Reuters / Kevin Lamarque Obama arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2014.

A Fresh Start with the Gulf?

How to Repair Ties with Washington's Arab Partners

The stakes are high for the meeting between President Barack Obama and Gulf leaders at Camp David on May 14. Although the talks are intended to bolster the U.S.–Gulf partnership, the summit faces a high risk of ending in failure. Washington would be making a big mistake by not proposing a significant upgrade in its security relations with its Gulf partners that is as bold and strategically significant as its prospective nuclear deal with Tehran—yet that seems to be the exact course that Obama is most likely to follow.

To be sure, the Camp David summit won’t suddenly end mistrust and resolve differences among the partners—a result of their disagreement over the merits of a nuclear accord with Iran that neither eliminates its capability to produce nuclear weapons nor arrests its destabilizing influence in the region. But the meeting presents an excellent opportunity to put that decades-old partnership back on track. A failure to do so will carry long-lasting consequences, including the worsening of the Iran–Saudi Arabia regional struggle. That development could intensify regional arms races, heighten the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and even drag the United States into another open-ended military intervention in the Middle East.

Obama’s decision to host his guests at Camp David, and not just the White House, signals his understanding of these stakes. But beyond his choice of the symbolic location, there is little to indicate that his administration is ready for these talks. The Gulf states, after all, seek more than token security commitments from Washington; they are looking to restore the close relationship. Although they have full trust in the United States’ capability to defend them against external threats, they have little confidence in Washington’s political will and its resolve to actually act if the need arises. (Obama’s violation of his own red line on chemical weapons in Syria is but one reason for their skepticism.) On that critical front, Washington is lagging. 

IN NEED OF AN UPGRADE

In an April interview with The New York Times, Obama stated that “when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab Gulf] friends.” Hinting specifically at more formal U.S. security commitments to Arab Gulf partners, he added: “and I want to see how we can formalize [security relations] a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.”

Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh, January 2014. 

What specific form this security commitment will take remains to be seen. But Rob Malley, the top Middle East official at the White House, confirmed in a recent on-the-record conference call that at Camp David, Obama will refrain from extending a mutual defense pact to Arab Gulf nations. Instead, he will suggest tactical enhancements in security relations. This business-as-usual approach simply won’t work. Increased arms sales and cooperation on missile defense and cybersecurity are important topics for regular meetings between U.S. and Gulf leaders, but they’re definitely not the kinds of issues that belong at the top of the agenda of a summit as historic as Camp David. And yet that’s where they are.

It’s not too late for Obama to save Camp David and the day after. He would be wise to adopt a gradualist approach to upgrading U.S.–Gulf security relations, starting with a joint declaration of collective defense on Thursday and followed by several concrete, decisive steps over the next six months. Specifically, Washington should pledge to respond to any military attack against its Gulf partners—whether by Iran or any other adversary—with military force. It should follow that pledge with a more formal commitment to multilateral security by establishing a political–military consultative mechanism and a joint command structure, and finally a legally binding collective defense treaty. 

As a starting point, Washington could offer Gulf states the status of Major non-NATO Allies, which would grant them additional military and security benefits, including the ability to purchase U.S. military equipment and services much quicker. Other reassurances could include more regular joint military exercises and sales of higher-quality weapons, such as the F-35 fighter jets. Admittedly, this move would not entirely assuage the Arab states’ concerns about the fortitude of U.S. political will, but it might warm up relations and foster constructive and sustained dialogue. 

As the second step, Washington must put meat on the bones of a mere statement and establish a more formal multilateral security commitment. That move would not necessarily require a legally binding collective defense treaty. Rather, the United States and interested Gulf partners could sign a politically binding agreement to come to the collective defense of the others. This agreement could state, for instance, that any signatory can call for political–military consultations with its partners in the event of a crisis. It could also specify that a threat to any one party would be considered a threat to all and would result in not only deliberation but also a full military response.

When it comes to Washington's Gulf partners, the business-as-usual approach simply won’t work.  

