The end of an era — and new unknowns

Friday 22/05/2015
Assuaging fears

Washington - It is “time to stop holding Sau­di Arabia’s hand”, concluded Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, two former mem­bers of the US secretary of state’s policy staff, writing about US President Barack Obama’s Camp David meeting with Gulf Arab leaders.
The May 14th meeting con­firmed the drifting apart of two long-time allies — the United States on one side and the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, on the other. The absence of three of five heads of states who were represented by either younger Arab leaders or newcomers, un­derlined not only the growing divergences between Obama and traditional allies, but a gen­erational shift that is under way among the region’s ruling dynas­ties.
That age gap was embodied by Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, 30, and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Ham­ad al-Thani, 34.
The objective of the meeting was to reassure participants of the US commitment to the security of the Gulf region. That mission has been complicated in recent times by the shift in US objectives in the region, aims clearly at odds with those of the Gulf sheikdoms.
On one hand, the White House’s main concern is to secure a nucle­ar arms control agreement with Iran. On the other, Gulf states feel threatened by such a possibility.
What truly worries the Gulf countries is that an agreement on curtailing Iran’s nuclear pro­gramme will pave the way for a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. That, they fear, will give the Islamic Republic free rein over the region and, as inter­national sanctions are lifted, al­low Iran access to funds it can use to step up its use of proxy mili­tias in countries that Gulf leaders consider within their sphere of influence, such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
To assuage Arab fears, Obama offered a plan to accelerate the integration of the re­gion’s missile defences as well as additional sea and air exercises. However, what is miss­ing from this arrange­ment, and was rightly mentioned by several analysts such as al-Ara­biya’s Hisham Melhem and Washington-based analyst Hussein Ibish, was the Arab demand for state-of-the-art weaponry such as the F-35 stealth fighter jet, as well as a formal defence treaty.
This was underlined by UAE Ambassador to the United States Youssef al Otaiba, who said: “We need something in writing”.
In spite of Arab calls, the Camp David meeting will not change the US admin­istration’s slow retreat from the Middle East. Obama has been on this course since he backed off his demand that Syr­ian President Bashar Assad be re­moved — a decision that damaged his credibility in the eyes of those Arab states that believe Assad’s departure will take the heat out of the region’s turmoil.
Further, Obama has failed to punish the Damascus regime for using chemical weapons, af­ter threatening Assad with “red lines” that should not be crossed.
The White House’s continuous flip-flopping is linked to fears of compromising a deal with Iran, simply because it remains at the heart of what Obama perceives as his political legacy. Gulf Coop­eration Council (GCC) states thus must get used to defending their interests without Washington’s help as the White House appears more determined than ever to avoid direct military intervention in the region.
Arab leaders have responded to the shift in US policy by taking bolder positions, whether in Syria or Yemen, in an attempt to curtail Iranian expansion.
In Syria, Iran’s elite Revolution­ary Guards, and its Shia prox­ies, including Hezbollah, have encountered serious military setbacks in the north and south of the country for the first time in two years, thanks largely to a new-found alliance between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. In Yemen, a Saudi-led Arab coa­lition of Sunni states has inter­vened against Shia Houthi rebels who, allegedly with Iranian mili­tary support, now control much of that country.
The Camp David meetings have not healed the rift between the United States and the Gulf mon­archies but the United States believes it will remain relatively unaffected by the chaos of a po­larised Middle East where sectar­ian rivalries between Sunnis and Shia deepen by the day.
The rising generation of Mid­dle Eastern leaders will have to deal with a new regional reality, unlike their predecessors, who enjoyed sustained US support for more than half a century. The Gulf states will have to take responsi­bility for their own security, as the Americans let the Middle East fight its own wars.