Crown Princes: Was the DC Trip Worth It?

by Emile Nakhleh

As Gulf Arab crown princes and emirs sat around the table with President Barack Obama in Washington and at Camp David this week, Gulf media and experts opined whether the trip would produce tangible results and questioned whether it was worth it. After all, the United States didn’t entirely fulfill the Gulf leaders’ demands for security guarantees against the perceived Iranian threat, which brought them to Washington in the first place.

Beyond the optics of meeting with President Obama in the White House and enjoying the pristine environment of the Maryland mountains, the crown princes and two emirs are going back empty-handed. The president has mollified their fears of Iran by orally reiterating America’s commitment to their security, but without a written security agreement or treaty. Nor did the president renounce his diplomatic approach to Iran and his expressed desire to conclude a verifiable nuclear agreement. No secret security protocols have been reported in the media either.

The key point the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts have been making is that if a nuclear agreement is reached with Iran, they would pursue nuclear technology, including enrichment, to match Iran’s capability. Although this public position could be viewed as partly bravado, it does reflect a deep frustration caused by their inability to derail the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran.

Much has been written on the eve of the summit about the Saudi “snub,” the “dashed expectations,” the “frosty relations,” and the “flailing” US policy in the region. Yet the Gulf leaders were bringing a number of issues to the table—including Iran and Gulf Arab security, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Sunni radical ideology, the Assad regime, and domestic grievances—not all of which could be addressed solely through a partnership with the United States. Raising regional and domestic issues at the summit, particularly domestic grievances, repression, and the radical ideology that invariably spews from Saudi Arabia, smacks of disingenuousness. Gulf leaders should address these issues themselves. For the GCC, however, the perceived Iranian threat is the overriding issue, and that’s why they agreed to participate in the summit, albeit with a lower level of participation.

Iran and Gulf Arab Security

The “fears” Saudis and other Gulfies have raised about Iran, for example, do not reflect a particularly ominous behavior by Iran or a gathering Iranian threat against the Arab littoral of the Gulf. Iran has not threatened to invade any of its neighbors. Like other regional states, Iran has worked feverishly to expand its influence in neighboring states. The Saudi concerns about Iran focus on its Shia theology and Shia allies, which presumably are a threat to Sunni Arab Islam, and on its nuclear capability, which if weaponized could be an existential threat to Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners.

Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, some ayatollahs voiced the desire to export the revolution to neighboring states, but that rhetoric fizzled. They quickly realized that revolutionary rhetoric does not create revolutions. Furthermore, Iran became preoccupied with the war that Saddam Hussein waged against it in 1981. Incidentally, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states contributed tens of billions of dollars to Saddam’s war effort.

It is reasonable for the Gulf states to worry about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to point out that Iran has cheated on some of the agreements it signed with the IAEA. Iran has also violated a number of UN Security Council resolutions. It’s equally reasonable for them to seek American security guarantees against a potential threat from Iran.

The United States, however, made it very clear before the summit that Washington did not intend to sign a security treaty with the GCC states, give them a NATO-type security guarantee, or extend a nuclear umbrella to them.

Before the convening of the summit, President Obama stated in a media interview that America would defend the GCC against an external aggression, similar to what the United States did to end Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Although the Obama administration expressed willingness to sell Gulf states sophisticated weapons, these sales, including the advanced F-35 stealth fighter, will have to be considered in the context of the regional balance of power and America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge.

In light of these considerations, a possible policy approach would be to consider extending the nuclear umbrella to the Gulf states, beginning with Saudi Arabia. Emily C. Saunders and Bryan L. Fearey have argued in a recent academic article that such an approach “may be the least bad option.” A nuclear umbrella over one or more GCC states could persuade the Saudis and others not to pursue nuclear technology, which most likely they would have to buy from other countries.

Of course, it will be years before the Saudis and other GCC states have indigenous brainpower to build nuclear reactors with a sufficiently large number of centrifuges for uranium and plutonium enrichment. If the Obama administration is committed to preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, it should seriously consider extending the nuclear umbrella to specific states in the region.

Who Came Calling and Why?

Aside from these issues, however, the summit has afforded the GCC an opportunity to parade a new and younger generation of leaders on the world stage. As President Obama has already met several of them on previous occasions, the media has probably exaggerated the utility of this aspect of the summit. In fact, two of the three crown princes were educated in the United States and are well known to American officials.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has sent two grandchildren—the 50-something Muhammad bin Nayef, or MBN, and the 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman or MBS. While it is not clear which of the two will emerge as the real Saudi leader in the next one-three years, it is now a fact that the grandchildren of the country’s founder will lead Saudi Arabia once the current king leaves the scene.

