Whither GCC-US relations?
The US-GCC relationship appears to be at a crossroads. Despite a long history of relations and a clear common and mutual interest in the stability and security of the Gulf region, the GCC states and the United States look as if they are growing apart on an almost daily basis. This is because on basically every issue of strategic importance and concern at the moment, the two sides are taking or have taken different positions. In this environment, the differences are growing rather than shrinking, an ominous development for the coming years.
On Syria, the GCC position is that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy and that a negotiated solution that leaves the regime intact is no longer viable. While the consensus appears to be that the fall of the present government is inevitable, there is great concern in the Arab Gulf states that this eventuality will be prolonged with devastating consequences for the entire Middle Eastern region in the meantime. Every day that the Assad regime is able to survive, the chances increase of a dangerous spillover effect in neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and the influence of the extremist elements within the Syrian revolution grows. It in this context that the GCC states have undertaken to support the armed resistance and further have argued for lifting the arms embargo currently in place so that arms can be supplied to selected moderate groups within the opposition movement.
The United States, in the meantime, has resisted calls for the lifting of the arms embargo and even vetoed the possibility of supplying adequate weaponry to the opposition forces. This stands in opposition even to the positions of the UK and France. Statements such as those by the new Secretary of State John Kerry about “empowering the opposition” are seen in the Gulf as weak and non-committal.
A second point of increased disagreement concerns the Iranian nuclear program. While the diplomatic tug-of-war has continued for several years now, no substantial progress has been made on receiving adequate assurances from Iran about the supposedly peaceful intentions of their nuclear activities. Instead, Iran has accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve, i.e. continue negotiations without making any concessions in an effort to simply stall and buy enough time to work toward a nuclear capability. The position of the US that there is still time to resolve this issue diplomatically stands in contrast to that of the GCC states that the clock is ticking and that negotiations cannot continue forever. The distinct worry of the GCC states is that one day they will wake up and Iran will have become nuclear. The dangerous consequences this has for the regional balance of power appears to be underestimated in Washington when viewed from the Arab Gulf capitals.
The third point pertains to the persistent failure of the United States to play the role of an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The result is that the two-state solution seems dead in the water. While the GCC states have repeatedly tried over the past decades to work toward a resolution of the crisis, including expanding diplomatic contact with Israel and issuing the King Abdullah Peace Initiative that was later adopted by the whole Arab League, the US has refused to take a more balanced position or undertake a concerted push for realistic Middle East peace. President Obama’s recent visit to Israelis did not make any headway in this direction. In fact, it looks as if the issue does not feature at all on the agenda of his second-term presidency.
There are numerous other issues of disagreement ranging from Iraq to Yemen, as well as to the situation in Bahrain. In all these instances, there is a consistent feeling in the GCC states that the US fails to truly understand the overall strategic environment and the dangers associated with the shifts taking place. It is exactly at a time when the region needs active involvement by the United States and strong leadership that one sees hesitancy, a lack of strategic direction, and an overall tendency to look away from the problems facing the Middle East as a whole.
The fact that one sees such a divergence has raised some serious questions in the mind of the Gulf citizens. The first is whether, after such a long period of close relations, the US still perceives a vital interest in the stability of the Gulf region as in the past. Second, even if there are statements from Washington underscoring its continued commitment, it is not clear whether the GCC states can continue to rely on US policy to not only protect the region but to also move it toward a more stable future.
Instead, the prevailing mood appears to be that the terms are beginning to change to such a degree that the GCC states have no choice but to act on their own and without consideration of US interests and concerns. This is bound to have consequences, real and unintended, for both sides, and the question should be asked whether such increased separation will not come back to haunt the region as a whole.
— Dr. Abdulaziz Sager is chairman of the Gulf Research Center