Author Archives: Hussein Ibish

After Ramadi, the US must be honest about its goals

After Ramadi, the US must be honest about its goals


The fall of Ramadi to ISIL was an alarming setback. But it exposed an underlying reality that was being ignored, and seems to have prompted a badly needed new atmosphere of introspection, and greater public frankness, in the Obama administration.

It has focused attention on the shortcomings of the strategy being pursued by the anti-ISIL coalition in both Iraq and Syria, and the need for a serious expansion and rethinking of the policy.

And it reminded all observers that the current approach – both in terms of how the campaign is being waged and the disturbing gap between the goals that have been set and the resources being allocated to trying to achieve them – is poised precariously between a policy that seeks to severely damage and marginalise (“destroy”) ISIL versus one that, in effect, seeks to contain it.

The fall of Ramadi once again demonstrates the profound weakness of the Iraqi armed forces, at least when operating against ISIL and in Sunni-majority areas of the country.

As on several other key occasions in the past, particularly during the fall of Mosul, Iraqi troops simply scattered. It raises the question not merely of the martial capability of these forces, but also of their willingness to fight against ferocious and determined opposition and retain control of areas of the country with which they may not fully identify.

ISIL again demonstrated that its strategy of intensively softening up a targeted area with major suicide bomb attacks before moving in to take advantage of the chaos with lightning speed is disturbingly effective.

The Iraqi military does not appear to have developed any tactical response to this method of attack. The coalition approach relyies on ground forces that frequently are simply not up to the task of combating ISIL.

All too often, sectarian Shiite militias, many of which have been implicated in serious massacres and other abuses, have taken the lead in government efforts to retake ISIL-controlled territory. This, of course, plays directly into the hands of the terrorists, allowing them to pose as the protectors of local Sunni communities, and casting the anti-ISIL campaign as, in effect, an extension of Iran in Iraq, and Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

ISIL has a well-earned reputation for effective messaging. But as long as images of Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani overseeing fighters in the field arrayed against ISIL emerge from every battleground, its most potent propaganda is being provided by others, gratis. Unless and until Sunni fighters, under whatever rubric, begin taking the lead in the battle against ISIL in Iraq, sustained success is unlikely.

Finally, the loss of Ramadi yet again underscores another obvious, and eventually potentially fatal, flaw in the coalition approach, which is not having an integrated strategy in both Iraq and Syria. Until now, attacks against ISIL in Syria have been seen as a kind of appendage of the main campaign, which is centred on Iraq.

The reasons why the coalition has focused almost entirely on Iraq, and viewed its actions in Syria as simply supportive of the Iraqi campaign, are far less important than the fact that this distinction virtually ensures the failure of the effort.

ISIL cannot be combated piecemeal, and only where it is politically convenient. Either the effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group is a thoroughgoing and serious one, or the real mission will be simply to drive it out of Iraq. This can only be described as a policy of containment, far different from the stated goals of the operation.

Much of this has been obvious for a long time, but was being papered over by increasingly anodyne, vague and even misleading official US government statements about the campaign in recent months.

However, a May 20 State Department background briefing was refreshingly frank and informative, and suggests that the setback in Ramadi may have shaken up at least parts of the Obama administration and prompted a greater willingness to publicly assess the difficulties and shortcomings of the campaign.

The unnamed senior State Department official identifies ISIL as “a formidable, enormous threat,” and says that it will take at least three years merely to “degrade” the group, let alone “destroy” it. The official admits the US government doesn’t know how many fighters ISIL has overall, or how many of them were deployed in overrunning Ramadi. And the official also admits, “you would have to be delusional not to take something like this [turn of events] and say, ‘What went wrong?’”

But, as military and security expert Anthony Cordesman has correctly noted, the coalition, and particularly the United States, have now reached a point in the struggle against ISIL “where more action is needed than simply addressing one defeat with a new degree of honesty and depth”.

The US and its partners are either going to have to start committing the kind of resources, and taking the kind of risks, necessary to inflict serious and sustained damage on ISIL, or publicly admit that the real policy is a containment strategy that accepts ISIL as a part of the Middle Eastern political landscape into the foreseeable future.

Narrowing the Gulf: U.S. and GCC Revamp Relations at Camp David Summit

President Barack Obama sits with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Secretary of State John Kerry, center right, and Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and delegations at Camp David, Md., Thursday, May 14, 2015.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Executive Summary

 Following several years of strained relations, the May 13 to 14 U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Washington and Camp David provided the parties with a crucial opportunity to reset their partnership. Despite numerous predictions of “failure” and the absence of four of the six GCC heads of state, the talks achieved significant results for both parties, including:

  • A clear restatement of the U.S. commitment to Gulf security modeled after the 1980 “Carter Doctrine.”
  • A clear statement of GCC support for the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and greater understanding among Gulf states of U.S. policies toward Iran.
  • A mutual commitment to develop and enhance joint, self-reliant Gulf and Arab military structures and security measures, including a region-wide ballistic missile defense system.
  • A new set of working groups, committees, and other forums for cooperation, consultation, and coordination, and an emerging timeline for continuing the dialogue, including another summit scheduled for 2016.
  • A common approach to dealing with regional security challenges.
  • Stronger mechanisms for meeting asymmetrical threats.

