Luxner News Inc, Stock Photos of Latin America & the Caribbean
 

Article Search

GCC No-Shows 'Another Unfortunate Milestone' in US-Gulf Ties
Atlantic Council / May 12, 2015

By Larry Luxner

The decision by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and three other Arab leaders to skip a May 14 summit with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at Camp David reflects deep unhappiness among Washington’s Gulf partners over US President Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran, and his unwillingness to pursue a formal defense treaty with the six-member bloc, says the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel.

“There was a meeting in Paris last week at the foreign ministry level, and that meeting was where the United States unveiled its proposal,” said Pavel, Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “But it didn’t go far enough for the preferences of the Gulf states. Once that worked its way through the system, they started to downgrade their representation.”

He added: “It’s just another unfortunate milestone in a series, where relationships have suffered from unmet expectations, perhaps on both sides.”

Four of the six GCC heads of state—Salman; King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain; Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id al-bu Sa’id of Oman, and Emir Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates—will not be at the White House dinner May 13, or at Camp David the following day, as originally planned.

That leaves Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as the only Gulf leaders to meet with Obama, though high-level officials will still represent the other four countries.

To be fair, Pavel said in a May 12 interview, “some of these officials are not in good health, or ailing. The King of Saudi Arabia is 79, the head of state of the UAE has health issues. So does the Sultan of Oman, so three of the six might not have made it anyway.

“But I do think there is a sense that the typical Obama administration approach of going up the middle isn’t doing it,” he added. “They wanted a much stronger commitment than just a statement and more weapons sales. For that reason, they’re downgrading their representation, and they’re disappointed again.”

In early May, Pavel and Bilal Y. Saab, Resident Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Scowcroft Center, issued a report calling for a gradualist approach for significantly upgrading US-Gulf security relations. The analysis is a followup to their earlier study, Artful Balance: Future US Defense Strategy and Force Posture in the Gulf, which makes the case for a mutual defense treaty between the Pentagon and willing Arab Gulf partners.

The Camp David meeting comes at a time of extreme turmoil in the Middle East. While civil war rages in Syria, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants are spreading terror across the Middle East, a Saudi-led coalition continues to battle Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.

Sunni Arab leaders throughout the Gulf now see Iran—which backs the Houthis—as the major destabilizing threat of the Middle East, leading to what Pavel calls unprecedented, yet low-profile, cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states.

“Israel is quite clear that it’s not likely to be a victim of an attack by the Gulf countries,” said Pavel, noting, however, that the Jewish state remains “very concerned” by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. “I’m hearing more and more that there’s quiet cooperation on intelligence, especially regarding Iran. There is increasing alignment of interests between Israel and some of the Gulf states.”

Yet even if Washington and its partners in the P5+1—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany—reach an accord with Iran by the June 30 deadline, that country’s leaders are unlikely to change tactics overnight, Pavel warned.

“Iran’s expansionist ideology isn’t going away, even if there is a nuclear deal,” he said. “The Iranian theocracy is not changing their worldview, and their worldview is to restore the Persian Empire and to dominate the Gulf region to the maximum extent possible. If sanctions are lifted, they’ll have more resources to do all these things.”

Pavel spoke by phone to the New Atlanticist’s Larry Luxner. Here are excerpts from our interview:

Q. What do you make of King Salman’s non-attendance at President Obama’s upcoming GCC summit?

Pavel: There was a meeting in Paris last week at the foreign ministry level, and that meeting was where the United States unveiled its proposal. But it didn’t go far enough for the preferences of the Gulf states. Once that worked its way through the system, they started to downgrade their representation.

Some of these officials are not in good health, or ailing. The King of Saudi Arabia is 79, the head of state of the UAE has health issues, and so does the Sultan of Oman. So three of the six might not have made it anyway. But I do think there is a sense that the typical Obama administration approach of going up the middle isn’t doing it. They wanted a much stronger commitment than just a statement and more weapons sales. For that reason, they’re downgrading their representation, and they’re disappointed again.

Q. Why is the Obama administration reluctant to pursue a mutual defense pact with its allies in the Persian Gulf?

Pavel: On one hand, a lot of elements of the [nuclear] agreement with Iran—which isn’t yet final—are quite bold and unprecedented, including some aspects of the inspection and verification regime. Yet people are saying it’s not politically feasible to be as bold regarding new security arrangements with our Gulf partners, who have had a longstanding relationship with the United States ever since President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt met the King of Saudi Arabia seventy years ago.

Q. Is US support of Israel standing in the way of a security treaty with the GCC?

Pavel: Getting a mutual defense pact approved by Congress would take a significant campaign, just like the Iran agreement would. When I’ve spoken to Israelis, they say they want to make sure they know all the details and that it doesn’t detract from their own security. But at this point, Israel is quite clear that it’s not likely to be a victim of an attack by the Gulf countries. I’m hearing more and more that there’s quiet cooperation on intelligence, especially regarding Iran. There is increasing alignment of interests between Israel and some of the Gulf states.

Q. The Obama administration believes that a nuclear deal signed by Iran and the P5+1 would make it easier to address regional concerns. What is likely to happen in the event such a deal becomes reality?

Pavel: Iran’s expansionist ideology isn’t going away, even if there is a nuclear deal. The Iranian theocracy is not changing their worldview, and their worldview is to restore the Persian Empire and to dominate the Gulf region to the maximum extent possible. If sanctions are lifted, they’ll have more resources to do all these things. It’s not going to be a more secure region overnight, but hopefully Iran will moderate its behavior.

Q. How much of a factor is the ongoing civil war in Syria?

Pavel: Syria plays into this quite a bit. Every week that goes by gets more dangerous for the United States and Europe. The Saudis have been very worried about this for a long time. In particular, the President’s about-face on chemical weapons in September 2013 did enormous damage to our relationships in the Middle East, as well as in Europe and Asia. There’s no doubt about US capacity, but there is strong doubt about the will and resolve of this White House to contribute to the defense of its allies.

Q. What might happen if the Obama administration and its GCC allies continue to disagree?

Pavel: That could end up causing some of these countries to start diversifying their portfolio. There aren’t a lot of options out there. But we might start to see weapons sales from other countries to the Gulf. We’ve already seen major French weapons sales, and [French President François] Hollande was part of the GCC summit last month. There’s also the potential for China, over time, to play an increased role. The best and most obvious partner is the United States, but they’re not getting what they want and it’s been quite rocky for several years now.

Q. Are Saudi airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen likely to be successful?

Pavel: I’m not clear about the exit strategy for this operation. I do understand the Gulf countries’ concerns that this will become another Iranian outpost. There have been reports of Iran shipping materiel—and I don’t mean humanitarian assistance—to its proxies in Yemen. It’s a pretty major geopolitical conflict, and I’m not clear on what the operation’s ultimate objectives are.

Q. At this point, how should the White House pursue stronger ties with its Gulf allies?

Pavel: The Obama doctrine for the Gulf will say any threat to our partners in the Gulf will be considered a threat to the United States. There will also be weapons sales, facilitated in some ways by naming additional Gulf countries as major non-NATO allies. But the most important is that there be a set of work plans that moves this set of relationships towards an alliance, so that much more progress could be made in terms of strengthening security relationships, as well as diplomatic consultation so that this set of relationships becomes much more robust. Ultimately, over time, this could become a military alliance in the formal sense.

Luxner News Inc, PO Box 938521 - Margate, FL 33093 USA tel=301.365.1745 fax=301.365.1829 email=larry@luxner.com web site design washington dc