Whenever one asks certain officials from North Africa or the Middle East whether the U.S. can be trusted as an ally, the answer is always the same: a pause, followed by awkward sentences that start either with “Well…” or “To be honest…” The answers that follow don’t sound very positive, either.
It is no secret in the region that the trust deficit has reached its peak—and for a reason that may surprise Westerners. Sunnis, who make up the majority in most countries in the Middle East, now believe that the U.S. and European powers are maneuvering to empower Shia regimes and nations at their expense. The nuclear deal with Iran, a Shia-majority country run by Shia clergy, has served as proof in the pudding to many who believe in this conspiracy, say Arab and Iranian officials from the political and security sectors. Most asked to speak under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
Despite assurances from Obama Administration officials that the U.S. plans to increase its military commitments and support of allies in the region, officials in the Muslim countries say that such public pronouncements—like the speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at a security conference in Bahrain earlier this month—do little to regain their trust.
“First we saw how one Western official after the other started to turn against the rulers in the region in the name of the Arab Spring,” said an Egyptian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And now they cut a deal with Iran without including anyone from the region. It looks like they are treating us like in the times of colonial powers—they decide what’s good for the region; our voices don’t seem to count.”
Another North African security official said that Arab regimes feel betrayed for having spent the past decade helping the U.S. in its post-9/11 intelligence gathering operations, only to be abandoned during the Arab Spring. “We helped them in some operations in the war on terror. The U.S. has also not a good track record when it comes to torture and human-rights violations, but it seems this president and his administration would like to forget these facts. But we won’t,” he said.
Such disappointments open the door for ideas of possible new power alignments. From North Africa to the Middle East, officials speak of the possibility of moving more toward Russia or China, especially after seeing Moscow’s unbreakable support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
“Look at [Hosni] Mubarak, [Zine el Abedine] Ben Ali and even [Muammar] Gaddafi—there was a lot of cooperation between intelligence services going on, but the West was not that close to them and let them down. But Russia seems to stand by its allies,” a Kuwaiti security official said.
During the Cold War, it was not conceivable that Russia could be an ally for the Gulf region and most North African countries, which had been staunchly “pro American.” But times have changed. Even trust in Great Britain—a major colonial power that has announced, like the U.S., that it would put more effort into helping its allies in the Gulf—has waned. “We are not stupid. No matter if the Americans or British, we are not forgetting that they had both the same standing throughout the so called Arab spring or the Iran negotiations,” a security official from the Gulf region said.
“It is quite some hypocrisy when you see all these ministers from Britain and the U.S. coming now into the region and trying to make sure that their interests are secured,” an official from the United Arab Emirates added. “But it might be time for the region to expand the possibility for new partnerships.”
Would that mean even a partnership with Iran? All the Arab officials interviewed for this article did not categorically refute the idea but said that Iran would have to make a show of good will and stop destabilizing the region directly and indirectly.
The former head of Saudi intelligence and a member of the Saudi royal family, Turkic al Faisal, said that the Saudis have not been upset about negotiations with Iran, but were mainly shocked that none of the neighboring countries had been invited to participate in the deal.
For their part, Iranian officials say they are aware of the sensitivities toward their engagement in the region but also about the lack of trust in Western countries: "Perhaps it is not in the interest of some Western countries that the region would turn peaceful, because of business interests and influence,” said Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian ambassador and onetime head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Supreme National Security Council. “But Iran does want to have good relations with its neighboring countries and the whole region,” he said.
The apparent desire on the part of Iranian officials for a new and better relationship with their neighbors comes at a time when countries in the region have to deal with the questions of the ongoing strength and relevancy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formed as a buffer against Iran in 1981. There’s also the question of whether the idea of a “Gulf Union” —economic and political cooperation in the same style as the European Union—will blossom. Oman had stated that it was opposed to the upgrading of the Gulf Cooperation council to a union that would be similar to the EU.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia first proposed first the idea of upgrading the GCC into a Union and was backed by Bahrain, and later by Kuwait and Qatar, but Iran was clearly excluded.
Some Arab officials say behind closed doors that the ongoing changes in the region and the faltering trust in Western countries could bring Iran closer into the council, if the Iranians would clearly distance themselves from interference in other countries, either through proxies like Hezbollah, or through Iraqi militias or Iranian backed media outlets.
“Look at Bahrain, Syria, Iraq—there are enough examples of countries in the region which are suffering from Iran’s policy in the region,” a Saudi security official said.
An Iranian government official said his country would accept the full sovereignty of all Arab countries and, unlike Western countries, would also understand that democracy might not work in every country, especially in the Gulf region. “When it comes to Bahrain for example, we say, ‘Give Shia more access to positions,’ but we don’t say ‘the Khalifa family should go,’” the government official said.
Iranian officials also said they would be ready to show their sincerity in a new approach towards their neighboring countries. Hossein Mousavian said the Organization of Islamic Cooperation would be the best vehicle for confidence building measures between Iran and the Arabs. “It is the time for Iran, GCC and Iraq to establish a Persian Gulf Regional Cooperation System for a comprehensive engagement like the European Union,” he said.
Most of the interviewed Arab officials confirmed such cooperation would decrease sectarian conflicts in the region and help the region gain more political influence and economic power. Still, officials in Bahrain and other Arab countries say they remain suspicious about Iran’s intentions. “We can all say a lot to journalists but what counts are the actions,” a Bahraini official said.
But the idea of an EU-style alliance seems to be gaining steam. “The region would be to powerful in the eyes of some Western countries,” a Saudi official said, “it might not really be in their interests. But it’s time for the region to think about what would be good for us, no matter what the West wants.”
Souad Mekhennet is a journalist, book author and associate at the Weatherhead Center at Harvard University and at the School for Advanced and International Studied (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins university.