By Marc Moussalli for Global Risk Insights
The six member states of the GCC have long been major allies to the United States. In particular, America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the economic and religious heavyweight among the Arab Gulf states, have been sacrosanct since the kingdom’s inception in 1932. Since then, the US has been the region’s and especially the Saudis’ external security provider.
Tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia
Lately, however, this relationship appears strained for various reasons. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies strongly disapprove of what many Arabs perceived as a humiliating abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, and the lack of American military action against Syria’s Assad after the violation of Obama’s “red line.”
Another contentious issue is America’s declared withdrawal from the region in favour of the Asia-Pacific. However, especially unsettling from the perspective of the predominantly Sunni GCC members are the signs of a rapprochement with Shia Iran as part of an expected agreement on Tehran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities.
The US, on the other hand, is concerned about the absence of democratic reform and the continuing human rights violations in the Arab Gulf states. In addition, Washington is concerned about the extreme conservatism of Wahhabism, a branch of Sunni Islam, which is central to Riyadh’s claim to regional and religious leadership.
Lately, a shift to a more independent and muscular Saudi foreign policy has been evident. Riyadh has led the GCC states on an air campaign in Yemen intended to counter the advance of the Houthi rebels, an alleged Iranian proxy in Saudi Arabia’s backyard.
Differing objectives of the summit
Expectations were thus high when Obama invited the leaders of the six GCC countries to a summit in the intimate setting of the presidential retreat at Camp David.
The meeting, and preceding bilateral talks between the US and Saudi Arabia, must be seen against the backdrop of underlying disagreements. Accordingly, objectives vary between the participants: From the US standpoint, the aim was to conciliate its Gulf allies and assure them of its continuing regional commitment in light of a deal with Iran.
The Arab rulers, on the other hand, were hoping for a formal security agreement which would institutionalise American military support of the GCC states. Last-minute cancellations by the Saudi and the Bahraini king were quickly interpreted as “royal snubs” and public signs of dissatisfaction with US policies in the greater Middle East, which could jeopardise the outcome of the conference. While this concern appears to be somewhat overstated, it surely did not help to ease tensions.
A balanced outcome?
The joint statement issued after the summit reveals that respective anxieties of the two sides have been addressed. For instance, acknowledging GCC concerns about the aggressive behaviour of Iran, the communiqué mentions Tehran’s “destabilizing activities in the region,” which the US and the GCC will oppose.
At the same time, it is noted that a “comprehensive and verifiable” nuclear deal with Tehran is in everybody’s interest, suggesting that such a deal remains a strategic priority of the Obama Administration. The statement also emphasises the need for political solutions to regional conflicts, particularly in Yemen, in what amounts to muted criticism of Riyadh’s military campaign.
However, the most diplomatically sensitive wording to be found in the communiqué is that America will aim to help the GCC states to “deter and confront an external threat” to its respective territorial sovereignty. While this amounts to a reiteration of the existing informal security arrangement against external aggression, it falls way short of GCC expectations.
After all, this does not contractually tie the US into another potential war in a perennially volatile region. It also does not commit the US to assist GCC countries when they are faced by internal social unrest, which might threaten dynastic survival.
Apprehension likely to persist
In practical terms, the Camp David meeting has done little to improve increasingly tense relations between the US and its Gulf allies. Washington will continue to determinedly push for a nuclear deal with Tehran by 30 June.
Nevertheless, the GCC states remain concerned about the potential boost any such agreement will give to Iran’s nuclear capabilities, its regional ambitions, and the geopolitical balance.
At the same time, the United States will continue to underwrite GCC security through military assistance. The US will carry on its slow retreat from the broader Middle East, and shift focus instead to the Asia-Pacific. Saudi Arabia is likely to continue its more assertive foreign policy independently of the United States.
As the summit shows, defence, security, and commercial ties between the US and the Gulf states remain important to all sides. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the relationship between these old allies is nowhere near as close as it was in the past.