The four Persian Gulf nations whose warplanes flew in concert with U.S. jets over Syria this week have spent the past few years acting with far less harmony, riven by divergent approaches to address the growth of Islamist political movements in the Arab world.
The differences among the countries have grown so stark and acrimonious that earlier this year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, which has funded Islamists across the region to the consternation of the other three nations. In the months that followed, they have continued to wage a proxy war of sorts in Egypt and Libya, where the UAE recently conducted airstrikes against rebels backed by Qatar.
Qatar’s neighbors accused it of bankrolling terrorists. Qataris accused their neighbors of supporting strongmen who subvert the will of the people.
But with the Islamic State waving its black flag at the gates of Baghdad, Persian Gulf nations have decided to set aside their differences.
“Radical Islam is a profound threat to us and our values,” said Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States. “We need to confront it as a team.”
The airstrikes in Syria were an unprecedented act of Arab military cooperation that involved Saudi Arabia bombing fellow Sunni Muslims, the launching of U.S. F-22 Raptor warplanes — employed in combat for the first time — from a base in the UAE, and the Royal Bahrain Air Force flying its inaugural combat missions.
“This was — and we hope will continue to be — a remarkable act of partnership among our allies in the gulf,” said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.
The militants have seized the key Iraqi crossing to Jordan, and the Islamic State’s leaders have expressed a thirst to charge a few hundred miles south through the desert to the Saudi holy city of Mecca and eventually impose their harsh brand of Islamic law from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Even though Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE do not face the same immediate risks as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, an incursion onto Saudi soil could spark fear and unleash economic turmoil on the peninsula.