By Dr. Abdul Ruff
President Obama’s recent visit to Riyadh to meet Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders was aimed at allaying fears in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that Washington’s commitment to their security had diminished.
The president hoped to use his fourth and probably final trip to the kingdom to dispel some of the frustration felt by Gulf countries toward his administration, in what one senior US official said was a chance to “clear the air”. USA reaffirmed the policy to use all elements to secure the core interests in the Gulf region. However, his visit has not achieved its stated objective.
Obama acknowledged the strains that have afflicted ties between Washington and its Gulf partners, even as they have worked together on shared concerns such as the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They fear, may be without proof, Russia is creating misunderstanding between USA and Arab nations.
GCC-US summit in Riyadh
As USA continues to manage the show in the Mideast region by claiming to be their permanent ally, US President Barack Obama attended a Saudi sponsored second US- Gulf Cooperation Council summit on April 21 in Riyadh that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. On the previous day (20th April), Barack Obama met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to seek joint action on security threats including Iran and Islamic State group but nothing worked for Washington.
The US-GCC summit took place amid terror wars in Middle East with shifting political and economic scenes and it comes at a time when the views of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council on regional politics are drastically different. GCC – US summit began as the multilateral war in Syria enters its fifth year with massive humanitarian, political and economic ramifications. The visit for the summit comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained US relations with the Saudis, who remain deeply opposed to his outreach to Iran and skeptical of his approach to Syria.
According to the GCC spokesperson, the main issue on the summit’s agenda was the Iranian interventions in Middle East regional politics. Also high on the agenda, according to a White House official, is the usual terrorism and the fight against Islamic State group and other military/intelligence sharing issues. The USA is more concerned with the persistent GCC-Iran rivalry and the burden it places on the USA to “settle scores” once it gets out of capacity.
Last May, Obama hosted the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for a rare summit at the Camp David presidential retreat. He pledged then that the US would cooperate with them to address what he called Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region”. American call for coexistence, after violence and aggression has taken precedence, can now prove elusive. This is easily demonstrated after the bitter and costly confrontations in the region.
King Salman, speaking through a translator, offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth trip here for face-to-face meetings and photos with royal rulers since becoming president. The president was slated to spend little more than 24 hours in the Saudi capital before heading on to visits to London and Hannover, Germany.
As Arab nations are unhappy with the continued pro-Israeli policy of US presidents and the new US policy for Iran, US President Barack Obama failed to convince the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, during their April 22 summit in Riyadh, to support his Middle East policy and cooperate with Washington.
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, Obama has promised countless times that Washington would train and arm Syrian rebel forces outside the country, and then deploy them in Syria in order to strengthen rebel forces. However, it has not done so except for one instance in 2015. All of Washington’s efforts to recruit and train Syrian fighters, which have cost close to $1 billion, have failed. The US infiltrated a small force consisting of no more than several dozen fighters, but it was destroyed by the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, shortly after it crossed the border. The terrorist group had apparently been tipped off about the arrival of the pro-American force.
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lauded the summit as “constructive and fruitful”, according to the Saudi Press Agency, and pledged the “desire and commitment” of GCC countries to continue developing their ties with the United States. Footage and photographs aired on state media showed the leaders at a large circular table under a chandelier, with Obama sitting with King Salman on his left and the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan on his right.
His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain said that the GCC-US Summit in Saudi capital, Riyadh, clearly reflects outstanding relations between the GCC countries and the USA and underlines success of dialogue as an approach and continuous consultation regarding various issues. He stressed that the prospective summit is part of the unrelenting efforts of the GCC countries to boost regional welfare through coordination with friendly countries and influential powers, including mainly the USA. He noted that the GCC countries have drawn a well-defined framework for cooperation with the rest of the world based on transparency, credibility and decisiveness in working out solutions and tackling threats, emphasizing the importance of constructive global cooperation to overcome challenges and achieve permanent security and stability.
The summit in Riyadh, Obama’s final meeting with GCC leaders before he leaves the White House next January, ended without a single agreement.
US policy and regional instability
Middle East as well as West Asia has been the most volatile region on earth, owing mainly US determination to sustain Israeli dominance in the region by upgrading its military-terror equipment with fresh supplies all the time.
