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.
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 maintain their partnership, so long as each side is prepared to respect the other’s core concerns, especially when it comes to dealing with Iran. Both sides will have to be flexible. A coordinated approach can lead to a more stable Middle East in which Iranian influence will be held in check. But if the United States and its GCC partners diverge further, the end result will be an even messier region where Iran’s position will be strengthened.
RECKLESS OR FECKLESS?
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a wave of disorder in the Middle East, which was significantly accelerated by the Arab revolts of 2011. The resulting upheaval has been characterized by two major trends: the collapse or near collapse of the old Arab republics (Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) and increasing competition between Shiite-led Iran and the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Gulf. Both these trends feed off and reinforce the sectarian tensions that plague the entire Middle East. The recent difficulties in the U.S.-GCC relationship are largely tied to differences in how each side perceives these developments and what each side believes is the best way to respond.
In their initial reactions to the collapse of the Arab republics, the GCC countries and the United States both sought stability, but in different ways. Fearing violence and chaos on their borders and putting little stock in the efficacy of liberal institutions, the Gulf states focused from the start on supporting potential allies inside these suddenly unstable political vacuums. Meanwhile, the United States, influenced both by its commitment to democratic values and by the luxury of not facing immediate threats to its survival, argued that long-term structural changes in Middle Eastern economies, institutions, and governance represented the only path to long-term stability.
In their reactions to Arab revolts, the GCC countries and the United States both sought stability, but in different ways.
Nowhere was this gap in viewpoints more apparent than in Egypt. The United States saw the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 as a historic opportunity. The following year, Washington made it clear that despite ideological differences with Egypt’s Islamists, the United States was willing to work with a democratically elected Egyptian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. In 2013, when Morsi was forced out of office in a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Washington initially hesitated to engage with Sisi’s government, putting the brakes on some forms of U.S. aid to Egypt. In contrast, most of the GCC countries—especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but with the exception of Qatar—viewed Mubarak’s fall as a catastrophe, refused to engage with Morsi’s government, and rushed to pump billions of dollars into the Egyptian economy after Sisi’s takeover.
Syria offers another stark contrast. The United States and its allies in the Gulf share a desire for a credible armed opposition to take on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But they disagree on the wisdom of supporting the existing armed groups that have been fighting Assad’s forces for the past four years. The Gulf states have provided funds and weapons to Syrian opposition collectives such Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, which have had some success in fighting the regime but include factions linked to al Qaeda. Washington worries that funding and arming such groups could lead to blowback, should the fighters decide someday to turn on the United States or its partners. So the Americans have instead sought out heavily vetted moderate resistance forces to equip and train, an effort that by September had managed to keep only a handful of fighters on the battlefield, according to General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command. The divergent approaches have produced bitterness on both sides: Washington sees the Gulf countries as reckless, and the Gulf countries see Washington as feckless.
The disagreement over how to intervene in Syria—and also in Iraq and Yemen, two other Arab republics riven by civil strife—has been sharpened by Iran’s role in all three conflicts. In each place, the Iranians have supplied money, weapons, and fighters to forces opposed by the United States and the Gulf countries: the Assad regime in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and extremist Shiite militias in Iraq. But Washington and Arab governments don’t agree about the nature or importance of Iran’s involvement. Many of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, believe that Iranian intervention has itself driven these conflicts: they see Iran’s support for its proxies as the primary cause of the violence, not as an effect of the political instability in all three places. The United States, on the other hand, views Iran as an unhelpful actor but thinks its involvement, especially in Yemen, is opportunistic rather than the root of the problems.
These divergent views have led to starkly different policies. In Syria, Iran’s support for Assad is a major reason why the GCC states have prioritized toppling the regime over combating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the Sunni jihadist group that has seized territory and sown terror in Syria and across the border in Iraq. The United States has precisely the opposite view: ISIS poses a threat to the U.S. homeland and thus takes priority over ousting Assad, even though Assad’s survival benefits Iran.
