New constants in traditional US-Gulf partnership

US Secretary of Defense said that the nuclear deal with Iran does not impose any restrictions on the US

Raghida Dergham

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The main theme of the US-Gulf summit in Riyadh was pronounced by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, after meeting with his Gulf counterparts, when he said that the nuclear deal with Iran does not impose any restrictions on the US. The US military “remains committed and capable of responding to Iranian malign and destabilizing activities and deterring aggression against our regional friends and allies," especially in the Gulf, he said.

“The United States shares with GCC partners the view that, even as the nuclear accord verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, there are many more issues to be concerned with regarding Iran’s behavior in the region,” he said, including support for terrorist groups. This is exactly what the GCC countries wanted to hear from the senior US delegation that headed to Riyadh for the second summit of its kind since the Camp David summit hosted by President Obama.

Secretary General of the GCC Abdullatif Al-Zayani listed several points that were agreed upon between the two sides, including cooperation in missile defense and deploying joint patrols to intercept Iranian vessels smuggling weapons. The long-term strategic partnership reinforced by the Riyadh Summit is not a secondary issue, given the tension that has marred the relationship as Obama gave absolute priority instead to the nuclear agreement with Iran and the détente with Tehran after three decades of estrangement.

That priority required the US president to isolate in his assessment nuclear talks from Iran’s regional ambitions from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. The policy of turning a blind eye to such practices was seen by most Gulf states as a US blessing of Iranian expansionism and hegemony in the region. The Gulf states thus lost trust in Obama, who in turn did not conceal his annoyance with these countries’ objections to his policies.

The crux of the question will be whether US strategic policy will remain committed to the traditional alliance with the Gulf or whether it will fluctuate in light of the US-Iranian relations and the winds coming from Tehran

Raghida Dergham

The decision to hold a second US-Gulf summit to repair and develop relations has reinforced the US security and strategic partnership with its traditional allies in parallel with the emerging US-Iranian relationship, which in turn is experiencing a crisis as a result of the Iranian leadership’s sticking to its guns, especially with regard to its ballistic missile program.

A new development here has to do with the fight against terror, affecting two main aspects: Saudi Arabia's steps to establish a pan-Islamic military alliance against ISIS and other terrorist groups; and the unprecedented moves by the GCC and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to designate as terror groups led by Hezbollah. Ashton Carter described Hezbollah as one of the malignant activities carried out by Iran in the region, and welcomed the Islamic military alliance against ISIS, sending out an important message to the GCC states.

President Barack Obama, in turn, stressed his opposition to the justice against sponsors of terrorism act proposed by both Democrats and Republicans in the Congress. The bill would allow, if passed, the families of the victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi parties on charges – denied by Riyadh – of having a role in the attacks. Obama said he opposed the bill before heading to Riyadh, stressing that it would be a dangerous precedent, thereby defusing any possible escalation that would have damaged the summit or even US-Saudi relations.

The US and Gulf parties discussed ways to strengthen security cooperation, according to Zayani’s announcement in the wake of the Gulf defense ministers meeting with their US counterpart, including areas like missile defense, marine security, armament and training, and cybersecurity, in order to allow the GCC countries to build up their readiness to protect the region’s security and stability. Zayani said the steps agreed included combatting Iranian activities that violate international law through joint operations to intercept arms shipments bound for Yemen or other conflict zones.

The second summit between Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and US President Barack Obama – who was making his fourth visit to Riyadh since taking office – was not particularly warm. However, it adhered to the parameters of strategic relations and joint interests. While the US president was waiting for the joint summit with the six GCC nations, the leaders of these countries were meeting in another summit. This had important significance and was a message to the US and its president.

The other summit

Indeed, by contrast, a warm and historic summit convened between GCC leaders and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, and stressed the principles of non-interference in others’ affairs, mutual defense, and developing partnership towards integration and possibly including Morocco the GCC framework. During his press conference with his Moroccan counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the main principle of the Arab summits in Riyadh was the refusal to tamper with stability and separatism, while his counterpart stressed the importance for these countries to be in a “united bloc.”

Morocco is a partner in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and is also a key part of the pan-Islamic anti-terror alliance. These two issues are not the subject of contention between the US and the GCC except in terms of mutual expectations. Yemen remains a Saudi and Gulf priority, while the US wants to accelerate an end to that war and also wants Iran to end its intervention in Yemen. Regarding the issue of the Islamic alliance, Washington welcomes it if its focus will be on defeating terrorism, but there are differences over priorities in Iraq and Syria.

Washington has focused on Iraq and the need for the Gulf countries to step up their support, economic and political, for the Iraqi government, especially as concerns Sunni regions of Iraq. However, the Gulf countries have stressed the need for the government in Baghdad to fulfil its obligations towards Sunnis, and the need to rein in Shiite militias and Iranian dictates.

Disagreements continue in Syria as well because of the divergent visions and policies. Neither the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, is willing to abandon Syria; nor is the US administration ready to pursue a new policy on Syria after gradually backing away from its red lines, led by the demand for Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Obama on Gulf-US Summit

The crux of the question will be whether US strategic policy will remain committed to the traditional alliance with the Gulf or whether it will fluctuate in light of the US-Iranian relations and the winds coming from Tehran. A segment of the Gulf states has publicly expressed their distrust in the so-called constants of the US strategic policy, after Obama undermined it. Some fear for these constants more and more in light of the uncertain identity of the next occupant of the White House, especially if his name were Donald Trump. Clearly, the US-Saudi relationship changed under Obama in a way that cannot be reversed.

Prince Turki al-Faisal told CNN bluntly that there would be no choice but to re-evaluate the Saudi relationship with the US in terms of independence from the US and reliance on constant policies by US administrations. He added that no one should expect any new president to set the clock back on the relationship.

Obama’s fourth visit to Riyadh sought rapprochement without backing away from the new constants he introduced to the equation of the US relation with the Gulf region, namely the détente with Iran at the expense of the traditional and hitherto sole alliances with the Gulf. In the US establishment, some believe the time has come for a “reset” in the US relations with the GCC, that is restoring them to their status prior to the deal with Iran.

Clearly, both the US and the Gulf at the Riyadh summit wanted to move away from mutual tensions and distrust. But clearly, something happened to the traditional relationship; the constants have expanded away from their traditional state. Nor will the surprises end in the US electoral season. Everyone in the Gulf is thus keen on lowering expectations, but also keen on preserving what is left of the strategic and security constants.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Apr. 22, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

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