On 14 May, US President Barack Obama invited the leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states to a one-day, high-profile summit at Camp David. The two sides discussed a wide range of issues including Iran’s nuclear program, cooperation on regional security, counterterrorism, maritime security, cyber-security and ballistic missile defense. A joint statement was issued, in which the leaders pledged to enhance cooperation in the above areas as well as to fast-track arms transfers. President Obama said at a press conference afterwards that the summit marked “the beginning of a new era of cooperation” with GCC states and he sought to reaffirm the United States’ “ironclad commitment” to their security. Yet indications are that this only masks a less than ironclad US-GCC relationship: Considerable differences are bubbling under the surface.
The timing of the Camp David summit is noteworthy for several reasons. First, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have entered the final phase. Washington and Tehran are widely expected to agree on a clear timetable before the June 30 deadline. The GCC states are in the vicinity of Iran and have had difficult relations with it. They have a shared concern about the possible US-Iran rapprochement.
Second, the Gulf countries are uncomfortable with the US’s tepid response to longstanding Iranian support for Damascus, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis. The ongoing conflict in Yemen, in particular, is a major source of anxiety for many in the Gulf. They look eagerly to the US to provide security assurances and affirm the strategic importance of GCC countries.
President Obama has disappointed them on both counts. He has neither convinced the Gulf states that a US-Iran détente would not destabilize the region, nor met their security concerns. The conspicuous absence of the top leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman at the presidential retreat is widely interpreted as a muted protest over dwindling US commitment to the Middle East.
It is no secret that the United States has vital strategic, economic and security interests in the Gulf region, which has long been seen as a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East and is deemed central to the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia Pacific. In the context fast-moving and potentially disturbing events in recent months, it is generally believed that the US needs to placate its Gulf allies./
At Camp David, the US committed itself to work with the GCC states to “deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state’s territorial integrity”, help to establish a missile-defense system covering the Gulf region, fast-track arms transfers and carry out wide-ranging military cooperation. The two sides also exchanged views on fighting against “the Islamic State” and on addressing the Syrian situation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, the US also made clear that the purpose of US-GCC strategic cooperation is not to seek confrontation with or exclusion of Iran.
Some analysts see President Obama as “walking a tightrope”. The US is not prepared to give GCC states the kind of security assurances it has offered Japan and the Republic of Korea, nor is the US willing to treat them like NATO member states and accommodate their every wish. At most, Washington can only provide the Gulf states with more military equipment and training. Although the Gulf states have welcomed President Obama’s assurances, they still have doubts about the depth of US commitment. The Egyptian newspaper Dawn is more blunt, saying that the sense of frustration runs so deep that the Gulf states has lost confidence in any assurances proffered by the Obama administration.
Be that as it may, maintaining the strategic alliance with the US will continue to be a high priority for the GCC states, which will continue to see the US as an indispensable, long-term security partner. By sending their crown princes to the summit, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain may be looking over the horizon and have their longer term, strategic relations with the US in mind. The GCC states may not be comfortable with US retrenchment in the Middle East, but they are used to US initiatives and power projection in the region.
On the other hand, the US needs all the help it can get from the GCC states, which are its traditional allies in the region. So if anything, the Camp David retreat reflects a new reality that requires new thinking and a new model of cooperation between the two sides. The good news for the region is that both sides stated their preference to resolve regional conflicts through political – rather than military – means, their respect for sovereignty and their commitment to non-interventionism.
Almost at the same time of the Camp David retreat, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited China. There is no doubt that Middle East issues featured prominently on his agenda in Beijing. It is in the interests of China and the United States, as well as the region and the world beyond, to have peace, stability and development in the Gulf and the Middle East. In the current era, where peace and stability is the dominant theme, the interests and destinies of all countries are intertwined. I, for one, believe that China and the US, by enhancing communication and cooperation in the Middle East, can find an effective way to nudge various players in the region to narrow their differences and strive for peace, stability, development and prosperity.