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When President Barack Obama visits Saudi Arabia on April 20-21 and meets with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, he will be tackling one of the most important, but deeply strained, U.S. international relationships. Although some Americans, including Obama, have questioned how strategically important the Middle East remains to the United States, both U.S. policy and interests continue to reflect a strong engagement in and commitment to the region in general, and the Gulf area in particular. Yet the trust of some Middle Eastern partners has been frayed, specifically among the Arab Gulf states. In these societies, anxieties are widespread that the United States may have abandoned these countries to their fate in a region they fear is being increasingly dominated by an ascendant Iran. These concerns form the immediate backdrop in which the U.S.-GCC dialogue and relationship will continue to develop, and the primary task for both sides is finding ways to offset them.
The Summit’s Context
While some important work was done at the Camp David summit in May 2015, when the GCC endorsed the Iran nuclear negotiations, and the Doha foreign ministerial meeting in August 2015, when the GCC endorsed the Iran nuclear deal, doubts about U.S. intentions have recently been exacerbated by some of the president’s remarks, particularly in a series of interviews summarized in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. Obama once again expressed skepticism about some U.S. Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, characterizing them as “free riders.” He also suggested they should “share” the Middle East with Iran, and reiterated his endorsement of a still aspirational “pivot to Asia.” Such rhetoric, combined with administration policies such as efforts to establish a new relationship with Iran including the nuclear agreement and the lack of a robust response to the conflict in Syria, prompts continued Arab doubts about the strength of the U.S. commitment to the partnership with the GCC states. For their part, many Americans share some of Obama’s concerns about being militarily and financially overburdened by European and Middle Eastern allies and about how political and social repression in some Arab societies may contribute to the rise of extremist organizations. So, doubts about aspects of the relationship, although they may be stronger on the Arab side, exist, in very different forms, on both sides.
The new summit comes at an important moment in the relationship. It will be the last major opportunity for Obama to repair the fraying of the partnership that has developed during his two terms in office. Moreover, whatever hopes may have been harbored that the nuclear agreement might lay the basis for a broader restructuring of the relationship with Iran, Tehran’s behavior thus far into the implementation phase suggests that traditional alliances with Arab countries will remain essential to securing U.S. interests in the region. Iran has not modified its aggressive regional policies, especially the use of proxies, destabilization, and even terrorism, to expand its influence in the Middle East.
The Continued Importance of the U.S.-GCC Relationship
Iran remains opposed to almost all long-term U.S. strategic goals in the region, and is still acting as a revanchist power, and as much as an international revolutionary movement as a state. This is particularly evident through its use of destabilizing proxy nonstate organizations such as Hezbollah (a State Department-designated terrorist organization). Iran’s recent missile tests, which were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions as well as international expectations, and the spirit, if not the letter, of the nuclear agreement, further underscore Tehran’s continued aggressive approach. Added to these deeds are the categorical statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials that there will be no further negotiations, and hence no more compromises, with the United States on any issues beyond the nuclear file. There is little reason to expect that Tehran will moderate its behavior over the next few years when it has not done so in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement. This would probably require a dramatic political transformation inside Iran, which is not anticipated.
Even though the United States is making significant progress toward energy independence, and relies much less for its own oil consumption on Gulf petroleum, as long as the United States wishes to remain a global power, the Middle East will continue to be strategically vital to its interests. Other major global economies – and key U.S. trading partners – particularly in South and East Asia, are still dependent on the oil reserves of the Gulf region and the petroleum shipped through Gulf waters. Other vital U.S. interests include counterterrorism and counterradicalization, a wide range of European strategic concerns, Israeli security, and a range of important issues arising from the fact that the Middle East is the geographic hub linking Africa, Asia, and Europe. With rare exceptions – Obama’s arguments among them – most foreign policy arguments that assert the emerging irrelevance of the Middle East to U.S. foreign policy prove to be neo-isolationist.
The restoration of trust between Washington and its Arab Gulf partners is therefore essential. The ongoing U.S. interest in this region is reflected in the high level of U.S. engagement, which refutes Gulf anxieties and some of Obama’s assertions. Although not as extensive as during times of war, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf region is historically very high, and certainly greater than pre-9/11 levels. U.S. investment and diplomatic and cultural engagement are also as robust as ever. This commitment is also reflected in key open-source U.S. policy documents, all of which reflect the strong U.S. interest in the region and commitment to its stability and security.
