The United States will confront a new and very different set of challenges in its relationship with the G.C.C. states over the coming four years. For the first time since the end of World War II, a new administration will come to power in Washington next January facing a ‘trust deficit’ in its management of relations with its G.C.C. partners. The overwhelming Congressional vote to override President Barack Obama’s veto of the JASTA legislation was interpreted in the region as a lessening of popular support for the U.S.-G.C.C. relationship. The vote thus reinforced growing skepticism in the Gulf that the United States will remain a reliable and consistent guarantor of regional security and stability that is the predictable consequence of a series of U.S. actions and policy choices from Syria to the Arab Spring to the Iran nuclear deal. This is not to say that the administration’s decisions in all of these cases were flawed, but they did engender doubts among our partners.
Challenges in U.S.-G.C.C. Relations
The most immediate result of regional uncertainty over U.S. reliability was to accelerate growing independence in G.C.C. policymaking and a willingness to do it alone where U.S. and G.C.C. interests diverged. In recent times, the G.C.C. has resisted following the U.S. lead on important policy initiatives and has become much more willing to ‘just say no.’ This growing independence has been most pronounced on matters related to Iran, particularly the Saudi decision to sustain a military campaign in Yemen despite administration pressure to accept a ceasefire, as well as the rejection of administration requests to strengthen ties and increase financial support to embattled Iraq.
But independent G.C.C. policy initiatives transcend the competition with Iran and also include the decision by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to provide full financial backing to the Sisi government, despite a U.S. preference to tie economic aid to Cairo to political and economic reforms. Abu Dhabi is also providing military support for General Khalifa Hifter in Libya, despite U.S. support for the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and ignoring U.S. encouragement for increased support to the new government in Tunisia.
Additionally, the likely continued weakness in oil prices will bring a separate set of challenges to the administration and undercut longstanding U.S. reliance on G.C.C. states as a reliable source of funding for shared objectives in the region and beyond. The change in the dynamics of the oil economies in these societies is not entirely negative. The pressure to diversify economies and look for non-petroleum based competitive advantages can help societies in the region become more inclusive, engage their populations more broadly in national affairs, and encourage innovation and risk-taking. Nevertheless, as the anticipated costs of recovery and reconstruction in post-conflict Iraq, Syria, and Yemen continue to skyrocket, the United States will find the G.C.C. more reluctant partners in taking on the immense financial commitments that these projects will entail.
Although the G.C.C. states were largely unaffected by the turmoil of the Arab Spring (with the exception of Bahrain), they face many of the same pressures from a growing population demanding change that spurred political upheaval in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Addressing these demands preemptively, creating more open political and economic systems, can relieve pressure, but will likely trigger a more inward-looking focus on domestic concerns.
In view of these challenges to U.S.-G.C.C. relations over the next several years, it’s essential that the new administration in Washington make restoring mutual trust with the G.C.C. partners among its top priorities in its first months in office. President Barack Obama’s initiative to schedule two annual summit meetings with his G.C.C. counterparts—one in the region and one in the United States—has been well received by the G.C.C. leadership and should be sustained. A trip by the new president to the Gulf, preferably before Ramadan 2017 (late May-late June), would send a positive signal that the United States is committed to the region.
No aspect of U.S. policy will be more important to the G.C.C. states than a determination of how the new administration intends to approach the question of Iran in the post-J.C.P.O.A. era. While nearly all observers concur that the United States should “reassure” the Gulf states of its continued commitment to their security in the face of aggressive Iranian moves, the reduced credibility of U.S. assurances in recent years means that verbal undertakings will not suffice. Instead, as a first step, Washington should promote a consultative process with G.C.C. counterparts to develop the key elements of a mutual approach to Iran, preferably with specific recommendations that both sides commit to implement. Inarguably, a policy that results in an Iran that is more constructively engaged and more closely integrated with the broader international community would be beneficial to all, including the G.C.C. states. But a policy to achieve that end cannot succeed if it is perceived in the region as coming at their expense or as a zero-sum game where the success of the policy will mean the loss of their security.
The civil war in Yemen is the flashpoint of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation today, drawing Saudi and allied military support for the legitimate government, as per U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, while also inviting Iranian military support on behalf of the Houthi rebels and their allies. The U.S. two-track policy of quiet support for the Saudi-led coalition at the same time that it backs the U.N.-sponsored effort to reach a political resolution of the conflict has come under increased strain as the conflict has continued, civilian casualties have mounted, and the Saudi military campaign has been plagued by tragic failures and ineptitude. Despite these strains, however, sensitivity to Saudi Arabia’s legitimate security concerns is essential. The United States should acknowledge that an Iranian foothold in the southern Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia is a “red line” the Saudis cannot be expected to accept. Respecting Saudi interests while emphasizing support for U.N. efforts to resolve the civil war are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, a clearly articulated U.S. position in support of the Saudis may contribute to more realistic attitudes by the parties at the bargaining table and strengthen U.N. Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s hand.
Inordinate delays in administration decision-making over proposed sales of military equipment to the region have also reinforced questions about U.S. commitments to regional security. The new administration should take steps to re-establish consistency and transparency in U.S.-G.C.C. security cooperation and arms sales. The United States need not agree to every request for advanced military equipment posed by its G.C.C. partners. But the security working groups established in the summit meetings can serve as a framework for establishing parameters and priorities for sales. Decisions should be made in a timely fashion and communicated to the governments and Congress.
As noted above, budget stringency in all of the G.C.C. states will force more careful allocation of resources, with a priority given to addressing domestic requirements. Already, the Saudi government has taken steps to reduce subsidies and to engage in other belt-tightening measures and other governments in the region are following suit. This new era of austerity will affect spending on foreign assistance, as well. In the past, U.S. policymakers have been indiscriminate in their requests to Gulf partners to help foot the bill for various initiatives, sometimes of little or no significance to the Gulf states themselves. In light of the changed circumstances in the region, the new administration should exercise greater control and oversight of funding requests to the G.C.C., prioritizing requests that support humanitarian, reconstruction, or development programs in the region.
Finally, U.S. relations with its partners in the region traditionally have been overly focused on two sectors: energy and security. While the partnership between the United States and the Gulf states have served both sides well for many years, it is clear that important changes in those sectors are becoming a drag on the larger relationships. The new administration should identify additional areas of potential cooperation that can broaden and deepen the political and economic ties between Washington and the Gulf, and place these critical ties on a more sustainable footing for the long-term. Economic diversification in the region will open new opportunities for productive relationships between the U.S. and Gulf private sectors, and this should be encouraged. Climate change is another area of potential cooperation as global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, including the agreement to eliminate hydrofluorocarbons from air conditioning and refrigeration, will have an inordinate impact on the Gulf states. U.S. scientists and researchers can play a major role in helping develop new processes to help ameliorate the impact.
A strong U.S. relationship with the Gulf states has been a principal pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East for decades and a key contributor to regional stability. With the region continuing to experience upheaval, stable relations among these long-standing partners is more essential than ever. But differences of view and misunderstandings have contributed to a weakening of the ties in recent years. Early and aggressive efforts on the part of the new administration to place relations with the Gulf states back on a steady footing will be a critical element of a successful Middle East policy going forward.