While numerous issues remain not fully resolved, and there is some way to go before the U.S.-GCC relationship is fully restored to previous levels of consultation, coordination, and trust, the new understandings and structures developed at the summit provide a clear and coherent framework for strengthening the partnership across the board in coming months and years.


When U.S. President Barack Obama announced on April 2 that the international negotiating consortium known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) had concluded a framework with Iran outlining a potential agreement on its nuclear program, to be achieved by June 30, he expressed concern about opposition from traditional U.S. allies. He said he had already spoken with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and intended to invite the heads of state of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to meetings later that spring “to discuss how we can further strengthen our security cooperation while resolving the multiple conflicts that have caused so much hardship and instability throughout the Middle East.” The invitations were subsequently issued for a dinner at the White House on May 13 followed by meetings at Camp David on May 14.

Saudi and some other Gulf states’ concerns about the drift of U.S. policy date back to the January 2011 Egyptian uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, and the perceived American willingness to “abandon” a long-standing ally. Although their views and policies on some issues are not homogeneous – with Qatar taking a different view of events in Egypt, for example – doubts among most GCC member states about U.S. policy were greatly exacerbated in subsequent years. The proximate cause and immediate context for the summit were the international negotiations with Iran, which were the subject of open and undisguised anxiety on the part of several key Gulf states, which feared that Iran’s regional hand could be strengthened not only by an agreement, but potentially even by the enhanced legitimacy conferred by the negotiations themselves. They also feared a shift in U.S. policy in the context of an effort to achieve an agreement with Iran on the nuclear file, and possibly a broader Washington rapprochement with Tehran that could take the form of either a loose and de facto U.S.-Iranian alliance or, more plausibly, a new U.S. policy to seek a “balance” between Arab Sunni and pro-Iranian forces in the region.

These concerns were based on a negative interpretation of both American words and deeds in the second Obama term. A number of U.S. policy decisions fueled speculation that the administration was seeking to appease Iran in the context of the nuclear talks. Particularly damaging was the perception that U.S. policy in Syria was being shaped by a desire in Washington not to be seen as threatening a de facto Iranian sphere of influence. These suspicions were exacerbated by a series of statements, mostly in interviews, by Obama that have been interpreted as indicating a new American attitude toward Iran and its ambitions at the expense of Arab interests.

In a January 2014 interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, Obama appeared to endorse the idea that a balance of power between “predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran” is the key to stability. A March 2014 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg was widely interpreted as suggesting that Obama sees Shiite Muslims, even extremists, as fundamentally rational while implying that Sunni Muslims, or at least Sunni extremists, don’t share that rationalistic perspective. In April Obama told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that, “The biggest threats that they [U.S. Gulf Arab allies] face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

These comments, especially to Friedman, appeared to downplay the threat from Iran’s destabilizing activities and suggested that, insofar as they are threatened by instability, the Gulf states have only themselves to blame. The president’s remarks played in Gulf societies much as comments that seemed to blame U.S. foreign policy for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks did in the United States. However, Obama’s remarks did articulate widespread American concerns that Islamist extremists are supported by Gulf financing, if not from governments then certainly by charities, wealthy individuals, and other non-governmental entities operating with or without the knowledge of the authorities. At a minimum, many Americans believe governments in the Gulf could do more to curtail financing and rhetorical support for extremists.

As alienation grew between the United States and its Gulf partners, by 2013 GCC states began actively implementing more independent foreign and national security policies. In late 2014, the GCC states began planning a joint military command for the organization. And in March the Arab League agreed to create a unified Arab military force for intervention against non-state actors or to preserve the stability of member states requesting assistance. This last decision was adopted during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen designed to push back the advance of the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. The U.S.-GCC summit was convened in the context of these mutual doubts and suspicions, and increasingly divergent perspectives on key policy issues, especially the nuclear talks and other U.S. policies toward Iran. The aim of both sides was a reset in relations, to stop the drift away from each other, and to develop new understandings to inform greater cooperation, especially on security-related issues. 

Major Issues and Accomplishments at the U.S.-GCC Summit

Against this backdrop, and despite widespread predictions of failure for the summit, the meetings were surprisingly successful. Critics made much of the fact that four of the six GCC heads of state did not attend the meeting. The “missing” leaders included United Arab Emirates President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and, most notably, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. These absences, especially that of Salman, were widely interpreted as a “snub” by the GCC leaders to the United States. This interpretation is difficult to sustain given the relative success of the summit, and the very high level of the Saudi delegation that did attend, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The king may well have wanted his first visit to the United States, and major trip outside of Saudi Arabia, as monarch to be focused on his own role rather than being part of a larger group. Some of the other missing leaders were not expected to attend due to health reasons. Despite the absences, both sides appeared to achieve what they primarily hoped to get out of the meetings. Most importantly, they set the stage for a thematically and chronologically structured continuing dialogue on a wide range of issues of mutual concern.

