Given the continued congruence of interests between the Gulf states and the United States and the potential for some Gulf states to play an even greater regional and global role, now is the time to reexamine the partnership and de-conflict interests. On February 7, Hariri Center senior fellow and retired US career diplomat Richard LeBaron presented his issue brief, “The United States and the Gulf States: Uncertain Partners in a Changing Region” at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Ambassador LeBaron raised the question of whether there are sufficient common denominators between the United States and Gulf states for to not only continue their partnership but indeed deepen their cooperation. Although the United States and Gulf states have shared security interests such as counterterrorism and the Iranian threat, LeBaron noted that there are new challenges that may preclude greater US-Gulf cooperation, such as Gulf perceptions that the United States is an unreliable ally. The biggest challenge for the future direction of US-Gulf relations is the revolutionary wave sweeping the region given the latter’s varying degrees of alarm about these developments in contrast to US support for most of these popular uprisings.
Guest speaker Kristin Smith Diwan of American University indicated a few troubling developments in the region, including the weakening of Iraq and Syria, and the strengthening of transnational forces that could potentially lead to domestic instability in Gulf states. She noted the sectarian polarization in the region and the Sunni Gulf monarchs’ tendency to use this frame of analysis when responding to domestic and regional events. Diwan cautioned that the stability of Gulf states should not be overestimated, particularly given societal changes taking place that threaten to erode traditional centers of government power.
For his part, commentator Ali Tulbah of McLarty Associates emphasized the divergent perspectives on the Arab Spring between the United States and the Gulf states, noting that Gulf monarchs perceive these events as an existential threat. He added that the United States must have an honest conversation with Gulf leaders about the need for responsible economic and political reforms in order to avoid the unprecedented revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.
In closing, Ambassador LeBaron suggested that because Gulf states are likely to play an increasingly significant role in the region, it behooves the United States to better coordinate with Gulf leaders on policies toward the Arab transition countries. LeBaron also reiterated the need for serious discussions between the United States and Gulf states on long-term strategic interests, for example how to respond to the threat of Iran and violent Islamic extremism. Moreover, LeBaron pointed out that if the United States wants to avoid a surprise like the Egyptian revolution, then at minimum, it must carry out quiet discussions with Gulf states about the potential for change and transition within these countries.