Saudi Arabia and its five smaller neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council may be awash in petrodollars — allowing these oil-rich desert monarchies to splurge on glittering skyscrapers, lavish soccer stadiums, giant shopping malls and Ferraris. But there are some things money just can’t buy, like a formal defense treaty with the Pentagon that would protect GCC member states from enemies such as Iran.
That became evident last month, after GCC officials — wrapping up a May 14 summit at Camp David — endorsed President Barack Obama’s proposed Iranian nuclear deal with a vague statement that a “comprehensive, verifiable” accord is in their interests, in return for equally vague assurances that the U.S. would come to the defense of its Gulf partners to “deter and confront an external threat.”
The summit, which followed a White House dinner the night before, involved 10 hours of talks between Obama and his Arab guests. Also present were Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an expert on the intricacies of the Iran nuclear accord. At the end, the United States and GCC issued a joint communiqué and agreed to meet again in 2016.
However, the outcome was less than picture-perfect on either side.
For one thing, four of the GCC’s six heads of state, including Saudi Arabia’s newly anointed King Salman and the leaders of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, stayed away from Camp David. Salman canceled at the last minute, and the king of Bahrain instead chose to attend the Royal Windsor Horse Show outside London. In the end, only the leaders of Kuwait and Qatar showed up.
As Obama huddled with his Arab visitors in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, the proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran continued raging throughout the Middle East — not only in impoverished Yemen, but also in Syria, where Iran supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while the Saudis have been backing a motley crew of rebels (some of them Islamist radicals).
“I believe that the Camp David commitments I have described today could mark the beginning of a new era of cooperation between our countries, a closer, stronger partnership that advances our mutual security for decades to come,” Obama said in a statement. “But I want to be very clear: The purpose of any strategic cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran, or to even marginalize Iran.”
That last bit cuts to the heart of the fundamental divide between the Gulf states and Washington: Obama believes that ending Iran’s international isolation is the best way to keep it from getting a nuclear bomb, while Saudi Arabia and its partners don’t trust their Persian rival and fear an ascendant Iran may threaten their own regional interests.
The summit was part of the president’s delicate balancing act to reassure the Gulf states that America wasn’t abandoning them in favor of striking a nuclear bargain with Tehran.
Speaking to reporters at the summit’s conclusion, Obama said he was “very explicit” that “the United States will stand by our GCC partners against external attack.”
Obama went on to list specific ways the Pentagon would commit to defending the Persian Gulf, including helping to develop a collective missile defense system, expediting arms transfers to the region, staging a new large-scale military exercise against terrorism and cyber attacks, and forming a new partnership to improve counterterrorism.
But the White House wouldn’t commit to the type of written NATO-style security guarantees that the U.S. has with allies such as Japan — nor did it promise the kind of advanced weapons systems that some Gulf nations want, but that could erode Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said the summit produced exactly what most observers thought it would produce: very little.
“The GCC leaders came to Camp David with pretty low expectations, and they left with a sense of little accomplished,” Pollack told The Washington Diplomat.
Basically, he said, what the GCC wanted was to kill the Iran nuclear accord, have the administration endorse a formal defense treaty with the bloc and get a commitment from Obama that the United States would take a much more aggressive approach toward Iran’s support of Shiite rebels and terrorists throughout the Middle East.
“They didn’t get any of that,” Pollack said. “They didn’t really think they would, but they came to Washington because the president of the United States asked them to.”
To be fair, Sultan Qaboos of Oman is 74 and reportedly bedridden, while the UAE’s elderly Sheikh Khalifa is said to be unwell as well.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman also had a good excuse for missing the party. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir — who up until last month was Riyadh’s ambassador to the United States — said the aging king had to stay home to oversee his country’s continued air strikes against Yemen to defeat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
The Camp David summit did give administration officials a chance to size up Saudi Arabia’s future leaders: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the minister of defense and second in line to the throne. A virtual unknown who was appointed to the position when his father announced a royal shakeup in April, Deputy Crown Prince Salman has been leading Saudi Arabia’s controversial bombing campaign in neighboring Yemen.
The Saudis aim to restore the Yemeni government, which was overthrown by Houthi rebels earlier this year. The intervention signals that King Salman intends to pursue a more muscular, independent foreign policy in the wake of fears that Washington is cozying up to Iran. But the Saudi air strikes have failed to stop the Houthis’ advances and sparked concerns that Salman’s son, the inexperienced young new defense minister, has embroiled Riyadh in a sectarian quagmire.
A brief ceasefire aimed at ending the bloodshed in Yemen had already fallen apart as The Washington Diplomat went to press, with both sides blaming the other of violating it. The Saudi-led coalition accused Houthi rebels of preventing civilians from leaving Sanaa and other cities where Houthis are believed to be hiding weapons — in effect using them as human shields. Yet the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen blames the Saudi aerial assault for exacerbating the suffering in the Arab world’s poorest country.
“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, contravenes international humanitarian law,” Johannes Van Der Klaauw said in May. The U.N. estimates the conflict in Yemen has killed more than 1,800 people and injured 7,300 since it began in mid-March.
Pollack of the Brookings Institution says it’s “highly unlikely” that a Saudi offensive — or even a pan-Arab air campaign — will make much of a difference. Likewise, he said, any Arab ground invasion in Yemen is doomed to fail.
