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April 18, 2016
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.

Policymakers in the GCC and the United States nevertheless have options as they seek to rebuild fragile ties and ensure that institutional cooperation overrides personal friction and survives the turbulence of the past few years intact. Cooperation on defense, energy, and counterterrorism go back decades and continue to underpin US-Gulf ties. The strategic importance of stabilizing Syria and Yemen will create new openings for regional cooperation between US policymakers and Saudi/Gulf counterparts.

US officials also can and should leverage the deeper shifts in the structure of the global economy and in strategic priorities to add a new layer of mutual interest to longstanding political and security relationships in the Gulf. Reduced US reliance on Middle East oil imports over the past decade mean that energy interests are no longer critical to a regional relationship, and instead is spread across a greater range of political, strategic, and commercial pillars. While the changing balance of the global economy is likely to further reorient the US toward Asia and the Pacific, the interdependence of world energy markets and the depth of US strategic and political ties with Israel mean all US administrations will retain an interest in regional stability in the Middle East. Gulf leaders’ fears of being ‘abandoned’ in any ‘pivot’ in US policy, therefore, are overblown as new areas of convergence with US geopolitical interests, such as in meeting Asian energy security needs, will emerge.

Pacific Asia remains heavily reliant on imported energy from the Gulf and issues of energy dependence and security of access to resources are expanding the networks of external partners with a direct stake in the region’s stability and security. Significantly, several of the states with the highest dependencies on imported energy from the Gulf region include the developed and emerging Asian economies that are leading the broader rebalancing of geo-economic power and are a focus of the US ‘pivot.’ Indeed, whereas the United States has steadily reduced its reliance on Middle East energy over the past decade and a half, Pacific Asia has grown steadily more dependent on imported energy over the same period. China and India have joined Japan and South Korea as voracious consumers of Gulf oil and gas that now goes east in far larger quantities than west. According to the French think tank IFRI, Gulf States’ exports to Japan, South Korea, China, and India are more than three times larger than to the US and European Union, and the figure is set to grow over the decade. 

The US has a powerful set of overlapping interests with its GCC and Asian partners when engaging with the Middle East. With Asian economies all looking to the Gulf as a stable and long-term supplier of oil and gas, a nexus of shared interest is coalescing around the security of supply through international sea lanes and regional chokepoints in addition to the maintenance of regional stability more generally. These are substantive ties that can bind US, GCC, and Asian interests and soothe the surface tensions that have recently marred US-Gulf relations, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Moreover, for all the friction, US policymakers have consistently stated a desire to coordinate more closely with the GCC as a bloc. The Obama administration moved beyond the bilateral emphasis of the George W. Bush presidency and made concerted efforts to engage and coordinate policy with the GCC as a bloc, particularly on defense and security policy. A GCC-US Strategic Cooperation Forum was launched in 2012 and joint ministerial meetings subsequently have taken place annually. The 2013 meeting saw the formation of a joint US-GCC Security Committee to address issues related to counter-terrorism and border security. Simultaneously, Obama issued a presidential determination making it possible, for the first time, for the US to sell arms to the GCC; however, the embedded bilateralism in such sales has proven virtually impossible to dislodge. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was heavily involved in the launch of the Strategic Cooperation Forum in 2012, and she would likely continue the multilateral focus of US policy toward the GCC were she elected president.

The institutionalization of US-GCC ties through such fora can act as a buffer against the sort of tensions that occur from time to time in any relationship, and overcome some of the collective action problems that have occasionally undermined the cohesion of US-GCC ties. Indeed, while in recent years, Gulf policymakers have demonstrated the intent and capability to undertake decisive action to project (and protect) their regional interests, they do not currently possess a viable alternative to the US-led security guarantee that continues to underpin the regional security architecture. Very slow progress continues on issues that touch on political sovereignty, such as the integration of missile defense systems and the location of a unified GCC missile defense shield. The smaller GCC states remain wary of any overconcentration of power and influence in Saudi Arabia and mindful of the sudden UAE withdrawal in 2009 from the single Gulf currency planned for 2010 after the decision to locate the GCC Central Bank in Riyadh rather than in Abu Dhabi. That decision tapped into latent concerns among the smaller Gulf states that any moves toward closer integration would be overly Saudi-centric, just as similar tensions have undermined progress toward the GCC Union called for by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the GCC Summit in 2011.

The challenge for the next US presidency is to ensure that the longstanding political, economic, and security relationships with the Gulf States survive the recent setbacks as well as the broader rebalancing of geo-economic power. The United States still retains significant reserves of ‘soft power’ with its partners in the Gulf. Many decision-makers in GCC states spend their formative years at American universities and retain a deep affection for US culture. The value of such ties should not be underestimated in a socio-cultural context in which personalized networks and relationships of trust continue to play a central role in GCC states. Schemes such as the King Abdullah Scholarship Program have renewed this bond among a new generation of students, although recent budget cuts in Saudi Arabia and across other GCC states have led to the scaling back of such schemes as the impact of austerity measures begins to bite.

Beyond the aforementioned areas, deepening ties in the healthcare and education sectors have created newer synergies between the US and GCC economies that will become more important as populations in the Gulf age and the transition toward post-oil economies accelerates. Niche sectors such as renewable energy and healthcare financing offer further areas of overlapping interest that can leverage GCC and US financial support and technological expertise. The collapse in oil prices over the past twenty months has prompted Gulf leaders to think outside of the box for policy solutions, and the newfound emphasis on innovation, entrepreneurship, and value for money opens up new opportunities to move the US-Gulf relationship decisively beyond energy and security.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy 

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