U.S. sidelined from Gulf turmoil

Crucial allies in region stifle fight for freedom

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“The Gulf is a delicate dance for the West,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs. “The Gulf leaders know they are insulated. There could be rising complaints from Washington or London about various hard-line measures, but no one realistically thinks the West will do anything more than complain.”

That is because the likely price would be too high for anything else.

The Gulf states host perhaps the highest concentration of Western military might outside NATO, including about 15,000 U.S. ground forces in Kuwait and air bases dotting the desert down to Oman.

The arrangement works for both sides because of a shared concern: Iran. The West gets firepower right at Iran’s doorstep, and the Gulf leaders have resident protectors.

The West also cannot ignore the rising political ambitions of the Gulf as the wider Middle East is reshaped by the Arab Spring.

Qatar, a leading backer of Libyan rebels last year and now a key supporter of the Syrian rebellion, is hosting a critical meeting this month of Syrian opposition officials.

The U.S. hopes to use the gathering to overhaul the anti-Damascus forces into a new leadership with fewer Syrian exiles and more rebel commanders.

At the same time, Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program were high on the agenda for Gulf stops last week by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Those visits allowed Gulf leaders to restate their views on the internal threats.

They fall in two directions: suspected Iranian plots, and fears about Islamists emboldened by Arab Spring victories in Egypt and elsewhere.

The Islamist question

Authorities in Bahrain — facing nonstop clashes and unrest since February 2011 — increasingly have blamed Shiite power Iran or its proxies for encouraging the protests by the island nation’s Shiite majority.

No clear evidence has emerged to back up the claims, and Iran denies any direct role.

But it has become a central narrative of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council anchored by regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia. It also boxes Washington and other Western allies into a corner.

The U.S. has urged dialogue in Bahrain, where more than 50 people have died in the unrest. But any clear support for the Shiite-led opposition could seriously disrupt relations with Gulf nations and possibly complicate the futures of U.S. bases in the region.

In the UAE, the main target is al-Islah, an Islamist group that authorities worry could try to undermine the control of the ruling clans in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other emirates.

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