GCC-US relations under a Trump administration
Numerous observers in the GCC have expressed hope that Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the region
The results of the US Presidential Election last month confounded most American political pundits and many professional pollsters. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton also surprised many observers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Almost immediately after the result was announced, though, it became clear that leaders from the region were ready to embrace the new President-elect and prepared to quickly adjust to the new political reality.
Within hours, GCC officials congratulated President-elect Trump. They expressed a desire to strengthen the decades-old partnerships between their respective countries and the United States. According to at least one Saudi Arabian news outlet, President-elect Trump conveyed a similar sentiment to King Salman. The two reportedly spoke by telephone within hours of the election results. Each side appears to be fully aware of what lies ahead. All appreciate how difficult it will be to overcome the unprecedented political violence and insidious sectarianism that has convulsed seven of the 22 Arab countries in recent years.
Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that President-elect Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new President will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.
The reference to the latter concern is especially Tehran’s support of militant non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as what further assistance it may extend to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It is difficult, of course, at this early stage to ascertain the contours of what may, at some point, become known as the “Trump Doctrine.” Even so, important lessons can be drawn from history.
Over several decades and despite periodic tensions, US-GCC relations have strengthened, broadened, and endured. This has not been easy. Complicating the challenge has been that the six GCC countries lie in a region beset by political conflicts and economic challenges. Yet relations between the two sides overall have flourished. This is nothing short of remarkable. It is the more so considering the markedly different policies and personal styles of the men who have held the office of the American presidency as well as those that have ruled the GCC states. That is because the relationship is anchored in mutual interests and stable institutions, and is likely to remain so indefinitely.
Yet much has been written about a supposed strain in US-GCC relations during the tenure of President Barack Obama. For example, some in the GCC have expressed concern over what they have viewed as a US retrenchment away from the overall region under Obama. For instance, they cite America’s reluctance to take effective measures to bring an end the Syrian civil war that, according to some estimates, has killed more than 400,000 people, wounded nearly 2 million people more, forced 4.8 million people to flee the country, and internally displaced another 6.3 million people.
At the same time, others in the region have maintained that the “thaw” in US-Iranian relations sent the wrong message not only to Iran and other “rogue” states but also to America’s allies in the region. For example, they note that President Obama, along with five other nations, chose to pursue an agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program.
That Obama did this was viewed throughout the GCC region as dangerous. Without adhering to the legitimate strategic and related sensitivities of Iran’s neighboring six GCC countries, the P5+1 coalition’s (representing the Five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, i.e., China, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany) nuclear agreement with Iran was signed despite Tehran all the time sowing the seeds of insecurity and instability in most of the GCC countries right next door.
A North American equivalency would have been for Communist China, the Soviet Union, or some other Great Power country during the Cold War being allowed to enter into a far-reaching strategic agreement with Canada or Mexico without the United States having any direct say in either the process or the outcome.
Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, citing Iran’s most essential national documents and its officials’ proclamations aimed implicitly at destabilizing the GCC countries, had conversely argued that any American-led Great Power agreement with Iran would but embolden Tehran to meddle still further in their societies’ domestic affairs.
A Pax Britannica Redux?
This was the backdrop for the recent GCC Ministerial and Heads of State Summit in Bahrain. Among other things, it provides context and perspective for the remarkable and widely welcomed re-introduction of Great Britain’s commitment to greater GCC regional security, stability, and peace. To this end, the GCC meetings featured for the first time the signing of a strategic accord between the GCC and Great Britain.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing for the first time the representatives of the entire GCC Supreme Council, the organization’s decision-making body, thrilled everyone with the boldness and forcefulness of her remarks. “Gulf security is our security,” she said, adding, “[w]e must … continue to confront state actors whose influence fuels instability in the region.” She affirmed that she was “…clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf,” and pledged to help the GCC countries “push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions.”
The Prime Minister’s remarks were timed to mark the 200th anniversary of Great Britain’s peaceful relations with the GCC countries. Indicative of an even more assertive British role in matters of importance to the GCC countries and the United Kingdom alike, she implied that after leaving the European Union her country will seek “an ambitious trade agreement” with the GCC countries.
A multilayered and multifaceted GCC-US relationship
Added to these dynamics in the days immediately prior to the summit was Saudi Arabian King Salman’s visits to the Kingdom’s five fellow GCC members. In what was a first in the GCC’s history, he did so in his role as outgoing Chairman of the GCC’s Supreme Council. To the surprise of everyone at each of his stops, the King joining his fellow heads of state in the Ardha, a traditional Arab dance.
