Jonathan Ernst / Reuters U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits his turn to speak as he and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir address reporters alongside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting in Manama, Bahrain April 7, 2016.

The United States Has No Gulf Allies

The Importance of Language

The word “ally” is used far too casually in Washington’s Middle East lexicon. It’s time to break this bad habit, because the truth is that with the exception of Turkey—a NATO member—the United States does not share a single alliance with any Middle Eastern country. As the U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh approaches, understanding what really constitutes an alliance couldn’t be more important.

All this is not to say that the United States shouldn’t have alliances in the region. But the objective reality is that it doesn’t. That Washington so frequently mischaracterizes its bonds with Middle Eastern capitals does great disservice to them, to their own expectations from the United States, and to U.S. policies toward the region. It also unnecessarily aggravates nations with which the United States has real alliances.

In U.S. public policy debates, the words “partnership” and “alliance” are used interchangeably. But the difference between the two is real. If two or more countries are allies and thus share a mutual defense treaty, it means that one is legally committed to the security of the other and vice versa. In short, it would contribute to the defense of the other if the other were attacked. Such a treaty generally comes with permanent standing headquarters, diplomatic missions, and a range of supporting infrastructure and processes. And in the United States, a mutual defense pact requires Senate ratification and consent. The most prominent example of an alliance is NATO.

If two or more countries share a security partnership, they are not typically obligated to defend one another if either comes under attack. In most, if not all, cases, partners do not sign mutual defense pacts, although they do engage in various forms of security cooperation. Such relationships do not come with massive infrastructure. The most prominent examples here are the United States’ security partnerships with the Gulf Cooperation Council States.

Reporters listen to remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir alongside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting in Manama, Bahrain April 7, 2016.

Reporters listen to remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir alongside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting in Manama, Bahrain April 7, 2016.

Despite the clear distinction, for decades, U.S. presidents and

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