By: Madawi al-Rasheed*
The veneer of calm that has lain over the waters of the Persian Gulf since the days of the Iran-Iraq war and the first Persian Gulf War was unexpectedly shattered as Saudi and UAE oil tankers came under unspecified attack on 12 May.
Two days later, two Saudi pumping stations were hit by drones inside Saudi Arabia, causing limited physical damage but seriously hitting the reputation of a kingdom struggling to establish its credentials as the undisputed and unchallenged leader of the Arab region.
The attacks failed to disrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz but they have also exposed the vulnerability of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to such hazardous and sporadic disruptions.
Both victims of the attack, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, remained subdued as they condemned the sudden and daring attacks in their territories
So far, they say they are going to investigate the incident in the sea of Fujairah where the alleged attack on tankers took place, without rushing to openly blame Iran, with whom both countries have had tensions.
Saudi Arabia has been struggling for a long time to push the United States and Israel to fight its long-awaited war with Iran, but so far it has failed to convince the U.S. to launch direct serious attacks on its arch-enemy in the Persian Gulf.
Trump has never missed an opportunity to remind his U.S. and international audiences that the Saudis have money and they should pay. Paying for security comes with a high cost.
The Saudis and their UAE partners are a prime source of orders for the weapons factories in the U.S. and other Western countries, which reap colossal profit from the sale of military equipment, fighter jets, and training contracts. Saudi Arabia is number three in the world after the U.S. and China when it comes to military spending.
But such spending benefits the suppliers without creating the kind of security Saudi Arabia aspires to achieve. A small drone attack still threatens its survival and may disrupt the flow of oil from its wells.
Small, Insignificant Armies
The vulnerability of the Persian Gulf countries to small attacks such as the recent ones proves the futility of countries like the UAE or relatively large ones like Saudi Arabia building an arsenal of Western weapons that fail to protect them against sabotage and minor but disruptive attacks.
In any direct military confrontation with Iran, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE will expose themselves to ridicule as their small and insignificant armies are incomparable to Iran's, not only in size, but also in experience, capabilities and creed.
These two countries may have the latest military aircraft, but their performance in Yemen points to how victory against the Houthis - who have no air force or advanced military equipment - is yet to be achieved.
In the last five years, the Saudis have struggled to announce an outright victory over what they referred to as an insignificant militia.
It is clear that no mercenary military unit will be able to match the deadly creed of the Iranian military, albeit their appetite for war may be less urgent these days.
Egyptian, Sudanese, and even Senegalese imported troops cannot match the determination of Iranians to defend their interests in the Persian Gulf and save their regime and economy from collapse.
The Saudis must understand that imported mercenaries are no substitute for a strong army and it is doubtful that U.S. troops will be deployed again in the Persian Gulf, as they were in the 1990s.
The recent attacks are only going to increase Saudi vulnerability and fear that they will step up their cry for help from the U.S. This will cost them more money and drain their resources to the extent of bankrupting their economy.
The luxury and prosperity that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had promised may prove to be an illusion. On the other hand, Iran is used to austerity and dwindling resources; its population is not promised the same Saudi extravaganzas and entertainment.
It can take more austerity without precipitating a revolt, a situation the Saudi leadership cannot be sure of.
Together with its other Arab allies, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia will fail in any direct military confrontation with Iran.
Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia will expect victory in a quick U.S.-led war on Iran. In fact, they better rule out the prospect of war and begin a serious rethinking of their relations with Iran.
Other GCC countries such as Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar are definitely against military confrontation with Iran. And to think that Egypt or any other Arab ally can be drawn into a war in the Persian Gulf is certainly unrealistic.
U.S. and Israeli help may come - Netanyahu may well love the excuse and Israel has been more and more brazen in its attacks on Iranian-backed militias in Syria - but the turbulence that would come from such an assault would be unprecedented.
It may be, then, that diplomacy is the only realistic option for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. An end to the rhetoric of confrontation and bravado is a first step to accept that peace between nations is better served by diplomacy than by guns.
*Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics.
-Courtesy: Middle East Eye with small omissions