The Sunni Muslim-ruled Arabia kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the largest buyer of American-made weapons, sees Shiite-led Iran as its main rival. Saudi leaders are concerned that concessions granted to Iran in last year’s nuclear deal will embolden it to pursue what the Saudis view as aggressive meddling throughout the region. Salman’s reign has overseen a more assertive foreign policy, with Saudis venturing into Yemen and pushing the US to take more aggressive moves to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Saudi kingdom is opposed to Iran. On April 19, several hours before Obama’s departure for Riyadh, Iran carried out its latest act of defiance by attempting to launch a satellite into orbit using one of its “Simorgh” intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile failed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, fell to earth and crashed along with the satellite. Obama turned down the Gulf leaders on new sanctions as well.
A couple of weeks ago, top oil producers failed to reach consensus on a freeze of oil production; reflecting the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran aims to increase production to compensate for its long years under sanctions.
The domestic economic scene in Mideast is another aspect that should not be neglected. While economic leverage was presumed to be the cushion that prevented social unrest in the GCC region, economic cuts as a result of the low oil prices are beginning to impact societies.
The situation across the region is hardly different. A new revolution is fermenting in Egypt. Lebanon recently lost a promised $4bn Saudi military aid for not backing GCC side against Iran. Officials in Lebanon did not endorse an Arab League public condemnation of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese armed militia. In Yemen, a Saudi-led GCC coalition war has entered its second year without a foreseeable resolution. Houthi rebels refused to attend a recent UN-backed negotiation in Kuwait for failure of “the other party to commit to a ceasefire”. The situation in Yemen is rapidly approaching the Syrian multilateral war scene. The Yemeni negotiations are also obstructed by the Houthis’ demand to replace Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a president and by Yemen’s southern secessionist movement demand for immediate secession. A recent manifestation took place in Kuwait where oil workers began a strike over public sector pay reforms. There are growing fears that the strike might extend to neighboring GCC countries, particularly in light of recent economic measures.
Deeply worried about US stand on Iran, Saudi Arabia recently established a bloc and with Turkey along with Egypt and Jordan to oppose Obama’s Middle East policy, started to infiltrate a force of 3,500 rebels back into Syria. The force has been trained and financed by the Saudis at special camps in Turkey and Jordan. Members of the force are now fighting alongside other rebels north of Aleppo, but they are being bombed heavily by the Russian and Syrian air forces.
Saudi Arabia is annoyed that USA in Syria looks other way. In fact, Riyadh sent the rebels into Syria to demonstrate to Obama that the Saudi royal family opposes the policy of diplomatic and military cooperation between the US and Russia regarding Syria that enables President Bashar Assad to remain in power in Damascus.
Saudi Arabia, with Turkey’s help, and the US carried out separate military operations several hours before the start of the summit that showed the extent of their differences. The US last week started to use its giant B-52 bombers against ISIS in an attempt to show Gulf leaders that it is determined to quash the terrorist organization’s threat to Gulf States. The bombers deployed at Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase attacked targets around Mosul in northern Iraq, but the targets were not identified.
In anticipation of Obama’s second visit to Saudi kingdom, a group of human rights advocated have written an open letter to urge the president to pressure GCC leaders for political and civil reforms. Last year, the US-GCC summit received similar appeals. Understandably, it is hard to conceptualize the link between more freedom and civil rights in GCC and regional stability, as there are many variables involved in fostering and enabling regional violence. It is, therefore, expected that any strategies aimed at achieving regional stability and economic reforms will need to apply measures of meaningful political reforms, but keeping Islamic system intact, not only to drive regional stability but also to reduce the effect of replicating the NATO violent ideology in Mideast, fuelling the regional conflicts. It is not a question of luxury but of necessity to press for a space for a discourse of moderation and modernisation, without in any way opposing Islamic values, where the price of freedom of expression, and that of regional stability, is not paid in life or liberty. Nothing should be negatively influencing Islamic faith.
Divergence and failed mission
Stepping off of Air Force One earlier at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted on a red carpet not by King Salman but by Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Before Obama landed, Saudi state television did not immediately air Obama’s arrival, but showed the king greeting other senior officials from Gulf nations arriving for the summit.
Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the smell of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for camera pictures at the start of their private meeting. “The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-US summit that’s taking place tomorrow,” Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
The White House said would focus on regional stability, counterterrorism including the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and Iran. Talks addressed the Saudi-led military campaign against Shiite rebels and their allies in neighboring Yemen. US officials have expressed hope the latest meeting will build on last year’s Camp David summit, though they acknowledge differences remain between the US and Saudi Arabia. It was hoped the summit would come up with results that would help handle the grave regional and international challenges, boost regional peace and security and achieve aspirations for more welfare by adhering to clear-cut principles, including mainly mutual respect, no interference in countries’ internal affairs and respect of international laws.
The leaders of the six GCC member states put their previous differences aside and presented President Obama with four requests aimed at building a new joint policy regarding the region, namely, Action by Washington to strengthen the Sunni majority in Iraq and facilitate representation of the Sunnis in the central government in Baghdad. The Gulf rulers told Obama that his policy of trying to win the support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is mistaken. Obama rejected the request and said he refuses to change his Iraq policy.
Further, the GCC sought imposition of new US sanctions on Iran over its continuing ballistic missile tests and provision of US-made F-35 fighter-bombers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE so they can take action against the Iranian missile threat. GCC also wants USA ti abandon Washington’s cooperation with Russia and the UN for political solution in Syria, and instead cooperate with Gulf States and Turkey to end the war and depose President Bashar Assad. The US president declined all the requests and refused to oblige Arab nations.
The Middle East is mired in a contest for influence between a bloc of mostly Sunni countries, including the conservative, pro-Western Gulf monarchies, and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran and its allies. Most of the GCC states have been bitterly disappointed in Obama’s presidency, during which they believe the USA has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran. They were also upset by Obama’s remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as “free-riders” in US security efforts and urged them to “share” the region with Tehran. This obviously has upset the Arab leaders.
Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia amid tension with Arab nations over Israel and Iran would put the bilateral ties under further strains. Saudi Arabia has clearly offered Obama to choose between GCC and Iran. However, as the global super power with veto facility, Washington cannot take a firm decision on the matter as it advances national interest globally.
Recent expressions of frustration by Obama revealed some of the contentious differences on key issues. President Barack Obama pledged to “deter aggression” against Gulf Arab allies increasingly concerned about Iran’s influence in the region but did not shy away from raising sensitive issues in talks aimed at addressing recent strains in US-Gulf ties. Washington says the USA remains deeply enmeshed in Gulf security, cooperating closely with the monarchies to strengthen their armed forces and share intelligence aimed at countering Islamist militant groups. Obama said the USA shares the Gulf countries’ concerns about what he called destabilizing activities by Iran, which agreed with major powers in July 2015 to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of some sanctions.
The American president has said he wants Gulf allies to offer more democratic reforms and improve human rights, and he discussed that with King Salman. Obama also raised the issue of sectarianism, for which he has chided Gulf states in the past on grounds it fuels militancy, saying “the prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly and … sectarianism is an enemy of peace and prosperity”. Adding to tensions is a bill proposed in US Congress to lift Riyadh’s immunity if any Saudi officials are found to have been involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama has said he opposes the bill because it could lead to cases directed against the United States in foreign courts.
Saudi Arabia led Arab nations have a vital role to play in Islamic world to consciously promote Islamic faith and Islamic values. Although this role could also be played by Turkey and Iran, central role Arab leadership should play in this cannot be belittled. After all, Islam was born in Saudi Arabia. True, today there is an apparent shift in Arab thinking to equate Islam with capitalism as crony capitalism has spread in Arab world as fast as in Israel and western world. Arab governments very seriously promote corporatism as the next level of capitalism and now, unfortunately, linking the capitalist trend even with ugly and dirty imperialism. Saudi led GCC nations are also fighting wars in Mideast.
As Arab nations are trying to bring Islam closer to western capitalism, they also look for active support of the western powers for their promotion of capitalism and support for imperialism.
Arab world is suspicious of US intentions in the region. Of course, USA possesses ample number of tools to keep the Arab nations under its strict control, despite the differences in their relations over Iran and Israel. After all USA is reining superpower – considered as the formidable threat even by equally strong power Russia in all spheres – and Saudi Arabia is not.
Saudi Arabia is not even a veto power. Obama visit to Riyadh clearly reveals the serious nature of crisis in bilateral relations, not withstanding increasing mutual trade in oil and arms.