From Reassurance to Shared Interests: Bridging the Gulf at the Riyadh Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama, seen here with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on April 20, is likely to focus on addressing issues of mutual strategic interests with Arab Gulf leaders. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama’s visit to the Gulf region  should serve as a reminder of the important partnership between the two players

By Muath Al Wari and Elisa Catalano Ewers

President Barack Obama’s meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Saudi Arabia this week is a previously scheduled follow-up to last year’s Camp David meeting, which notably secured the Gulf states’ passive endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal. There is no comparable deliverable expected this week, and the case for low expectations is made stronger by President Obama’s limited time remaining in office. Indeed, the most important accomplishment of this week’s Riyadh meeting may be that it is held at all.  It should serve as a signal to internal and external audiences that despite differences and grievances on both sides, the partnership between the United States and the GCC remains important. This is not an insignificant message, given the state of the region and the tenor of recent Washington commentary.

The temptation in Riyadh may then be to remain in the relative safety of the transactional realm—the progress of working groups on intelligence sharing, ballistic missile defense, arms procurements, and so on. And it would be understandable to allow the language of security-related transactions to color official discussions—and external judgments—of U.S.-Gulf ties. There are urgent matters and interests at stake, like the continued anti-terrorism fight. This “transactionalism” inoculates such interests from the potential awkwardness of a risky conversation about the shifting strategic foundation of the relationship.

But the meeting could achieve more if it is taken as an opportunity to discuss the relationship’s strategic future trajectory. Despite profound differences that have complicated recent interactions, the U.S.-GCC partnership is still predicated on significant strategic overlap: securing energy flows, counterterrorism, and the prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But nothing will animate the partnership in the years to come as much as the necessary and difficult work of stabilizing and rebuilding the region.

Some voices in Washington have taken to minimizing the importance of the Middle East to U.S. national security interests, and are therefore dismissive of the need for active U.S. engagement. But even if we adopt the narrow perspective that limits U.S. interests in the region to energy, terrorism, and WMD, the reality is that these objectives remain tied to the initiatives undertaken, or not, by GCC partners. This linkage underscores the fact that there is measurable risk to the U.S. leaving the Middle East entirely to its own devices—as post-Gaddafi Libya or embattled Iraq illustrate.

This week’s meeting then creates an opportunity to abandon decorous diplomacy in favor of frank conversation about the strategic confusion from which the U.S. relationship with GCC states suffers. It will require the parties to adopt a paradigm shift, and to redefine the cornerstones of the partnership. Such a conversation need not be feared if its participants recognize that there is sufficient strategic overlap in their interests. Nostalgia can be dangerous when defining shared interests; today’s threats do not resemble those of the immediate post-Cold War decades. Conventional warfare in the region is increasingly unlikely, which limits the relevance of the first Gulf war security model. Mindsets, approaches and tools used to address emerging threats must evolve to reflect today’s realities.

But it is shortsighted to view a thoughtful re-assessment of the foundations of the relationship as a means of disengagement from the region. Instead it is a vehicle for maturing the relationship—to the benefit of both sides—to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

On issues of shared interest, the U.S. and its Gulf partners in recent years have mustered, albeit begrudgingly, the pragmatism necessary to work together. But their mutual inability to speak openly and unemotionally about disagreements has also been exposed. The truth is that the U.S. and the GCC will not share an identical vision on the direction the region should take after the current turmoil, and gaps in shared values are increasingly visible. Leaving those disagreements unaddressed is unsustainable and will lead to continued misconceptions and misjudgments.

Consequently, any discussion of the strategic foundation of the relationship must carve out space for airing disagreements in ways that limit their deleterious effects, and when possible allow the divide to be narrowed. The U.S. will retain, of course, its core interest in continuing to press on issues of reform, inclusiveness, and protection of universal human rights. But allowing that interest to preclude agreement on meeting other common objectives, in today’s regional context, is akin to squabbling over how to rebuild a house after a fire without putting out the fire first.

The herculean task of stabilizing and rebuilding a region awash in conflict will require functional and effective partnership between the U.S. and the GCC—if only for the uncomfortable fact that neither side has better options. The lack of choice, however, is not sufficient to buoy the partnership over the longer-term. And as we have seen over the last several years, it may even contribute to the climate of mistrust and resentment.

Both sides will have to find new ways of explaining their partnership persuasively and coherently. They have to identify how their common strategic framework has evolved, and ways it has stayed the same. They should seek to articulate an affirmative agenda for the region that has some strategic overlap, one that can have appeal both at home and abroad. They have to devise methods of disagreeing with each other openly, without risking bleeding into areas of ostensible agreement.

In other words, the relationship needs to mature—and the meeting in Riyadh may very well be the best, first step in that process.

Such a conversation cannot be settled in one meeting, and it will be inherited by the next administration. But the beginnings of a serious conversation that seeks to clarify the strategic basis of the relationship is a far cry better than a continued debate over reassurance—who rates it, and why, and what ultimately is enough.  The start of such a conversation is a good inheritance for President Obama to leave his successor.


Muath Al Wari is a Senior Policy Analyst with the National Security and International Policy team at The Center for American Progress.

 Elisa Catalano Ewers was most recently a Director on the Middle East and North Africa team at the National Security Council, and previously served as Senior Policy Advisor to the United States Ambassador to the U.N.

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