In Yemen, the GCC countries view the Houthi rebels as Iranian agents and believe their advances would have been impossible without Iranian support. The United States doesn’t share that assessment, seeing Iranian involvement as less significant and hardly determinative.
Finally, in Iraq, the United States has spent years trying to persuade the GCC countries to accept the legitimacy (or at least the reality) of a Shiite-dominated central government and to further integrate Iraq into the Arab world. Washington has even used the Iraqi government as a go-between with Iran in the fight against ISIS, an enemy that the GCC states and Iran share. But for years, the Gulf states have watched with dismay as the central government in Baghdad has marginalized Iraq’s Sunni minority despite U.S. pressure to integrate the Sunnis into the country’s social and political fabric. Moreover, the Gulf states see Iraq’s Shiite leadership as beholden to its Iranian patrons. Such views have led the Gulf states to keep their distance from Baghdad and to refrain from fully supporting U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Differing threat perceptions are hardly the only source of tension between the United States and its Arab partners. A number of other issues, many with deep historical roots, pose obstacles to U.S.-GCC cooperation. First, although the United States has encouraged the GCC countries to strengthen their collective-security capabilities for the past 20 years, those efforts have been mostly in vain: each GCC country still prefers dealing directly and individually with the United States instead of cooperating with the rest of the group’s members. Part of the problem is that the smaller GCC countries are perennially uneasy with Saudi Arabia’s power—and in return, the Saudis resent Qatar’s and the United Arab Emirates’ increasing independence and assertiveness.
The GCC states are led by authoritarian regimes; they do not always make for the most savory partners.
A second challenge involves the U.S. commitment to Israel, a country with which the Arab states of the GCC maintain no official relations. When considering the sale or export of military hardware or services to any country in the Middle East, the United States is committed by law to make sure that the sale will not adversely affect Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region. To assuage the GCC countries’ concerns about the Iran nuclear deal, Washington is willing to increase its direct security assistance to the Gulf states. But Israel often adopts the narrowest, most conservative view possible of what could reduce its advantage and might object to the kinds of military assistance that the GCC countries will request, even if Israel and the GCC share a common interest in countering Iran. All new major U.S. arms sales require congressional approval, and it is unlikely that Congress would support such measures over Israeli objections.
Finally, even when U.S. relations with the GCC states are relatively smooth, they present some level of long-term risk for Washington. The GCC states are led by authoritarian regimes that suppress dissent and sometimes commit human rights abuses; they do not always make for the most savory partners. In 2011, the GCC responded to popular protests in Bahrain by deploying its Peninsula Shield Force, with troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to help the Bahraini authorities quash the demonstrations. Later that year, an independent commission established by Bahrain to investigate the government’s response to the uprising found that internal security forces used “systematic” and “deliberate” excessive force, including torture and forced confessions, against protesters.
This violence unfolded not far from the port in Bahrain that hosts the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy, perhaps the most visible symbol of U.S.-GCC security cooperation. Such optics were not exactly helpful for the United States, which sees itself as the world’s most enthusiastic promoter of liberal democracy. What happened in Bahrain also highlights the risk that U.S. partners in the Gulf might use weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States against unarmed civilians in attempts to suppress legitimate political opposition.
Of course, the increased economic and political participation that many Arab populations demand would not necessarily lead to stability or security, at least in the short term; nor would such changes necessarily serve U.S. interests. But if Washington appeared complicit in the repression of popular movements, it would tarnish the United States’ image globally—and if those movements ultimately succeeded in upending and replacing established regimes, then the United States would have little credibility and leverage with the new governments.
