Still, the risks of such rabid anti-Iran sentiments are serious and possibly existential. By acting on such attitudes, Gulf monarchs have undermined their longstanding position as neutral peace brokers and distributors of regional development aid, and made themselves into legitimate targets in any conflict in the Persian Gulf. It is unlikely that the fathers of today’s Gulf rulers would have allowed that to happen, no matter how deeply they distrusted their neighbor across the Gulf. This previous generation sidelined most confrontations with Iran — including even the 1971 seizure of three UAE islands by the Shah — in recognition of shared economic interests and the substantial Iranian expatriate populations that reside in many of the monarchies.
All that is now ancient history in states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Saudi officials have taken a particularly aggressive stance. According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008, the Saudi king has “repeatedly exhorted the United States to cut off the head of the snake” — Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Another cable from the same year quoted a veteran Saudi minister for foreign affairs suggesting a U.S. or NATO offensive in southern Lebanon to end Iran-backed Hezbollah’s grip on power there. And a former Saudi intelligence chief has said publicly that Saudi Arabia should “consider acquiring nuclear weapons to counter Iran.”
In early 2011, Bahrain’s rulers took full advantage of anti-Iranian sentiments to act against domestic opponents, announcing that they would deport all Shia residents who had “links to Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.” In practice, that meant expelling hundreds of Bahrain’s Lebanese residents, suspending all flights between the capital Manama and Beirut, and warning Bahraini nationals not to travel to Lebanon due to “threats and interference by terrorists.”