To reinforce this agreement, signatory nations could task their militaries with working together to erect a combined joint military command structure, along the lines of NATO’s Supreme Allied Command. That body could serve as the permanent military planning headquarters in peacetime and scale up to operational headquarters during crises. As the nucleus for this structure, the U.S. Central Command could use one of the key nodes in the U.S. military network in the Gulf, such as the Al Dhafra Airbase in the United Arab Emirates. This command structure would be where the United States and partner militaries map out proposed exercises and training events and discuss evolutions in the threats posed by Iran and other potential adversaries, such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). It would also allow the partners to plan additional ways to deepen their military interoperability in tactics, techniques, procedures, and military equipment.

Next, the United States and willing Gulf countries could develop a standing political–military consultation mechanism—let’s call it the U.S.–Gulf Council, or UGC—that would institute routine deliberations (say, every six months) and could be called into emergency session when needed. That mechanism would replace the ineffective U.S.–GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, which has done very little, if anything, to strengthen the partnership since it was established in 2012. The UGC would be the forum where the U.S. Secretary of State and Gulf foreign ministers discuss top concerns, challenges, and opportunities. Had this consultative body already existed, for example, Washington would call it into session prior to and after every P5+1 negotiations with Iran. The partners could also use that mechanism as their first resort whenever other major developments require convening top diplomats and even heads of state. Thus, in a way, the meeting at Camp David could become a forerunner to a UGC Summit.

The final step of this gradualist strategy would be a formal, legally binding collective defense treaty. Such a pact, along the lines that we proposed in a recent Atlantic Council report entitled “Artful Balance,” is the most strategically sound and cost-effective option for Obama and his successors to pursue. A treaty of this sort would do more than significantly enhance regional security. It would also provide the ultimate reassurance to Washington’s Gulf partners and augment the credibility and robustness of the U.S. deterrent against Iran if it ever violates the nuclear deal. Additional benefits would include solidified U.S.–Gulf political relations, which would help reduce strategic uncertainty and stabilize the security environment once the Iran deal is signed and after it ends. This could even raise the chances of the deal’s approval by Congress. Finally, the United States would gain a new opportunity for a long-overdue strategic redesign of its force posture in the Gulf.

TAKING THE LONG VIEW  

Of course, a defense arrangement of this kind—similar to the one that the United States enjoys with NATO members and a host of other allies such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and South Korea—would constitute a very important commitment. It should not be undertaken lightly; the American people are tired of conflict in the Middle East, and the treaty could raise the risk of U.S. entanglement in sectarian wars in the region. The differences in political values between the United States and its Arab Gulf partners would make the stability of any such defense pact suspect, and the arrangement could worsen the Gulf states’ security dependency on Washington. But although all these concerns are legitimate, most are unlikely to come true, and they are more than balanced by the substantial benefits promised by the pact.

Camp David is not the right place to lecture Gulf leaders on the merits of U.S.-style democracy.

When it comes to political differences in particular, Obama is right to stress the need for a “tough conversation” on internal reforms with his Gulf counterparts, partly because economic development and accountable governance are the most potent antidotes to Iranian interference in Gulf internal affairs. But Camp David is not the right place to lecture Gulf leaders on the merits of U.S.-style democracy. Many of them have already acknowledged the need for far-reaching political reforms, even if some have been slow in pursuing them. If they fall short, they will have to answer to their own people. For its part, Washington should continue to assist its Gulf partners in strengthening their state capacities; realistically, that’s all it can do. 

To be sure, there is no magic bullet to counter Iranian expansionism in the region that dates back to 1979. Still, with a more positive political climate between the United States and its Gulf partners and a true commitment to deepen their security collaboration, trust should improve. That, in turn, would pave the way for a more collaborative response to Iran’s asymmetric threat. 

The Camp David summit represents a high-risk, high-reward moment. Obama deserves kudos for calling it. Taken with the seriousness that it merits, it could yield an historic opportunity to restore stability in the Middle East. If not, it could quickly devolve into a diplomatic nightmare, seeding intensified regional tensions between the Gulf states and Iran and propelling the Middle East further into chaos.

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