On May 14 at Camp David, one of the official residences of the President of the United States, a special summit will be held with the participation of Saudi Arabia and its partners from the Gulf Cooperation Council, to try to launch a new stage in relations between Washington and the Arabian monarchies. Moreover, this time the dialog is doomed to become tough, especially because of the Iranian subject. Obama will have to honestly explain to the rulers of Arabia, that there will be no new defense pact between the US and theCooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (the Gulf Cooperation Council), and that they will not receive any unconditional security assurances from Washington.
The Saudis are irritated by this new attitude. On May 11 they also announced that the new Saudi King Salman would not go to Camp David, but instead would send the Crown Prince. (As a result, at the summit there will be Heads of only two GCC States, Kuwait and Qatar). In such circumstances, such a demonstration by the KSA is a widely practiced negotiating tactic. The American media is already beginning to anxiously talk about the fact that US influence in the region is weakening, and Saudi-American relations have reached a deadlock.
Of course, we should not exaggerate. Even beforehand President Obama made it clear that the purpose of the summit was to dispel the concerns of those countries that are most alarmed by Iran’s nuclear deal. To calm one’s partners in such circumstances is quite a natural and normal reaction. It is a traditional tactic of the United States, aimed at dispelling the fears and concerns over Iran and the prospect of abandoning its allies to face Iran alone. And in Washington, many are demanding, especially Republicans, that the United States maintain its close cooperation in the region with the GCC. But the decision of the majority of the GCC leaders not to attend the summit indicates that Washington cannot reassure them. And this has its own reasons.
First, Saudi Arabia and its partners in the GCC are not formal allies of the United States under any contractual obligations. Moreover, they often behave on terms that are far from friendly. The United States is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy. Saudi Arabia is an autocratic monarchy, where the basis of the socio-political system is brutal political repression, religious intolerance and a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that is in contradiction with universally recognized human rights. The KSA, Qatar and several other countries of the GCC are proponents of the ideology and the source of financing of Islamic terrorism around the world.
Moreover, in recent years the GCC and US interests have been increasingly at odds on issues such as Iran, Syria, internal reforms in the Gulf States, and countering the regional threat of political Islam.
Second, the US commitment to Saudi and GCC security issues is not unconditional. Since the mid-1970s, the United States and the Gulf countries have been allies in a number of important issues. But at the heart of such an alliance lies a purely practical interest: the United States protects the Gulf states from external threats, and they in turn support the goals and interests of Washington in the region and help stabilize world energy markets. Over time, this “deal” has allowed the Arab countries to place their obligations in the sphere of regional security on the shoulders of the United States. Whatever statements might be made on both sides, the Arab states are always a winner in this deal. And they need it more than the United States. This is especially true now, when the world market of energy resources has diversified, and price spikes are occurring less frequently.
Third, the whole complex of US cooperation with the GCC has generated serious dependency of the Gulf on Washington all the way to provision of military protection for members of the Cooperation Council against external aggression. The collective weakness of members in the region has created a shortage of security. As Obama himself recently said, “… the biggest threats that they (Sunni Arab states – NEO) face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”
However, we must bear in mind something else. As the GCC states are becoming more self-reliant, the United States will not always like the decisions that they will take to address the problems of regional security, for example, in the ongoing civil war in Yemen and in future crises in other parts of the Arab world. American leaders will have to find difficult compromises. But in the majority of circumstances, Obama is confident that if the Gulf countries will solve their own problems, this will give a much better result than in the case of action under the leadership of Washington, especially if these actions involve military intervention.
It is clear that Iran will continue to seek regional leadership, pursuing a policy that represents a challenge to US interests in the Middle East. But in the case of an Iranian nuclear deal, the United States will be able to start rebuilding its relations with the countries of the GCC, because it will eliminate the main direct threat to US interests from Iran. The United States will be able to demand that members of the Council of the Gulf Cooperation take on more responsibility for their own security. This means that the US will avoid direct military intervention in the troubled Middle East, with its civil wars. The US – GCC summit at Camp David is a chance for President Obama to demand from leaders of the Gulf States more active security cooperation between themselves instead of reassuring them of the enduring devotion of America to their security interests. But there is another question – can the GCC replace the United States in its as regional policeman? Judging from the war in Yemen, so far this is impossible.
Viktor Titov, Ph.D, is a political commentator on the Middle East, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.