Bridging the Gulf

How to Fix U.S. Relations With the GCC

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David in Maryland, May 14, 2015. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The events of the past five years have put an intense strain on the relationship between the United States and its traditional partners in the Arab world, particularly the countries that belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. As popular revolts have flared up across the Middle East, civil wars have broken out, and the regional order has become increasingly vulnerable, leaders in Washington and in Arab capitals have often had starkly different reactions. Meanwhile, most of the GCC countries have watched nervously—and sometimes angrily—as the United States has negotiated with their bitter rival, Iran, over an agreement to limit the Iranian nuclear program.

In August, a few weeks after the nuclear deal was sealed, the Gulf countries publicly indicated their support for the agreement. But GCC leaders remain deeply suspicious of Iran and worry that by ending the sanctions regime that has held back Iran’s economy, the agreement will enrich Iran and embolden its leaders. At the same time, Arab leaders harbor serious doubts about Washington’s commitment to the region. So in exchange for accepting the Iran deal without too much fuss, the GCC states have demanded additional political and security assurances from the United States.

Washington’s inclination will be to signal its commitment by lavishing on the GCC countries increased military aid in the form of weapons, technology, and training. Such largess will be necessary but not sufficient to close the gap that has opened up between the United States and the GCC states. The violence and disorder wracking Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; the genuine threat of Iranian meddling; and unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the region will continue to test U.S.-GCC ties and will require a more sophisticated form of diplomacy from both sides.

Saudi King Salman and Obama in Washington, D.C.
The King and I: Saudi King Salman and Obama in Washington, D.C., September 2015. GARY CAMERON / REUTERS
Going forward, Washington and the Arab governments will continue to have significantly different priorities when it comes to regional strategy, but there is enough overlap to

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