U.S. Commitment to Gulf Security

One of the most significant of the summit’s accomplishments was the strong U.S. restatement of its “ironclad” commitment to Gulf security against external threats. While some GCC states, particularly the UAE, have strongly hinted they would like a formal mutual defense treaty with the United States, U.S. officials made it clear in the run-up to the summit that no such new treaty obligation is on the table. Apart from the administration’s own reservations, Congress is unlikely to approve, and the public is likely to strongly oppose, new U.S. military obligations in the Middle East. Therefore, according to all reports, the question of a mutual defense treaty was not raised by either side at the summit. Instead, the United States strongly reiterated its long-standing informal, policy-based commitment to Gulf security.

The summit joint statement includes the following key passage: “The United States policy to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War, is unequivocal.” This is essentially a restatement of the 1980 “Carter Doctrine” introduced in President Jimmy Carter’s January 23, 1980 State of the Union address. Carter declared that, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The summit statement reiterates this commitment, while also pointing to the crucial example of the 1990-91 Gulf War, in which the United States led the coalition that expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

A New Framework for Ongoing Dialogue

Perhaps the most important achievement of the summit was the accomplishment of a detailed framework that will structure the ongoing dialogue between the two sides both thematically and chronologically. The parties established a series of committees and working groups, some of which will operate within the already-established U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, and some of which add a new dimension to the conversation. A Forum Working Group, for example, will be tasked with developing joint efforts to ensure border security, prevent terrorism financing, promote cyber-security, and ensure critical infrastructure protection. The parties also established a senior working group to examine potential U.S. cooperation with the Arab League plan to establish a “unified Arab force” to deal with peacekeeping and stabilization efforts in member states that request assistance.

These plans are probably the most significant outcome of the summit because they give form and structure to the U.S.-GCC dialogue, ensuring that the conversation is not ad hoc or haphazard. Some of the new structures go well beyond the existing forum, and have their most significant iteration in the commitment of the two sides to “meet again in a similar high level format in 2016,” reportedly somewhere to be determined in the Gulf region. These commitments send a number of clear messages. The United States, by formalizing and giving even greater structure to the dialogue, is acknowledging the importance and centrality of this partnership.

The Gulf states may be sending an even greater message of renewed confidence in the administration. The parties had been due to hold another summit in two years, when the Obama presidency would be over. Since the 2016 summit will be held in the Gulf, it is virtually certain that bringing the meeting forward by a year was an initiative from the GCC states, since they had to issue the invitation. This suggests that the Gulf states are no longer content with a timeline that could allow them to “wait out” the end of the Obama administration and hope for a better relationship with his successor. To the contrary, the upcoming meeting, being brought forward by one year, suggests a strong interest in maintaining an intensive and high-level dialogue with this administration. It is therefore a significant vote of confidence in Obama himself, as well as his administration.

In addition to the chronological significance of the timeline, much of the thematic content of the structured dialogue demonstrates a convergence of U.S. and GCC agendas around developing the military capabilities of the GCC states, both individually and as a collective. The United States and the Gulf states have found a common purpose in building these capabilities, which simultaneously reflects both the U.S. desire to, where possible, draw down its military commitments in the Middle East and the determination of the Gulf states to become more self-reliant in the protection of their national security. In particular, both parties are interested in promoting integrated self-defense systems, especially ballistic missile defense, and greater interoperability among Gulf, and other Arab, military establishments.

Weapon Sales and Military Technology Transfer

Among the contentious issues in the run-up to the summit were certain requests for high-level military technology transfer and weapon sales by GCC states that have not been approved by the United States. Saudi Arabia and others have sought access to the cutting-edge American fifth-generation fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, without success. While the Gulf states are seeking a “qualitative military edge” (QME) over Iran, Israel seeks to maintain a QME over any potential group of regional adversaries, including the Gulf states. The U.S., and especially congressional, commitment to Israel’s broad regional QME is probably the single biggest factor impeding the transfer of F-35 jets and similar next-generation weaponry to Gulf states. Similarly, the UAE is set to receive a consignment of Predator drones, but they will remain unarmed until further notice. However, all reports from the summit indicate that rather than bickering about F-35s or other weapons systems understood to be “off the table” for now, the parties focused on a range of defense systems enhancements for the Gulf states. In a largely symbolic move, in December 2014 Washington decided to allow weapon sales to the GCC as an organization, much as it does with NATO and the African Union. This step could eventually allow for potentially greater integration and interoperability promoted by American weapons sales to GCC states, both individually and collectively.

