by Wayne White
Statements after the current summit between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will likely be upbeat. But they will obscure the difficult-to-resolve tensions during the May 13-14 talks. Iranian nuclear diplomacy will be central. Yet the summit will also feature other issues like Iranian interference in the region, the Assad regime’s depredations in Syria, and the Iraqi regime’s behavior in the context of the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). In the end, however, both sides will sustain fairly close relations because they still have so much in common.
Saudi Arabia will, of course, be the dominant voice on the GCC side. Riyadh is suspicious about what the summit portends. But there are also uncertainties about the impact of the domestic transition from King Abdullah to King Salman early this year, plus an internal reshuffle more recently.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef will lead the kingdom’s delegation, although Nayef has been crown prince only since April 29 (but interior minister since late 2012). King Salman has been in ill health, but his decision to stay home probably signals his dismay over US Iran policy and likely disappointment with Saudi pre-summit consultations with Secretary of State John Kerry. In fact, Saudi state media claimed a conflicting royal priority (the Yemen ceasefire), not health, as the reason for Salman’s decision. Others have also bowed out: Bahrain’s king, the UAE president, and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos. The last two have been in much worse health than Salman, but Bahraini King Hamad has no such excuse.
Overshadowed by Trust Deficit
The Saudis and particularly the UAE currently regard the US with greater mistrust than a few years ago. They are unhappy with the US failure to take a tougher stance toward the Assad regime, lengthy American attempts to work with a ruthlessly anti-Sunni Arab Maliki government in Iraq, the approval of the new Iraqi prime minister’s employment of notorious Shi’a militias in Sunni Arab areas since then, and last but not least, Washington’s quest for a compromise over Iran’s nuclear program.
Riyadh’s hostility toward Iran as its premier regional foe and its concern over Iranian intentions could not be higher. Iran’s critical assistance to the Assad regime, support for Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, and backing for Shi’a militias and anti-Sunni Arab politicians in Iraq makes the Obama administration’s task of securing some level of Saudi acceptance of US Iran nuclear policy daunting. Just two months after coming to the throne, King Salman demonstrated his determination to respond forcefully to perceived Iranian interference and Shi’a gains close to the kingdom by launching the robust Saudi-led aerial campaign against Yemen’s Houthis.
Likewise, on the US side, there are misgivings over GCC behavior. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have given unconditional support to the increasingly autocratic al-Sisi regime in Egypt (including UAE-Egyptian military intervention in Libya), although Saudi-Egyptian relations have developed strains since Salman’s accession over differences concerning Syria. The US also has been too tolerant of al-Sisi’s regime, but less unconditionally so, resuming military aid haltingly.
Far more disturbing since 2012 has been aid for jihadi rebels in Syria emanating from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And Bahrain’s excessive human rights violations against its majority Shi’a population have embarrassed Washington because of the presence there of the US 5th Fleet headquarters and facilities. Additionally, the support Saudi Arabia has mustered for its Yemen air campaign diverts Saudi and greater Arab focus away from the US-led coalition’s struggle against IS.
Unfulfillable Expectations All-Round
In exchange for accepting an Iranian nuclear deal, the GCC states want the firmest possible defensive guarantees from Washington. Further complicating all this is some hope that such guarantees could also address Iranian interference in the region more broadly.
The model for defensive security is NATO’s Article 5 arrangement that an attack on one signatory would mean an attack against all. A senior GCC official said last week that the GCC seeks a written “memorandum of understanding” formalizing existing assurances on regional security, though “short of a treaty.” Additionally, there would be “concrete steps” through measures like more advanced arms sales to give the GCC a military edge over Iran.
Seeking such guarantees should come as no surprise. Less formal White House assurances this late in President Obama’s tenure provide little comfort. Underlying much of this yearning for a clear commitment are deep-seated Gulf Arab fears going back over 30 years that the US would sacrifice GCC interests in any successful American bid to considerably upgrade relations with Iran.
After meeting Saudi Defense Minister Muhammed bin Salman in Paris on May 8, Secretary of State Kerry said that the US was “fleshing out…a new security understanding…beyond anything we have had before.” Yet, such a commitment cannot be as ironclad as the GCC leaders want, which senior GCC officials already suspect. Any sweeping, formal security accord would encounter American public and congressional opposition over concerns relating to GCC human rights issues as well as real and alleged connections involving certain GCC states with US designated “terrorist” groups. What appears to be in the cards is greater intelligence-sharing, enhanced cooperation toward improved missile and cyber defense, better GCC defense integration, as well as sales of additional US arms (but not the new, advanced F-35 stealth multi-role fighter)—and not an overarching security accord.
Clash of Perspectives
A frustrated Saudi leader once used a flogging analogy with a senior US official: “It is one thing to count the strokes, but another to feel them.” This was meant to drive home how Washington failed to sufficiently appreciate the security threats that Gulf Arabs found so alarming. Therein lies the psychological gap between GGC leaders and their populations on the one hand and much of official Washington and many Americans on the other.
Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners see an Iranian-driven Shi’a-Sunni Arab clash all around them. Washington sees serious challenges for sure, but not in the same one-dimensional way. Ultimately, the Saudis, somewhat like the Israelis in this instance, might rather risk war in the Gulf aimed at neutralizing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (and possibly more) than continued fretting over an Iranian nuclear threat, Iranian interference, and a potential Iranian-American rapprochement.
In their heart of hearts, the Saudis and their Gulf partners would like the US (and the West) to act decisively to eliminate their security problems and two of their enemies. They’d like Washington to help oust Bashar al-Assad, intervene robustly to smash IS far more quickly, squeeze Iran harder to render a nuclear agreement virtually airtight or walk away, and lean hard on Baghdad to make a deal with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. In Washington and key NATO capitals, however, there isn’t the political (or popular) will to incur the costs (and risks) associated with such swift, sweeping, and risky “solutions.” Nor do the US and Europe want to endanger the Iran nuclear talks.
In addition, the US simply cannot boldly extend a binding, all-encompassing security shield to the GCC. The bottom line is that all concerned will have to cope with disappointment and look past their differences once again because of their many shared interests and compelling interdependencies.