In so doing, he laid to rest the ill-founded Western rumors of his enfeeblement. Among other things apparent in the meetings the Saudi Arabian leader had with his counterparts was how Riyadh had presciently warned that not linking the nuclear agreement to Iran’s broader foreign policy would likely intensify what GCC states have characterized as Iran’s “meddling” in the Arab world.
Yet despite the perception that the Obama administration has left a “vacuum” in the region that has been filled by Russia, Iran, and various militant, non-state actors, the reality is – and will likely continue to be – that US-GCC relations have continued to be of net benefit to both sides for reasons of their being multilayered and multifaceted. The result is that a difference in policy in one area has not necessarily affected other facets or features of the relationship.
During President Obama’s tenure, relations between the United States, on one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s most powerful member, together with all the other GCC countries, on the other, have broadened and deepened on several levels. A particularly significant breakthrough has been US official reassurance to the GCC countries with regard to enhancing their respective defense capacities.
The breakthrough has taken the form of Washington indicating that America is neither leaving, pivoting away from, or rebalancing its global interests and policies at the expense of its ongoing robust, strengthened, and expanded strategic presence and partnerships with its friends and allies in Arabia and the Gulf. It has also been manifested in the past two years in the heads of state summits between President Obama and all six of the GCC countries.
No other sub-regional grouping of six countries in the so-called developing world can claim a remotely comparable range of strategic reassurance meetings with the head of state of the planet’s most powerful nation. Nor can any attest to the strategically symbolic GCC-US oneness represented in the ongoing meetings each September at the United Nations in New York between the US Secretary of State, on one hand, and, on the other, sitting collectively, the representatives of the GCC countries’ delegations.
The Obama legacy in a different light
Moreover, not only has the Obama administration authorized close to one hundred billion dollars’ worth of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. There have been and are forthcoming significant arms transfers to Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar as well. What is more, the United States and several GCC countries are once again fighting a war side-by-side against a common enemy: the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.
In particular, Saudi Arabia’s very public participation in this fight has had an especially powerful impact. It has prevented critics of the United States from claiming that the American-led military campaign against the strongholds of the terrorist organization is a Western war against Muslims.
At the same time, diplomatic discussions between the United States and its GCC partners that seek to find political resolutions to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen in particular remain virtually continuous. Though there have been some tactical differences regarding Syria, to be sure, Washington officialdom and its counterparts in the capitals of most GCC states are in agreement that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy and that his continuation in power enables ISIS to continue to recruit foreign fighters.
Added to these kinds of increased overall gains that have benefited both sides of the GCC-US relationship is that bilateral trade between the United States and the GCC countries – the material sinews between their two peoples – has increased significantly over the past eight years. Many of these aspects of US-GCC relations have therefore been institutionalized and would be difficult to alter by the new or arguably any other administration. More importantly, they are reciprocally rewarding and there is little incentive for the incoming administration to dismantle them.
Transition within tension
An especially notable characteristic of the 2016 election campaign was the harsh rhetoric of the candidates and their supporters. However, it must be reassuring to those who believe in the importance of maintaining strong and close US-GCC relations that as soon as the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton conceded to her Republican rival, GCC leaders began setting the groundwork for as smooth a transition as possible.
To date, diplomatic protocol has, of course, limited the interaction between GCC governments and the incoming administration. Even so, some reports in the Arab press have been reassuring.
They have suggested that the Trump team has at least conveyed a message to the GCC representatives in Washington that some of the campaign rhetoric reflected the deeply contentious nature of an election and would not necessarily be the foundation of future policies. The GCC is hopeful that President Trump’s administration will continue to strengthen ties and build on the solid foundation on which US-GCC relations rest.
Correcting the historical record
For Saudi Arabia, geographically the largest, economically most influential, and demographically most populous GCC member, the roots of this relationship can be traced to the historic meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz on February 14, 1945. The strong ties between the American and Saudi Arabian peoples, however, date from much earlier. Indeed, they are anchored in the medical diplomacy extended to the Kingdom’s populace by American health care professionals in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Over time, the pillars of the robust and reciprocally rewarding relationship between the two peoples have evolved to become what they are today. They include the unparalleled gold standard of cooperation in sharing intelligence and countering terrorism.
