The GCC Summit Snub That Wasn’t
Gulf policy analysis can often be reduced to guesswork. But it is guesswork based on established assumptions that undergird core policy options that all Gulf rulers need to consider. The first assumption is that the United States remains the only country in the world that can provide them with security. Its hegemonic dominance by virtue of a ubiquitous military presence across the Persian Gulf all but confirms this. The Saudis in particular have been deeply upset with the United States over a number of issues: the U.S. abandonment of their ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Western reluctance to confront Bashar al Assad in Syria, perceived Western cooperation with Shia militias in Iraq, and – worst of all – negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. However, this does not change the fact that without the United States there to provide a backstop when times get tough, Sunni Gulf security calculations would be radically altered for the worse.
President Obama’s offer to hold a summit this week with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at Camp David is in fact a recognition of both the continued role of the United States in Gulf security, but also an offer to engage more deeply with the Gulf and its leaders on a number of key security issues, including the construction of more resilient security architectures which take into account Iran’s potential reintegration into the world economic system. Gulf leaders, as upset as they may be with President Obama, cannot ignore such an offer. We in the United Kingdom cannot play the alternative role, nor can France. China and India are decades away from being security providers. Simply put, there is no one else the Gulf can talk to if they need to really rethink their security posture. If the United States offers to engage, you take it.
So is the fact that King Salman will not be attending a snub as is widely being reported? Not really, no. Saudi Arabia will be sending the Crown Prince as well as the King’s favored son Mohammed, who between them control domestic security, counter terrorism, foreign policy in Syria, Iraq, and run the war in Yemen. In other words the two men who matter most in Riyadh when it comes to anything security related will be at Camp David. Likewise the King of Bahrain, the other supposed “snubber,” is sending Crown Prince Salman, the deputy Supreme Commander of Bahrain’s armed forces and the favored Bahraini Prince in Western circles. The rulers of Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman will be attending the summit. The leader of the UAE is unwell and his absence should be understood as nothing more than that. In his place goes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the real string puller in the UAE.
It may be exciting to depict a public royal rumble between angry Arab monarchs and a deflated U.S. administration, but that’s not what this is. Whatever discussion transpires at Camp David, it is likely to be productive and conducted at a level suitable as to make impact on the security conversation between the parties concerned. All issues from missile defense to Iran’s nuclear programm will be on the table.
Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and is the Head of RUSI Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf