From Dependents To Allies: America's Gulf Relations Need Reform

From Dependents To Allies: America's Gulf Relations Need Reform

During three major crises, each happening under a different administration, the U.S.-Gulf partnership failed to effectively address the security concerns of the Gulf states. While no partnership is perfect, such major and persistent breakdowns in coordination among longstanding security partners are uncommon, and can be deadly if left unresolved.

But it was not too long before that, in October 2018, when Trump mentioned in a public speech in Mississippi that Saudi king Salman wouldn’t last “two weeks” in power without U.S. military support. Adding to the list of insults are the numerous instances when Trump publicly boasted of his exploitation of Saudi wealth. On one occasion, he held up charts next to Crown Prince Mohammed in a meeting in the Oval Office, showing Saudi purchases of U.S. military equipment, which must have offended or embarrassed his Saudi guest.

With Trump, the Gulf states tend to get lost between these two extremes, often left wondering what the American president’s real views and intentions are. Could he also dump them for a new and not necessarily better deal with Iran? The day after he approved the strike against Soleimani, Trump gave a speech that was music to the ears of his Gulf partners. He said that “the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end, and it must end now.” But if Iran avoids killing more Americans, to what extent can the Gulf states rely on Trump to protect them? If recent U.S. actions are any indication, the answer is not very much. This reality is not lost on the Gulf states.

That Trump’s casus belli is U.S.-centric is not necessarily unique to his administration, however. Even though the U.S.-Gulf partnership is old, it has never been clear if, when, and how Washington would intervene militarily to protect its Gulf partners from danger. Indeed, there’s nothing formal linking the United States to these countries since no defense pact à la NATO exists among them (and even if there were, it still wouldn’t guarantee U.S. military action).

Every American president since Franklin Roosevelt has committed to ensuring the safety and security of the Gulf states given the impact of their massive oil and gas reserves on the international energy market. Even Obama, who lacked any affinity with them, affirmed that “the policy of the United States is to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners.” When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in 1991, Washington assembled the most powerful coalition in history to evict Saddam’s army and protect the House of Saud.

But when Iran, for example, allegedly blew up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in a terrorist attack in June 1996, killing nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel and injuring five hundred others, President Bill Clinton came close to retaliating but ultimately pursued a diplomatic rapprochement. In 2011, when it became evident that Iran was supplying arms and money to local saboteurs in Bahrain’s popular uprising, thus risking the stability of the Al Khalifa monarchy and the security of the Saudis next door, Obama didn’t lift a finger. In September 2019, after Iran attacked two of Saudi Arabia’s oil installations with eighteen drones and three cruise missiles, Trump did nothing, shocking the world and especially the Saudis over the lack of U.S. response.

These examples and many others suggest that there is nothing automatic or predictable about America’s approach toward the security of its Gulf partners. Each era in U.S. foreign policy is obviously different, and each administration, while all committed to the U.S. national interest above all else, had different threat perceptions, policies, priorities, and ways to balance risk and reward. But what makes Trump’s approach exceptional, and possibly dangerous, is not that he absorbed Iran’s brazen and unprecedented assault against Saudi Arabia last fall and many other belligerent acts in the waters of the Gulf—Obama could have done the same—but that he has publicly and repeatedly communicated to the adversary what, precisely, would trigger a U.S. military response, leaving no doubt in Tehran’s mind what is and is not permissible. It is this Iranian doubt about U.S. intentions, however, that serves U.S. deterrence and is often the difference between war and peace.

Last but not least, there could be practical reasons why Washington opted not to coordinate and divulge sensitive information to its Gulf partners during these three crises, although these might be compounded by policy divergences between the two sides. When it comes to high-level negotiations or military operations against high-value targets, it is always of utmost importance to maintain diplomatic and operational secrecy to reduce the chances of leaks and thus increase the chances of success. Washington might have determined that its Gulf partners would have been unable to protect secrets, or worse, they would have deliberately shared them with friends and possibly even with Iran for no other purpose but to help prevent war and more generally safeguard their own security interests.

