Now that US President’s Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia is completed, it’s now time for an accurate assessment of the event itself and the results.
On the surface, Obama’s summit meeting with GCC leaders and individual one on one meetings with key rulers came off as a robust showing of American-GCC unity in the face of regional threats and a pathway forward in the remaining time in office of the current administration. In addition, the discussions were meant to set forth a foundation for the next US administration who ever that winner may be taking office in January 2017. That future needs to be thought about now.
While there was a wide-ranging umbrella of issues discussed during the US-GCC Summit’s three sessions between all parties there is clearly a hierarchy of important and immediate issues.
To be sure, the US-GCC Summit’s findings illustrate a robust set of joint action items between America and the GCC states. The summit, attended by heads of all six Gulf states, pledged to continue coordinating closely on issues of mutual concern including through meetings of foreign and defense ministers.
They also agreed to hold an annual summit-level meeting and open an office in Washington to advance cooperation, and endorsed additional security initiatives.
The recalibration of US-Saudi relations, and by extension the GCC, is a necessary historical and evolutionary moveDr. Theodore Karasik
From the GCC point of view, the most important result from the US-GCC summit was Obama’s comments on Iran which is pleasing to Gulf ears who are unhappy still with the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (JCPOA). The American president said he had “serious concerns” about Iran’s continuing belligerent behavior including missile tests and illicit weapons shipments being interdicted in the seas off of the Arabian Peninsula.
In addition, the continuing process of the US-GCC Working Group to meet twice a year is also a positive message. These efforts are slated “to advance cooperation in counterterrorism, streamlining the transfer of critical defense capabilities, missile defense, military preparedness and cyber security.” In this context, the leaders announced future plans for a significant US-GCC military exercise to be held in March 2017. With the Kingdom’s lead in forming the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), the US is positioning the next administration to assist this new NATO-like trans-regional security organization. Thus, American support for a Sunni alliance may be reverberating positively.
US-GCC thinking on the situation in the Levant remains on the same track. Obama called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside not only because he has killed his own people but also because it was hard to see him being the head of a government that would end the fighting. On the situation in Iraq where the US is a major stakeholder together with GCC countries, Obama said that political paralysis was impeding US-led efforts to defeat ISIS and reconstruct that war-torn country.
Clearly, action is required and the Americans want the GCC to do more. According to a Jordanian official, Saudi Arabia literally is now ordering Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi to visit the Kingdom to discuss Iraq’s future but ultimately to push Iran out of Iraq.
Most importantly, counter-terrorism cooperation is moving in to high gear. Obama pointed out that intelligence sharing between the US and the GCC was vital in the fight against terrorism to help promote collective security.
This coordination on the counter-terror fight is becoming more and more important as wars rage in the Levant and in Yemen. US help to the GCC states in prosecuting the fight against terrorism is taking on new urgency specifically in Yemen regarding AQAP. America is helping the UAE with training program for attacking and eradicating the Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliate and its hold on Hadramawt province and the port of Mukalla.
One other point regarding the US-GCC Summit need to be illuminated.
The recalibration of US-Saudi relations, and by extension the GCC, is a necessary historical and evolutionary move. There is no doubt that multilateral relations are undergoing a transformation. Although Obama himself went out of his way to suggest that the so-called “old” Saudi-US “friendship and deep strategic partnership “was still intact” there is a progression of utmost significance. The Kingdom is making clear that Saudi Arabia is seeking a recalibration of the bilateral relationship.
While the Obama Administration recognizes that Saudi Arabia’s launch of economic reforms, led by King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is a critical moment in the Kingdom’s history, there needs to be the proper combination of mutual veneration and continuous communication in the coming months and years.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik