With less than nine months left for him in the White House, United States President Barack Obama does not seem to have made any progress in addressing the fears of what he called in his latest interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic as “our so-called allies in the Middle East” about the final destination of the current shift in US policy in the region. In fact, many in the Gulf believe that the Obama administration has already abandoned its traditional Arab allies and is seeking friendship with America’s long-standing foe in the region — Iran. These claims may seem a bit far-fetched; but Obama has indeed made no secret that he would like to see greater integration of Iran into the regional security order.
Besides Iran, Arab Gulf states are extremely frustrated with US policy on Syria, Yemen and Iraq. They would want Washington to show more understanding and sympathy towards their interests and concerns in these war-torn countries. And yet Obama called upon them to cease acting as “free riders”, unwilling to make serious commitment to regional security. Arab Gulf states have therefore begun to explore other avenues for independent policies that will allow them to defend their interests. Efforts have already begun along these lines; for example, through the formation of a Pan-Arab military coalition aimed at dealing with Al Houthi rebellion in Yemen, in March 2015. The announcement of a Pan-Islamic military alliance against terrorism last December should also be seen as another clue of a more independent foreign policy sought by Arab Gulf states.
The Obama administration views the war on Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as its top Middle East priority. Seen from this prism, Iran is viewed in a superficial way as part of the solution. US Deputy National Security Adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, who travelled with Obama to Riyadh last month to attend the US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, described the meetings in the Saudi capital as a “moment of opportunity” to strengthen the two fragile ceasefires in Yemen and Syria and to provide a setting for GCC states to turn their attention to fighting extremism rather than single-mindedly focusing on political transition in Syria.
Indeed, the Arab Gulf states share the White House’s concern over terrorism and the need to combat extremist groups, which pose a greater threat to them than to the US. However, GCC members also tend to view Iranian expansion and support for Bashar Al Assad and the other sectarian militias across the Middle East as of similar great risk to regional security.
The final communique of the US-GCC summit in Riyadh reflected the delicate balancing act that both had carried out to demonstrate that the “strategic partnership” binding them together has not been shaken over the previous years. Ground reality, however, tells a different story. By the end of the summit, neither the Gulf states nor Washington had changed their positions. Indeed, the only shift was seen by Obama, who offered limited succour with a brief, hollow and circumspect criticism of Iran.
The April US-GCC summit was the fourth, and most certainly the final, attended by Obama as president. The three previous visits failed to calm GCC fears about the dwindling US influence across the Middle East and the consequent power vacuum that could then be filled in by other, ambitious regional powers such as Iran or Russia. With growing US reliance on domestic oil sources, alongside the drop in oil prices globally, Obama advocates lesser US commitments in the Gulf. Many in the US view this shift in American policy as more than a simple change in direction of the Obama administration and see it instead as a sign of much deeper and more long-term institution-level change.
Relying on the next US president — whoever that may be — does not seem a practical policy option, particularly when all of the front-runners for the position seem unlikely to reverse the shifts initiated by Obama. Bearing this in mind, the Arab Gulf states must continue to strengthen their own military capabilities, perhaps by building an even wider Pan-Arab military coalition to protect their interests and provide for the collective security of Arab states, away from US interests and policies.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.