The widely publicized Summit of Gulf Arab countries in Washington held at a lower level than planned, because from the seven participants of the meeting, only three were represented by the heads of states (the United States, Qatar, and Kuwait), and the remaining countries sent to the event only their representatives. Not even US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a special visit to Riyadh on the eve of the summit, could convince the King of Saudi Arabia of the need for his personal participation in this forum. The heads of Bahrain, the UAE and Oman also abstained from a trip to Washington. The formal pretext for the refusal of KSA King Salman to travel to the US was the difficult situation in neighbouring Yemen, but most experts attribute this demarche with the discontent of Riyadh over the softening of US policy towards Iran. The Saudis fear Tehran’s strengthening position in the region and, as a consequence, the revitalization of the Shiite communities in the Arab world. Riyadh did not appreciate the recent statement by Barack Obama in an interview with the “New York Times” that “US allies such as Saudi Arabia should no longer worry about external threats, but internal ones”. The Saudis considered this statement to be an obvious reference to the continuing unwillingness of the royal families and the Sunni clans of the Gulf to share power and revenues from the export of hydrocarbons with Shiites.
It should be noted that Washington’s first attempt to hold a similar event in March 2015 was disrupted because of some serious disagreements among the monarchs themselves…. At the time, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE even recalled their ambassadors from Qatar and accused Doha of undermining their collective security by supporting Islamists in different countries, including the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt. The US Treasury Department also expressed concern about the policy of Qatar and Kuwait, which support the Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, and traced large amounts received by Islamist militants from these countries via charitable foundations.
However, the 13-14 May 2015 meeting of representatives of Gulf countries in Washington still took place. The participants adopted a joint statement in which Washington promised to use military force to repel possible external aggression against its allies in the Gulf. “The policy of the United States will use all elements of our power to protect our key interests in the Gulf region, to deter and confront foreign aggression against our allies and partners, as we did during the Gulf War,” the White House said in a statement. The document stresses that Washington is prepared to use military force in order to deter and counter threats to the territorial integrity of any of the member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).
During the meeting the sides also discussed cooperation in the sphere of security, including counter-terrorism, cyber-security and the creation of a joint missile defence system with the help of the US. At the meeting participants reviewed the progress of negotiations between the “six” and Iran and stressed that a comprehensive, verifiable agreement with Tehran, fully taking into account the concerns of the regional and international communities over the Iranian nuclear program, was in the security interests of the GCC member states and the United States. “The United States and the GCC member states will work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” said a statement.
The parties also agreed to strengthen cooperation in the fight against Islamic State and Al Qaeda to prevent and suppress terrorist attacks, especially attacks on critical infrastructure, to strengthen border, air and maritime safety, and to counteract money laundering and terrorist financing. The participants discussed the most acute conflicts in the region, including the situation in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. The parties came to the conclusion that there is no military solution to these civil conflicts, that they can be resolved only through political and peaceful means.
If we reject the propaganda rhetoric of official statements, there remains on the surface the extreme concern of the Gulf countries the US intention to enter into a definitive agreement with Tehran on the Iranian nuclear program and begin the phased removal of restrictive sanctions against Iran. In these circumstances, the leaders of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf are striving to improve their defence and security. They have even put forward proposals to enter into a kind of collective defence treaty between the GCC and the US and therefore possess documentary guarantees of the security of the Gulf. However, Washington has avoided such a written agreement and offers only continued military and military-technical cooperation with the countries of the GCC, and in particular, to create a joint missile defence system in the region.
The monarchs of the Persian Gulf would like more active US support in resolving the Yemeni crisis in the right way for them (suppressing the uprising Houthis by force). Meanwhile, Washington has limited its actions to tightening control over the sea area around Yemen. The US Navy’s plan to block the Yemeni ports in order to prevent the approach of ships from Iran, which (supposedly) can deliver Houthis weapons and military equipment.
The meeting of representatives of GCC countries under the auspices of the United States showed that Washington is experiencing increasing difficulty maintaining the system of checks and balances in the region it created in previous years. And if the balance that has accumulated over the decades of forces and interests between the US, Israel and Arab countries was satisfactory to all concerned, then the entry to the arena of another regional power – Iran – obviously altered the general situation in the Middle East. It is obvious that the emerging progress in easing the pressure of the United States and its Western allies on Iran has invoked growing dissatisfaction among Washington’s strategic allies and partners in the Middle East. And if before alarm over this struck Israel most of all, now it has been joined by the Gulf states. Despite the fact that, unlike Tel Aviv, the leaders of the GCC avoided open criticism of US policy towards the Middle East, by their actions, they are sending a clear signal to Washington that first it is necessary to ensure the external security of the Arab Gulf states, and only then to lift the sanctions against Iran.
The Obama administration is facing a difficult choice: to continue its policy of resolving the situation with Iran’s nuclear program and as a result lifting international and unilateral restrictive sanctions from the country, or to maintain its traditional partnership with Israel and the Gulf monarchies? Washington seems unready to operate successfully in the triangle: Tel Aviv – Riyadh – Tehran, and is trying to “reconcile the irreconcilable” or save “a good face in a bad game”.
Stanislav Ivanov, leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, RAS, PhD in history, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.