The rulers of two states, Kuwait and Qatar, decided to participate in defiance of the Saudi request to lower the level of representation. Since the eviction of Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, the Al Sabah ruling family has been beholden to the United States for ending the Iraqi aggression and would not snub the American president’s invitation. The Kuwaiti ruler, who at 85 is the oldest participant in the summit, is quoted to have said that he should attend in order to explore the future of the region after a nuclear agreement is reached with Iran.

Qatar’s ruler Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is in his late thirties, which makes him the youngest ruler in the GCC. He decided to attend the summit for at least three reasons: a sense of independence from Saudi Arabia; a nod to the special bilateral relationship he believes he has with the United States; and the perceived inexperience of Qatar’s crown prince, his half-brother Abdallah bin Hamad Al Thani.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa was eager to attend the summit but relented under Saudi pressure. According to the Bahrain Mirror, an opposition, pro-reform online publication, King Hamad “beseeched” the Saudi king to attend, but the negative answer was “emphatic.” Hamad reportedly told his ministers that the Saudi decision “does not serve our interests in the midst of the serious challenges we are facing, including Daesh and the post-nuclear agreement Iran.”

Instead, his son crown prince Salman headed the Bahraini delegation. Salman attended college in Washington, DC, and is considered by the United States as a “reformist.” In an attempt to spin the King’s absence, the Bahraini foreign minister claimed the king could not attend because of a previously arranged visit to the United Kingdom.”

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was not expected to attend because of serious health issues. Of all the GCC members, Oman is the least obsessed with Iran or its perceived threat to its Arab neighbors. Before the P5+1 talks officially started, Oman acted as an intermediary in the private talks between Iran and the United States, according to numerous media reports. Since Qaboos has not designated a crown prince, his foreign minister usually represents him at important international meetings.

The United Arab Emirates’ ruler decided to skip the summit because of health issues and in deference to the Saudi king. The UAE ruler, who did not expect the summit to produce tangible results, asked his 54-year-old brother crown prince Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan to represent him.

All in all, the GCC side of the summit comprised two rulers—one at 85, the other less than half his age—three crown princes ranging in age from the thirties to the fifties, and a smattering of foreign ministers.

The Pragmatism of a Deal with Iran

Although the GCC is a collective entity, member states have pursued their national interests, including their bilateral relations with the United States, separately. Saudi Arabia has the most sway in the GCC, but the other states, excepting Bahrain, do not necessarily follow the Saudi lead. Returning from the summit, they will be faced with three challenges that are not going away any time soon:

  • IS, radicalism, jihad, and al-Qaeda in the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Maghreb
  • Sunni radical ideology advocating jihad in the name of an Islamic caliphate continues to emanate from their midst
  • Rising popular grievances against repression, corruption, and sectarianism.

Despite their public spat with Washington, Gulf rulers will come to realize that President Obama’s pursuit of a new Middle East security architecture in which Iran is a responsible actor will ultimately serve their interests. A nuclear agreement with Iran, with which American nuclear scientists are comfortable, that will limit Iran’s quantitative and qualitative enrichment and give the international community the right to conduct intrusive inspections “any time, anywhere” for at least 10 years would be the most realistic guarantee for regional security and stability. GCC leaders would do well to get on board.

Photo: Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. The GCC are wary of Iran for three main reasons.
    First, they have actively supporting another Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein in a 8 years devastating war against Iran. Therefore they expect that Iran either will call for revenge or at least will expect apologies and promises of better behavior in the future.
    Second the GCC is jealous of Iran’s achievements despite 30 years of sanctions. In Iran, developments in the areas of technology, education, culture, arts, medical are impressive and are all in the hands of Iranians without the need or help of foreigners.
    In the contrary all developments in the GCC are performed by foreigners. This is why the ‘nuclear snub’ sounds ridiculous. Saudi Arabia has no indigenous expertise in this area and may never have, in view of the few Saudis seriously interested in technology.
    The third reason is ideological and historical. The Sunnis have always considered the Shias as heretics and have persecuted them during hundred of years. Seeing this ‘minority’ acquiring power and imposing itself as a vocal part of Islam is a horrifying profanity, especially for the Saudi Wahhabis whose ideology is not far from Al Qaeda and ISIS concerning minorities.
    The growth of Iran’s importance in the region is a situation they can’t handle anymore. Therefore they are agitating, knocking at all doors, elaborating scenarios to avoid facing that reality. After the ‘betrayal’ of Pakistan on joining the ‘coalition’ against Yemen, the Camp David meeting is another of many doors that are closing on them.
    Ultimately they need more of these humiliating shocks to wake up and accept that they have no choice than to collaborate with Iran instead of antagonizing it. Yemen may be one of them, and Syria may be the next,

