The Washington Diplomat / June 2015
By Larry Luxner
Saudi Arabia and its five smaller neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council may be awash in petrodollars — allowing these oil-rich desert monarchies to splurge on glittering skyscrapers, lavish soccer stadiums, giant shopping malls and Ferraris.
But there are some things money just can’t buy, like a formal defense treaty with the Pentagon that would protect GCC member states from enemies such as Iran.
That became evident last month, after GCC officials — wrapping up a May 14 summit at Camp David — endorsed President Barack Obama’s proposed Iranian nuclear deal with a vague statement that a “comprehensive, verifiable” accord is in their interests.
The summit, which followed a White House dinner the night before, involved ten hours of talks between Obama and his Arab guests. Also present were Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an expert on the intricacies of the Iran nuclear accord. At the end, the United States and GCC issued a joint communiqué and agreed to meet again in 2016.
However, the outcome was less than picture-perfect from either side.
For one thing, four of the GCC’s six heads of state, including Saudi Arabia’s newly anointed King Salman and the leaders of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, stayed away from Camp David. Salman cancelled at the last minute, and the king of Bahrain instead chose to attend the Royal Windsor Horse Show outside London.
In the end, only Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah of Kuwait and Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar showed up.
As Obama huddled with his Arab visitors in Maryland’s Cactoctin Mountains, the proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran continued raging throughout the Middle East — not only in impoverished Yemen, but also in Syria, where Iran supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah fighters have long received financial and military support from the mullahs in Tehran.
“I believe that the Camp David commitments I have described today could mark the beginning of a new era of cooperation between our countries, a closer, stronger partnership that advances our mutual security for decades to come,” Obama said in a statement. “But I want to be very clear: The purpose of any strategic cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran, or to even marginalize Iran.”
Speaking to reporters at the summit’s conclusion, Obama he was “very explicit” that “the United States will stand by our GCC partners against external attack and will deepen and extend the cooperation that we have when it comes to the many challenges that exist in the region.”
Obama went on to list specific ways the Pentagon would commit to defending the Gulf, including helping to develop a collective missile defense system, expediting arms transfers to the region, staging a new large-scale military exercise against terror and cyber attacks, and forming a new partnership to improve counterterrorism.
Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said the summit produced exactly what most observers thought it would produce: very little.
“The GCC leaders came to Camp David with pretty low expectations, and they left with a sense of little accomplished,” Pollack told The Washington Diplomat.
“With the Obama administration committed to the Iran deal — which they do not like — they knew that the U.S. probably wouldn’t give them a formal defense treaty,” he said. “They also had low expectations that the administration would adopt a more aggressive policy toward Iran or anywhere in the region, namely Syria, Yemen or Iraq.”
Basically, what the GCC wanted was to kill the Iran nuclear accord, have the administration to endorse a formal defense treaty with the bloc, and get a commitment from Obama that the U.S. would take a much more aggressive approach toward Iran’s support of Shia rebels and terrorists throughout the Middle East.
“They didn’t get any of that,” Pollack said. “They didn’t really think they would, but they came to Washington because the president of the United States asked them to.”
To be fair, Sultan Qaboos of Oman is 76 and reportedly bedridden, while the UAE’s elderly Sheikh Zayed is also said to be unwell.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman also had a good excuse for missing the party.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir — who up until last month was Riyadh’s ambassador to the United States — said the aging king had to stay home to oversee his country’s continued air strikes against Yemen to defeat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Yet a ceasefire aimed at ending the bloodshed had already fallen apart as The Washington Diplomat went to press, with both sides accusing the other of violating it. Pollack says the Saudi offensive is doomed to failure.
Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, accused Houthi rebels of preventing civilians from leaving Sana’a, Maran, Albiqaa and other cities where Houthis are believed to be hiding weapons — in effect using them as human shields.
Yet the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen rejected that excuse.
“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, contravenes international humanitarian law,” Johannes Van Der Klaauw said May 11.
The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 1,400 people and injured nearly 6,000 since it began in mid-March, Der Klaauw said. The Saudis aim to restore the Yemeni government which was overthrown by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels earlier this year.
