When the King of Saudi Arabia comes to Washington to visit the President of the United States, it’s always a big deal. But when the top princes and sheikhs of all six Gulf Arab powers make the trip at the same exact time, the news dominates the front pages of the western and Arab newspapers and analysts around the world pontificate to themselves (and each other) whether some major initiative is afoot.
This week’s meetings at the White House and the Camp David presidential retreat between President Barack Obama and the entire Gulf Cooperation Council bloc is no different: Gulf Arab leaders are coming with a certain set of expectations about what the United States is willing to offer them. President Obama, in the meantime, is hoping that whatever promises and guarantees that Washington provides will give Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and every other sheikhdom and kingdom in the Gulf with enough confidence to support a potentially historic nuclear agreement with Iran that cements the President as a statesmen.
The Obama administration can be faulted at times for tone-deafness in its relationship with the Sunni-dominated monarchies of the Gulf region. The provisional nuclear deal with Iran that was agreed to last month, although quite impressive from a nonproliferation perspective, falls short in the eyes of many Arab nations that remain concerned that a lifting of economic sanctions will provide Tehran with the resources it needs to continue — or accelerate — its perceived campaign of destabilization in the region.
But, for all of the administration’s problems with its traditional Arab partners, President Obama and his staff deserve credit for being proactive in scheduling this Camp David summit in a relatively short period of time. President Obama announced that the U.S.-GCC summit would be happening on the very same day negotiators struck a broad outline of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action between the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program — a decision that was symbolic in its own right, as it demonstrated to people like King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud that Washington was prepared to convince and cajole in order to put Gulf Arab nations at ease.
Viewed in this light, the news that King Salman has decided to stay in Riyadh rather than travel to Washington for the meeting this week should not be misconstrued as the beginning of the end for this Camp David summit, as many commentators have been quick to conclude. Although President Obama would have certainly liked all heads-of-state in the GCC to participate in the summit — only Kuwait and Qatar will be sending their heads-of-state, while the rest will be dispatching their deputies — the success of the U.S.-GCC meetings should not be defined as to who is in attendance. Rather, it must be based on what the deliverables are.
Despite speculation as to what the United States is prepared to offer the Gulf states in the form of security guarantees and high-tech weapons sales — Secretary John Kerry said that people should expect “a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives” for the Persian Gulf region — the fact is that we won’t know precisely what the final communiqué or statement will look like until the meetings are over on Thursday. Any talking or leaks before the summit even begin is just conjecture. What we can do, however, is discuss what the deliverables should be.
Lines of Communication
And, far more important than any more combat aircraft and air-defense system is a consistent, reliable, and close line of communication among top Gulf Arab and American officials — a protected channel that allows the United States and its decades-long security partners in the Persian Gulf to discuss crises in the region, formulate cogent responses, and air concerns and grievances.
One of the most significant issues dragging the U.S.-Gulf relationship down is a gap in expectations. Those gaps will continue, regardless of what comes out of the summit this week. Indeed, on everything from the war in Syria and operations in Yemen against the Houthi mlitia to political reform at home, Washington, Riyadh, and the rest of the Arab capitals have fundamental disagreements on how the core issues the region should be resolved. This won’t necessarily change after the conclusion of the summit. Yet what can change is the communication.
In addition to the sale of more military hardware and some kind of statement reaffirming Washington’s pledge to the security and stability of its Gulf allies, all parties would be served well with more frequent and formalized interaction among the senior policymakers responsible for formulating and implementing the foreign policy and national security portfolios. A formal arrangement should be made that commits President Obama, King Salman, UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and every other Gulf head-of-state to at least one high-profile meeting every year to re-hash priorities and monitor progress on benchmarks from the previous year. The Secretary of Defense and the GCC defense ministers, as well as the Secretary of State and his Gulf colleagues, should initiate a similar program biannually, where the region’s security crises will be afforded the weight and concentration they deserve. All of these meetings need to be institutionalized, which would send a powerful message to Iran that, despite the possibility of a successful nuclear agreement, the United States is not walking away from its traditional and long-standing alliances in the region.
If the word for this week’s summit in the White House and at Camp David is “reassurance,” Washington and the GCC need to do something a little more innovative than the weapons deals that have typically defined the relationship over the past decade. A systematic level of communication would accomplish just that, a series of talks on an annual basis that allows the United States and its partners in the Gulf to express where they want the region to go, what the biggest problems are, and what kinds of solutions are required to mitigate any damage that is convulsing the region.