Hovering over the new threats in the region and the old constraints on U.S.-GCC relations is a widely held fear in the Arab states of the Gulf that Washington is slowly withdrawing from the region as part of a broader retrenchment, leaving the GCC states to fend for themselves. For decades, the United States has sold billions of dollars’ worth of weapons systems to its Gulf partners. Nevertheless, the armies of the Gulf states have not developed into capable fighting forces, as GCC regimes have geared their security forces more toward protecting themselves and maintaining domestic stability and have relied on the United States to deter or deal with any threat to the regional order. But after more than a decade of war, the American public has little appetite for more adventures in the Middle East, and U.S. policymakers and defense officials would like to see the GCC states take more responsibility for their own defense. The GCC bitterly views this as a fundamental change in the relationship, akin to a betrayal.
Such feelings are heightened by a belief among many Gulf elites that the nuclear deal with Iran is merely the first step in a broader plan to reach a détente with the Islamic Republic and create a new balance of power in the region at the expense of Arab interests. Washington’s decision to prioritize the nuclear file over Iran’s regional meddling feeds this concern. U.S. policymakers have responded to such complaints by insisting that they have no intention of pursuing any broader accommodation with Iran and by talking tough when discussing the Islamic Republic. Gulf states view this rhetoric as hollow if not backed up by action.
The GCC views the U.S. defense pullback as a fundamental change in the relationship, akin to a betrayal.
Arab fears of a future U.S. tilt toward Tehran are unfounded, but, combined with the new uncertainties in the Middle East, they have influenced the Gulf states’ strategic calculations and increased their willingness to take independent action. In 2014, for example, the United Arab Emirates projected its power more than 3,000 miles beyond its borders, launching air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya in support of more moderate tribal forces who are vying for influence in post-Qaddafi Libya. The Gulf countries are not only more willing to use force on their own; they are also reshaping their alliances with Arab states elsewhere, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco: at its March 2015 summit, the Arab League announced that it would create a unified command for a joint military force. (To date, little progress has been made on that project.)
Washington might welcome this shift toward more autonomy on the part of its Gulf partners, which will reduce the burden that being the region’s policeman places on the United States. But more Arab autonomy also means less U.S. influence and an increased possibility of negative outcomes from Washington’s point of view. Consider the air war and blockade that the Saudis launched in March to combat the Houthi rebels across the border in Yemen. The Saudis continue to receive U.S. intelligence and logistical support. But as the campaign has dragged on, Washington has grown alarmed at the results. The Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the majority of the other GCC states, has been accused of using cluster munitions in civilian areas, and the widespread destruction of Yemen’s already limited infrastructure is deepening the country’s humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that the violence has taken the lives of almost 2,000 Yemeni civilians and injured more than 4,100 others.
The violence has had the effect of strengthening radical forces: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, has expanded its reach and now controls a number of places that tribal or government forces had previously held. Meanwhile, the GCC’s insistence on casting the conflict in Yemen in sectarian terms—portraying the Houthis as little more than Shiite stooges of Iran—will make it far more difficult for Washington to help resolve the tribal and factional disputes that U.S. officials believe are actually behind the fighting.
WE CAN WORK IT OUT
In spite of all the complications and obstacles that recent years have presented, the U.S.-GCC relationship can still be salvaged and even strengthened. Closer defense ties must be part of the solution, but merely pouring U.S. military resources into the Gulf states will not suffice. Instead, both sides must increase their cooperation on areas where they agree and also be willing to make some concessions on issues that are important to the other side. Both sides will have to work closely on training credible, reliable Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria that can take on both ISIS and the Assad regime. The United States will have to demonstrate its willingness to counter Iranian surrogates and proxies throughout the region, even as it begins implementing the nuclear deal with Iran. And in exchange, the GCC states will have to prove that they are willing to lower the temperature of their rivalry with Iran and to even contemplate diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Closer cooperation and mutual flexibility will not preclude the United States from monitoring human rights violations in the GCC states and reminding its Gulf Arab partners that the surest path to long-term stability is gradual reform. The United States and the GCC can work together even as they continue to disagree on fundamental questions about the stability and soundness of democratic and authoritarian models.