Brookings’ Pollack says it’s “highly unlikely” that a Saudi air campaign — or even a pan-Arab air campaign — will make much of a difference.
“When it becomes clear that the airstrikes aren’t doing the job, the Arabs will feel pressured to go in on the ground. And that will be a disaster,” he warned. “The United States ought to be doing everything it can to keep its allies out of Yemen.”
One knowledgeable Washington source who deals regularly with GCC officials went even further.
“In my opinion, you don’t win a war from the air. The Saudis have done an immense amount of damage on the ground, and politically, the Yemenis are very upset,” said the source, who asked not to be named. “The danger of bombing civilians is that you create more extremism, and drive more people into the arms of al-Qaeda or the Houthis.”
He added: “The Houthis know that the Saudis can’t do it on the ground. They don’t have what it takes. Are they going to send in the Egyptians to fight them? They’ll eat them alive. This is a much more sophisticated fighting force than anything the Egyptians faced in the ‘60s.”
Richard Schmierer, former U.S. ambassador to Oman, agrees that the Saudi air campaign is having unintended and tragic consequences.
“The last thing the Saudis want to do is alienate the Yemeni people. Until this military campaign, Yemenis have supported Saudi Arabia,” he said. “But the country is already very poor, and they’re bombing key elements of its infrastructure.”
However, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners want to send a message to Iran that Yemen is a red line which must not be crossed, said Schmierer, who was U.S. envoy to Oman from 2009 to 2012 and now sits on the board of the Middle East Policy Council.
“Saudi Arabia is wiling to accept the potential downside of the ill will [in Yemen] in exchange for a very clear signal to Iran that if they’re involved with the Houthis and Yemen’s internal affairs, the GCC is not going to stand for that kind of behavior,” he told The Diplomat. “Sending that signal has trumped the concern about potential ill will.”
Edward Gnehm, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and Jordan, said the GCC summit was “on the positive side, but not terribly so” — and that it was wrong for Obama to have summoned the GCC leaders to Camp David so quickly. The fact that four out of the six leaders didn’t show up, he added, is “definitely a signal to the U.S. that they are unhappy” with Obama’s seeming enthusiasm for a nuclear accord with Iran at all costs.
“But I’ll also point out that a week and a half before the summit, the president made remarks about these governments needing to deal with their domestic issues,” Gnehm said, noting internal dissent in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. “I can’t believe those words went over very well with the monarchs of those countries.”
In fact, he added, this whole issue of a mutual defense treaty “is a bit on the preposterous side.”
“There’s no way whatsoever that the U.S. Senate is going to agree to any sort of a treaty that requires a two-thirds majority. It’s impossible, and they knew that before they came,” said Gnehm, who teaches a course in diplomacy at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“We do, of course, have cooperation agreements with Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, and something like that with the UAE. It’s really only Saudi Arabia where we don’t have any kind of agreement, and that goes back to the early years of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Schmierer agrees that a NATO-like treaty — which would obligate the United States to repel an attack on any of the six GCC member states as if it were an attack on U.S. soil — is pie in the sky.
“Everybody understood that a formal arrangement was just not possible,” he said. ““First of all, it would have to go through Congress. That process in itself would be so difficult, laborious and time-consuming that the effort probably isn’t worth making.”
But the idea of a pan-Arab Gulf coalition to defend the region against, say, Iranian aggression, also doesn’t seem very reasonable, said Gnehm — even if Kuwait and Bahrain, which faces unrest from its Shia majority population, were to go along with it.
“The GCC states have talked about this forever and they have never been able to do it, because they’ve never been prepared to have Saudi Arabia dominate the structure. Most of the smaller states have resisted going in that direction,” Gnehm told us.
“I don’t see it being any more likely now than it has been over the last several decades, even with the Iranian threat,” he explained. “Different countries have different views about that threat. Certainly the Omanis do not share the views of the other five. Qatar is also not exactly on that same wavelength, since they share a huge gas field with Iran and they’re not interested in that kind of confrontation.”