As the perceived notion of oil-for-security diminishes with the United States’ declining demand for oil from the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council states must develop their militaries, fight threatening ideologies, and decrease their economies’ dependence on oil without waiting for the United States to lead the way. However, even as the United States and the GCC fail to see eye to eye on some of the region’s security issues, both sides would be well served to advance their shared economic interests beyond oil.
President Barack Obama’s meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Saudi Arabia this week is a previously scheduled follow-up to last year’s Camp David meeting, which notably secured the Gulf states’ passive endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal. There is no comparable deliverable expected this week, and the case for low expectations is made stronger by President Obama’s limited time remaining in office. Indeed, the most important accomplishment of this week’s Riyadh meeting may be that it is held at all.  It should serve as a signal to internal and external audiences that despite differences and grievances on both sides, the partnership between the United States and the GCC remains important. This is not an insignificant message, given the state of the region and the tenor of recent Washington commentary.
The talks at the GCC summit this week provide an opportunity for President Barack Obama to address the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The delegation representing the Houthis and ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) delegations finally turned up today for peace talks in Kuwait, but the prospects for ending the war soon are hanging by a thread. Obama’s visit to the region could keep the possibility alive by encouraging Saudi Arabia to adhere to the ceasefire whether or not the talks produce immediate results.
At the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh on April 21, US President Barack Obama will be looking to provide reassurances that the United States remains committed to the security of the region, even as his administration upholds the Iran nuclear agreement, which many of the United States’ Gulf partners see as undermining their interests and ceding too much power to the Islamic Republic. Past efforts at such assurances have included promises of military equipment, including missile defense, but these solutions fall short on addressing the GCC member states’ core concern: Iran’s malign influence in the region. Emboldened by the economic windfall borne out of the lifting of sanctions from the nuclear deal, Iran is upending the regional balance of power and expanding its sway in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
The hallowed US-Gulf bargain of “oil for security” is past its sell-by date; the future of the US-Gulf relationship is up for grabs. It has always been a fraught relationship.  Right from the outset, the United States never kept its promise to consult with the Saudis before recognizing Israel. Since 9/11, the relationship has grown much rockier—with many Americans blaming the Kingdom for the attack. From the perspective of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United States went ahead and invaded Iraq in 2003, upsetting the delicate Sunni-Shia balance. Adding insult to injury, Washington further enhanced Iran’s position with the nuclear agreement, which was concluded last summer. The coup de grace was the United States’ development of shale oil and gas that is likely to cap the selling price of Saudi and GCC oil for the next decade or two—gone are the heady days of $90-$100 per barrel oil.   

Relationships can be restructured, however, and a pretty radical restructuring will be needed if the US-GCC gap is to be stopped from getting larger.
On the eve of the US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh on April 21, Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center in Abu Dhabi, discusses key challenges in the United States’ relationship with its Arab Gulf partners, the cost of US disengagement, and the Iranian threat.

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi shared her views in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to the GCC Summit in Riyadh, the focus from the White House is all on the immediate. In what is likely the last trip to the Gulf of the Obama presidency, issues like the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iranian regional activities dominate. The agenda for the summit is, however, limited by the short-term scope of its ambitions, and little mind is being paid to how to move forward once these initial objectives are achieved. This might be natural for a President who only has eight months left in office, but it represents a chronic symptom of the American relationship with the Gulf states that hinders the relationship from rising to its full potential.
As President Barack Obama heads to the region one last time, US-Gulf relations are at their lowest point in the past three decades. Relations have come under significant strain since 2011, driven by a general dissatisfaction among ruling elites in the Gulf with the administration’s approach to regional affairs. A variety of factors have contributed to the erosion of ties of trust built up over decades as US motivations and objectives are openly questioned. Privately, ruling elites in the Gulf have taken the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ to imply tacit US abandonment of their interests, while US outreach to Iran merely reinforced such perceptions. An in-depth March 2016 profile of the ‘Obama Doctrine’ in The Atlantic magazine elicited a furious response among the Gulf states at the President’s disparaging reference to ‘free-riders,’ which many felt was aimed primarily at them.

The United States must not be neutral in its relationships with its Gulf partners and Iran, says Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel

As US President Barack Obama prepares to attend a summit with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Riyadh on April 21, the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel has some words of advice: The United States must not be neutral in its relationships with its Arab Gulf partners and Iran.

The Riyadh summit is part of an extended diplomatic effort to allay concerns in Arab Gulf countries about Iran’s regional ambitions and the perception of US disengagement from the region.

“I do not agree that the United States should be neutral between its longstanding partners in the Gulf and Iran,” said Pavel, Vice President, Arnold Kanter Chair, and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “Our partners are not undertaking an expansionist set of activities and trying to destabilize neighboring countries. Iran has this built into its constitution.”
The passports of high-ranking NATO and GCC officials seem to tell a tale of impending dialogue in the coming days. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's recent flights to Kuwait, the UAE, and Washington, and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani's visit to Brussels presage talk of the GCC working with NATO next week in Riyadh and at NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July. Whether or not the discussion of NATO-GCC cooperation persists from Spring into Summer will be largely dependent on the United States’ ability to persuade its Gulf partners that multilateral engagement with NATO is a mutually beneficial and worthwhile pursuit.


    

RELATED CONTENT