The challenge that President Obama will face in having "difficult conversations " about internal governance questions with leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states was made abundantly clear at a briefing on "The Future of the US-Gulf Partnership" at The Atlantic Council on Thursday.
When asked about President Obama's comments on the need for GCC states to meet their internal challenges with political reforms, featured speaker United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba was dismissive. "We do not share your democratic values," he stated bluntly.
He emphasized his point by saying, "we have fought with you in six wars, and we do not share your democratic values," pointing out his disagreement with a former U.S. ambassador on the importance of democratic values in advancing the relationship between the United States and its GCC allies.
The UAE's agenda for the Summit is security focused. Al-Otaiba stressed that the UAE would be looking for stronger security guarantees, "something on paper." He also said that the UAE would be looking for loosening of U.S. controls on foreign military sales, which he clearly sees as too burdensome for such a valuable bi-lateral partner.
It was not just the ambassador's blasé entitlement that was striking about the event. Former senior U.S. officials, recent departures from the administration, also on the panel gave a clear sense of how human rights and democracy issues are dealt with in bi-lateral discussions between the United States and its GCC allies.
For the most part, these issues are ignored. The panel discussion was almost complete before, in the question and answer segment, the panelists were asked about anything other than security cooperation and the threats of Iran and terrorism. Ambassador al-Otaiba's introduction was effusive, with Atlantic Council President Fred Kempe suggesting that the only difference of opinion the U.S. foreign policy establishment might have with Ambassador al-Otaiba would be on which English Premier League soccer team to root for.
Secondly, human rights and democracy issues are marginalized, including by senior U.S. officials engaged in the negotiations. When a question was asked about the internal threats facing the GCC states because of poor governance and human rights violations, the former senior U.S. officials had notably quick answers. "How will the 'difficult questions' be dealt with at Camp David?" "Quietly, " offered former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense, Derek Chollet. "First we have to restore trust," added former Assistant Secretary of State, Martin Indyk.
It is hardly surprising that Ambassador al-Otaiba did not feel obliged to engage with the serious concerns raised by President Obama. One can also be sure that the diplomats from the Chinese, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian embassies who were in attendance took note when the ambassador swatted away concerns about democratic values with so little pushback.
This is a real problem, and one that will no doubt have serious consequences for the future of the region. On the one hand, the United States is looking for its regional allies, like the UAE, to play a greater role in supporting peace and security, in becoming pillars of a new regional security architecture, as Ambassador Indyk put it. On the other hand, through their repressive political systems the GCC states are stifling peaceful dissent, closing down outlets for the peaceful expression and resolution of differences, and creating grievances on which violent extremism feeds. President Obama has been very clear about this unproductive dynamic and one would hope that he will raise it forthrightly with his counterparts at Camp David.
Such policies fuel regional instability, as do the GCC states' support for authoritarian rulers elsewhere in the region. As does their ongoing patronage of extremist preachers who spread sectarian hatred and preach the violent enforcement of religious orthodoxy, inspiring violent extremist groups like al-Qa'eda and the so called Islamic State or ISIL.
Until GCC leaders start to take these internal challenges seriously, they will be unreliable allies for the United States - as much part of the problem as part of the solution. For the sake of global security, the United States must begin to speak much more clearly and with one voice on the importance of human rights and internal governance questions.