Since the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) took over (and now rebranded) territory in Iraq, Gulf States have been somewhat less alarmed by this new Sunni uprising than they have about other more political factors in the conflict.
Gulf officials and analysts blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for creating an intensely sectarian climate. They fear that Iran will gain an additional advantage if it takes a larger role in support of the Shia in Iraq. They also view United States involvement with skepticism, fearing that it would only support a rapprochement between Iran and the United States.
Gulf States are wary of ISIS, which has received limited non-official support from the Gulf, but they do not view the threat from ISIS as the only risk to their interests. In an effort to understand the Gulf’s thinking, a compilation of opinions from the region—including official statements, opinions, and social media posts—are presented below. The responses to recent events amount to a cacophony, suggesting little consistent thinking between Gulf countries, but a higher degree of consistency within each.
Saudi Arabia, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) chief oil supplier, sought to reassure the international community that the world oil market will not face major problems due to the unfolding events in Iraq. Aside from this, the official responses from the Saudi Arabian government blamed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the turmoil in Iraq:
- In a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the two discussed the latest developments in the region, including the situation in Iraq. They agreed to “work with Iraqi political leaders to bring about a transition to an inclusive government that takes into account the rights and needs of all of Iraq’s communities, as well as the major security challenge that the Iraqi Government is facing right now with the threat posed by ISIL.”
- HRH Prince Saud al-Faisal told the Islamic Conference of regional leaders in Jeddah that “This grave situation that is storming Iraq carries with it the signs of civil war whose implications for the region we cannot fathom.” He urged nations racked by violence to meet the “legitimate demands of the people and to achieve national reconciliation [without] foreign interference or outside agendas.” He also advised Maliki to follow the policy pursued by the kingdom in eradicating terrorism. He also said that Gulf countries are unified and ready to counter terrorist threats.
- HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, Ambassador to the United Kingdom, writes in the Telegraph, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the preservation of Iraq’s sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity … Our view, and that of many international observers, is that the way forward is for a new national government to be formed which represents all the people of Iraq—Sunni as well as Shia.” He also stressed, “Saudi Arabia does not provide either moral or financial support to ISIS or any terrorist networks. Any suggestion to the contrary is a malicious falsehood.”
- Former Intelligence Chief Prince Turki al-Faisal held al-Maliki’s government responsible for losing territory in northern Iraq to insurgents and said, “Baghdad has failed to stop ISIS’ influence over militants and Baathists from the Saddam Hussein era.”
- Responding to allegations made by Iraq’s Prime Minister, Saudi Arabia denied giving any support to a rising Islamic insurgency there.
- Saudi analyst Abdel Aziz al-Sagr said Riyadh was concerned its US ally might give Tehran its tacit blessing for such an intervention. “We need a regional coordination over Iraq, not a US-Iranian dialogue,” said Sagr.
The United Arab Emirates official responses, similar to Saudi Arabia, placed blame on al-Maliki for the existing tension between the Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq. A prominent Emirati researcher also called on the GCC to take on a more assertive policy towards the conflict in Iraq:
- On June 17, the Emirati foreign ministry issued statement that read, “While reaffirming its condemnation of terrorism by the ISIL and other terrorist organizations, which has led to the killing of many innocent Iraqis, the UAE strongly believes that the way out of this cycle of violence cannot be found through more of the exclusionary and sectarian policies and strategies that are embedded in the statement of the government of Iraq”.
- Hassan Hassan, a research associate at UAE-based Delma Institute writes that Gulf countries are currently playing the “wait-and-see game and hope Iraq comes to them. That’s why the Gulf has become irrelevant to Iraqis.” He added, “The GCC has to raise their game and speak to the moderate Sunnis and moderate Shias and diplomatically work together to figure out what they want from Iraq … What needs to come first is an effective strategy to be able to influence a resolution in Iraq.”
- Salafi groups in the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement on June 13 blaming the Iraqi government for the events in Iraq.
The Qatari government, in addition to blaming al-Maliki, warned against foreign intervention in Iraq. The discourse suggests a heightened resentment towards a directionless US foreign policy for the Middle East:
- Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said that Maliki’s policies have “deepened the divide between the components of the brotherly Iraqi people.” He urged the Iraqi government to take into consideration the “demands of a large part of the population who are only asking for equality and participation, away from sectarian discrimination.”
- Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, former Qatari ambassador to the United States, said, “Instead of really opening up Iraq and making it a model for the religions, Maliki became beholden to the Iranians’ strategic goals in the region to dominate the whole Middle East and the Gulf, and he created a sectarian state, as a matter of fact, an Iranian state within Iraq, because even Shiite Arabs suffered under him a lot.” He also warned the Obama administration that any military intervention on behalf of the government of Iraq would be seen as an act of “war” on the entire community of Sunni Arabs.
The Bahraini government, in an effort to avoid tension between its Shia and Sunni population, was quick to distance itself from the events in Iraq. The government echoed other sentiments in the region calling against US intervention. Apart from the government’s official response, a prominent politician in the Bahraini shura council voiced his suspicion of Iranian involvement in Iraq:
- Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Khalifa said his country opposes foreign intervention in Iraq despite Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s appeal to the United States to launch airstrikes at militants.
- Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for Bahrain’s Shura Council tweeted that Iran’s influence in Iraq must be taken into account and that Iraq should not be left alone because the turmoil may cause a spillover into Gulf countries. He went on further to advocate for a more assertive foreign policy towards Iraq.
- A Bahraini writer and commentator, Dr. Dhafer Mohammed al-Ajmi writes in Al Watan newspaper that if Iraq splits into three nations for Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, Gulf states should support this step and maintain good relations with Iraq’s next leaders.
The government of Oman has not issued an official statement concerning the events in Iraq. Similar to its positions in the past, Oman has repeatedly made efforts to remain neutral towards conflicts in the region.
Kuwait, like other Gulf countries, maintains a deep-seated fear of jihadists returning to the country. In its official statements towards the events in Iraq, Kuwait feared that the Sunni uprising would continue to attract financial support from Gulf citizens:
- Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Khaled al-Jarallah warned that ISIS might target other countries in the region. He urged member states in the Gulf Cooperation Council to coordinate a security strategy for Iraq.
- The Kuwaiti government issued a statement calling for the safeguarding of Iraq’s territorial integrity.
- Dr. Mohamed al-Rumaihi, a prominent Kuwaiti columnist, writes that Iran’s influence over Iraq is undeniable. He says that Iran’s plan is to dominate the Arab world.
The Gulf Cooperation Council has not issued a statement surrounding the turmoil in Iraq. This may be due to the remaining tension between Gulf States after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014.
It is impossible to separate the events in Iraq from the larger regional framework. Gulf States have a vested interest in the way things play out in Iraq that include limiting Iranian influence in the region, preventing the return of jihadists to the Gulf, and avoiding a disruption in Iraqi oil output. For now, it is difficult to foresee whether Gulf countries will continue to pursue their policy of inaction, or will come to the realization that their interests in Iraq may warrant a more assertive policy.
Nouf Al Sadiq is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.