What to expect from US-Gulf talks in Camp David

Miro Guzzini , Wednesday 13 May 2015

Balancing the strategic concerns of Arab Gulf allies with the need for an accord with Iran appears Barack Obama's centrepiece Middle East policy. But whether it can work is an open question

Obama and Bin Nayef
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington May 13, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

After a White House dinner Wednesday night, Barack Obama will host the delegations of Gulf Cooperation Council member states in Camp David on Thursday, in an attempt to mend strained relations.

Yet hopes for productive talks seem compromised from the start, as only two GCC heads of state will attend. More importantly, these symbolic absences point to core differences between the parties in their visions and expectations for the Middle East, differences that have come to a head with the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran.

An unnerved GCC

With King Salman's absence excused by the ongoing war in Yemen, perhaps the Saudis are giving Obama a hint on the enduring troubles of the Middle East and to his absence there.

There has been widespread resentment among GCC leaders at the perceived laxness of the Obama administration in dealing with these crises, pointing to Obama's relative passivity on the Syrian and Iraqi civil conflicts as examples.

"The trust gap remains with this administration … It's not just the Saudis who feel this way — it's the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain," Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst, told Reuters.

The absence of forceful US intervention in Yemen after the Houthi takeover in January has forced the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia in particular, to act independently. This new leadership role is not unwelcome, yet it will require continuous military support from the US to uphold. Ensuring continuous aid will thus no doubt be a key demand of GCC countries.

Iran is an even thornier issue. “We see Iranian support for terrorist organisations and facilitating the work of terrorist organisations,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir recently said, according to the Saudi News Agency SPA, re-asserting the GCC’s view of Iran as a destabilising force in the region.

Any softening of the US line against Iran will be seen as condoning the proliferation of such proxy conflicts, and the GCC will be looking for solid guarantees.

“In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement … I think today we need something in writing. We need something institutionalised,” the UAE ambassador to the US said at a Washington think tank.

Obama’s tug-of-war

In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Barack Obama attempted to reassure the Gulf States of his “shared interest in a Gulf region that is peaceful, prosperous, and secure.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed this sentiment at a NATO meeting in Ankara, assuring AFP reporters that the US is willing to discuss a “clearer defence agreement” with the GCC. New weapons and support in forming a GCC shared missile defence system are also on the table, according to senior US officials.

Yet US officials have clearly rebuked the idea of a written defence treaty, leaving the extent and sincerity of US commitment rather vague.

Added to this is the Obama administration’s clear commitment to inking a nuclear deal with Iran. The US government has clearly shown this to be a priority, even at the expense of esteemed allies.

With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s provocative address to the US Congress in March, Israel made its opinion clear on Iran, yet Obama has not deviated from his Iran policy.

His recent criticism of the lack of reform in the Gulf monarchies further gave his GCC allies the impression that he is taking Iran too lightly. "I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It's going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries," he told The New York Times in April.

Bringing GCC leaders to the United States must thus stand as an opportunity for the US president to make amends, but also to ensure that his reconciliation strategy with Iran will cause less friction.

Mission impossible?

In this light, it would seem that the US administration has taken up a high-risk commitment: to balance the need for stable allies in the Gulf with the need for reconciliation with Iran.

Obama must therefore be extremely careful not to concede too much to either side. This, more than the mistrust of the GCC monarchs, seems to be the main reason not to expect too much from the Camp David Summit.

The days where George W Bush was quoted calling for a “crusade” against terrorism in the Middle East are over. The current president does not want to offend anyone, and wants “constructive engagement” to be the way forward, as he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

With Yemen threatened by Iran-backed militias, however, it may be difficult for Obama to charm GCC states with this “constructive” solution. If Obama cannot back his pledged support of the Gulf with action, he runs the risk of seeming hypocritical.

One wonders if this strategy of balancing such bitter enemies has any chance of success.

“The main dilemma in relations between Iran and the Arabs is the Iranian desire to expand,” UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash told Sky News Arabia.

Thursday’s summit may furnish indications on whether the United States has bitten off more than it can chew.

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