Reason to worry? The transformation of the US-GCC relationship at a crossroads
The US President Barack Obama will be in the region at the end of March — his second visit to the region. The first was in 2009 when he stopped in Cairo on May 4 — and which came to be known as a “New Start” by the Arab media. Obama delivered at that time a very optimistic speech, to a group of Egyptian intellectuals. Middle East’s chronic political problems were the main theme. Two objectives were promised, one to start a new era with Arab and Muslim states and to promote democracy. The second was to lend hope to the fact that the Palestinian issue was a priority for the new administration that would work hard for an honourable solution to the ‘mother of all evils’ in the Middle East — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Both objectives have not been realised so far. It seems that the Arab Spring caught the administration by surprise. The president is visiting Riyadh this time instead of Cairo, where he will face leaders of the GCC, who are dissatisfied mainly with his administration’s strategy and attitude towards a host of issues, and have begun to look beyond the US for alliances mainly in the East. The GCC leaders see US reluctance and lack of positive polices in its approach to key issues in the region either because of a lack of interest or lack of understanding.
It is presumed that he will confer first with King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and then meet other Gulf leaders or their representatives at the headquarters of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh. It looks like invitations have already been sent out to all GCC members.
The issues on the table are crucial and it will make or break a history of cordial relations, which date back to almost more than half a century. The files are full with unsolved problems accumulated for the last three years. Three issues take priority and are in fact interconnected as well — Iran, Syria and Egypt. It could easily be summed up as the path to future relations.
The attitude of the US towards Iran is to have Tehran onboard and scrap if possible Tehran’s plans to acquire nuclear bomb technology. The concerns of the Arab Gulf do not just rest on that, but also entail what kind of rewards the Iranians will be granted by the US in return? The Iranians are strongly supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria that continues killing its people. Being Arabs, the GCC countries are deeply disturbed by that. Iran’s great influence on the Iraqi government and its role in inflaming the country taking it to the edge of civil war is another concern. The Sunnis are suffering as well at the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon which is playing havoc and fighting in Syria alongside the regime forces and killing Syrians with the support and blessings of Tehran. In Bahrain, the hand of Iran is quite obvious, letting no political space for settlement and harmony between two factions of society. In Yemen, the Houthi faction is waging war on the Yemenis with the support of Tehran, which is not just threatening the stability of Yemen, but of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf as well.
So Iran has its hands deep in the Arab affairs and in destabilising the region whereas the US does not agree with the GCC’s point of view in this matter. The Gulf’s views on the policies adopted by the US on this issue are that they are either uninformed or rather based on an illusion, since the dispute is based on territorial and other interests —it is political rather than religion based. The other important issue is what to do about the massacres going on in Syria, millions of Syrians are either living as refugees suffering hunger or under threat of death, hundreds of towns and villages have been razed to the ground as the bloody civil war enters its fourth year threatening to spill over into the region. The course of diplomacy appeasing the Russians has failed and a new course should be adopted to bring this human misery to an end.
The third issue is Egypt. It is widely believed that the US is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood movement, probably because they came to power through the ballot box, and the US are opposing a military man like Field Marshal Abdul Fattah Al Sissi as president. In Ukraine as well, the president was deposed although he was elected through the ballot box but the US and the West understood and supported the popular movement. This reflects double standards to the Arab public. The Muslim Brotherhood has no modern agenda to govern Egypt and Tunisia. The public in both countries has rejected them. More sympathy by the US towards this movement will mean more destabilisation of the region, especially Egypt. As a result the GCC governments will be obliged to help financially. So far they have paid more than $20 billion (Dh73.4 billion) to prevent Egypt from becoming a failed state. This will in the long run deplete the resources of the GCC countries. Egypt has tried to seek Moscow’s help because of policies adopted by the US. Moscow was pleased by Al Sissi’s visit. Some observers in the US after learning that the GCC may put the money — some say up to $2 billion — for purchase of arms from Moscow, were critical of it as it could well be a shot in the arm for Moscow at this time. That is true, but the US needs to look at events in Egypt in a positive way, understanding carefully the course of events and what the Egyptians and the region really could lose, if the US continues to ignore reality.
The coming Obama visit to Gulf is of great importance both for the US and the region. It will decide the course of events in the future, as it comes at a very crucial juncture. Things will not be the same again, if a miscalculation from either side went wrong.
By Mohammed Al Rumaihi