I wrote an academic article titled ‘The GCC-US Relationship: A GCC Perspective’ in the autumn 2014 issue of The Middle East Policy Journal, published in the United States. In that article, I highlighted the divergent strategic issues and the rift between the GCC and the US. The rift has widened the trust deficit and caused simmering tensions over the past two years.
The blunders, inconsistency and indecisiveness of the US have fuelled uncertainties and worries among its GCC allies. That was evident from Iraq’s free-fall into chaos and anarchy, from Syria’s haemorrhaging, from the hands-off approach to Yemen and the rapprochement with Iran. This has exacerbated the tense relations with Washington. Especially, since the US overlooks Iran’s shenanigans and meddling in the affairs of American allies, and fails to check Iran’s expansionist project, which makes Tehran boast about controlling four Arab capitals and how it has become an empire with Baghdad as its capital. To top that, it is all too evident that the Obama administration has failed to act as an effective mediator and to use its leverage to exact concessions from Israel to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and achieve the president’s ‘two-state solution’ objectives. All this compounds the malaise.
The GCC states, along with all other US allies and partners, have concluded that Obama is determined to reach a final nuclear deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, regardless of the consequences and his partners’ angst.
The US made it clear, before the Camp David Summit, to its GCC “strategic partners”: do not expect a security treaty or a US security umbrella or advanced weapons system that would upset Israel’s qualitative military edge. Accept what is offered: verbal, non-committal, non-binding security reassurance with the potential to use force if the need arises.
What the GCC states got was a strong, public, verbal, iron-clad, non-binding security commitment. And more sympathy towards and understanding of their collective worries.
America elevated its GCC relationship to that of “strategic partners”. Probably, in the future, it may offer to upgrade four GCC states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Oman) to the ‘major-non Nato-ally-status (just like Kuwait and Bahrain). In return, the GCC states collectively welcomed the final proposed Iran nuclear deal with the P5+1 (the US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), provided there’s no lifting of US sanctions against Iran before it meets all the final accord provisions.
In addition, the GCC states will continue to be the regional leaders and supporters of the US-led military campaign against Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq.
Probably because of these low expectations, two-thirds of the GCC leaders opted to skip the summit. Some US media outlets described that as a public snub to the US president who had invited them.
On the eve of the summit, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz opted to stay home; so did the heads of state of the UAE, Bahrain and Oman. The message was a clarion call from the GCC states that what was offered at Camp David was not good enough. How about something similar to the US military umbrella offered to both Japan and South Korea since the end of the Second World War and the Korean War?
Obama announced before the summit that “he wanted to speak frankly to GCC leaders about the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa at the summit,” after making a provocative statements in an interview to the New York Times that “the biggest threats that [our Sunni Arab allies] face may not be coming from Iran ... It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries”.
I gather the GCC leadership interpreted this comment not only unfavourably and as a misreading of the domestic dynamics in the GCC, but more alarmingly as the “downplaying of the Iranian threat and Iran’s hegemonic project and its destabilising role from the Gulf region to the rest of the Arab world”.
Iran is practically undermining the security and the stability of America’s GCC allies under the Obama administration’s watch.
Therefore, it was surprising that the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs, Abdul Aziz Aluwaisheg went out of his way to put a positive spin on the results of the summit. The GCC official summed up the proceedings and the commitments of the summit, by saying that it “exceeded the expectations of most of us ... especially coming from President Obama personally, reassuring the GCC states of an unequivocal commitment to their security”.
The GCC official seemed to be very pleased in the press conference after the summit, in talks in Washington, and last week in an Al Jazeera talk show that the iron-clad commitment to GCC security and a final nuclear accord with Iran over its nuclear programme, is not an American sell-out or a pivot to Iran.
Aluwaisheg underscored: “The US side made it very clear that they were aware of the issues that troubled us ... Obama succeeded very well in putting those questions to rest.”
While it is true that the relationship has been elevated by the Obama administration to a “strategic partnership” this could be more rhetoric than substance if it is not backed by meaningful measures and reassurances. Clearly, both sides have invested too much in this partnership.
The win-win formula could benefit both partners because it is in both sides’ interests to have a stable and prosperous Gulf. So they could promote a shared agenda and this could ultimately transform the partnership into a real, strategic one.
As I concluded in my Middle East Policy article “there is an urgent need to underscore and harness the embedded shared interests between the two partners. There is more room for convergence than divergence over the strategic issues and the US has to allay its GCC partners probably exaggerated fears of abandonment. So, the marriage between Washington and its GCC partners, which has been long and beneficial for both sides albeit with ups and downs, won’t end in a divorce”.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is A Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University. He was the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji