GCC seeks arms as Obama retreats from the Gulf

Friday 08/05/2015
Ironing out differences

Beirut - US President Barack Obama will meet the leaders of the Gulf Arab monarchies at Camp David on May 14th and seek to reassure them that the United States is not abandoning them with its military withdraw­al from the region and its recent framework agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme, a landmark breakthrough that upends the se­curity structure in the region.

The main objective of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain — is to secure a memorandum of understanding with the United States that will en­sure their security.

Neither Saudi Arabia, the domi­nant Arab power in the Gulf, nor the United States wants to see the alliance reached by King Abdulaziz Al Saud and Franklin D. Roosevelt 70 years ago, the backbone of Arab security in the region, fall apart. But it is clear it will have to be re­vised to adapt to the Americans’ new strategic imperatives.

There are serious differences between the two sides — Obama’s efforts to find a rapprochement with Iran and the US military pivot to Asia that the Gulf leaders see as abandonment, a sense of be­trayal that began when Obama left Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to his fate in February 2011.

But Bahrain-based analyst Emile Hokayem told The Arab Weekly he believes that, “no one in the GCC or the US has any interest in allowing the relationship to lose sight of long-term strategic objec­tives and will try to focus on work­able arrangements until Obama leaves office” in January 2017, said Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

That suggests that any deal hammered out at Camp David will only be temporary and likely need further negotiations after the 2016 US presidential elections.

But it is clear that the Saudis and their partners have cast aside their traditional caution in policy-making — the robust Yemen inter­vention demonstrates that — and that such action independent of US strategy is here to stay.

The Gulf states may be looking to Asia themselves, not just for economic imperatives but because some see China as an ally. “We need a dependable relationship with a major power,” a senior Gulf official commented recently. “If the United States can’t be counted on, then we’ll have to turn else­where.”

Whether the GCC states will be prompted to seek an accommoda­tion with Iran, which the Gulf Ar­abs see as the 21st-century mani­festation of their historic Persian foe, remains to be seen.

But the Islamic Republic, cur­rently expanding its influence across the Arab world at a pace that mortifies the Gulf monarchs, will be the elephant in the room at Camp David.

“The summit’s going to be about three things, Iran, Iran and Iran,” Lebanese security analyst Riad Kahwaji told The Arab Week­ly. “But I don’t know how much Obama can give them on that.”

The main topic of discussion at Camp David is certain to be a new regional security framework in the Gulf, said Kahwaji, head of the In­stitute for Near East and Gulf Mili­tary Analysis in the UAE.

“There are a host of regional is­sues that relate to Iran directly or indirectly. Iran has managed to stick its feet into every conflict in the region. It cannot be ignored. There are other issues. There’s oil. There’s trade. These will have to be addressed.”

GCC sources say that princes and emirs attending the summit that Obama called in his woodland Maryland retreat do not expect all their demands to be met.

But they do expect the United States to provide virtually unlim­ited arms sales to bolster the Gulf states’ already considerable de­fence capabilities.

This is something the US de­fence industry, desperate for for­eign sales as Pentagon budgets shrink, will vigorously embrace despite concerns that such exports will trigger a new arms race in a re­gion battered by at least three wars in a battle against jihadist expan­sionism and simmering spillover conflicts in several states.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swed­ish think-tank that monitors global arms sales, reported in April that Saudi Arabia alone spent more than $80 billion on state-of-the-art weapons systems and other de­fence equipment in 2014, most of it from the United States, and that this will continue.

The UAE shelled out nearly $23 billion in 2014, triple its defence expenditures in 2006, the institute said. That was a lifesaver for de­fence contractors grappling with hefty US budget cuts.

US industry officials say they are expecting a flurry of requests for major arms sales from the jit­tery GCC states, Jordan and Egypt.