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As the United States and its Gulf partners intensify deliberations toward convening a U.S.-Gulf summit once scheduled for May, all parties are adjusting to new objectives and a shifting strategic landscape. Confronted with persistent divisions between key partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Qatar on the other, the United States appears willing to soften President Donald J. Trump’s reported demand of a resolution to the Gulf crisis in favor of an indication of progress, particularly in support of the major objective of cooperation in confronting Iran. To that end, the United States is reportedly exploring the formation of a new security structure, dubbed the Middle East Strategic Alliance, and incorporating Jordan and Egypt with the Gulf states. This sits well with the ambitions of the Emirati-Saudi strategic partners, which are embracing the U.S. desire for greater burden sharing and seeking to expand their influence both within and beyond the Gulf. In the face of these challenges, the Gulf Cooperation Council is adapting, making its peace with these subpartnerships and supracoalitions.
The New Strategic Partnership(s)
The main protagonists in the shifting Gulf and Middle East landscape are the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been strengthening their partnership and coordinating their actions across a broad range of foreign policy and domestic objectives. Regionally, these include initiating the ground-shifting diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, coordinated through a quartet of countries including Bahrain and Egypt. They also are playing the leading roles in the military coalition intervening in Yemen. While their precise policy objectives may diverge at times, notably in Yemen, it would be hard to find a single important issue on which the two countries haven’t voiced a unified position. This has entailed strong support by the Emirati leadership for a host of controversial actions undertaken by the Saudi leadership, including the recent punitive measures adopted by the kingdom against Canada over a tweet urging the release of detained human rights activists. The message voiced by numerous Emirati officials and analysts is that any threat to Saudi Arabia is a threat to the UAE.
This close coordination goes deeper than leadership, and has been nurtured for a number of years, beginning with a formal visit to the UAE by a Saudi delegation led by then-Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in August 2014. The Saudi-Emirati cooperation has notably intensified under Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who established a formal coordination council in May 2016 co-headed by UAE Deputy Prime Minister Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Mohammed bin Salman, who was Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince at the time. This council established a large number of working committees encompassing some 350 government officials from different fields who contributed to the comprehensive strategy announced in the first meeting of the newly launched Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council in June. This strategic alliance covers the full scope of policy from the economy, to developing human capital, to military coordination, and is being operationalized in concrete projects, some in sensitive fields such as food security and defense production. The aim of these diverse projects is not only to secure mutual interests, but to align policy and create interdependence. The deepening alliance also provides the two countries with the political depth to act regionally to expand their influence without always depending on Washington’s formal approval and support.
The extensive coordination by the Gulf’s two largest economies has impacted the strategic calculations and behavior of countries across the Gulf and broader Middle East, most notably Qatar, which has been the target of their punitive action. Still other states have been forced to adapt. Kuwait, which holds a strong commitment – conditioned by its experience under Iraqi occupation – for working through regional and international institutions, saw its attempts to mediate the crisis at the December 2017 GCC summit rebuffed, leaving Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah to call for a committee to modify the GCC charter regarding the settlement of internal disputes. Kuwait has now hedged its strategy by creating its own track to the Saudi behemoth through its own bilateral coordination council with the kingdom.
Coalitions and Ambitions beyond the Gulf
As divisions persist within the GCC, Gulf Arab states are pursuing ambitions and strategic ties beyond the Gulf. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (supported by Turkey) have taken their competition to the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. Oman and the UAE are looking to the Indian Ocean to expand their strategic depth. Emirati analyst Mohamed Baharoon has encouraged a change in perspective – looking beyond the Gulf to the Arabian Peninsula – to capture this new and expanded strategic landscape.
Other foreign policy challenges, notably efforts to counter extremism and Iranian influence, are informing the creation of new formal coalitions and proposed alliances. To that end, the United States is mulling the formation of a new Middle East Strategic Alliance linking the states of the GCC with Jordan and Egypt. The idea of this “Arab NATO” was first raised by Saudi officials before Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh, and was originally linked to the incipient Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), which includes non-Arab, Sunni-majority countries such as Pakistan. It now appears that the more restrictive Arab alliance, should it be agreed upon, may be presented at, and meet separately alongside, the proposed U.S.-GCC summit. While taking shape for mid-October, U.S. and Gulf governmental sources caution that the agenda and timetable for such a summit is still under deliberation. Retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni will be dispatched to the Gulf region soon for consultations.
A Flexible GCC
Beset by new splits, bilateral partnerships, and regional coalitions, the GCC is demonstrating flexibility in a bid to maintain support and relevance. The shared U.S. and Gulf desire to roll back Iranian influence within the Middle East has provided an impetus for greater Gulf cooperation, despite the inability or lack of interest on the part of quartet members to resolve the dispute with Qatar. Within the GCC, the decision has been made to place the resolution of disagreements with Qatar on a separate track under the auspices of Kuwait, while continuing to act collectively on certain issues. To wit, several GCC working groups have been meeting with attendance of all six members, with the GCC working groups on ballistic missile defense and maritime security to meet in August to prepare the ground for the prospective U.S.-GCC summit.
The GCC has also worked to accommodate bilateral partnerships and recognize them as assisting its mission of Gulf integration. This can be seen in the evolving agendas of GCC summits since 2011. That year Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz called for more intensified cooperation to achieve Gulf unity as captured in the Riyadh Declaration. As early as 2015, adjustments were considered to allow two or more states to enter into integration arrangements if they were deemed to serve the mission of the GCC as outlined in article 4 of its charter. The Saudi-Emirati coordination council was discussed at the 37th GCC Summit, which took place in December 2016 and formally welcomed in the communique issued that year as a move “considered an addition[al] tributary of the joint action among the GCC member countries.”
A Time of Transition
The shifting forms of cooperation and conflict within the Gulf are part of a broader historic transition, the outlines of which are still coming into focus. As Emirati analyst Baharoon quipped: “The new multipolar world is still downloading.” What is clear is the willingness of several Gulf states to act more independently of the United States and part ways with traditional Gulf allies to achieve their interests and ambitions. The receptivity and even enthusiasm of the United States for Gulf partners to take greater responsibility for their own security contributes to this trend. A U.S.-GCC summit, should it take place this fall, should provide greater clarity as to how these sometimes competing alliances and interests are being renegotiated and re-formed in pursuit of a new Gulf and Middle East order.
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