A significantly different tone will characterize the upcoming meetings between President Barack Obama and the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (or GCC, which is comprised of the member states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E., and Oman) to be held at the White House and Camp David May 13th-14th.
At the summit, the President will seek to alleviate the concerns of America's allies in the Gulf about the interim deal negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 powers. In return for ceasing its long-standing nuclear weapons program, Iran will see the damaging economic sanctions imposed upon the Islamic Republic since 2006 lifted.
Many in Washington believe that one of the most important priorities for the GCC member states at the upcoming meetings is to secure a commitment from the US to equip the Gulf States with the latest and most sophisticated American weapons and strengthen its military presence in the Arab world. However, it appears that merely expanding its military presence in the region will not be enough to persuade the Gulf leaders to endorse the Iran deal; speculation abounds that the GCC wishes to sign a mutual defense pact with America that will obligate Washington to come to its member states' defense should they be subject to external (i.e., Iranian threats). Though the Obama administration will surely reciprocate the GCC's request for additional and more advanced American weapons, the Gulf States' most pressing demand -- the mutual security pact -- will remain pending.
Military ties between the US and the Gulf have only strengthened since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, and America's expansive military presence in the region has been a constant since the first Gulf War in 1990; today, thousands of American troops remain stationed in Kuwait -- the country they helped liberate some 25 years ago -- at several different bases, the most prominent of which are Camp Doha and Camp Arifjan. Thousands of American troops remain stationed throughout Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, most notably at Emir Sultan Base, before a majority of them moved to Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, from which America's military operations were based during the initial stages of its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile, Bahrain continues to host the U.S. Fifth fleet, from which it patrols the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian Sea, the Sea of Oman, the Red Sea, and the cost of Eastern Africa; Home to more than 20,000 American troop, the fifth fleet contains several destroyers and aircraft carriers, from which dozens of assault helicopters and fighter jets patrol the skies of the Gulf. Since 1994, the U.A.E. has maintained a security pact with the United States that calls for the presence of 5,000 American troops, most of whom are based near the Port of Jebel Ali and Al Dhafra Air Base; beginning in the year 2000, between 6 to 8 thousand Emirati soldiers have received military training in the US according to recent study by the Congressional Research Service.
Prior to the launch negotiations between the P5+1 powers and Iran on its nuclear program, expenditures by the Gulf States on American weapons and military training programs greatly increased over the past decade, aided by surging oil prices that reached more than $120 USD per barrel. Though the price of oil on the world market has rapidly declined, leading to ballooning budget deficits for the petro-economies of the GCC, military spending has remained high among the Gulf States.
In 2014 alone, Saudi Arabia devoted a staggering $80 billion USD to defense while the U.A.E. invested more than $23 billion USD in military technology and training; Qatar, meanwhile, spent $11 billion USD on Apache Attack Helicopters, Patriot Missile Batteries, and Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft Javelin Missiles.
Mr. Obama's vision and understanding of the Gulf has been plagued by contradictions, and GCC leaders do not regard his views with much deference -- a policy orientation made evermore prominent by the reality that the President is quickly approaching the lame duck years of his presidency. In an interview granted to the New York Times' Thomas Friedman after the deal with Iran was signed, Mr. Obama discussed what will surely be a "difficult" dialogue with the leaders of the Arab Gulf States: though Obama pledged that the US will provide strong support against aggression waged by external enemies, he extolled the GCC member states to more effectively respond to internal political challenges--even going so far as to warn the Gulf states that their biggest threat was not Iran but internal rebellions waged by youth disaffected with and disenfranchised by the autocratic rule of hereditary monarchies -- and take a more active role in dealing with regional crises such as conflict in Syria and the rise of ISIS.
Nonetheless, Obama conceded that American weapons and security assurances could lessen fears among the Gulf Arab leadership and "allow for a more productive dialogue" when the time for joint GCC-Iranian discussions come. I, for one, do not believe that the Gulf States should wait to hear what Mr. Obama has to say before beginning to formulate a strategy for how to deal with the reintegration of Iran in the regional affairs.
Despite all the rhetoric and intimidations surrounding the return of a resurgent Iran to the world stage, we must also remember that at least 400,000 Iranians live in Emirate of Dubai alone, even with the ongoing Iranian-Emirati dispute over several small Islands in the Arabian Gulf. In reality, fears among the Gulf Arab leadership that Washington would undermine its interests in pursuit of a "grand bargain" with Iran are unfounded; Washington's entire policy in the Gulf is based upon preventing any other power from attaining regional hegemony -- a strategy welcomed by the GCC, whether in public or behind closed doors.
In response to Washington's rejection of the sought-after security pact, as well as Obama's comments regarding the Gulf States' internal affairs, Saudi Arabia's King Salman publically snubbed the White House by declining to attend the meetings at Camp David -- which were to mark his first official visit to the US as King -- and sending Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. For those inside the Beltway, Salman's sudden decision to skip the summit appears even more vexing considering that Obama administration had announced only days prior that the President would be holding private discussions with the Saudi King before the summit.
Arabs have always blamed Washington, both for what America has (i.e., its support of Israel, invading Iraq) and has not done (i.e., not intervening in the Syrian Civil War and not solving the Arab Israeli conflict) in the region -- its present negotiations with Iran are no different. Though Arabs possess all the necessary resources, they have long lacked the requisite political leadership and will to make the difficult but necessary decisions; the time has come for Arabs rulers to take ownership for their fates in their own troubled region.