  2. “The Saudi concerns about Iran focus on its Shia theology”
    The main concern of the crown princes is to avoid becoming ex-crown princes; there is not primarily anything to do with theology. Crown princes in ruling families have rather gone out of fashion, say in the last four hundred years or so, because there is no rational basis for their presence. They serve no useful purpose, and they enjoy no bases of national support. In some countries they serve as figureheads, is all, with only one wife, such as Camilla Parker Bowles.

  3. Don, you are right, this a fourth reason for them to worry, but I think they still believe that because the Saud family is the Guardian of the Holy Sites of Islam it gives them an authority and a religious power that Queen Elizabeth or any other king does not have. In the Arab world, only Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco have kings. The other are Emirs which is a lesser rank as, contrary to the Kings, I believe they have no authority on the religious establishment in their country.

  4. @Virgile, I hope that didn’t mean to insult the Persians with the nomads! You did touch on a few positive attributes about the Persians correctly! With the exception of Egypt and their rich and pre-Islamic culture the rest of the Arab states are governed by a bunch of corrupt, idiot families as Don rightly mentioned it. When the Arabs conquered Persia post Islamic formation, by the way the savages caused more destruction than the Mongols, the Persians refused to accept the transformation from Zoroasterian to Islam the Safavid dynasty modified Islam and offered Shiism to the Persians just to keep the Arabs and their travesties out of Persia. The Persian culture and its social and technological advances are older than 35 years. In fact it goes back to the Cyrus the great dynasty over 2500 years! If you get a chance please read some of the writing and poems from Ferdosi. He describes the nomads in Arabias land pretty well! If it wasn’t for the fossil fuel the Arabs would be living as nomads as they did 1000 years ago! The Arabs think that they can buy anything now because they have the cash!
    Things that should have happened but never did in the Arab world! For example:
    The Shah and King Hossein of Jordan, very close friends, had agreed for the Iranian army to sweep across the Iraqi land, which was a communist country at the time, all the way to Jordan! And then hand off Iraq back to Jordanian where it belonged! The communists had killed king Hossain’s uncle, who was the Iraqi King, and his family and he was very upset with Iraq! Unfortunaly, the Iranian army sat at the boarder for the Shah to obtain a green light from the USA but president Johnson never came through with the idea! Fast forward to 10 years ago there wouldn’t have been a need or excuse for GWB to conquer Iraq!

  5. Extending nuclear umbrella to the Gulf countries my big, hairy foot. What kind of umbrella did they extend us when the Saudi and UAE princess were funding the Talibans in Afghanistan and going there on their legendary falcon vacations, destroying the entire nation and replacing it with their hellish version of Islamic califade? Where was their umbrella when they funded, nurtured and unleashed the 19 Al Qaeda bombers on us on 9/11? What price did they pay? And why should they get any umbrella while they have been throwing public tantrums in their childish ways of expressing “displeasure” with the U.S. policy, working every opportunity to embarrass the guy they’re begging for protection? This is one of the few times I have agreed with our foreign policy makers who finally are coming to their senses and realizing that place is a hell-hole for foreign powers and the best thing is to leave that cursed area of the world instead of getting in deeper. If that causes these insecure princess displeasure, all the better. Maybe they’ll learn to come to 21st century and get rid of their medieval monarchies and open their countries up for reform and democracy. That’s the best umbrella they can find anywhere in the world to ensure security, because by far the biggest existential threat they face is from their own populations who will inevitably rise up and overthrow this spoiled, entitled and dictatorial bunch. They can ask their fellow (dead or dying) dictators of Egyp, Yemen, Libya, Tunesia, and Syria.

    I wonder how much extending an umbrella going to cost the defense contractors. The Arabs have been buying weaponry (that we all know they can’t do much with other than bombing their own civilians) like never before. If there is an umbrella they might feel safe enough to stop spending.

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