The US Has a Trust Problem in the Persian Gulf

Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.
Stocktrek | Photodisc | Getty Images
Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

With the U.S. moving rapidly towards energy independence, governments in the Gulf region of the Middle East worry the uptick in U.S. production could fuel broader regional disengagement as their American ally faces a war-weary and economically-challenged electorate back home.

Added to that are questions about whether the U.S. should continue to subsidize the security of China's oil supplies, which are increasingly passing through the Strait of Hormuz. That's raising worries in the Gulf that the U.S. may disengage from the region.

"This is a message I hear again and again," U.S. Senator John McCain told an audience of diplomats, analysts and military brass gathered for a regional security summit organized by a think tank, the International Institute of Strategic Studies' (IISS), in Bahrain.

"Unfortunately, there is a visceral sense among so many of the people and leaders I meet in this region that they are not getting as much support from the United States as they desire. There is a perception here that the United States is withdrawing from this part of the world and seeking to pivot instead to other priorities elsewhere. This is the perception I have detected here in the Gulf, where greater U.S. support really is an existential matter with regional threats looming."

U.S. delegates to the summit in Bahrain's capital Manama were pounded by questions from nations making up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the meaning of the administration's"pivot" to Asia and the possibility of a de-escalating American presence in the Gulf, this despite the half-billion dollars in investment earmarked for the Fifth Fleet's operational base in Bahrain.

But it was the specter of a rising China that pervaded much of the debate including security in the Strait of Hormuz. With over 87 percent of crude oil exports passing through the Arabian Gulf now headed to Asian markets,one question U.S.policy makers could soon be facing is whether America can or should continue to foot the bill for the security of China's oil supply.

"It's a technical problem as well as a strategic problem," says Jon Alterman, Middle East Program Director at another think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "It's a global energy market that must be secured. Energy headed from the Gulf to Asia ends up fueling exports to the U.S. and America has the only navy capable of providing that security."

One of three major oil "choke points"in the region - the others are the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab el-Mandab - the Strait of Hormuz is recognized as the world's most important by the U.S.'s Energy Information Administration (EIA) and for which the U.S. 5th fleet coordinates a massive combined maritime security force. Some 17 million barrels per day (bpd) moved through the Strait of Hormuz in 2011, around 20 percent of oil traded worldwide.

"When I look at this region, I ask myself a basic analytical question: is there anything on the drawing boards, or in reality, or in prospect, about a net drawdown of the 5th fleet? The answer is No," said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

With Japan, India, South Korea and China now the major destinations for Gulf oil exports, the U.S. faces the prospect of strengthening ties between GCC countries and their Asian counterparts, though no significant moves have been made on the part of those governments to share a larger piece of the security burden in the Arabian Gulf.

The GCC which is made up largely of Sunni majority countries is worried about the threat from Shia-dominated Iran and the risk of an Iranian attack on crucial oil lanes in the Gulf.

"We keep hearing from Washington…that America is not leaving the Middle East," Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Professor of Political Science, Emirates University in the UAE told CNBC. "The fact that you keep saying this is an indication, in fact, that America is leaving the Middle East."

"How can we trust the United States," Dr Ebtesam Al Ktebi, Professor, Political Science Department of the UAE University said."As you move from one regime to another, following your changeable interests?"

This reflects a wider assumption, says CSIS's Alterman, that the U.S. is committed to countries but not necessarily the governments who run them.

"These governments haven't forgotten what they see as America's abandonment of Mubarak in Egypt," Alterman says. "There is a deeply held belief that America is always looking for an alternative security model. One would be a compact with Iran that would secure U.S. interests cheaply at the expense of Gulf Arab interests," Alterman added.

"Under that model, the U.S. would make a deal with the Iranians and then subcontract the security. I can't imagine how we would get to that point, but that's the worry."

For a regional security conference dominated just two years ago by a single topic - Iran - hot button issues ranged from the construction of a post-Assad Syria to whether the time is ripe for Israeli and U.S. leaders to use their combined post-election clout to make headway towards a two-state solution.

"Once we are through with Israeli elections," said Rudd, "it is paramount that the U.S. delegation comes to the fore in bringing the peace process to a successful conclusion."