Will Obama's presence at GCC summit help stop 'strategic drift' from Saudi Arabia?

ABU DHABI // Barack Obama will meet with GCC leaders on Thursday in Riyadh to discuss progress in enhancing security cooperation, regional stability and increasing their role in the fight against ISIL. He will also look to reassure the skeptical partners that he is not seeking to engage their chief rival Iran at their expense. […]

ABU DHABI // Barack Obama will meet with GCC leaders on Thursday in Riyadh to discuss progress in enhancing security cooperation, regional stability and increasing their role in the fight against ISIL.

He will also look to reassure the skeptical partners that he is not seeking to engage their chief rival Iran at their expense.

But expectations for any major improvement in the relationship that has grown increasingly strained over the last two years of Mr Obama’s presidency, particularly between Riyadh and Washington, were low.

The sense among observers was that the “strategic drift” between the partners will be difficult to overcome, even as progress is made on the enhanced cooperation working groups set up a year ago during the first GCC summit at Camp David.

“A new normal in relations may be emerging, however, where both sides publicly point to the many aspects of continuing security and economic cooperation, even as they privately, and not so privately, disagree on the diagnosis of the region’s many crises,” Perry Cammack, a former foreign policy advisor to the US secretary of state, wrote on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank’s website.

A stark illustration of the expectations for Mr Obama’s fourth, and probably last, trip to the kingdom was visible as he walked down the steps of Air Force One on Wednesday, where he was greeted only by the governor of Riyadh, not King Salman or the crown prince, and with little of the usual pomp of a presidential visit.

The king and US president met later in the afternoon at Erga Palace for talks, which were also attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has become the most powerful figure in the kingdom under his father, the king.

Fundamental differences over how to approach the threat posed by Iran to the region have complicated negotiation efforts in Syria and placed the two sides at odds in Lebanon and Iraq. Unprecedented recent criticism of Riyadh in the US congress, including growing momentum behind a bill to allow lawsuits of 9/11 victims’ families against the kingdom, has added a serious new element of tension.

At both the talks on Wednesday and the larger summit on Thursday, US and GCC leaders will work to bridge differences and continue work on the overlapping interests set out at Camp David, including strengthened GCC ballistic missile defences, counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing, streamlined weapons sales and choking off financial flows to extremists.

That the leadership-level summit has become an annual feature in itself may be one of the most important outcomes of the visit. “This is going to be a hopefully regular process that will take place every year between the US and the GCC at the leaders’ level,” Mr Obama’s top Middle East policy advisor, Rob Malley, said on Friday.

Gulf officials also hope it signals to the next US administration the importance and durability of the relationship.

“All the audiences other than this White House are really important,” said a Gulf source. “No one is suggesting [Obama] is going to change his mind about how he sees the world but it is important from a tactical perspective that the US and the GCC are on the same page on a number of important security initiatives.”

‘A cold peace’

The talks will have three broad areas — regional stability, counter-terrorism and the fight against ISIL, and countering Iran’s regional power projection activities.

For Riyadh, all these issues are seen through the prism of Iran, and what it views as Tehran’s push for regional hegemony, a strategy Gulf officials say has only intensified since the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions.

The premise of the Camp David working groups, according to Mr Obama, is to allow Gulf countries to engage with Iran through dialogue from a position of strength and come to a regional modus vivendi that would begin to stabilise the Middle East.

Riyadh, however, has pushed back Iranian allies and proxies militarily without relying on the US and tried to isolate Iran diplomatically, moves the White House sees as contributing to regional instability, not helping solve it. “Deep down, this conflict between the GCC and particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it fuels chaos, sectarianism, and instability in the region, all of which help ISIL and other terrorist groups,” Mr Malley said.

The White House has offered reassurances in the past that it is not seeking a rapprochement with Iran in order to leave a balance of power in the region while the US focuses on its interests in the Asia Pacific region. But Mr Obama’s comments in Atlantic magazine last month that Iran and Saudi Arabia should learn to “share the region” and come to a “cold peace” were met with disbelief by Gulf leaders. They felt the president was equating a long-time US partner with an avowed enemy, and a sense that he had finally voiced his true intentions.

“The United States, they believe, has been too accommodating towards Iran rather than isolating Iran, countering its regional policies,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Iraq, on Tuesday. “They believe the US is seeking normalisation of relations with Iran, engagement with Iran and sees Iran as a partner in countering ISIS.”

Mr Obama will ask his Gulf partners to contribute more to the fight against ISIL, particularly in Iraq, where the government of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi is cash-strapped and needs help to re-build Sunni areas re-taken from the extremists. The UAE pledged US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to these efforts on Tuesday, but analysts said it is unlikely that Riyadh will begin working more closely with Baghdad, which it sees as a key member of an Iranian-led regional coalition, along with Russia, Syria and Hizbollah.

Military aid

On Syria, Riyadh and Qatar — the main GCC backers of Syrian rebels — are preparing for the breakdown of the US-brokered ceasefire and increasing military aid, something the US is still reluctant to back, Mr Khalilzad said.

Yemen may offer more potential for successful cooperation, as both US and Gulf interests would be served by a successful political settlement with Houthi rebels. The chaos in Yemen has allowed the Al Qaeda branch there to control the port city of Mukalla and a stretch of coastline, which is of grave concern to counter-terrorism officials in Washington and Gulf capitals. Reuters reported last week that the UAE, which has led ground operations against the Houthis, is planning to turn its focus on Al Qaeda in Yemen, and has requested US assistance.

Gulf officials may ask US counterparts at the talks in Riyadh for US military commitments to help maintain security during a political transition, if talks in Kuwait bear fruit, and help fight AQAP, a western diplomat based in the region said.

They will also seek clarification and commitments from Mr Obama on Iran’s recent testing of new ballistic missiles, which Washington has said violate a UN Security Council resolution. “The GCC wants to know what the administration is going to do to manage this ballistic missile threat,” the Gulf source said.

Nato summit

Ongoing sovereignty issues and political considerations within the GCC have plagued the integration of regional ballistic defences, key to deterring Iran. The US and GCC will also discuss how deeper cooperation between the bloc and Nato might proceed.

“There is more momentum now than we have seen in a long time,” said Barry Pavel, who served on Mr Obama’s National Security Council and is now with the Atlantic Council think tank. “The question is will the key player in GCC — KSA — see enough in a deal here, politically, militarily and in other ways, to take a more meaningful step.”

Despite the drift in relations, both the US and GCC still share crucial mutual interests that will underpin the relationship regardless of the nature of personal ties between leaders.

“President Obama has and King Salman has made an effort to do our best to discuss those issues and to make sure that, regardless of those differences, our interests and our policies are fully aligned on…. our common fight against terrorism and on trying to stabilise and shore up the world economy,” Mr Malley said.

“The differences are not going to disappear, but our work together is not going to disappear either.”

tkhan@thenational.ae

Source: uae news

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