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Opinion: An Unconvincing Explanation | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters march through the streets of the Syrian town of Tel Abyad on January 2, 2014. (Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor)

Over the past few days, it has been said that the Gulf states have been compelled to put their disputes aside out of fear of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Has this terrorist organization’s threat reached the extent that it is capable of ending the Gulf’s disputes? And is ISIS really capable of threatening the capitals of these states?

Of course, no one familiar with the region could believe this could happen, unless they were clueless about its political developments. Geographically speaking, any threat from ISIS should be impossible, unless it has an air force, which it does not.

The city of Ramadi—in Iraq’s Anbar province, close to the Saudi border—is the closest ISIS stronghold to the Gulf. Kuwait City is the closest Gulf capital to Ramadi, but despite this, the distance between them is still huge—more than 470 miles (760 kilometers), most of which contains barren desert. The Saudi capital is almost twice as far from Ramadi as Kuwait City. Any arrival of ISIS via land into the capitals of Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates or Oman would be impossible, no matter how strong, speedy and well-armed the organization might be.

ISIS fighters, traveling in armed vehicles, were able to cross from Syria into the Iraqi city of Mosul via the Al-Qa’im border crossing because of the short distance between the two places, the chaos in Syria, and the security vacuum in Iraq, which was the result of the weakness of the central government in Baghdad. Therefore, arguing that Gulf governments could put their disputes aside out of fear of ISIS would be an overestimation of its capabilities. Logic, and many good arguments, dictate that Gulf governments should end their disputes. However, the specter of ISIS is not among them.

The paradox is that the concerns of the Gulf states are also their assets. They are similar to each other in three areas: financial influence, strong relations with the West, and political stability. Instead of directing these common assets towards similar objectives to benefit the people of the region in general, and the people of the Gulf in particular, there has been an increase in “proxy wars” on which billions of dollars have been spent, despite the fact these struggles will injure everyone who takes part in them. Those assets were used in buying international military, legal, media, political and commercial services as part of a “cold war” among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This is absurd on a level the likes of which the region has not seen before.

When the Gulf states act together, they are a potential powerhouse, but when they disagree, they fight in other parties’ arenas. A particular incident when the Gulf states cooperated was when they decided to support Bahrain during its ordeal in 2011. At the time, there were fears that the smallest Gulf country, which faced the most sensitive situation in sectarian terms, could collapse as a result of interference by Iran and other parties. The GCC succeeded in saving Bahrain, both internationally and domestically, and it also succeeded in preventing chaos and an extended state of war.

The concerns about the Gulf arises from concerns about the actions of its people, not ISIS. Terrorism poses a direct threat to the Iraqi and Syrian regimes because it grows and expands where it finds chaos and a security vacuum, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen. Gulf countries are protected against ISIS, just as they were against Al-Qaeda in the past. This is not to deny the threat armed extremist groups pose to Gulf stability, or their desire to shake the internal order of the Gulf states and embarrass them internationally.

The Gulf states’ current crisis stems from their fighting among themselves for influence over a vast geographic area, stretching from Syria to Mauritania. However, even if one Gulf state emerges victorious over another, it’s still a pyrrhic victory, because Gulf states are not global superpowers that can turn these victories into spheres of influence where they can expand their interests. They cannot even maintain their gains for long, as we witnessed in the case of Qatar’s intervention in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Syria and Yemen.

It is akin to playing an expensive video game that offers no real reward, except for Saudi Arabia, as it has to protect its borders with Iraq and Yemen, as well as having to support Egypt, since chaos there may directly harm the Kingdom. In general, putting an end to this competition among the Gulf states would be to everyone’s advantage, but claiming that any reconciliation has occurred out of fear of ISIS is an unconvincing interpretation of the situation.