Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy, is titled “The curious case of small Gulf states” and asks if the UAE, along with countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, and Brunei are realist anomalies:
The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven’t rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn’t Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves?
That’s an interesting questions, but I don’t agree with his answer:
Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain’s imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with “dual containment” in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
Actually if either Britain or the US had the imperial will to control the states, they could have done so easily. And had world leaders in the 1960s and 1970s have known that Abu Dhabi and Qatar would hold such wealth today, they might well have done just that.
The second reason is also not quite convincing:
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else’s expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
I think that the Persian Gulf War that kicked Iraq out of Kuwait was critical in preserving this illusion that powerful states cannot invade and rule weaker, smaller countries. Stopping Iraq made an invasion seem too risky. If Saudi Arabia – or Iran – were to, say, take over a country such as Bahrain, countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE would look much more vulnerable.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country’s government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq’s “19th province” in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
This is, I think, the core issue. Self-rule for sovereign states is just accepted as being the norm. Baring a major game-changing event, no one wants to go and take over a country. And the Persian Gulf War in 1991 made the adventure seem too risky.