GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Small state parallels in responding to power preponderance: Gulf states and Saudi Arabia
Paper Proposal Text :
Small states have often been depicted as disadvantaged due to their subordinate position in the international system and the limitations in gaining autonomy that stem from the security dilemma. When seeking security, small states appear doomed to political, economic, and strategic vulnerability because defensive policies beget hostility from other states. However, contrary to expectations, many small states punch above their weight in terms of the disproportionate diplomatic influence that they exert. Both the principalities of the Arabian peninsula (Hijaz and Najd) of the Ottoman era and the Gulf states (the UAE and Qatar) of present-day adopted sleight strategies. Small states of the Arabian Gulf shared common approaches in shifting the focus from the politico-military sphere of power to spheres in which small states could claim an advantage, of pursuing and sustaining a flexible network of partners that shared pragmatic interests, and of distinguishing themselves by creating a functional niche in the international political system.

After the Arab uprisings, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia floated the idea of a loose union among Gulf Cooperation Council states in December 2011. And earlier in the year, Saudi Arabia deployed several thousand troops into Bahrain on the grounds of precluding Iranian influence on the domestic situation of a Gulf state. Attention to these events has primarily been focused on the sway that Saudi Arabia, as the preponderant power among GCC states, holds over the region. It is equally instructive to examine how non-leading states in the Gulf have advanced and preserved their interests, and have not passively accepted Saudi Arabian hegemony.

Political science accounts frame responses to primacy of power within the framework of balancing and bandwagoning. However, when looking at how Gulf states respond to preponderant Saudi Arabian power, the balancing-bandwagoning framework is inadequate. Gulf states, in particular Qatar and the UAE, do not automatically balance against a Riyadh-led order, nor do they simply join forces with Saudi Arabia in hopes of benefitting from its umbrella of security. This fixation on balancing, and its counterpart, bandwagoning, appears to lie in the almost unquestioned assumption that these two strategies represent the two main, if not exclusive, approaches to state security in world politics. Instead, the response of Qatar and the UAE has been a departure from this conventional model. Qatar and the UAE have pursued a slate of approaches to advancing and defending their interests that may have an impact on the nature and even duration of Saudi Arabia’s regional power preponderance.

Without balancing against or bandwagoning with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states draw from historical patterns of regional interaction. During the height of the Ottoman empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Arabian peninsula was composed of principalities under Ottoman suzerainty. The design of regional politics bore little resemblance to the politico-legal framework of a single, unified political system, and states frequently recognized multiple overlords. The distinct fluidity in the relationships among suzerains and principality states meant that regional order tolerated fragmentation, multiplicity, and diversity in form. The Ottoman empire’s efforts to establish hierarchical relations with principality states of Hijaz and Najd were openly contested. Fervent Wahhabi movements from Najd and the creation of alternative spheres of authority by Hijaz countered the Ottoman empire’s hierarchical order. Hijaz and Najd, as small states facing a preponderant regional power, turned to strategies that cannot be classified as either balancing against or bandwagoning with the Ottoman empire.

Small states that contend with preponderant powers are not confined to the strategies of balancing and bandwagoning alone. Geopolitically, Riyadh has become accustomed to leading not only the Gulf region, but arguably the wider Middle East for decades. In its efforts to engender a united front among GCC members towards Iran, Saudi Arabia has encountered significant resistance. The UAE and Qatar have frequently challenged Saudi Arabian attempts at asserting its vision of hierarchy through foreign policy leadership. Carving out niches in diplomatic settings and pursuing less overtly confrontational policies that contest the preponderance of power represents not only a departure from the conventional balancing-bandwagoning dichotomy but also a sophisticated approach to world affairs.