Moving Saudi-US relations beyond mutual ambivalence

President Obama’s visit to the Gulf this week is a symbolic final gesture before he leaves office in January

Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen
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Nearing the end of his presidency, President Obama’s visit to the Gulf this week is a symbolic final gesture before he leaves office in January of his commitment to his Gulf partners over a year since he hosted a number of the GCC leaders at Camp David. However, Obama’s frank words in his interview with The Atlantic underline a leader who is equally deeply skeptical of his Gulf counterparts and of the post-1979 Washington consensus on America’s strategic position in the region.

Arriving in Riyadh, Obama will be offering a mixed message: continued American investment in the GCC’s security but a message of change as well: Washington and the GCC should be looking beyond the waters of the Arabian Gulf to Iran to build a more secure region and to address regional challenges. The President will convey this message to an understandably skeptical audience who he’s had at best an ambivalent relationship with these past eight years.

This message though obscures darker realties that Obama has often been to dismissive of. As Obama has made the bet that empowering the “moderates” in Iran over the longer-term will reap eventual rewards, President Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei are currently playing a more insidious game to the detriment of Washington and its allies.

With Iran expanding its ballistic missile program, the Iranian leadership is focused more on a contest for regional hegemony than “sharing” the neighborhood with its Gulf neighbors. The failure to reach a production freeze in Doha this past Sunday underscores how Khamenei and Rowhani are unwilling to make any concessions to improve relations with their Gulf neighbors in their efforts to revive Iran’s regional position.

While the Summit may not resolve the larger strategic differences between President Obama and his Gulf partners, it isn’t a completely ceremonial exercise

Andrew Bowen

President Obama seems unwilling to digest this reality in fear of unraveling his legacy, and instead will be coming to the summit with no real deliverables. Obama’s more inclined to pontificate and to discuss the tactical minutiae of their relations (increased security assistance and more bureaucratic inventions that give the appearance of deep cooperation) than to substantively address his regional partners’ strategic concerns. In the final months of his presidency, the President isn’t interested in bridging these strategic differences beyond cosmetic concessions.

It’s not a surprise then the US presidential elections garner more interest than the sitting President’s own stay in the Kingdom: will the next American President have a more sanguine view of Iran? Will a President Clinton come to the 2017 Gulf summit with a strategy to contain Iran’s rising regional aggression and expansion?

Summit potential

While the Summit may not resolve the larger strategic differences between President Obama and his Gulf partners and 2017 is on the horizon, the Summit isn’t completely a ceremonial exercise. It’s an opportunity to address regional challenges such as Syria and Yemen. With Washington considering recalibrating again its approach to address Da’esh’s growth, this Summit is an opportunity to discuss options for deeper GCC security involvement in the military campaigns in Syria and Iraq to counter the extremist group.

Moscow’s enhanced regional role could also be examined and how the GCC states and the US can work to counter-balance Russia’s support for President Assad. President Obama could also discuss how the US can better work with the Gulf states to deepen their conventional and asymmetric capabilities in the face of the deepening threat Iran poses to their security.

Obama will push for further integration and inter-operability of the GCC’s security architecture and will also discuss how the US can more effectively support and work with its Gulf partners in regional military campaigns and operations (this follows in line with the President’s belief that the GCC states should take more responsibility of their regional security).

Beyond purely hard power issues, the summit is an opportunity for President Obama to discuss with his counterparts states in transition such as Egypt, Tunisia, and to a more complicated degree, Libya and how the US and the GCC can work together to more effectively ensure these states’ prosperity and stability.

While its unlikely that the visit will move their respective relations beyond mutual ambivalence, Obama has an opportunity to re-establish some level of trust after his sharp comments in The Atlantic so that he can have a better working relationship with the GCC states in the final months of his presidency and importantly leave his successor more stable ground for a deeper relationship.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D. is the Director of Research at the Turkish Heritage Organization in Washington DC and New York City.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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