The summit joint statement commits the United States to helping the GCC “develop a region-wide ballistic missile defense capability, including through the development of a ballistic missile early warning system.” Washington has promised to fast-track weapons deliveries to GCC states, and is dispatching a group of experts in the coming weeks to manage the details. The system will require a central command-and-control platform that will undoubtedly be produced by key American defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, or Northrop Grumman. Raytheon’s Patriot missile systems in the Gulf are being upgraded to incorporate the new PAC-3 missiles manufactured in conjunction with Lockheed. In addition to the existing Patriots, there is also already an American-made AN-TPY-2 missile-scanning radar system deployed in the region.

New systems will be region-wide and longer-range, including Lockheed’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that identifies potential threats by heat pattern. According to Reuters, Gulf states are requesting access to Aegis combat systems, including Raytheon’s SM-3 missiles, but the United States apparently believes Aegis systems are unnecessary for current Gulf security because they focus on threats from beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Iran is not capable of mounting such a threat. Experts have suggested that the SM-6 missile, which counters threats both inside and beyond the atmosphere, could be a potential compromise. The UAE has already contracted to buy two THAAD batteries, in addition to its Patriot PAC-3 systems. Saudi Arabia is also upgrading from PAC-2 to PAC-3. So is Kuwait, which contracted to buy two more PAC-3 batteries in 2013. Qatar has ordered THAAD batteries and requested PAC-3 ones, and is in the process of developing an early warning facility with the United States. Oman has Patriot PAC-3 systems in place. These GCC installations are augmented by the two American Aegis-equipped destroyers in the Gulf waters, plus those being deployed in Rota, Spain in 2015, as well as U.S.-run Patriot PAC-2 and -3 batteries in Bahrain.

As hardware and software for such a region-wide ballistic missile defense system is developed, there will also have to be a detailed understanding within the GCC states, and between them and the United States, about the rules of engagement for identifying and dealing with any potential missile threat. Such understandings do not currently exist, raising the potential for mistakes, misidentification, and the possible targeting of friendly aircraft. Moreover, extensive U.S. training will be required to ensure that the systems work effectively and optimally, while avoiding mishaps. Joint exercises with the United States – especially, experts say, “Track 1” or “Track 1.5” multilateral scenario-based exercises – will be crucial in preparing the way for such a system. Existing American hubs such as the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center, Integrated Air and Missile Defense Center, and Gulf Air Warfare Center can be integrated into the emerging system to promote interoperability.

U.S. officials and experts, however, stress that in order for the integrated ballistic missile defense system to be effective, Gulf states must commit to a new level of information-sharing, particularly on early-warning and tracking data. This necessarily involves not only cooperation, but also some surrender of national autonomy regarding the nature of the data to be shared. This will be a difficult step for the Gulf states to take. However, these mutual understandings are particularly important given that warning time in the Gulf region for a ballistic missile threat could be as little as four minutes. Therefore, common threat assessments, desired operational outcomes and objectives, and information sharing systems are indispensable.

Iran’s Regional Role

The issue that prompted the United States to organize the summit, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, remains the biggest, and most defining, issue shaping U.S.-GCC relations, and mutual perceptions. Gulf perceptions of shifting U.S. policies are driven by many factors, but above all is Washington’s opening to Tehran. No topic reportedly received more attention at the summit than Iran’s regional role and policies and the U.S. approach to them. The joint statement adopted a clear stance that identifies Iran as a major destabilizing force in the Middle East and pledged the cooperation of both sides to oppose Iran’s regional ambitions. It states that, “The United States and GCC member states oppose and will work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and stressed the need for Iran to engage the region according to the principles of good neighborliness, strict non-interference in domestic affairs, and respect for territorial integrity, consistent with international law and the United Nations Charter, and for Iran to take concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with neighbors by peaceful means.”

GCC attitudes toward Iran, and some other crucial issues, are neither static and fixed, nor uniform and homogenous. Indeed, one of the most interesting early revelations about the Iran talks is that the essential terms were established in back channel negotiations in Oman, a GCC member state. Over the course of the past few years, Oman’s role evolved from secretly passing messages between the two sides to actively mediating secret negotiations in Vienna and Muscat. Oman’s role surprised many observers, but it indicates the complexity and nuance of the Gulf position on nuclear negotiations with Iran. It’s not simply that Oman has, for a Gulf state, uniquely strong relations with both Iran and the United States. It is also that the general Gulf view of the Iranian negotiations is more complex than most observers tend to think.

The anxieties described earlier in this paper are very real, and are the dominant and majority Gulf reaction to the negotiations. However, many Gulf actors are simultaneously anxious and optimistic about the prospect of an agreement, and are open to viewing it as a positive and beneficial development. The Gulf states understand that they have to live with Iran, and that it will be a major player in their region and factor in their strategic calculations. Even Saudi Arabia has tried to maintain cordial relations with Tehran, despite the rivalry between the two and their incompatible positions on numerous regional and global issues.

