetorical connection between Saudi Arabia’s economic and security perils was therefore significant. It reflects a larger conceptual blurring of the two sets of challenges: the idea that the threat from Iran necessitates a robust—and expensive—military response, and also national unity in the face of painful but necessary economic reforms.
It is generally accepted that ruling elites can capitalize on public feelings of insecurity to garner support for unpopular policies or divert attention away from governance failures, and in our previous work, we have found empirical evidence of this in the Gulf context. Yet it is clear from our recent survey results that Gulf Arab governments and citizens tend to have very different things in mind when they think about threats to regional security and stability. Although rulers go on about the Iranian menace and the “terrorism” of political opponents such as Shiite activists or the Muslim Brotherhood, most citizens are more concerned about actors that are much more closely associated with the Gulf governments, such as their Western military patrons and the extremist groups that receive ideological and (allegedly) material support from some of them. Until now, this disconnect seems to have had little political impact, as the chaos in much of the Arab world that followed the 2011 revolution has instilled in Gulf citizens a strong aversion to instability. If security, or especially economic conditions were to deteriorate further, however, one could expect it increasingly difficult for the Gulf regimes to hide behind their Iranian bogeyman.
Almost certainly, GCC leaders will continue to reiterate their fears of Iranian meddling in local affairs and call on U.S. President Donald Trump to take a much tougher line against Tehran, perhaps raising the likelihood of direct military confrontation or a U.S. withdrawal from the controversial 2015 nuclear accord signed by Iran, the United States, and European powers. In digesting these concerns, U.S. officials would do well to bear in mind the views of ordinary Gulf citizens, for whom Iran is ultimately of secondary concern to Salafi jihadism and, in some states, to economic stagnation and Washington’s meddling in the region. When compared against the latter three issues, which are structural and transnational problems affecting all Arab populations, one wonders whether reining in the ambitions of a single regional power is the most pressing task for the Gulf.