The strategic relationship between the United States of America and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is perhaps one of the most long-standing and pivotal partnerships in the Middle East, and is critical for maintaining regional prosperity, security, and stability. The United States has a number of major interests in the GCC region, which extend from the strategic into the economic, political, and commercial realms, while the countries of the GCC have long looked the United States for a closer and more beneficial relationship.[i] Since the beginning of the first Obama administration in 2008, the Middle East has undergone a series of tumultuous changes, has faced significant challenges and threats, and has evolved in a considerable manner. The relationship between the United States and the GCC, meanwhile, has equally evolved, with a number of evident successes and failures. This brief paper analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of American policy toward the GCC since 2008.
The period before 2008 saw the GCC play pivotal roles in the United States’ involvement in the Middle East; GCC states helped supported the international effort to end the Iraq-Iran war, prevent the spread of the Iranian revolution, reverse Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait, and topple Afghanistan’s Taliban government[ii]. Frequently, GCC support for these endeavors was manifest from a close alignment of interests between the United States and the states which constitute the Council. In the beginning years of the first Obama administration, however, the United States’ response to a number of critical events saw the misalignment of interests; in a number of ways, this departure of aligned policy preferences between the GCC and United States set afoul their relationship. Relations were strained by the United States’ indecision over the conflict in Syria; GCC states were prepared to support the United States for a military intervention which ultimately did not materialize.[iii] The United States’ muted and confused reaction to political instability in Egypt disillusioned GCC states, which had supported the ouster of Morsi’s Islamist government. The failure in Washington to engage in productive and conclusive diplomatic talks with Iran, along with the continuing prolongation of the issue of a nuclear Iran, has been a further cause of concern for the GCC states, which fear the strategic threat nuclear proliferation may cause. Not only this, the United States’ unwillingness to engage the GCC in dialogue over these talks has been a continued source of concern. Some have seen Saudi Arabia’s refusal to accept a seat on the UN Security Council as an expression of frustration over these developments, a reflection of broader GCC perceptions and concerns.[iv] Furthermore, for many in the GCC who saw Obama’s commitment to an “Asia pivot” as an intention to rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific Theater, there have been concerns that the strategic relationship may be irreparably damaged. This fear has only been abetted by the United States limited engagement against the Islamic State and its continuing vacillation on Syria.[v] In many ways, the GCC-US relationship has seen better and brighter days.
Yet, despite these failures, and despite the weakening of the US-GCC relationship during the crucial years that have followed 2008, there have nonetheless been a number of successes along with areas for continued success. The developments in Iraq, with the collapse of the Iraqi army and advancement of the Islamic State, have realigned GCC and American interests in a critical way. It has become evident to many that a strengthened US-GCC relationship is the only practical method for the United States to counter these new developments. The United States’ acceptance of GCC participation in the coalition against the Islamic State has reaffirmed the importance of the GCC-US relationship. Meanwhile, the September 25th, 2014 meeting of the GCC-US Strategic Cooperation Forum signaled a renewal and reaffirmation of American commitment to assisting and enhancing the construction of GCC maritime security, missile architecture, expanding counter-terrorism activities, furthering cooperation in economic development and modernization, and expanding trade and commercial cooperation. Such developments are likely harbingers of a strengthening and re-commitment of American policy toward the GCC.[vi] Furthermore, despite the weakening of relations between the GCC and the United States, strategic arms sales continue to grow unabated, signaling at least the United States’ continued strategic involvement, engagement, and support for the GCC.[vii]
As such, the relationship between the United States and the GCC has seen its successes and failures in the period since 2008, successes and failures which have largely been a result of American policy toward the Middle East. While there are signs of a renewed strengthening of the relationship, there are issues that nonetheless remain which must be ironed out in order to reestablish a strong partnership between the GCC and the United States. America must align its policies, or at least reconsider its strategic interests, on Syria with those of the GCC if a deeper cooperation between the two is to exist. The United States must take steps to reassume the GCC that a nuclear deal with Iran will not bring about Iranian strategic dominance in the region, nor will it lessen the United States’ commitment to GCC stability and security. Nonetheless, going forward, GCC-US relations are likely to show extensive attempts at correcting for misunderstandings and missed opportunities; as developments in the Middle East continue to threaten regional, and global, security, prosperity, and stability, it is deeply within the interests of both partners to see the continued success and strengthening of this key relationship.
[i] Anthony, John Duke. “The U.S.-GCC Relationship.” National Council on US-Arab Relations. December 15, 2006. Accessed January 23, 2015. http://ncusar.org/publications/Publications/2006.12.15-JDA-US-GCC Relations.pdf.
[iii] Despite Tensions, US-GCC Military Relations Strong.” Defense News. November 10, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2015. http://www.defensenews.com/article/20131110/DEFREG02/311100004/Despite-Tensions-US-GCC-Military-Relations-Strong.
[v] Harb, Imad. “Anaylsis- Return of Strong GCC-US Strategic Relations.” Saudi-US Relations Information Service. November 28, 2014. Accessed January 24, 2015. http://susris.com/2014/11/28/analysis-return-of-strong-gcc-us-strategic-relations-harb/.
[vii] Despite Tensions, US-GCC Military Relations Strong.” Defense News. November 10, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2015. http://www.defensenews.com/article/20131110/DEFREG02/311100004/Despite-Tensions-US-GCC-Military-Relations-Strong.