Oman has significant trade links with Iran, and a wide range of close relations that date back to before the fall of the Shah. Given the sultanate’s close relations with Iran, it’s perhaps not surprising that, unlike its GCC partners, Oman has no record of expressing concern regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and has said that it fully believes Iran’s assurances that its program is entirely peaceful and civilian. Nonetheless, Oman remains a core GCC member state and a close ally of the United States, putting it in a unique position in the political and strategic landscape of the Gulf region. Moreover, Oman’s independent foreign policy has not been the source of considerable tensions within the GCC unlike disagreements between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Qatar on the other. Its GCC partners apparently think Muscat’s quiet, careful diplomacy strengthens their hand as a group and gives them access and influence they would otherwise lack.

Oman’s approach to Iran is not driven by a fundamentally different analysis than the other GCC member states. It clearly believes that Iran is the primary potential regional threat to its interests, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. But its approach to dealing with the same perceived threat differs somewhat from some of its council partners, emphasizing the use of diplomacy and cultivation of good relations to mitigate any potential threat. However, Oman is by no means alone in using this approach, even if it has placed a greater emphasis on it than its partners. For example, Kuwait has maintained good relations with Iran, and significant diplomatic, military, and economic links. Kuwait welcomed the “Islamic Revolution” and relations with Iran were further enhanced following the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91. Qatar, too, has maintained friendly relations with Iran following the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war during which Doha strongly supported and financed Iraq.

Iranian relations with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been more difficult. The UAE has a significant territorial dispute with Iran, which is the primary obstacle to better relations between the two countries. Despite close trading ties and a large Iranian expatriate community in Dubai, both countries claim three Gulf Islands: Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, which are currently under Iranian control. In 1999 the UAE criticized Saudi Arabia’s warming of relations with Iran because of the ongoing dispute over the islands. However, the UAE’s foreign policy in recent years has tended to focus more on the threat from Islamist groups, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood regional movement, and terrorist organizations than Iran. UAE-Iran ties are also enhanced by the joint operation by the two countries of the Salman oilfield, an offshore platform in the Gulf about 90 miles south of Lavan Island. The UAE’s foreign minister officially visited Iran in November 2013. The UAE was among the first of the GCC states to welcome the nuclear framework, expressing strong hopes that it would prove a stabilizing influence in the region and prevent conflict.

Saudi-Iranian relations have been a bumpy affair since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, during which Saudi Arabia strongly backed Iraq. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of playing a destabilizing sectarian role in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, charges that are returned in kind by Tehran. One of the most serious incidents reflecting Saudi-Iranian tensions was a clash between demonstrating Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces in Mecca during the Hajj on July 31, 1987. An estimated 400 protesters died in the violence. Mobs in Tehran ransacked the Saudi Embassy and physically assaulted Saudi diplomats in retaliation, killing one. Diplomatic relations were severed for many years. A slow but protracted diplomatic thaw between the countries began at a 1997 meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Iran. However, Saudi-Iranian relations began sharply deteriorating again in the second decade of the 21st century. In 2011, Iranian agents were accused of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Saudi accusations about Iranian hegemony and aggressive policies as the primary threat to regional stability and security inform much of its strategic thinking and diplomatic rhetoric. The intervention in Yemen has been framed by Saudi officials as an effort to roll back the Houthi rebels, who are cast, and perhaps caricatured, as merely Iranian proxies. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon as part of its hegemonic project in the region.

Of all the GCC states, Bahrain has the most difficult historical relationship with Iran, given that Iran has a historical claim on the whole island. This was officially renounced in 1970, and the renunciation codified in a subsequent demarcation agreement between the two countries. Doubts about Iran’s long-term intentions, however, persist. Bahrain’s governments, dominated by the ruling Al Khalifa royal family, which is part of the minority Sunni community, have faced numerous rebellions centered on the country’s Shiite majority. A significant subsection of the Shiite community of Bahrain is of ethnic Iranian origin. Bahrain has consistently accused Iran of being responsible for these periods of unrest, especially the protest movement that began in February 2011. Iran’s role in the instability is hotly contested, with little evidence having been presented to demonstrate the charges, and angry denials from the mainstream Bahraini opposition and Iran. Bahraini courts have sentenced several Iranians to lengthy prison terms on charges of spying on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and promoting sedition.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa has been one of the most outspoken Gulf leaders in accusing Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. Indeed, his accusation to this effect in November 2007 may have been the first public charge by a Gulf leader that Iran is seeking to become a nuclear weapons power. On the other hand, like all of its GCC partners, even Bahrain supports Iran’s right to have a peaceful and civilian nuclear weapons program. The primary concern of the GCC states is the strengthening of Iran’s regional hand as a nuclear power, through an agreement and possible rapprochement with the United States, or even simply as a consequence of the negotiations themselves. On the other hand, the Gulf states recognize that there is little, if anything, they can do to prevent Iran from going nuclear and that they have few options other than relying on U.S. initiatives to try to prevent this eventuality. They also understand that a conflict over the Iranian nuclear program could have devastating consequences for the region, including their own states. Therefore, an effective and sound agreement that actually prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the best plausible outcome from their point of view.

