US-GCC summit achieves businesslike agreements but rifts are too deep to patch up
On February 14th, 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt, on a US warship in the Suez Canal, met with Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, launching one of the most enduring partnerships in history, an informal alliance based on two elements: security and oil. The relationship has encountered challenges over the ensuing seven decades yet it always recovered and defaulted back to its core elements.
But when US President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on April 19th to meet with Abdul Aziz’s son, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, it was clear that the relationship was facing its most serious challenge. The visuals were powerful: Obama was met at the airport not by the king but by the governor of Riyadh.
One could argue that the current rift began in January 2011 when Obama, after some hesitation, chose not to bolster Egypt’s embattled Hosni Mubarak. The Saudis were mortified: Abandoning Mubarak was an ominous precedent. Moreover, Mubarak’s fall opened the door for the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Muhammad Morsi as president. The House of Saud always has viewed the Brotherhood’s political Islam as a mortal threat to the region.
The Obama administration’s reaction to Morsi’s ouster by Egypt’s current president and then general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also unnerved Riyadh: The withholding of US weapons deliveries to Egypt, although it proved temporary, raised questions about the United States’ commitment to its allies’ security.
And then things got worse. The Obama administration led the negotiations with Iran designed to decelerate Tehran’s development of nuclear weapons. The Saudis and many of its GCC partners were alarmed, in part because the nuclear talks ignored Iran’s meddling in Arab countries and in part because they did not trust Iran to abide by agreed-upon conditions.
More fundamentally, the Saudis saw the Iran deal as indicative of a strategic shift by Washington. Did Obama, they wondered, view Iran as the region’s future dominant power? Would the nuclear deal welcome Iran back into the community of nations, even as Tehran continued to interfere in Arab countries? The Bush administration’s misguided war in Iraq had essentially pushed that Shia-majority country into Iran’s sphere of influence. Who would be next?
Obama attempted to quell those concerns by inviting GCC heads of state to Camp David in May 2015 (Salman was a no-show) where the US president promised billions of dollars’ worth of new weapons sales (which do wonders for the US trade balance) but did not agree to a formal mutual defence agreement, which many in the GCC wanted.
So here we are: A meeting between Obama and Salman followed by a second US-GCC summit. Obama and the king talked for two hours. Obama urged the Saudi monarch to seek an understanding with Iran, asked him to persuade Iraqi Sunnis to support their Shia-led government’s efforts to oust the Islamic State (ISIS) from Mosul and requested greater Saudi support against ISIS in Syria. However, Obama refused to commit to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s removal from power. Reportedly, he also raised human rights issues in the kingdom.
The GCC summit on April 21st focused on fighting ISIS and helping Iraq end its internal divisions. The United States offered to work more closely with GCC members to ensure maritime security and the parties agreed to “expeditiously reach consensus on steps necessary to implement an integrated ballistic missile defense early warning system” to counter Iran’s continued development of ballistic missiles.
While still not offering a formal defence pact, the final communiqué pledged that the United States would “use all elements of power to secure its core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against its allies and partners” and announced that the GCC countries and the United States would conduct “a combined military exercise in March 2017 to showcase the full breadth of GCC-US security capabilities”. The US also will help GCC states develop special operations forces along the lines of the US Navy Seals.
As Air Force One took off, one can imagine that Salman and other GCC leaders yearn for the day when Obama takes off for good when a new US president is sworn in next January. That new president is most likely to be Hillary Clinton and she has offered to support a bill in Congress that would allow US families to sue the kingdom for losses related to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Obama has vowed to veto that legislation if it reaches his desk.
Perry Cammack, a key Middle East adviser to US Secretary of State John Kerry from 2013 until last summer, wrote recently that “those hoping that a new president in Washington can bring a return to the old paradigm, whereby the United States provided for the kingdom’s security in exchange for stability in the global energy markets, will likely be disappointed. The United States is no longer so dependent on Saudi oil and the American public has no desire to return to a regional policeman role.”