The end of an era — and new unknowns
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.