In Syria, the United States should shift its objectives, focusing more on trying to create the military and political conditions that could lead to a negotiated end to the civil war rather than exclusively combating ISIS. That would mean ramping up the lackluster U.S. efforts to train vetted Syrian opposition forces by supporting qualified fighters regardless of whether they prefer to fight ISIS, Assad, or both. Meanwhile, the GCC needs to stop aiding extremist groups and instead shift its support to U.S.-trained fighters and other moderate anti-Assad factions, such as Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria and the Southern Front, an opposition collective affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
In Iraq, the United States and the GCC states should step up their support for Sunni tribal forces, coordinating with Baghdad but also working directly with the forces to fund and expedite their training. Washington should also send additional military advisers to Iraq to assist with the training. Initially, Sunni tribal forces should be trained to protect civilians and deter further ISIS incursions into Iraqi territory. Over time, they could push ISIS out of Iraq’s cities, coordinating their moves to take advantage of air strikes carried out by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The GCC countries should also help Washington press Baghdad to adopt an inclusive but decentralized approach to governing Iraq, one that would assure the country’s Sunnis that they have a stake and a say in Iraq’s future. In the years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the GCC states have declined to expand their diplomatic, economic, and military ties to Iraq. The GCC should make clear to Baghdad that if it pursues a more inclusive agenda, Iraq will no longer be frozen out of the Arab regional order.
These efforts in Iraq and Syria would benefit from broader U.S.-GCC strategic engagement and military cooperation. This would include new U.S. arms sales to the Gulf, but heavy weaponry is not what the GCC states need, since the majority of the threats facing them are unconventional. What’s needed instead is more intelligence sharing and more joint counterterrorist training exercises aimed at improving U.S.-GCC cooperation in combating both Sunni extremists and Iran’s militant proxies. The United States and the GCC countries should also consider creating a joint headquarters for their respective special operations forces. Finally, the two sides need to improve their communication with each other: regular multilateral meetings to address the region’s conflicts would help Washington and its Gulf Arab partners arrive at a consensus about when and how to use force in the region and would reduce the likelihood of unilateral military action by either side.
The United States should join in a more aggressive and coordinated effort to push back against Iranian influence.
For the United States and the GCC to improve their cooperation, they will have to reestablish the trust that has deteriorated in recent years. Both sides will need to be flexible and must recognize the other’s core concerns, especially when it comes to Iran. For its part, the United States should join its GCC partners in a more aggressive and coordinated effort to push back against Iranian influence in the region. Washington should launch a high-level strategic dialogue with the Gulf states about how to combat Iran’s proxies with more interdictions of Iranian arms shipments, additional joint covert actions targeting Iranian proxies, and greater intelligence sharing aimed at Iran.
For their part, the Gulf states will need to ratchet down their open feuding with Iran by reducing the amount of inflammatory anti-Shiite rhetoric that flows from their state-sponsored media outlets and by drawing to a close their ill-considered military campaign in Yemen, which has caused a humanitarian crisis there but has had little effect on Iran. Moreover, because Iran is able to exploit the political grievances of repressed Shiites in the Gulf countries, the GCC states must undertake gradual reforms to increase political inclusivity—which would also have the effect of enhancing their internal security.
Finally, even as the United States and the GCC push back against Iran’s proxies, they should seek to engage with Iran on areas of mutual interest. The United States and the GCC should support a multilateral diplomatic push for a political settlement that would address the many sources of instability in the region. Any regionwide talks would have to address Syria, where Washington and the Gulf states will need Iran (and Assad’s other main ally, Russia) to pressure Assad to step down as part of a deal to end the civil war. Handling Yemen may be easier because the conflict there is a lower priority for the Iranians, and so they would likely be willing to make greater concessions to the Saudis.
This diplomatic approach is unlikely to yield immediate solutions, but over time, the only way to end the multiple civil wars that are afflicting the Middle East is through a negotiated agreement that includes all the main actors. To get what they want out of such a process, the United States and the GCC countries will need to maintain a unified front; to do so, they need to start mending fences.