US-GCC Summit: Agenda Overload, Leaders at Odds

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.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. All you have to know:–Syria is a “regime” and Saudi Arabia is a “kingdom” even though Syria has elections and Saudi Arabia – uh, uh. Thinking like this is why the U.S. has been, and continues to be, a huge failure in its foreign policy, giving its main enemy Iran the moral high ground in all matters.

  2. OK Saudi can’t accept Iran-US relationship but what they can do about it? nothing. In fact if US stop supporting them with different things Saudi regime will collapse in weeks

  3. In light of Seymour Hersh’s revelations of the Ben Ladin lies and cover-ups, what should really be on top of the agenda is what is not publicly talked about, namely, the role of the Saudis and UAE in the nurturing of Al Qaeda and paying the Pakistanis for hosting and harboring Ben Laden + Mullah Omar. Saudis not only knew, they were actively involved. This summit should be their come-to-Jesus moment. Enough of this charade already. Let’s see what kind of upbeat statements the two sides can issue then.

    And I’d love to see the neocons comment on the missing 28 pages of the 9/11 report and Saudi role in light of neocons’ enthusiastic support of George W Bush’s proclamation that “you’re either with us or against us”, because those 28 pages made it very clear who was against us, and those have never paid a price for their crime. As a result of our looking the other way, they have gone on to creating bigger and better monsters like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabob and all their satanic offshoots who are the real threat to this world. If these Arab regimes (as Don Bacon said, they’re all regimes, and brutal ones, not just Syria so let’s not address them by names that seem more respectable than regimes) are so afraid of a nuclear deal with Iran they really need lessons. As I see it, in this deal the Iranian regime has basically bent over and taken it up the behind as they have given up most of what they built, are subjecting themselves to the most intrusive inspections ever, and keeping a shell of a program as a face-saving measure for all their expensive troubles, and in return they are getting back SOME of their own money and the possibility of the lifting of some of the crippling sanctions, and frankly even then I have a hard time believing we’re going to end up our end of the bargain as we seem to have a difficult time with that. If that one-sided deal scares Arab regimes and their Likudi cousins so much maybe they should all retreat to their luxury retirement palaces and allow braver, elected, secular leaders lead instead of crying constantly to Uncle Sam that the only way they’ll feel safe is for us to wage another costly and bloody war on their behalf to make them feel safe about their own dictatorial rule at nights while they get together with their 40+ concubines each and add to the number of their “princes”. The idea that we’re throwing our lot in with such a medieval crowd is beyond nauseating.

  4. tms5510
    I agree. Why is the USA so concerned about Saudi Arabia ‘accepting’ or not the US-Iran nuclear deal? What can Saudi Arabia do? It has oil and money but its is impotent and vulnerable inside and outside and now with novice rulers in charge . Kuwait knows that by experience and knows that only the USA can protect them. The GCC has weapons and planes but no seriously trained army. Its security is totally dependent on the good will of another powerful foreign country. Besides the USA, the choices are limited: Turkey, China, Russia, France? China is a communist country, thus excluded, Russia is too close to Iran. France depends on the EU and that is not an easy win. With Turkey, Saudi Arabia is on an ideological competition. Both countries aim at representing the Sunnis in the region and their political system is at odds, without even recalling the historical hatred between the two countries. Therefore the GCC has no choice than beg the USA and accept any conditions to enroll it in their security.
    Therefore I expect that in Camp David, the USA will for the first time, use more sticks and less carrots. with the GCC. That’s probably why some rulers preferred to avoid publicly scolded on the Yemen’s absurd adventure, the nefarious Turkey-Saudi pact and the funding of Islamist militias in Syria and Iraq.

  5. Let’s not forget the silent adviser in the mix. Israel. If ever there was a light bulb moment, this should be it. Of course, considering the money angle, it too will pass. Push, goad, threaten, drink your poison. It’s time for the “KABUKI” performance of the “War on Terror” or what ever name it goes by today, to come to an end and get on with making the world a better place to live in. Simplistic? You bet, but then, the money that is being siphoned off to the munitions makers, the bankers, all the rest of the con-artists in this charade, would dry up, and we couldn’t have that now, could we?

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