No one has ever been able to travel to the Gulf without discovering just how different the perspectives and values of the West and the Middle East can be. During the last two years, however, these differences have threatened to become a chasm at the strategic level.
Many in the West still see the political upheavals in the region as the prelude to some kind of viable democratic transition. Western commentators focus on Iran largely in terms of its efforts to acquire nuclear forces, and see Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf states as somehow involved in a low-level feud with Iran over status.
The reality in the Gulf is very different. Seen from the perspective of Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, the upheavals in the Arab world have been the prelude to chaos, instability, and regime change that has produced little more than violence and economic decline. The tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia reflect a broad regional power struggle that focuses on internal security, regional power, and asymmetric threats far more than nuclear forces. It is a competition between Iran and the Arab Gulf states that affects the vital interests and survival of each regime.
This struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is now made more complex by growing doubts among Saudis and other Arabs about their alliance with the United States and about U.S. policies in the region. At a popular level, these doubts have led to a wide range of Arab conspiracy theories that the United States is preparing to abandon its alliances in the Arab world and turn to Iran. At the level of governments and Ministries of Defense, these doubts take the form of a fear that an "energy independent" and war-weary America is in decline, paralyzed by presidential indecision and budget debates, turning to Asia, and/or unwilling to live up to its commitments in the Gulf and Middle East.
Finally, few in the United States and the West understand the extent to which this is a time when both Iran and Arab regimes face a growing struggle for the future of Islam. This is a struggle between Sunnis and Shi'ites, but also between all of the region's regimes and violent Islamist extremists.
This is a struggle where the data issued by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and other efforts to track the patterns in terrorism indicate almost all of the attacks and casualties are caused by Muslims attacking Muslims, and much of the violence is caused by Sunnis attacking Sunnis. The West is only on the periphery of this struggle, not its focus. It is a "clash within a civilization," and not a clash between them.
These are Gulf and Arab perspectives that the United States and Europe cannot afford to ignore. They affect divisions and threats that are all too real in a region where some 20% of all world oil exports, and 35% of all oil shipped by sea, move through the Strait of Hormuz, along with substantial amounts of gas. Millions more barrels move through the Red Sea and an increasing flow of oil moves through Turkey, transshipment routes that are also affected by regional instability.
The global economy and that of every developed nation is heavily dependent on the stability and security of this flow, and on steady rises in its future volume. No nation can insulate itself from a crisis on the Gulf region. All nations will pay higher world prices in a crisis regardless of where their petroleum comes from. Talk of U.S. energy independence ignore the fact the U.S. Department of Energy still projected at least 32% U.S. dependence on the import of liquid fuels through 2040 in the reference case in estimates issued as recently as December 2013. More importantly, the U.S. economy will remain far more dependent indirect imports - imports of Asian exports of manufactured goods that are dependent on Gulf oil - than it is on direct imports of petroleum
Iranian and Arab Perspectives on Tensions in the Gulf and the Region
There is nothing new about Arab Gulf tension with Iran. Arab fears are built on the legacy of the Shah's ambitions and claims to Bahrain that Iran has sporadically repeated ever since Britain withdrew from the region in the 1960s; Iranian occupation of Abu Musa and Tunbs - islands near the critical shipping challenged just West of the Strait of Hormuz; and the Shah's nuclear weapons programs.
Arab fears are also built on eight years of Iraqi-Iranian conflict and the "tanker war" that involved the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab Gulf states during that Iraq conflict. They are built on more recent Iranian threats to close the Gulf, Iranian intervention in Lebanon dating back to the foundation of the Hezbollah, Iran's growing role in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran's alliance with Syria that began early in the Iran-Iraq War and has taken on a steadily more threatening form since 2011, and a major arms race in the Gulf region that has steadily accelerated since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the presidency in 2005.
Most recently, they are based on the fear that the recent nuclear agreements between the P5+1 and Iran, coupled to the lack of U.S. action in Syria, mean that the United States is either unwilling to take risks in dealing with Iran, or may reach some rapprochement with Iran at Arab expense.
The Arab perspective following the P5+1 agreement with Iran is in some ways a mirror image of Iran's. At one level, there are Arab voices that feel some kind of lasting détente and stable strategic relationship with Iran may be possible.
At an official and military level, however, Arab fears and concerns about Iran - and particularly its role in Iraq and Syria are still all too real. In the case of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, officials and senior officers see Iran posing a range of serious military threats from asymmetric forces to efforts to acquire nuclear-armed missile forces. They see the United States as keeping forces in the Gulf, and as providing over $70 billion worth of modern arms transfer, but as taking positions on Egypt, Iraq, and Syria that do much to explain the growing Saudi distrust of the United States and actions like refusing a seat on the UN Security Council.