“When it becomes clear that the air strikes aren’t doing the job, the Arabs will feel pressured to go in on the ground. And that will be a disaster,” he warned. “The United States ought to be doing everything it can to keep its allies out of Yemen.”
Saudi Arabia has proposed creating a pan-Arab military bloc that could counter threats from Iran, Islamists, the Houthis and others, but the plan is long on ambition and short on details. The idea of a joint Arab military force has been around for decades, but competing national agendas have kept it from becoming a reality. Those differences have only grown more pronounced since the Arab Spring, which has blurred traditional alliances and triggered a scramble for influence in battlefields across the region. (In Libya for example, Egypt and the UAE are on opposing sides with Turkey and Qatar, but all four are on the same page in Yemen; the Saudis, Egyptians, Turks and Qataris all differ in their vision for Syria, etc.)
While Egypt, which has the region’s largest army, is on board with the Saudi proposal for an Arab force, it may be hesitant to commit ground troops to Yemen. Egypt lost an estimated 25,000 soldiers fighting in Yemen’s civil war in the 1960s in what many consider to be the country’s Vietnam War. Arab ground troops — many from nations where they’ve been largely untested in battle — would also face a formidable adversary in the Houthi rebels, who have guerilla-warfare training and numbers on their side.
One knowledgeable Washington source who deals regularly with GCC officials says the Saudi-led air campaign has been a tactical failure — but a ground invasion would spell all-out disaster.
“In my opinion, you don’t win a war from the air. The Saudis have done an immense amount of damage on the ground, and politically, the Yemenis are very upset,” said the source, who asked not to be named. “The danger of bombing civilians is that you create more extremism, and drive more people into the arms of al-Qaeda or the Houthis.”
He added: “The Houthis know that the Saudis can’t do it on the ground. They don’t have what it takes. Are they going to send in the Egyptians to fight them? They’ll eat them alive. This is a much more sophisticated fighting force than anything the Egyptians faced in the ’60s.”
Richard Schmierer, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman, agrees that the Saudi air campaign is having unintended and tragic consequences.
“The last thing the Saudis want to do is alienate the Yemeni people. Until this military campaign, Yemenis have supported Saudi Arabia,” he said. “But the country is already very poor, and they’re bombing key elements of its infrastructure.”
However, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners want to send a message to Iran that Yemen is a red line that must not be crossed, said Schmierer, who now sits on the board of the Middle East Policy Council.
“Saudi Arabia is willing to accept the potential downside of the ill will [in Yemen] in exchange for a very clear signal to Iran that if they’re involved with the Houthis and Yemen’s internal affairs, the GCC is not going to stand for that kind of behavior,” he told The Diplomat. “Sending that signal has trumped the concern about potential ill will.”
Other experts say it’s about time that Saudi Arabia take responsibility for its own security, instead of constantly relying on the U.S. to put out Mideast fires. Both Riyadh and Washington have a vested interest in keeping oil markets stable, but otherwise the two allies often diverge on key foreign policy issues.
“First, Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners are not formal treaty allies of the United States and, moreover, they often do not act as friends,” wrote Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky in the Foreign Policy piece “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand.”
“The United States is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy committed to universal human rights. Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian monarchy committed to maintaining a society based on harsh political repression, religious intolerance, and a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam at odds with universally recognized human rights,” they argued. “Some GCC countries are in fact often the source of both the ideology and the money that supports Islamist terrorism around the world. And GCC interests and U.S. interests increasingly diverge over issues such as Iran, Syria, the need for internal reforms in the Gulf states, and how to deal with the regional threat of political Islam.”
But Edward Gnehm, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and Jordan, said the idea of a pan-Arab Gulf coalition to defend the region against, say, Iranian aggression doesn’t seem very reasonable — even if Kuwait and Bahrain, which faces unrest from its Shiite majority population, were to go along with it.
“The GCC states have talked about this forever and they have never been able to do it, because they’ve never been prepared to have Saudi Arabia dominate the structure. Most of the smaller states have resisted going in that direction,” Gnehm told us.
“I don’t see it being any more likely now than it has been over the last several decades, even with the Iranian threat,” he explained. “Different countries have different views about that threat. Certainly the Omanis do not share the views of the other five. Qatar is also not exactly on that same wavelength, since they share a huge gas field with Iran and they’re not interested in that kind of confrontation.”
On the other hand, Gnehm said the whole idea of a mutual defense treaty with Washington “is a bit on the preposterous side.”
“There’s no way whatsoever that the U.S. Senate is going to agree to any sort of a treaty that requires a two-thirds majority. It’s impossible, and they knew that before they came,” said Gnehm, who teaches at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs (also see this month’s People of World Influence column).
“We do, of course, have cooperation agreements with Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, and something like that with the UAE. It’s really only Saudi Arabia where we don’t have any kind of agreement, and that goes back to the early years of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Schmierer agrees that a NATO-like treaty — which would obligate the United States to repel an attack on any of the six GCC member states as if it were an attack on U.S. soil — is pie in the sky.
“Everybody understood that a formal arrangement was just not possible,” he said. “First of all, it would have to go through Congress. That process in itself would be so difficult, laborious and time-consuming that the effort probably isn’t worth making.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.