The situation in the Arab Gulf has been getting tenser by the hour since American forces killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani last Thursday night near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.
Iran and its proxy groups in the region have vowed to retaliate for the killing of the man who for years led the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) and was central in coordinating the Iranian influence in the region. On Wednesday, Iran attacked two bases in Iraq that are used by the American troops with missiles.
Though US President Donald Trump has warned Iran of severe consequences if it retaliates, there is also a strong conviction that Iranian revenge attacks are inevitable. As Iran’s leaders have repeated their threats to target the American presence in the region, the Arab Gulf countries have become anxious.
The rhetoric is not helping to calm America’s Arab allies in the Gulf. Trump’s statement that designated targets to be hit if Iran retaliates include cultural sites could also anger Shiite communities in many Gulf countries.
Though many in the Gulf are pleased that Suleimani has disappeared, they are holding their breath and not expressing their joy. The constraints that have been in place for the last couple of years are no longer there, which means anything could happen, commentators say.
“Any ill-timed move or ill-advised action may very well be misinterpreted, miscalculated or miscommunicated,” as the UAE’s Gulf Newsput it in an editorial.
Saudi Arabia has stated that the Americans did not consult it before they carried out the killing of Suleimani and the deputy leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd) Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandes.
Unsubstantiated reports said that the American drones used in the killing flew from the Al-Udeid base in Qatar. The next day, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad Bin Abdul-Rahman Al Thani travelled to Iran to offer his country’s condolences to Iranian officials, the first high-ranking Gulf official to visit Iran a day after the killing.
Qatar has close ties with Iran, and these strengthened in recent years after Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain boycotted Qatar over its support for terrorist groups. That might not be enough to spare Qatar an Iranian response, however, especially as the American military concentration in the region is biggest in Qatar and Kuwait.
News reports in Iraq said that the drones had originated from an American air base in Kuwait and not from Qatar. Kuwait denied the allegations, dismissing “mistaken information” that the country’s military bases had been used to mount attacks against “specific targets in one of the neighbouring countries.”
Many analysts point to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the two Gulf countries most nervous about any Iranian retaliation for the Suleimani killing. Kuwait is more anxious than the other Gulf countries for many reasons. First, the composition of the country’s population is critical when it comes to Iran. Second, its proximity to Iraq poses a danger of its being a soft target for a response by pro-Iran Iraqi militias.
Yet, all the Arab Gulf countries are on their toes calling for calm and restraint. They not only anticipate an Iranian response, but also fear that American “arrogance” might escalate the situation in the region to an uncontrollable level.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that “it is necessary to put wisdom, balance and political solutions above confrontation and escalation” this week.
Adding to the nervousness in the Gulf is the uncertainty about the support the Gulf countries can expect from Trump should they become the target of Iranian retaliation, whether military and targeting American interests or even a cyber-attack.
Recent attacks on Saudi oil giant Aramco got only a verbal reaction from Washington and the further tightening of sanctions on Iran that would have been in the pipeline anyway.
Trump’s chaotic policy on Syria and his abandoning of America’s allies the Kurds are at the back of the minds of Gulf leaders. If the situation escalates between Tehran and Washington, the Gulf countries are going to suffer the brunt of a wider conflict, which is why they are calling for restraint on the part of the Iranians and Americans.
Many hope that the Iranian response will be proportionate and that the Americans will let it pass. Yemen’s Houthi militia has already fired missiles towards Saudi Arabia, though with no effect. The responses in Iraq or Syria would be within the level of violence already present and would also be far from the Gulf.
The worst-case scenario would be an Iranian venture targeting the American presence in the Gulf, since this would have a wider impact on the region’s oil industry as the Gulf countries produce almost a third of global oil.
The major oil producers have already developed a different route for their oil besides the Gulf waterway, but the latter is still central to carrying shipped oil. Prices have already risen, crossing the threshold of $70 a barrel, and any military action in the waterway would make prices rocket.
Some analysts in the Gulf are playing down the threats, pointing to previous instances when Iran or its proxy militias in the region suffered American or Israeli hits and their response was not that serious.
While acknowledging the loss Iran suffered in the killing of Suleimani, the analysts argue that Iran knows its limits. The chances of Tehran stepping over these limits are not high, they say, but these voices have not calmed the anxiety at a possible escalation in the Gulf.
*This article is an updated version of the one that appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Gulf anticipates Iran’s response