The panel discussion "America's Relationship with the Gulf" took place at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.
Panel VI: America's Relationship with the Gulf
November 14, 2006
Rachel Bronson, Jamal Khashoggi, and Marcelle Wahba
The panelists discussed the important relationship between the United States and the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia. They argued that this relationship extends well beyond oil interests and is vital to both the US and its partners in the region. While the partnership is strong, the speakers suggested that differing policies towards Iran, Iraq and the Palestinian territories could complicate US-Saudi relations.
Moderator Marcelle Wahba opened the panel by setting the parameters of discussion, which included the nature of relations between the US and the Gulf region, the central interests of the relationship, and the impact of the events of September 11, 2001 on this cooperation. She suggested that the relationship since 9/11 has improved in certain aspects. Those aspects included American awareness of the region, improved communication in both public and private sectors, and political and economic developments such as the recent free trade agreements between the US and certain Gulf states. Wahba suggested that although the relationship is strong on the governmental level, it could be strengthened through non-governmental exchanges.
Rachel Bronson began her remarks by warning the audience of the dangers of simplifying US interests with Saudi Arabia to nothing more than oil. This view, she expressed, ignores the current economic developments in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. She claimed that as Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure has improved, foreign investment, particularly from China, India, and Europe has increased, thus decreasing the percentage of foreign investment from the US.
In addition to oil interests, Bronson discussed two other US interests in the Gulf and specifically Saudi Arabia. She argued that the US has a vital geopolitical interest in Saudi Arabia which served as a strategic location for US forces during Cold War disputes and more recently in the War on Terrorism. Secondly, the presence of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia makes the US relationship with the Kingdom strategically important. Bronson argued that as long as the US maintains a close relationship with Saudi Arabia it will be difficult for anti-American groups to claim that the US is an enemy of Islam. Bronson concluded her statements by stating that although democratization and stability are not mutually exclusive pursuits, the US must exercise caution in its policies in the Gulf. Avoiding the recklessness of past US policies towards Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinian territories could help the US maintain and possibly gain allies in its fight against terrorism.
Jamal Khashoggi began his presentation by affirming Bronson's claim that US relations with Saudi Arabia are motivated by much more than oil interests. He suggested that the two states need each other but warned of three potential problem areas in the relationship. The first obstacle he cited was the escalation of the situation in Iraq which could, in Khashoggi's view, lead to further division, civil war and even ethnic cleansing. In such a scenario, Khashoggi fears that Saudi Arabia would be forced to get involved, and may find itself aligned with players that the US views as adversaries.
The second potential obstacle Khashoggi mentioned was the current US tensions with Iran. He pointed out the cordial relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran and asserted that any sort of forceful confrontation is not in the interest of the Kingdom. Instead, Khashoggi urged a policy of dialogue with Iran in order to peacefully resolve differences. He cautioned against making the Saudis choose sides, claiming that avoiding war is more important to the Saudis than preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Khashoggi lastly mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as another potential stumbling block for the current cordial relationship among the US, Saudi Arabia, and several other Gulf states. The views of the Saudis are sufficiently moderate, Khashoggi claimed, pointing to this past summer when Saudi Arabia criticized Hezbollah for instigating the conflict with Israel. He also pointed out the unique position the US has in its ability to influence Israel. Khashoggi argued that peace will not be achieved if excessive preconditions are placed on the Palestinians and pressure is not applied to the Israelis. He touted the Saudi plan for peace and suggested that an active US role in creating an “imposed peace” would be better than the status quo and ultimately bode well for US relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf region.
Chris Schumerth, a senior Political Science student at Anderson University, prepared this summary. It was edited by Anthony Piccirillo, a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Chris and Anthony are current interns at MEI.