President Barack Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman on Wednesday and with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Thursday. His trip is a follow-up to the May 2015 summit at Camp David that the President convened with leaders of the six GCC member states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. President Obama will seek greater GCC cooperation in the war against the Islamic State (IS), but his Saudi hosts, alarmed by the Administration’s flawed nuclear agreement with Iran and its passive reaction to Iranian provocations, are likely to be focused on obtaining greater U.S. cooperation in countering Iranian threats.
An Increasingly Dangerous Neighborhood
Since ascending to the throne in January 2015, King Salman has presided over a much more assertive Saudi foreign policy spearheaded by his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis have tried to fill a leadership vacuum left by the Obama Administration, which they see as retreating from the Middle East.
Saudi–Iranian relations hit a new low this past January after the Saudis executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a firebrand Shiite religious leader whom Riyadh accused of inciting violence and revolution in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, where the Shiite majority has chafed under what it sees as sectarian discrimination. After Nimr’s execution, Iranian mobs attacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain and Sudan, two close Saudi allies, followed suit, and the United Arab Emirates withdrew its ambassador to Iran and downgraded diplomatic relations.
The GCC puts a higher priority on addressing what it sees as the rising Iranian threat, which it deems a more immediate problem than ISIS. Iran has a long history of supporting terrorism and subversion by Shiite radicals in many of the Sunni Gulf states. It has helped to create, arm, train, and finance a wide variety of Shiite militias, revolutionary movements, and Palestinian groups that have attacked Iran’s enemies in Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.
The summit comes at an awkward time for President Obama after a recent interview in The Atlantic revealed the President’s resentment of “free riders” among Arab allies and his gratuitous suggestion that Saudi Arabia and Iran “find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” This statement was widely perceived as naïve in view of Iranian threats to reclaim Bahrain, formerly part of the Persian Empire, and Iran’s continued occupation of three islands in the Persian Gulf that formerly belonged to the United Arab Emirates.
A Lack of Trust
The principal factor undermining U.S.–GCC relations is a lack of trust. Many GCC states see the Obama Administration as a fair-weather friend that came into office determined to extricate the U.S. from the Middle East, not just from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Saudis and other Arab kingdoms were appalled by the Administration’s unconditional engagement with Iran, their foremost adversary. They believe that the Administration has failed to pay sufficient attention to Iran’s support for terrorism, its aggressive military intervention to prop up the Assad regime in Syria, and its extensive support for militant Shiite factions in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and within Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shiite Eastern Province.
Due to the Administration’s reluctance to take any action that could derail the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Saudis and other Arabs fear that they no longer can depend on Washington to protect them from Iranian threats and subversion. They are concerned that in order to preserve what President Obama perceives to be a positive legacy, his Administration will turn a blind eye to Iran’s hostile acts against its neighbors.
Many Arab Gulf leaders also were stunned by the speed at which President Obama abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally. They were further troubled by the Administration’s public embrace of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which most GCC governments (with the exception of Qatar, which has strongly supported the Muslim Brotherhood) perceive as an ideological enemy that has spawned an Islamist backlash against Arab monarchies.
The President’s failure to enforce his own red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 also hurt his credibility with Gulf allies. After threatening to launch military reprisal strikes, the Administration backed down, punted the issue to Congress, and acceded to a diplomatic agreement brokered by Moscow that let the Assad regime off the hook and allowed it to evade its disarmament commitments without penalty. Today, the Assad regime continues to use chemical weapons against Syrian rebels with little pushback from the Administration. GCC states fear that if Tehran reneges on the nuclear deal, as Damascus did on the chemical weapons agreement, they will be confronted with an existential threat.
Reforging Strategic Cooperation with the GCC
At the GCC summit, President Obama must reassure the Arab Gulf leaders that he is fully aware of the military, subversive, and terrorist threats that Iran poses to GCC states. More important, he must show that he is willing and able to take action to deter and defend against those threats. Specifically, President Obama should:
Affirm a strong U.S. commitment to defend allies threatened by Iran. Iran poses a significant ballistic missile and asymmetrical warfare threat to GCC states (with the possible exception of Oman, which has maintained good relations with Tehran). Washington should offer to help GCC allies to upgrade their ballistic missile defenses, integrate them into an overlapping multi-layered GCC-wide system, and develop joint early warning capabilities. Washington should also plan joint military exercises with GCC states, including the deployment of U.S. mobile Patriot batteries and U.S. Navy warships equipped with missile defense systems, and demonstrate a capacity to neutralize Iran’s missile threat.
Washington also should step up cooperation with GCC intelligence and naval forces to identify, track, and intercept Iranian arms shipments to client groups, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which pose a threat to Saudi Arabia as well as to Yemen’s weak government. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been targeted by Iranian cyberattacks, and Washington should provide intelligence and technical assistance to help them counter Iran’s rising cyber threats.
- Reassure GCC allies that the Obama Administration will strictly enforce the Iran Deal against Iran (if and to the extent the Deal should remain in force). President Obama must persuade GCC leaders that his Administration remains a potent and reliable ally against Iran and will rigorously enforce the terms of the nuclear agreement. He also should make it clear that Iran’s continued support for terrorism and its human rights abuses will remain obstacles to better Iran–U.S. relations.
- Push for greater GCC cooperation against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist extremists. The Saudis, who initially remained in denial about Saudi links to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, became more cooperative in fighting al-Qaeda after a series of terrorist attacks inside the kingdom in 2003, but the Saudi and Gulf governments need to do much more to stem the flow of private donations by their citizens to al-Qaeda, the IS, and other Islamist extremist groups. President Obama will seek greater GCC cooperation in defeating the IS through military, intelligence, and law enforcement actions. The President also should press King Salman to reform Saudi Arabia’s education system, which still uses textbooks replete with hate speech against non-Muslims. Such sentiments fuel Islamist extremism and make young Saudis more susceptible to ideological brainwashing by terrorist groups.
- Increase cooperation on regional issues. Most GCC states share Washington’s interest in shoring up stability in Egypt and helping Cairo to defeat Islamist extremists. The President should request additional GCC economic support for Cairo, conditioned on greater economic reforms. The U.S. and GCC also should coordinate more closely on supporting Syrian rebels against the Assad regime and against Islamist extremists in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen. The United States, which has provided intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen, should help to broker a peace agreement in Yemen to end the Houthi rebellion and enable Yemen’s weak central government to focus on fighting al-Qaeda and IS factions in Yemen. Washington also should encourage the apparent thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and help translate it into greater multilateral security cooperation against Iran.
Finding Common Ground
President Obama must make every effort to convince GCC leaders that they can depend on Washington’s security cooperation to defeat threats posed by Iran, the IS, and al-Qaeda at a time of rising uncertainty in the Middle East. It will be an uphill struggle, given the President’s record of responding with too little, too late in addressing Middle East threats.
—James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.