Moreover, despite talk of seeking alternative sources of international support and their efforts to develop more independent, proactive security policies (initiatives that are largely welcomed in Washington, which advocates greater “burden sharing” in the relationship), the Gulf states don’t have viable alternatives to U.S. support and leadership. Their military and intelligence equipment, training, and leadership structures are largely American. Additionally, while the Gulf states have pursued some diversification of arms suppliers, a wholesale switch to Russian, Chinese, or European alternatives, assuming they exist, would be prohibitively time consuming and costly. No other global power can begin to match the United States militarily or economically, and the U.S. presence in the region is uniquely robust. Moreover, while Iran and its allies form a fairly cohesive and coordinated bloc, the forces opposed to Tehran are disparate and often disunited. Only the United States is capable of providing a unifying orbit for the range of actors – including Arab states as well as Turkey and Israel – in the region that, often for very different reasons, seek to block the expansion of Iranian power.
The dissonance between the reality of strong U.S. engagement in, and commitment to, the Gulf region versus a perception of disengagement and disregard undermines the interests of both sides. It’s not difficult to track how these misunderstandings developed over recent years, and the questions on both sides are understandable and rational. But the upcoming summit is a vital opportunity to remind each other how important they remain to their respective interests.
What Can Be Accomplished at the Summit
Before his visit was announced, Obama was not widely expected to be planning another major trip to the Gulf region before the end of his second term. These meetings are therefore indications that his administration understands the depth and importance of the U.S.-GCC relationship. There is no specific reported agenda for Obama’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday, but the U.S.-GCC summit on Thursday will be broken into three sections. The first will deal with the overall question of regional stability; the second will focus on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and counterterrorism more broadly; and the third will specifically address countering Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. This agenda reflects a balance between U.S. and Arab priorities, which further suggests that the parties are not as far apart as they, and others, sometimes suggest.
Obama is expected to stress several key points. First, he will certainly reiterate the U.S. commitment to Gulf security and stability. But this language is very familiar, and, at least in bilateral terms, is unlikely to go beyond the formulations in the joint statements after the crucial Camp David and Doha meetings in 2015. Second, he will undoubtedly address the need for social and political reforms in the Gulf states, an idea to which he is deeply attached, not least because he thinks it is a key to counterterrorism and counterradicalization. Third, Obama will join GCC leaders in reiterating opposition to Iran’s destabilizing regional policies and support for terrorism. In this case, the language may be noticeably stronger because of Iran’s intensified pursuit of these activities. However, the main opening for tougher language aimed at Iran comes from Tehran’s ongoing missile development and testing program, which is a source of mutual concern, especially for the Gulf states.
Both sides have an articulated stake in robust counterterrorism cooperation to combat threats including Iranian-sponsored extremists like Hezbollah and Sunni militants like ISIL or al-Qaeda. But the United States is likely to focus on two regional conflicts as incubators of an increased terrorist threat. The Obama administration will probably press Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners engaged in Yemen to shift the conflict with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to a political process and concentrate military efforts on countering Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While the coalition-Houthi war rages, AQAP has reportedly expanded its presence and capabilities in Yemen. This is deeply alarming to the United States and the rest of the West because AQAP is one of the few al-Qaeda affiliates operating that appears to have the capability of striking in the West, as demonstrated by several recent terrorist attacks in Europe.
A cease-fire in Yemen that went into effect April 10 is under stress but still holding. Moreover, the United Arab Emirates and increasingly Saudi Arabia appear to be interested in shifting the focus of combat to counterterrorism against AQAP. The United States is reportedly considering supporting a planned UAE offensive against AQAP in Yemen. Washington sees a political resolution of the Yemen conflict as essential for several reasons, particularly in order to reverse recent gains by AQAP. The coalition appears responsive to these concerns, but as long as the Houthis continue to hold large swaths of territory, fighting is likely to persist, particularly as the rebels seem intent on provoking the coalition and have a long history of breaking cease-fires.
Another regional conflict Obama is likely to raise is the anarchic situation in Libya, in which ISIL is beginning to thrive even as it is being degraded in Syria and Iraq. The new unity Libyan government, formed almost four months ago specifically to counter the rise of ISIL, appears stalled and mired in internal squabbles and divisions. It also does not appear to have received the level of international support it had anticipated. The United States is reportedly considering a range of military options in Libya, including bombing attacks and even limited forms of intervention on the ground. Washington will likely request GCC support for, and participation in, efforts to roll back the troubling expansion of ISIL in Libya.
