Last week was a week to remember in the testy relationship between the Gulf states and the US. I was in Washington and witnessed the drama unfold live; something is amiss nowadays, between the US and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
We see a non-committal, wavering, fatigued US. A dysfunctional and stalemated Washington, which is worrying its allies, not only over security and strategic issues, but even financially, since most of US allies’ sovereign wealth funds are being invested in US Treasury Bills and stocks.
For instance, most of the GCC assets, including the Saudi central bank’s net foreign assets of $690 billion (Dh2.53 trillion) are thought to be denominated in dollars, much of them in US Treasury bonds.
We see unprecedented anger and chastising of Washington by some of its long time staunch and reliable allies. For the first time, in years the dispute and differences with Washington are out in the open. Adjectives describing the US policy in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf like ‘weak’, ‘wavering’, ‘dithering’, ‘naïve’ and ‘unreliable’ have become the norm.
At the 22nd NCUSAR (National Council of US-Arab Relations) meeting, held on October 22-23, the huge gathering listened with shock and admiration to the pointed criticism and chastising of US policy over a host of issues by Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former intelligence chief and former Saudi ambassador to the US and UK.
Prince Turki expressed doubts that Obama would succeed in what he called an “open arms approach” to Iran. Obama is doing this much to the ire of the Saudis, even though the US administration is clearly aware of the Iranian policy of meddling and fomenting troubles, and inciting sectarianism in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain, thus undermining the US allies and their interests.
Even though US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to allay the fears of the Saudis at a meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal in Paris last week, insisting that “no deal with Iran was better than a bad deal”. Assuring, he said, “I have great confidence that the United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to be the close and important friends and allies that we have been,” But that apparently did not assuage the Saudis who seem to be the most hawkish in their views in critiquing US policy in the Middle East and the Gulf.
The Saudis showed unusual public displeasure. Al Faisal cancelled the Saudi speech at the UN General Assembly and as an even bolder measure, the Saudis, to the surprise of everyone, turned down the highly coveted non-permanent membership for the next two years in the United Nations Security Council. It was done to protest the ineffectiveness of the UN in solving the Middle East crises and the double standards of the international community led by the P5.
Prince Turki was critical of the US policy in the Middle East, accusing the Obama administration of “dithering” on Syria and Israel-Palestinian peace. Prince Turki did not expect a breakthrough over the charm offensive and “open arm” approach with Iran. “We, Saudis observe Obama’s efforts in this regard. The road ahead is arduous...Whether [Iranian President] Hassan Rouhani will succeed in steering Iran toward sensible policies is already contested in Iran. The forces of darkness in Qom and Tehran are well entrenched,” he said.
While the current head of the Saudi intelligence and former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Bandar Bin Sultan doubled up on the US threatening a shift in the Saudi relations with the US. “Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the US,” a source close to Saudi authorities said.
“This happens after the US failed to take any effective action on Syria and Palestine. Relations with the US have been deteriorating for a while, as Saudi feels that the US is growing closer with Iran and the US also failed to support Saudi Arabia policy over Bahrain.
“There would be no further coordination with the United States over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed and financed rebel groups fighting Bashar Al Assad. The kingdom has informed the US of its actions in Syria, and diplomats say it has respected US requests not to supply the groups with advanced weaponry that the West fears could fall into the hands of Al Qaida-aligned groups.”
Clearly things are not all well today between the US and its Saudis allies and to some degrees the other GCC states that have been following with concerns and worries, the United States’ hands off, smaller footprint approach and its retrenchment from the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf. There are more questions and demands and less assurances and consoling from Washington.
The cracking up of these close knit strategic relations between the US and the GCC states needs to be looked at and addressed through the wider geostrategic context that has been bedevilling the region.
The Saudi chagrin and letting off steam is indicative to how the relationship between the US and the kingdom is drifting not only over Iran’s overtures and charm offensive, which came on top the disagreement and friction over the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. Where the GCC allies see their patron, the US is not inclined to understand, support and accommodate their stands.
Is the relationship reaching a tipping point between the two sides? Far from it, but it is worrying and I needed to remind everyone, that the relationship between Saudi Arabia mainly and the rest of the GCC states have endured a lot of its ups and down in thin and thick.
The equation from the GCC view point at this stage, especially over Iran and Syria is being viewed as a zero sum game, shutting out the GCC completely from consultations or taking their concerns and worries as a factor in US policy towards the region.
The GCC would like to see a nuanced and holistic approach that addresses the gambit of issues and not just the nuclear programme. It would like to see a more rational Iran that is at peace and has reconciled with its neighbours the disagreements and practices good neighbourly relations in the new architecture that would emerge in the new Middle East and the Gulf. What it does not want is Iran returning to be the Policeman of the Gulf through a grand bargain.
The widening trust deficit today between the GCC states and the US over all these divergent issues is harming and hurting the relationship between the two partners.
Clearly, there is a widening rift with Washington from the GCC perspective, but let me end by pointing out that we are not yet talking about separation, breaking up, divorce, let alone taking a second wife or at least at this stage. But there is an urgent need by the Americans to be more receptive, accommodating and listen to their angry and worried partners.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the Political Science Department - Kuwait University.