At the summit, Obama and other administration officials reportedly explained in detail what the United States is hoping to accomplish through the negotiations. All accounts suggest that the president insisted that the United States views the negotiations as strictly limited to the nuclear file and is not seeking a wide-ranging rapprochement with Iran. Obama reportedly told the Gulf delegations that he felt misunderstood and that some of his public comments had been misconstrued, particularly in the Arab world. He stressed the U.S. commitment to Gulf security and made the case that the negotiations and the potential agreement with Iran they anticipate, while not perfect, are the best approach to dealing with a difficult problem.

Gulf officials apparently felt reassured that the actual terms of the potential agreement are tougher on Iran than have been generally reported in the press, and that the “breakout time” for Iran to go nuclear in the context of such an agreement would be longer than is widely thought. Like many other observers, the Gulf states believe that there are many issues that need to be clarified in any final agreement. They are particularly concerned about the inspection protocol, verification mechanisms, and the ability of sanctions to “snapback” in the event of Iranian violations. However, it would appear that either the Gulf states have been considerably reassured by what they heard at the summit, or have decided that supporting the negotiating process is the best course of action available to them in spite of their misgivings. Either way, their public position now clearly endorses the negotiations. The joint statement includes the following passage, which constitutes a significant achievement for the United States: “a comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States and the international community.”

The Gulf states may not be entirely convinced by U.S. reassurances about the status of all aspects of U.S. policies toward the region, but they appear gratified by Washington’s insistence that there is no “tilt” toward Iran involved in the negotiations or offered as a consequence of a successful agreement. Moreover, Gulf officials maintain that their states would “tilt” toward Iran if Tehran were to significantly modify its aggressive policies. The primary Gulf concern was, and still is, that Iran might somehow acquire (or have already acquired) greater U.S. acquiescence (or at least less U.S. opposition) to its ambitious regional policies without having to modify them in any substantive way. But given the range of commitments offered to the GCC states, it has become harder to see the United States as seeking an alliance or understanding with Tehran as a substitute for traditional friendships.

Mutual doubts between the two sides were somewhat assuaged by the meetings and their largely positive outcome, but not yet entirely dispelled. Some Saudis are publicly warning that their country will not watch Iran acquire a nuclear weapon without seeking a deterrent of their own. They note that Pakistan has research and development know-how, and Jordan large uranium reserves, and that they have strong relations with both. Saudi Arabia is indeed moving to establish a peaceful nuclear energy program. But it’s evident that Saudi Arabia would prefer not to get involved in a nuclear arms race with Iran and, for now, the best prospect for avoiding that difficult choice actually lies with the U.S.-led international negotiations with Iran.

Regional Security Concerns

The summit considered the problem of regional conflicts from a relatively integrated perspective, without falsely conflating them into a single issue. The summit joint statement says of such conflicts – specifically including those in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya – that “there is no military solution” and that they “can only be resolved through political and peaceful means.” The statement says such political solutions must involve “respect for all states’ sovereignty and non-interference in their internal affairs; the need for inclusive governance in conflict-ridden societies; as well as protection of all minorities and of human rights.” Despite their commitments to political solutions, the parties at the summit are almost all involved in military interventions, however limited, in these conflicts. The United States is leading an ongoing intervention against the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, while Saudi Arabia is leading a campaign against the Houthi militia and its allies in Yemen, and Egypt, which is allied with both the United States and the Gulf states, along with the UAE, has carried out airstrikes against Islamist-allied groups in Libya. With a few exceptions, most summit participants are also involved in arming, training, or funding belligerent parties in one or more of these conflicts.

The joint statement offers an implicit limited endorsement of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, but emphasizes “the need to rapidly shift from military operations to a political process.” It praises the five-day “humanitarian cease-fire” and calls for a longer and more extensive cessation of hostilities. The statement also “underscored the imperative of collective efforts to counter Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” and strongly endorsed measures to “prevent the resupply of Houthi forces and their allies in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 2216.” The annex to the joint statement goes further in emphasizing U.S. support for GCC measures to “defend themselves against external threats emanating from Yemen,” and for “Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity.”

The language on Iraq in the joint statement is cautious, emphasizing the role of the Iraqi government in fighting ISIL. It touches delicately on the role of sectarian Shiite militias in the conflict, urging the Iraqi government to ensure that “all armed groups operate under the strict control of the Iraqi state,” and only hints at the critical problem of Sunni Arab alienation by calling on the Iraqi government to urgently address “the legitimate grievances of all components of Iraqi society.” The annex commits the GCC states to “reestablishing a diplomatic presence in Baghdad.” The parties did not refer in any of their public comments to urgently required efforts to create new National Guard or other Iraqi forces designed to bring the Iraqi Sunni Arab community into the fight against ISIL in a systematic or formal manner. It does not appear that this subject was a significant factor in the conversations.

The joint statement language on Syria includes a clear-cut passage in which the parties “reaffirmed that Assad has lost all legitimacy and has no role in Syria’s future.” This is reflective of formal U.S. policy since the country spiraled out of control following the 2011 uprising. However, during most of his second term, Obama has tended to avoid questions involving President Bashar al-Assad’s future, leaving such blunt comments to subordinate officials, most notably Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL General John Allen. It is, therefore, noteworthy that the summit joint statement involves such unequivocal language regarding the Syrian regime.

The joint statement also refers to the conflict in Libya, challenges facing Lebanon, and the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It calls for power sharing in Libya, strengthening the Lebanese state (especially against the challenge from ISIL), and a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. It reiterates the “enduring importance” of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recommitting the GCC to this as-yet unrequited but crucial Arab overture to Israel. It may be that there are, or at least have been until recently, more divisions within the GCC than between most GCC states and the United States on Libya and Palestine. Qatar has a history of supporting Libyan Islamist groups and Hamas, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported Libyan nationalists and the mainstream Palestinian leadership.

These divisions appear to have been receding since the accession of the new emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who has adjusted his country’s foreign policy by reducing support for the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement, initiating a rapprochement with Egypt and distancing Doha from Hamas. There are also indications that Saudi Arabia, under King Salman, has become less categorical in its opposition to the Brotherhood movement, which has suffered a series of devastating defeats since the 2013 ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and may be perceived as less of a regional power and, hence, less of a threat. With both these states adjusting their policies toward regional Islamists, especially of the Muslim Brotherhood variety, differences within the GCC, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, may also have eased.

As its complex attitude toward the Yemen intervention suggests, the United States may be finding itself in an ambivalent posture toward greater Arab, GCC, and Saudi (in that order of specificity) regional political and military assertiveness. On the one hand, the United States has always favored burden sharing and, therefore, a greater self-reliance on the part of the Gulf states. This impulse has been strengthened in recent years as a consequence of the negative experiences with the war in Iraq and the nation-building program in Afghanistan. There is widespread political support in Congress and among the American people for a reduced U.S. military role in, and commitment to, the Middle East. And, finally, administration policy continues to look toward a gradual “pivot to Asia,” and implicitly away from the Middle East and Europe, whereby U.S. military and diplomatic assets will be shifted toward East Asia. All of these factors militate in favor of U.S. encouragement of, and practical support for, Arab self-reliance on defense and security.

In practice, however, this inevitably involves some lessening of influence over Arab national security decision-making. The Obama administration was far more cautious, if not anxious, about the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen than its public positions overtly indicated. It felt obliged to support the intervention even while it doubted its wisdom or efficacy. This dynamic is likely to increase in the coming years as the GCC, and perhaps even the Arab League, continue to develop their integrated military structures and, presumably, engage in more “peacekeeping and stabilization” (as the joint statement puts it) missions in the region. Its Arab allies will expect U.S. support, especially given Washington’s burden sharing rhetoric, whether or not the United States fully shares the policy analysis that informs these specific missions. At a minimum, these new realities will involve a period of adjustment, particularly in terms of American expectations and the United States’ sense of its own role in the Middle East. The new dialogue about the U.S. role in helping to develop and expand a new level of self-reliant Gulf and Arab national security capabilities initiated at the summit, and carefully structured for further dialogue, cooperation, and consultation is the best way to manage this transition. It maximizes the prospects for cooperation and minimizes the possibility of misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Asymmetric Threats 

Asymmetric threats reportedly played a significant role in the dialogue at the summit. The more self-reliant GCC and Arab forces will be mainly aimed at dealing with asymmetrical threats and non-state actors such as terrorist groups, militias, pirates, criminal gangs, and similar destabilizing elements. U.S.-GCC cooperation on security into the future will likely focus on combating such asymmetrical threats, including emerging concerns such as cyber and maritime security. Counterterrorism, in its various forms, is a major feature of both the joint statement and its annex, and the dialogue at the meeting itself. It is also one of the main focal points of the working groups and committees.

Counterterrorism cooperation between the parties will crucially include counter-radicalization messaging, under the rubric of “counter violent extremism” (CVE), preventing the recruitment of foreign fighters by extremist groups, cutting off terrorism financing, and finding political solutions to regional conflicts. New levels of cooperation with the United States on cyber-security and critical infrastructure protection provide additional opportunities for security enhancement in the Gulf states. Maritime security and interdiction is another key emerging area of mutual concern, and requires the enhancement of cooperation, coordination, and information-sharing between GCC member states, as well as with the United States. Indeed, maritime security may involve the need to create joint patrol and interdiction forces among GCC members, promoting military integration and interoperability, which is emerging as a major policy goal and requirement for the Gulf states with regard to a wide range of security concerns.

