For America's Gulf Allies, Anxiety Is Not a Plan

Clearer communication—and better coordination—could assuage GCC worries.

It is no secret that the Arab Gulf States have a problem with the style and substance of the US diplomatic approach toward Iran (or rapprochement, as viewed from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and other Arab Gulf capitals). As allies, they feel they should have been consulted prior to Washington “opening up” to a historical foe such as Tehran, and their primary concern is that talks could amount to a nuclear deal that would threaten their security and sanction the emergence of Iran as power broker and policeman of the region.

But Arab Gulf concerns are not limited to the Iran issue, they are rooted in the belief that the Obama administration “simply doesn’t get it and is jeopardizing the alliance,” as one senior Saudi diplomat recently told me. A profound lack of trust currently characterizes relations between the United States and its regional allies. “The gulf is there, whether we like it or not,” one UAE former senior official said to me last summer.

Many in the US policymaking community have argued that the Arab Gulf States’ concerns are inflated and do not reflect reality. This line of reasoning, however, serves no useful purpose.

While fears and emotions can sometimes be irrational (especially when you are in a vulnerable position), in this case, however, they are hardly baseless. While it is highly unlikely that the Obama administration would abandon its Gulf allies in favor of a new relationship with Iran, it has however mishandled almost every crisis in the Middle East, leaving friends and enemies alike wondering if this is a case of ineptitude or disengagement. So the Arab Gulf States have every reason to worry that by reaching out to Tehran, Washington, not out of malicious intent but out of incompetence, could hurt their interests. Misplaced or not, the Arab Gulf States’ concerns should be addressed with a greater sense of urgency and seriousness for one simple reason: they are America’s allies in a strategically vital and energy-rich region.

As I wrote in this publication back in June, the most effective antidote to this turbulence in relations is a brutally honest dialogue that addresses the tough policy issues affecting the future of the region and lays out mechanisms for increased cooperation and closer interaction. The two sides will disagree on many things, as they have clearly shown on Syria and Egypt, but differences can be managed and agendas can be brought closer together.

But a crucial question must be asked still: What if greater consultation, for whatever reason, does not produce desired results? This is an issue that should occupy the minds of Arab Gulf leaders. It is one thing for them to communicate their concerns to Washington (and no country has done it more bluntly than Saudi Arabia), but a different thing altogether to actually have a strategy for perceived continued US negligence or passivity. Anxiety is not a plan. As worrying as the current chasm with Washington is, it ironically presents an opportunity for the Arab Gulf States to smartly and carefully recalibrate their relationship with the United States and adjust their expectations from the alliance. Turkey has done it with NATO, and nobody has vilified it for doing so.

To induce better US cooperation, the Arab Gulf States should first and foremost do a better job of making themselves heard, without making things worse with Washington or appearing like they are employing punitive measures. While Saudi Arabia’s rejection of a seat on the Security Council was loud and shocking, it is not clear if it will achieve the intended objective or benefit the Kingdom. All it does is deny it an influential voice in New York and a greater role in international diplomacy. Arab Gulf leaders’ complaints to their American counterparts have been mostly expressed in closed rooms and on bilateral levels. This is understandable, and there is merit in keeping at least some aspects of the conversation private. However, a collective and public response can also send a stronger message to Washington and immediately grab its attention. A joint statement coming out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that is robust but nonconfrontational will show that the Arab Gulf States are united in their stand and share the same concerns about US policy in the region.

In the areas of trade and commerce, the Arab Gulf States have some leverage that they can intelligently exercise. While it would be self-defeating for the Arab Gulf States to reduce their level of trade with the United States (which totaled around $100 billion last year) to drive their point home, privileged access to the Arab Gulf market may no longer be granted to the United States. This essentially means that trade with China and other world powers would be boosted, inevitably at the expense of US economic interests.