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#4881, 1 June 2015

Spotlight West Asia

US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India

On 17 April, the White House announced US President Barack Obama’s invite to GCC monarchs for a summit on from 13-14 May to reassure the Saudi Arabia-led GCC bloc about the nuclear framework agreement with Iran and against the backdrop of the then three-week-old war against Yemen embarked upon by Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies without consultation with the US. Reflecting the widespread sentiment amongst GCC governments, a senior Arab diplomat had said, “We don't have to ask America's permission… we won't wait for America to tell us what to do.”

GCC expectations were well summed up by the Ambassador of the UAE Youssef Al Otaiba who, on 7 May, said in Washington that, “We are looking for (some form of) security guarantee given the behavior of Iran in the region. In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security ... I think today we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”

On 7 May, US Secretary of State John Kerry met King Salman; on 8 May the US announced fixing the King’s special meeting with President Obama at the White House. On 10 May Saudi Arabia announced the cancellation of the King’s visit. With Bahrain now under complete Saudi tutelage, Bahrain’s king preferred to go to London to attend the derbies. Only the Emirs of Kuwait and Qatar went, though the latter attended the derbies in London too. The rulers of Oman and the UAE could not attend due to genuine health reasons. Two rising stars, the Crown Prince, and Deputy Crown Prince – who seems to be running the war in Yemen –  represented Saudi Arabia. All this was a strong public manifestation of the growing Saudi/UAE exasperation with US policies towards the region, particularly in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

What did the GCC countries actually get? Some extracts from the lengthy Joint Communiqué and a lengthier Annexe provide an answer:

“The United States is prepared to work jointly with the GCC states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state's territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the UN Charter…. to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners”.  The US also agreed to support GCC countries “to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” These statements, the strongest language in the Joint Communique, can hardly be construed as the US “ironclad commitment” that President Obama spoke of as a Summit outcome; particularly as another of his comments clarified that "the purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalise Iran."

The US will be particularly pleased about paragraphs: “The United States and GCC member states also affirmed their strong support for the efforts of the P5+1 to reach a deal with Iran by June 30, 2015, that would verifiably ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, noting that such a deal would represent a significant contribution to regional security…. At the same time, the United States and GCC member states reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security….”. And, “With regard to Yemen, both the United States and GCC member states underscored the imperative of collective efforts to counter Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, and emphasized the need to rapidly shift from military operations to a political process…..(there is) a shared recognition that there is no military solution to the regions’ civil conflicts, and that they can only be resolved through political and peaceful means…”

However, these sentiments are likely to remain mere aspirations as Saudi Arabia resumed its intensive bombing across Yemen within minutes of the conclusion of the five-day ceasefire. If anything, the intensity of the bombing has been steadily increasing, inflicting greater casualties, causing ever increasing damage to the already weak infrastructure and displacement of increasing numbers of people, already in the thousands; all of this is going to engender long-term bitterness, even enmity towards Saudi Arabia. The Houthis remain undaunted. Saudi Arabia cannot succeed in reinstalling the Al-Hadi administration through this approach. Meanwhile, al Qaeda is gaining ground by the day.  

Frankly, the only elements of the joint communiqué that could be implemented soon are those related to the greatly expanded supply of weapons, and the installation of a GCC-wide Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. In his first term, the Obama administration agreed to sell over $64 billion in arms and defence services to the GCC countries with almost three-quarters of that going to Saudi Arabia. New offers worth nearly $15 billion were made to Riyadh in 2014 and 2015. Now, even more weapons will be made available. The US military-industrial complex is celebrating.

Thus, the summit ended with the US coming out a winner, Iran not losing anything and little for the GCC countries beyond lots more weapons. Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness will increase in the short term as paranoia and pique continue to override rationality; President Obama will persist with his top foreign policy priority, a deal with Iran; the increasing misery of the peoples of the region will continue unabated; and prospects for meaningful political processes to end conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in the foreseeable future remain bleak.

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