The relationship between the United States and the Gulf is active, successful in security and economic terms, and has the potential for significant growth. In fact, US-Gulf ties are probably at the highest point in their history. However, it is a young relationship—barely fifty years old in most cases—and it is fragile. It is largely a relationship among military, business, and political elites, a set of linkages that will be tested as the US reliance on energy products from the Gulf diminishes. It will be tested by the emergence of new players such as China, and the reorientation of the Gulf and US toward the East. 

The lack of broad public consensus favoring a strong, continuing relationship in either the Gulf or the United States will continue to test these important ties. At the same time there is a measure of ignorance and prejudice that reinforces barriers, for example when a perfectly innocent Saudi student in Boston was quickly eyed as a suspect in last month’s marathon bombings, and how misconceptions about US interests in the Middle East color public attitudes in the Gulf toward the United States. 

I would argue that there are five elements that could lead to a stronger, more sustainable US-Gulf relationship:

  • The time has come for the Gulf and the United States to focus on a long-term agenda: What form will the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) take in the coming years? Many political figures have called for a stronger, more united GCC. But can the GCC be a real partner for coordinated action? Or was the example of GCC-coordinated action in the Yemen crisis a unique and isolated case? Is it in the United States’ interest to actively promote a stronger, more unified GCC? It is unlikely that individual Gulf states will want to give up their bilateral access in Washington. Unity could come at the expense of imagination and innovation in some individual states if it results in lowest-common-denominator decisions that all GCC members can support.  

  • The United States and its Gulf partners need to make a genuine effort to coordinate foreign assistance. Putting aside for a moment Egypt and Syria, where deep political differences make coordination more difficult, there is little more than pro forma coordination among donors in areas where we have roughly the same objectives, and very limited integration of Gulf aid with the European and American assistance programs. The disarray sends the wrong message to recipient countries, wastes resources, and fails to recognize the comparative advantages of various donors. I am not talking here about simply asking Gulf states to pour more funds into projects Western donor agencies think valuable, but rather creating a streamlined system of consultation and genuine coordination that addresses real human needs. Such an arrangement could also be emulated by the growing number of large-scale private donors in the United States and Gulf funding international projects.

  • The United States and the Gulf states need to reach some workable common denominators on how to react to and support positive change in the countries in transition in this region, with special emphasis on Egypt and Syria. As the United States has learned, and Qatar more recently, the size of aid flows does not reflect the degree of influence. As seismic shifts transform the region, our ill-coordinated response pits donors against one another, and is inadequate to the task as a result. When we discuss these transitions, we tend to talk about specifics of implementation—which groups deserves support, or whether the International Monetary Fund will ever reach an agreement with a particular country—but US and Gulf leaders and officials rarely collaborate over a long-term, or even medium-term strategy to support common objectives related to the transition countries.

  • The United States and its partners in the Gulf should launch a dialogue on the dignity of work. In the United States, despite great opportunities for some, there is a growing phenomenon of working class poor: people who work hard, maybe at more than one job, but still cannot make a decent living. The United States is currently in the midst of an overdue debate about how to provide permanent status for people who have worked hard to build the US economy, but who have done so in the vast limbo of undocumented labor. In the Gulf, a majority of people who do the hard work come from somewhere else, working under archaic sponsorship systems that do little to protect their basic rights or motivate any real connection with the society in which they are employed. These arrangements are no more sustainable than the broken immigration system in the United States. And some Gulf states face huge challenges finding productive employment for new waves of university graduates.

  • Greater dialogue is needed at all levels, including among the highest levels of leadership, about the evolution of the political models that Gulf states envision over the next twenty years. The United States and Gulf States must develop the confidence as mature partners to have frank, sustained discussions about politics and political systems. No country has a monopoly on the best system—certainly the bitter partisanship that currently prevails in US politics has diminished public respect for politicians and the political process, for example. Change is inevitable, whether in this region or any other, but it is not unmanageable if we work at it in good faith and without inhibitions about imagining a range of alternative futures. 

These are just a few elements of what some might consider an ambitious agenda for deepening ties between the United States and our friends in the Gulf. But unless our ambitions are vast, our accomplishments will be limited and they may not sustain this vital relationship over the coming years. 

* This article is based on the author’s remarks at the Doha Forum on May 20.

Richard LeBaron is a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Photo Credit.

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron