The attention-grabbing headlines about the crisis in relations between Gulf Arab countries and the US – as represented by Saudi King Salman’s announced non-presence at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit meeting with President Obama this week – draw attention from the real issues of importance to both sides.
Even if the Saudi monarch signaled some frustration with Washington’s potential slight thaw with Iran, US-Arab Gulf relations are not likely to enter a period of free fall or suffer major erosion.
Rather, the GCC summit, which began today at the White House and continues Thursday at Camp David, was more like a party scheduled at an awkward time for participants, rather than a key moment that would define the nature of interactions for years to come. (Monarchs from Qatar and Kuwait were scheduled to attend.) The summit’s real significance lies in its connection to a more sustained process by which the US and Arab Gulf states can rethink key regional challenges. This process will by no means be easy, but it is crucial.
The hype over the no-show king ignores the issues that unite GCC countries and Washington. These include the US’s continued strategic interest in the Gulf region, the deep roots of Western economic and socioeconomic interconnections and significant Gulf investment in the US, and the overall stability of Gulf governments which, despite the political earthquakes of the broader region, make them safe destinations for Westerners.
Rapprochement with Iran does not signal a pivot in policy
Even if the US and Iran move toward rapprochement, it is hard to imagine Obama would pivot from a relationship with long-term stable allies with large resident populations of American citizens to that of a theocratic government hostile to US politics for over 35 years.
Despite its size and power and concerns about Iran, Saudi Arabia does not necessarily represent the entire GCC on every issue. As recently as last year, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had a major dispute involving regional influence and policy. While they may have since reestablished common ground, the rancor was deep enough to underscore that the GCC, and its relations with Washington, should not be seen as little more than a vehicle for Saudi policy. Indeed, perhaps one of the chief reasons that the meeting matters at all is what it represents in terms of the solidity of the GCC-US axis, and the GCC’s central influence in Middle Eastern affairs.
If the GCC summit is not a key turning point event in Washington’s connections to Arab oil states, it comes, however, at an awkward time in the Middle East region. The summit underscores three major issues that the US and GCC governments must face, ideally in tandem: the challenge of ISIS and al-Qaida, deep regional instability and the increasing isolation of Israel.
The challenge posed by ISIS and al-Qaida
First, despite their important differences, ISIS and al-Qaida represent similar and significant challenges to the US and the GCC. Namely, these groups espouse a vision of a post-national Sunni Islamic order that is dead-set against the dominant post-WWII global order of nation states and international organizations.
Though decades of regional mistrust and jockeying for influence currently put Iran and Saudi Arabia on opposite sides of a growing conflict in Yemen, neither Tehran nor Riyadh profits from the political disorder that opened the door for anti-statist al-Qaida and ISIS beachheads in Libya and Iraq.
Washington and the GCC states have pressing incentives to examine new initiatives to turn back the flexed Sunni Islamist muscles trying to pry open a door to a restored caliphate.
GCC states also need all the unity, allies and support they can muster to find fresh ways to address the crisis of political order in the broader Middle East region. The hope that Tunisia’s still-fragile transition to democracy has inspired should not obscure the regional importance of the long-term endurance of GCC and other monarchies. This stands in great contrast to the deep crises exhibited in recent years elsewhere in Arab polities.
The broad Arab regional political pattern of the past 30 years of presenting a choice between military dictators and Islamist political parties reasserted itself in 2011. This has led to the unraveling of key Arab states like Libya and Syria, contributing substantially to the largest number of refugees since World War II. Gulf and American leaders understand well that their long-term visions cannot be realized without new initiatives on mitigating the tragic human suffering of displaced Middle Easterners seeking new homes, whether in the region or the West.
Israel relations remain a festering issue
Israel presents another challenge. The recent Israeli election results and new government, and last year’s Gaza war, are clear signs that governments, including some Arab ones, that don’t prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian problem indirectly fuel an increasingly bleak conflict.
The growing tendency for Israelis and Palestinians to have little interaction with each other besides violence is an additional festering sore in the Middle East. With the other two challenges, this threatens to make the GCC area an eroding island of calm surrounded by violent political seas. The GCC’s concern about spillover from the volatile Palestinian problem could well dovetail with US doubts about the prospects of successful engagement with the current Israeli government.
Despite Saudi and other Gulf state fears, an Iran that is reintegrated into regional and global diplomacy – but not the US’s new “bestie” – has the potential to be useful to address these three major problems. Iran clearly has no interest in continuing growth of either al-Qaida or ISIS, whose impatience with Shi’a Muslims and muscular regional assertion are inimical to Tehran.
Iran has reason to rethink its foreign policy
While Iran has not shied away from pushing forces that support its regional power in the Middle East, the collapse of Syria and the level of displaced people and regional disorder may be an incentive for Iran to rethink its foreign policy, which would be accentuated with an increased presence in global diplomacy.
Iran’s hostility toward the Israeli government is unlikely to go away any time soon. Yet, even in this area, medium-term prospects for Tehran to have more normalized international engagement could provide reasons for it to think in a regionally constructive way. It may be at least worth pondering whether making the Iran-Israel nexus more multilateral could decrease the level of long-term hostility that its bilateral connections have built.
In sum, the GCC summit may be best seen as one point among many for reflective reconsideration of joint US-Arab Gulf approaches to a period of deep regional turbulence.
This may be less dramatic than spotlighting possible interpersonal tensions between the king of Saudi Arabia and the president of the United States, but it is both more enlightening, and possibly more representative of the strength of the GCC-American alliance and the major tasks ahead for this alliance.