They also include continuing strong political and military cooperation. This extends to varying degrees of mutual engagement in the region-wide and broad international coalition effort led by Saudi Arabia, with important contributions by virtually all of the GCC’s members and numerous other nations, to defeat ISIS; to bring the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to an end; and to begin to plan for what, of necessity, must be a prolonged effort to reconstruct these strife-torn societies.
In no other way can one expect to ensure that what caused them to rise in revolt in the first place does not recur. Finally, the pillars include unprecedented levels of heightened investment together with increased levels of cultural exchanges via education and tourism.
At the same time, and despite the important structural changes to international energy markets due to the technological revolution in the extraction of shale oil, most GCC countries continue to play an important role in helping keep energy markets stable. These are all areas that the new Trump administration is likely to appreciate and want to strengthen.
Issues and challenges
Even so, the United States and its GCC partners will continue to be challenged by the specter of failing states and militant sectarian, non-state actors attempting to fill various voids, with potentially further disastrous results for the region and beyond. The continuing bloodshed in Syria alone could shape the political trajectory of the entire region for years to come, especially as it has become more global in dimension.
The GCC has maintained – correctly – that the Syrian travesty must come to an end if the region is to enjoy anything resembling peace and prosperity. The GCC, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, will be keen to see whether the new administration will depart from President Obama’s policy, which has focused on finding a political resolution to the conflict while limiting its military engagements to airstrikes targeting strongholds of ISIS. Whether President-elect Trump will view Assad as the one most responsible for the rise of ISIS in Syria or as the “the lesser of two evils” remains to be seen.
How the Trump administration approaches Iran will also have an impact on US-GCC relations. In this regard, it is no secret that several GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have expressed grave concerns about what they characterize as Iran’s unacceptable and dangerously unsettling interventions in the Arab world. They have also argued that, far from moderating Tehran’s behavior, the nuclear agreement has done nothing to deter Iran from continuing to support militant groups that want to impose their will on other countries.
Trump was critical of the nuclear agreement during the campaign. Just as importantly, several key appointments to his defense and national security team, including Generals James Mattis and Michael Flynn, as well as Reince Preibus have previously expressed strong concerns about Iran’s foreign policy, including its alleged ties to Al Qaeda, a view shared by increasing numbers of GCC analysts.
It is unlikely the GCC countries would want President-elect Trump to even so much as try to scrap a nuclear agreement that they are on record as having officially accepted. This is not to mention that, even if he wanted to, Trump could not do so unilaterally. He would have to have the authorization of the fellow signatory governments of China, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia.
At the end of the day, all the GCC states want from Iran is for it to act like a responsible neighbor and to stop its policy of supporting militant organizations as well as its incendiary rhetoric and provocative actions. How the Trump administration approaches Iran will be watched carefully in the Gulf.
A potential sticking point in addition to Iran might become the law known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act or JASTA. While the law appears to target Saudi Arabia, the other GCC states – among other nations – feel that the law could eventually draw them into contentious legal wrangles too. They have expressed serious concerns about the exception that the law makes to the internationally-recognized principle of sovereign immunity. President Obama’s opposition to the law was made clear when he vetoed it in September.
The Trump administration will have to assure the GCC states that the United States remains a safe place for their investments – including the more than a trillion dollars they have placed in bank deposits and Department of Treasury debt instruments that help to finance the US government – and that their leaders will not be subjected to protracted court proceedings. Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona have already proposed amendments to the law. How far these measures go towards allaying the concerns of Saudi Arabia and others remains to be seen.
Under the kinds of clouds laced with silver linings indicated herein, President Obama was asked during a press conference before one of his last major visits abroad if he had a message to America’s allies about what they should expect from the new administration. Obama said that he would reassure them by stressing the “continuity” in US relations with other nations.
That would also seem to apply to US relations with the six GCC countries, whose leaders have made similar observations. In short, the US-GCC relationship, which remains robust and anchored in powerful institutions, will likely continue to be strong under Donald Trump’s new administration.
This analysis was published by the National Council on US-Arab Relations.
Dr. John Duke Anthony is the Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and Secretary of the US-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee. He currently serves on the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and its subcommittee on Sanctions.
Mr. Fahad Nazer is an International Affairs Fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington. However, he does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill, and Newsweek, among others.