US and GCC (or whoever shows up) prepare to put on a happy face at Camp David

On Saturday I went on Alhurra’s “30 Minutes” to talk about this week’s upcoming US-Gulf Cooperation Council summit at Camp David, along with Dr. Anwar Ishqi from Saudi Arabia’s Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies. If you have a strong desire to watch a fat guy being dubbed in Arabic (assuming you don’t speak Arabic, you can actually hear me pretty well underneath the interpreter), here’s the video:

Aside from the somewhat historic nature of the summit (despite having had good relations with all the GCC member states for decades now, this is the first “summit” involving all six of them plus the US), I am basically in agreement with the thrust of this Barbara Slavin piece that suggests that everybody is likely to come away from Camp David disappointed, because the two sides are simply in different strategic places right now. On the biggest issue of regional concern, the difference is clear: where the US wants to cut a nuclear deal with Iran in order to limit the possibility that Tehran could try to build a nuclear weapon someday, the GCC is far more worried about the threat from a non-nuclear Iran that agrees to a nuclear deal and finds itself released from most of the international sanctions that have been crippling its economy. Oh, the Gulf states don’t want to see a nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands any more than the Americans, but the real worry for them is that a post-deal Iran will immediately become a potent economic competitor and will be able to throw its weight around the Arab world more easily than it already does.

These two positions couldn’t be further apart — the US wants a deal that meets its proliferation concerns, while the GCC would prefer no deal at all — and so it appears that the GCC’s solution to this chasm is that it will acquiesce to the nuclear talks in return for a written defense treaty with the US that obligates the Americans to come to GCC members’ assistance in case of threat, an arrangement not unlike Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The US has long informally promised to defend its Gulf allies from outside aggression, and of course even did so on one very high-profile occasion, but it seems like maybe the GCC isn’t happy with “informal” anymore, not at a time when relations between the US and Iran appear to be thawing just a little.

If a strong, Article 5-like treaty is what the GCC wants, it is exceedingly likely to be disappointed, because the US almost certainly will not agree to something that binding. Why, you ask? Because the US won’t oblige itself to act on the GCC’s behalf in response to what Gulf nations deem an “external threat.” According to the Saudis, for example, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen is an “external threat” with Iran at its core, despite the fact that Iran’s relationship with the Houthis seems to be far less robust than the Saudis would have everyone believe. Likewise, the Saudi and Emirati intervention in 2011 to help Bahrain’s King Hamad brutally quash a popular uprising against his government was justified as an act of defense against Iran, whose supposed support of that uprising has never come close to being proven. Even if these things were motivated or encouraged in some way by Tehran, it is incredibly hard to argue that they’re external, rather than home grown, phenomena. The last thing the US needs is a treaty obligating it to participate in a violent crackdown on a popular movement opposing one of the GCC’s repressive monarchical regimes (which, at last count, described the government of six of the GCC’s six member nations), or in a campaign (like the one in Yemen) that only serves to immiserate people and to provide new and expanded growth opportunities to groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, which is in direct conflict with America’s most basic strategic interests. Yes, I know the US has participated in the Yemen campaign, but Washington has barely been able to hide its ambivalence about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, on Washington’s end, they’re apparently planning to try to reorient the GCC’s attention toward making jihadi terrorism of the al-Qaeda/ISIS variety their primary concern. GCC members have already openly rejected this course, acting in ways that run counter to American interests in Yemen and in Syria, where the Saudis may be backing a rebel group that includes, or is at least working with, Jabhat al-Nusra (more on this later or tomorrow). This is another area of disconnect: the US obviously sees al-Qaeda and ISIS as its most urgent national security threat, while for the Gulf countries those groups are worrisome but not urgently so, and certainly not a threat on par with Iran. The US will supposedly attempt to coax GCC members toward making internal improvements in their handling of democratization and human rights issues, arguing that their internal repression creates the kind of popular resentment on which the al-Qaedas of the world feed, but that argument is so obviously going to fall on deaf ears that it’s hard to understand why the US would even attempt to go there.

You can tell that the summit is already floundering a little with a quick check at who’s attending, because at this point it appears that the only Gulf heads of state who are actually planning to be at Camp David are Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani, and Kuwait’s Emir, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. UAE President Sheikh Khalifa b. Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahraini King Hamad b. Isa Al Khalifa, Omani Sultan Qaboos b. Said, and now Saudi King Salman b. Abdulaziz are all planning to skip the meeting. This is being portrayed by some as something of a snub of the Obama administration, and it may well be, but there is a reasonable explanation why 2/3 of the GCC heads of state are missing the conference: these guys are mostly old and/or in poor health. Sultan Qaboos (74) is dying of cancer, and anyway Oman doesn’t follow the rest of the GCC’s line on Iran; Sheikh Khalifa b. Zayed (67) suffered a stroke last year and it’s not clear he ever really recovered; and King Salman (79) is old enough that it wasn’t clear he would outlive the now-departed King Abdullah when he was appointed Crown Prince in 2012. Bahrain’s King Hamad (65) is the only one of the four who doesn’t have some very apparent health issue. The decisions of Bahrain and the UAE to send their crown princes, and of the Saudis to send their two crown princes, could reflect a conscious effort to put those relatively younger men front and center on regional security matters, and it’s also worth noting that most of them have held or currently hold important positions within their countries’ national security bureaucracies.

As I said on the program on Saturday, one possible outcome of this week’s summit is some kind of very broad, very vague framework document that codifies existing verbal defense arrangements without creating a formal treaty obligation. Alongside that, you may see some formal agreement to sell advanced weaponry to the GCC countries, like the F-35, as well as the announcement of some detailed collaborative efforts on specific issues, like cybersecurity and maybe missile defense, where US and GCC interests (and their assessment of the threat from Iran) are more or less on the same page. That will allow everybody to declare victory and wax positively about the strong relationship between America and her Gulf allies, even though nobody will really be getting what they want.


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