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. Sorry Virgile, meant to say that didn’t mean to insult Persians by comparing them with the nomads!

  2. Precisely what agreement with the IAEA did Iran “cheat” on?

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