THERE IS something more straightforward, though no less consequential, that has ailed the U.S.-Gulf partnership for a long time and might help explain the lack of security coordination during critical junctures. The partnership is not supported by institutions, thus denying U.S. and Gulf officials at both higher and lower levels the opportunity to more effectively consult on strategic matters. Personal ties between American presidents and Gulf monarchs have been the primary driver of the partnership. These are immensely valuable, but are hardly sufficient.

This bureaucratic factor should neither be overstated nor written off. The mere existence of such consultative mechanisms does not guarantee better coordination. It all starts with willingness—and if either side seems averse, for whatever reason, it simply won’t work. Additionally, the problems between the two sides might be too large for any institutional apparatus to fix. That said, if these wide-ranging channels of communication do not exist, the parties will have a much harder time managing their differences and finding common ground.

Institutions, be they national or international, can be defined as “persistent and connected sets of rules (formal and informal) that prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations.” They provide a platform where officials can regularly interact, and through a process of continuous socialization, shape each other’s views and preferences in ways that could strengthen the sense of common purpose and prevent problems from emerging in the first place. NATO is an excellent example of an alliance that has various norms, arrangements, and committees that enable a “habit for consultation” to “reach as wide an area of agreement as possible in the formulation of policies.” Co-determination of policies, made possible by frequent consultation, is what NATO members often preach and enjoy. It’s certainly not perfect, and America’s 2003 Iraq War and killing of Soleimani are two examples of the failure of the consultative process in the transatlantic alliance. But more often than not, NATO’s institutions have been instrumental to its success.

It’s not as if the Gulf states have no joint committees whatsoever with the United States to consult on policy issues. It’s that these are too few, too weak, and informal. The Trump administration’s own attempt at institutionalizing the U.S.-Gulf partnership is the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA. Created in May 2017, it seeks to collectively counter Iran and other regional threats, though all parties to MESA insist that this is not an anti-Iran initiative. MESA has security, political, and economic/energy pillars and joint committees to tackle various challenges, including maritime security, air and missile defense integration, and violent extremism. Under the Obama administration, American and Gulf officials had joint committees on similar topics as well, all created following the summits of Camp David and Riyadh.

That these mechanisms operated under conditions of mistrust (with Obama) and uncertainty (with Trump) at the top level certainly undermined their usefulness. In addition, the Gulf states are anything but united, which limits effective consultation and collective action both amongst themselves and with the United States. But especially damaging is the fact that none of these committees has been formalized or empowered. Top American and Gulf leaders are alone in discussing major issues in summits (much to the chagrin of the American side). Institutions are not just about norms and meeting rooms: they’re about people, and if they’re not empowered to decide and negotiate, it won’t make a difference.

On a bilateral level, which is the preferred way of the Gulf states of doing business with Washington, the record of institutionalization is slightly better but still lacking. For example, the U.S.-Saudi relationship, considered the most important and influential among the Gulf states, has a noticeable institutional deficit. There are several organizations—including the United States Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Army Office of the Program Manager–Saudi Arabian National Guard, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Saudi Arabia—that address defense and security matters, but only tactically.

U.S. Central Command also has its own mechanisms of training and cooperation with the Saudi military. But Riyadh and Washington, amazingly, have not had a regular, high-level forum that discusses strategic issues since the G.W. Bush administration due to political turbulence in the relationship. Some of the other Gulf partners, including Qatar and the UAE, do. But these do not get into much necessary policy detail, or have sub-committees that allow its working-level members, at least on the Gulf side, to do just that. Capacity is another huge obstacle in the Gulf. Even if Gulf leaders are able to truly delegate power and permit their lower-level staff to act with a higher degree of authority and flexibility and form institutional bonds with their American counterparts, there simply aren’t enough diplomats, officers, and advisors in their foreign and defense ministries—and even fewer ones who are competent.