A malaise that could not be downplayed
LONDON - US President Barack Obama tried to put on a brave face when he received Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Abdul-Aziz and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz at the White House ahead of the long awaited US-Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
But even the photo opportunity at the White House betrayed the sense of malaise that US and Gulf leaders had been trying to downplay. The very top Gulf Arab leaders chose to miss the photo-op session May 13th and were conspicuous by their absence. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the most powerful of the six royal heads of state invited to the summit at Camp David, said he had to stay home during a truce in the Yemen conflict. He sent his deputies and heirs instead.
Of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, only two heads of state — from Qatar and Kuwait — travelled to meet Obama. The others — Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia — sent lesser royals or deputies.
Meeting with the Saudi princes, Obama stressed the special nature of the relationship. “We are continuing to build that relationship during a very challenging time,” he said.
But the US “small footprint” strategy in Yemen and relative disengagement elsewhere in the Middle East have not reassured the traditional Gulf Arab allies, who are becoming increasingly wary of Iran expanding its influence through regional proxies.
In response, Saudi Arabia assembled its own regional military coalition against Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen.
With a deal between the United States, world powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme due to be finalised by June 30th, Gulf Arab countries fear the Islamic Republic will flex its muscles in the region even more once economic sanctions are loosened.
“What they fear, above all, is that, for one reason or another, American policy is beginning to tilt towards Tehran and away from traditional US allies in the region,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute.
“We still think deeply that Iran is a destabilising force and with the nuclear deal it is going to be even more destabilising. So I think fundamentally we — the GCC and the US — are not on the same page anymore,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates.
Even with the US Navy 5th Fleet based in Bahrain and a US military command centre in Qatar, Gulf countries feel security arrangements with the United States have run their course and cannot match the threats posed by Iran.
White House officials have said the Camp David summit would lead to integrating ballistic missile defence systems and increasing joint military exercises. But that falls short of the type of strategic security pact Gulf countries were hoping for.
A broader problem, however, is what Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Saudi government, calls “the trust gap”. The experience of Gulf countries with the Obama administration, he says, has been “assurances, promises, nice words. But at the end of the day they got nothing in their hands.”
Restoring that confidence will be among the key challenges of the GCC leaders and the Obama administration.