The biggest losers from the Suleimani strike may be America’s Gulf allies

3 January 2020, 1001 EST

Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.

Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.

But I suspect Saudi and Emirati policymakers are worried today (and if they aren’t they should be). The countries are just a short distance across the Persian Gulf from Iran, within easy striking distance of Iranian forces. They are also reliant on the narrow Strait of Hormuz for their oil shipments, which Iran could readily shut down. And Iran could hurt these countries even without doing anything directly–Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Yemen could launch attacks against Saudi and UAE targets.

And US protection is not assured. The status of US forces in the region is uncertain. Trump has several times announced America will be removing its troops in Syria, while Iraq may expel US troops after this unauthorized attack in their territory. Moreover, Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw from the Syrian-Turkish border to allow for a Turkish invasion–basically abandoning our Kurdish allies–suggests no one in the region can count on American support, at least while Trump is President.

So Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be the most direct targets for Iranian retaliation. And their leaders seem to know this. As I wrote in the Monkeycage, there are signs they have been trying to manage tensions with Iran. And as I expanded upon here, this may be a sort of “chain-ganging in reverse,” as America’s weak allies try to restrain it from rushing into war. The killing of Suleimani may only accelerate this process.

I haven’t seen any reactions from Saudi Arabia and the UAE yet. Based on available reports, other US allies weren’t informed about this strike, so I suspect they were in the dark. If they had know about the strike, or actively encouraged it, this would change my story. But I suspect that they fear the implications of the erratic US President they have embraced. This airstrike may only accelerate decreasing US influence in the region, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE pull away from America to formulate their own Iran policies.