The Missing Multilateralism: Building Institutional Relations between the US and the GCC

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.

In many ways, the short termism of the relationship is an expected feature of any democracy in which the peaceful and regular turnover of leadership is ingrained, and it is not limited to US relations with the Gulf states. This is the very reason why the career diplomatic bureaucracy exists—to provide stability and continuity to important relationships.

Still, the fact that the United States conducts its diplomacy with the GCC states on, for the most part, a purely bilateral basis misses an opportunity to strengthen important multilateral regional dynamics, reduce the fragmentation amongst Gulf countries, and help follow through on more long term objectives in the region. Indeed, closer US engagement with the GCC as an institution could be a useful way to encourage that organization to come more into its own.

There is a certain dismissiveness of the GCC on the part of the United States—not entirely unwarranted, given its often underwhelming results. Continued lack of intraregional transport infrastructure means it is easier for the GCC states to trade goods and services with outside countries rather than each other, and differences in political outlook make it hard to find unity on important issues like Iran. Still, US policymakers misunderstand the significance—even if only aspirational—that the body holds for its members.

Smaller and more nimble than the unwieldy Arab League, and with more homogeneity amongst its members, the GCC as an institution is better positioned to find consensus and enact policies. Gulf states view consultations with the GCC as an essential element of their regional and foreign policymaking, and unity amongst the members is a priority, even if it is often out of reach.

The GCC is not without its flaws. It is heavily weighted toward Riyadh, which has in recent years caused internal struggles. The organization was particularly paralyzed by differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the Muslim Brotherhood, with the internal struggles nearly coming to a head in 2014, as the Saudis threatened to blockade Qatar’s only land border.

Yet, by the same token, it was also the GCC as an institution that was able to bring this diplomatic crisis—one of the most serious internal Gulf rifts in some time—to a resolution, with a critical mediating role played by the leadership of the United Arab Emirates. The established forum of the GCC as a platform for dialogue and conflict resolution was essential to the ability of its member states to deescalate the dispute on their own, and without external intervention.

Additionally, while the United States views the GCC primarily from a security standpoint, the organization’s own ambitions are broader, and for those in the Gulf states, GCC integration is more than just a talking point. This is especially true in the age of low oil prices, as all GCC states seek to implement unprecedented changes in state revenue collection, like the coordinated implementation of a value added tax.

These are examples of exactly the kinds of activities that should occur more frequently in the GCC, and the United States should consider stepping up its own treatment and estimation of the institution, in order to nudge the member states themselves into doing more to increase the GCC’s practical functionality. The US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, initiated in March 2012, is a useful step in the right direction. However it has deteriorated into mostly an annual set-piece in the margins of UNGA in New York, rather than an ongoing cooperation.  Its activities are simply too infrequent, top-heavy, and lacking in meaningful follow-through mechanisms to have the transformative impact that would be most useful. 

Instead of relying on high-profile ministerial meetings and visits to carry all the weight of this important relationship, the United States might wish to take a page from the UAE playbook, and consider working to accredit an ambassador-level non-member representative to the GCC on a purely observer basis, as the Emiratis did when they gained an observer mission to NATO.

The rationale behind appointing an ambassador to the GCC would be to use a public US demonstration of institutional confidence to encourage the GCC’s functional development, as well as to ensure that meaningful follow-up occurs in between summits and other high-level events. Through this structure, the US would gain a more sophisticated understanding of the GCC’s processes and its role in the region. GCC states would be reassured by an institutional link that keeps the United States involved in regional dialogues over time, and helps American policymakers to better understand the day-to-day concerns of their Gulf partners beyond security.

Above all, engaging with the GCC on a multilateral, institutional basis would help address the short-term, security-first mindset that characterizes US Gulf relationships, and help upgrade the partnership to one in which the United States and the Gulf States are both more ambitious about the power of their relationship.

Jessica Ashooh is Deputy Director of the Middle East Strategy Task Force at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center.

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Image: Secretary Kerry Greets Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir Before GCC Meeting at U.S. Ambassador's Residence in Paris (State Department Photo)