The meeting of President Barack Obama and Gulf Arab envoys Thursday comes at a time when the monarchies that dominate the region are determined to shed their image of rich layabouts dependent on American military protection and replace it with one that demonstrates their willingness to project military power beyond their borders.
While much of this week has been devoted to the news that King Salman of Saudi Arabia decided at the last minute not to attend what had been billed as a summit, the more significant development is that it comes as the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council are pressing their involvement in civil wars in Yemen, Syria and, increasingly, Libya.
The driving forces behind that push are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Since the April 2 signing of a framework deal between the so-called P5+1 powers and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, the three Gulf nations have pressed the United States for a permanent, binding security partnership to formalize and expand the U.S. commitment to protect them from external aggression, an idea that was first introduced in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.
But that conversation has been complicated by the so-called “Obama Doctrine,” which the president voiced in interviews published within days of the framework deal by the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany with Iran. In those interviews, Obama said the U.S. would continue to protect the Gulf states against external aggression, but that internal political discontent within the monarchies was a more imminent threat to them than a feared invasion by much bigger Iran.
“The president is interested in re-framing the debate on the U.S.-GCC partnership and gearing it away from absolute security guarantees,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East director for the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy. Nevertheless, the three nations remain convinced that “Iran’s policies are the source of the problem,” he said.
Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, said administration officials will stress to the visiting leaders that the U.S. believes the nuclear deal will make Iran less of a threat.
“We believe that the nuclear deal is profoundly in the interest of not just the United States and our P5+1 partners, but also the region more generally,” he said. “Because, again, if you can diplomatically and peacefully resolve the nuclear issue in a way that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we believe that will lead to a much more stable region than a situation in which Iran is essentially at the doorstep of having enough material to produce a nuclear weapon.”
In addition to Iran, Obama and leaders of the Arab countries are expected to discuss a series of issues, including combating the Islamic State, the troublesome situations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and cybersecurity, administration officials said. They will attend a dinner at the White House on Wednesday and meetings at Camp David on Thursday.
Low expectations on their quest for enhanced U.S. security guarantees, rather than annoyance at Obama’s push for political reforms, is probably why the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, over the weekend, chose not to attend the summit, political analysts focused on the region said. Though the meeting is being billed as a summit – a meeting of top leaders – only two of the six Gulf countries will send their leaders, Qatar and Bahrain.
“The GCC message here is that this has to be the start of a long conversation,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Camp David’s not the last word.”
Rob Malley, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region, said the administration is aware that the Gulf nations had been hoping for a more formal agreement than the U.S. was willing to offer. At least one spoke to Secretary of State John Kerry about the issue last week at a meeting in Paris.
“Some of them wanted a formal treaty, and that’s something we told them weeks ago was not possible,” Malley said. “I think whether they were disappointed or not, they got it, they understood that. And we’ve been working since then.”
Saudi Arabia and its closest allies first demonstrated their determination to take political decisions independently of the United States by informing the Obama administration only at the last minute of their planned military campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, launched on March 26.
Saudi Arabia then underlined the message by inviting French President Francois Hollande to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh last week, sealing a strategic partnership with Paris that could mean tens of billions of dollars of defense-related contracts to be finalized next month.
Money is something the Gulf countries have in abundance, and they’ve shown a willingness to use it to sustain patriarchal and military governments in the region: among them, the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are worth more than $2 trillion, and are roughly equal to China, the biggest holder of U.S. debt.
When Bahrain and Oman faced a wave of popular protests during the Arab Spring in 2011, their governments were each propped up with $10 billion in donations; a further $5 billion was shared equally by Jordan and Morocco.
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s political outreach strategy was extended to Egypt in 2013 after the military overthrew the elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. Since then, GCC nations have sent Egypt $11 billion in central bank deposits.
The Gulf Cooperation Council is alleged to have provided $4 billion to the government of Sudan – Sudan and Saudi Arabia deny the contribution – in return for President Omar al Bashir rejecting his longtime alliance with Iran and signing on to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Through April, Saudi Arabia has drawn $36 billion from its reserves to pay for the Yemen campaign and to maintain domestic spending, despite a drastic fall in the price of crude oil; the kingdom is the world’s largest exporter and depends on the proceeds for 90 percent of its revenue.
Saudi Arabia also has relaxed its attitude toward Turkey, previously strained by Turkey’s support for Egypt’s deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. Greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is believed to have stopped fighting between disparate Syrian rebel groups, including the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, and helped those groups oust government forces from strongholds in the northwest of the Syria.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council – minus Qatar, which has conflicting interests, and stoically neutral Oman – have been working with Egypt to plan an intervention in Libya in support of the internationally recognized government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border.
Those developments have taken place against the backdrop of discussion to create a Saudi-based Arab army, plans for which are to be finalized by August.
But the Gulf Cooperation Council’s ambitions don’t stop there. A few hours before Secretary of State Kerry’s arrival in Riyadh last Wednesday for pre-summit talks, UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum announced plans for an unmanned mission to Mars. Such a project would convey important messages to the world – including one aimed at Arabs themselves.
“Nothing is impossible and we can compete with the greatest of nations,” he said.