Both sides can be expected to press each other on Syria policy, but a major breakthrough establishing a coordinated, comprehensive approach is unlikely given their contrasting stances on several issues. Even though both sides agree that President Bashar al-Assad should have no role in the long-term future of Syria, disagreements over how this goal should be pursued probably preclude any comprehensive coordination. Recent reports that the United States is preparing to work with its regional partners to increase the sophistication of weapons provided to moderate opposition groups if the current cease-fire in Syria collapses, as it seems to be, will be warmly welcomed by most Gulf states. But even that may not be sufficient to bring the two sides completely into agreement. Obama will also almost certainly raise the issue of Syrian refugees, urging the Gulf states to accept more of them (beyond those who qualify already as “guest workers”). In response, Gulf states almost certainly will point out that the United States, too, could do much more for the refugees. But these differences over Syria are not likely to be publicly aired.
It’s important that deliverables beyond rhetoric are secured at the summit. These could consist of further military technology transfers and weapons sales, including the confirmation of several outstanding fighter jet contracts for a number of Gulf states. Political opposition to some weapons sales, particularly to Saudi Arabia because of the war in Yemen, is emerging in the Senate, and may be an inhibiting factor. Beyond weapons purchases, several Gulf states, including the UAE, have in the past reportedly expressed a desire for some kind of strengthened formal alliance or treaty relationship with the United States. This has been effectively ruled out, because few Americans support embracing new binding military commitments in the Middle East. However, Secretary of State John Kerry recently suggested that a stronger formalized relationship between NATO and the GCC ought to be carefully considered. Further progress on this suggestion, even merely the establishment of a structure for investigating how such a relationship might work in practice, could be very helpful.
Following last year’s Camp David summit, one of the main takeaways for the Gulf states was the establishment of working groups, some of which were already in place, to coordinate cooperation on a range of issues, as well as a number of steps that gave the conversation with the United States greater chronological and thematic structure. It reassured them that the relationship with Washington would not be characterized by ad hoc communications but would rather be systematic. Something similar might be developed with NATO to begin to explore deeper cooperation, possibly leading to a more formal relationship.
But an actual NATO-GCC alliance will be difficult to establish. It may come with various conditions that will be difficult for the Gulf states to embrace, possibly involving compromises on sovereign prerogatives that they have thus far resisted. Washington has long championed the idea of an integrated ballistic missile defense shield for the Gulf states. This has proved implausible in practice because it would require the establishment of streamlined, integrated, and interoperable systems that involve the surrender of certain sovereign prerogatives to a joint command. (The time frame involving a response to incoming missiles being measured in seconds, and at most, minutes, requires such a structure). The Gulf states have not indicated a real willingness to make such compromises. The Obama administration apparently feels it may be making progress toward getting the Gulf states to begin making practical plans for developing such a system. The United States will press this issue at the summit.
Moreover, the Peninsula Shield force notwithstanding, the GCC is not a military alliance. It’s unclear, therefore, what the precise nature of the relationship with NATO, which is entirely a military alliance, would be. A similar issue arose when the United States authorized the sale of military equipment to the GCC as an organization. That may have been intended as a gesture of support to encourage greater military integration by the Gulf states, but it was, and remains, practically meaningless because the GCC does not function as an integrated military alliance or entity that purchases weapons. All sales, and related services and joint programs, therefore, have remained bilateral with individual Gulf states. Nonetheless, pursuing the idea of a more formal relationship between the GCC and NATO could serve as a significant rhetorical and political gesture. Since the fraying of trust has been largely perceptual, the management of “optics” could be central to repairing it.
Obama and his GCC interlocutors can be sure that every word arising from the summit will be carefully scrutinized. But that provides as many opportunities for progress as it does challenges. Last year the mood among Gulf leaders reportedly significantly improved after both the Camp David and Doha meetings, in spite of their doubts about the Iran nuclear negotiations and agreement. Under the current circumstances – particularly Tehran’s continued aggressive policies, which should bring the two sides closer together – opportunities for an even greater degree of mutual reassurance, based on both language and deliverables, seems likely.
There’s every reason to expect a generally positive, if not particularly dramatic, outcome to the summit and for that, in turn, to set the stage for a slow but steady recuperation of trust. The back-to-back summits are apparently intended to set a precedent, which is particularly welcome among the Gulf states, for an annual U.S.-GCC heads-of-state meeting. White House Middle East Coordinator Robert Malley recently told reporters these meetings “hopefully… will take place every year between the U.S. and the GCC at the leaders level.” That, alone, would go a long way toward solidifying the partnership into the foreseeable future. Nothing else, after all, makes sense for either side.
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