Another major issue at the summit was counter-terrorist financing, underscored by the participation of Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. Lew joined the conversations to address that issue and also the impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy. Lew reportedly stressed that combating terrorism financing would curb Iranian influence and promoted greater regional stability. And Lew and other senior officials explained how sanctions would work in the context of a nuclear deal with Iran. In November 2014 Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen told a congressional hearing that Qatar and Kuwait are “the two jurisdictions in the Gulf where additional steps could be taken” to curb the illicit transfer of funds to ISIL. He said that the funding of terrorist groups is best combated by interrupting revenue streams, restricting access to international financial institutions, and imposing sanctions on leaders and key supporters.

Insofar as the GCC can enhance its counterterrorism credentials with not only the White House, but also Congress and the American public, it will greatly strengthen its partnership with the United States and dispel negative impressions that persist in American society. For the Gulf states counterterrorism is not only a matter of vital self defense and national security, and practical cooperation with its U.S. partners, it also includes a strong element of public diplomacy. Perhaps the biggest challenge in the long run to strengthening and securing close relations with the United States is the need for the Gulf states to be perceived by most Americans, not only in the government but also in the policy community and general public, as crucial partners in the battle against terrorism and violent extremism. The initiatives and frameworks developed at the summit provide new and important opportunities to promote national security and strengthen the alliance by creating, implementing, and publicizing effective counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts.


While some important issues remain unresolved and strains persist in the U.S.-GCC partnership, an unexpected amount of progress was made at the recent summit to repairing relations and creating a new framework for stronger future cooperation. Washington and its Gulf Arab partners appear to have developed an important set of structures for moving forward through both existing and enhanced new forums for dialogue, timelines, working groups and committees, and other formats that have given a new shape and specificity to their dialogue. Moreover, in mutually embracing the agenda of developing independent and self-reliant Gulf and Arab defense and national security mechanisms and military institutions, the United States and the GCC countries have identified a guiding principle around which to organize their long-standing project of ensuring Gulf security.

Along with the important restatement of the U.S. commitment to Gulf security, and, in effect, reiteration of the “Carter Doctrine,” the development of these thematic, institutional, and chronological frameworks for ongoing dialogue is, perhaps, the most significant achievement of the summit. The decision by the Gulf states to seek another summit meeting in one, rather than two, years sends a strong signal that the GCC came away from the meetings with a more positive view of Obama and his administration than they may have previously held. The new depth, breadth, and detail of the frameworks for dialogue, coordination, and cooperation established at the summit give the U.S.-GCC relationship a solid framework for developing into the foreseeable future.

After the Camp David talks, the dialogue has just begun

After the Camp David talks, the dialogue has just begun


It may not have been a massive breakthrough, but in defiance of most predictions, last week’s summit meeting between American president Barack Obama and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries proved a significant success. Both sides appear to have achieved their basic aims. And, most importantly, the stage is set for a much longer and broader conversation that should restore a crucial, albeit frayed, strategic relationship.

The American side initiated the meeting when, on April 2, Mr Obama announced the framework for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. Washington clearly sought to reassure its anxious Gulf allies and explain what, precisely, it is and is not doing in the negotiations with Iran.

The Gulf countries may not be entirely convinced yet, but it seems Mr Obama made considerable progress. He was reportedly adamant that the Iran talks are only about the nuclear file and do not constitute a “grand bargain” or broader rapprochement that would allow Tehran to pursue an aggressive regional agenda with less American opposition, let alone blessings.

The mood among Gulf officials regarding the Iran negotiations seemed to ease after the meetings. They appear more open to the possibility that their countries might benefit from the talks, and even an agreement. They seem increasingly receptive to the Obama administration’s arguments that an agreement, while not perfect, may be the best available arrangement, and will be tougher on Iran than most reports suggest. The Gulf countries even insist that they, too, would “tilt” towards Tehran if Iran significantly softens its regional policies.

Much has been made of the fact that four of the six GCC heads of state did not attend the meetings. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s sudden withdrawal may have sent a subtle message, but it didn’t rise to the level of a rebuff, as some western observers speculated, especially given how senior the Saudi delegation ended up being.

Moreover, there is now an explicit assurance that further high-level dialogue will be continuing. From the Gulf, and possibly also the American, perspective, perhaps the biggest net positive is the creation of a new set of structures and timelines for further crucial US-GCC meetings and consultations.

The parties established a whole range of new committees and working groups to look at a wide array of vital issues – including missile defence, cyber security, maritime security and interdiction, battling piracy, counter-terrorism, critical infrastructure protection, special forces training, meeting asymmetrical threats and American support for the Arab League’s proposed “unified Arab force” – some of which build on existing dialogue at the US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, and others that significantly expand it.

Most significantly, the parties agreed to hold another summit next year in the Gulf region. That announcement is another key indication of how successful the Gulf countries feel last week’s meetings were.

Mr Obama apparently explained to his guests that he feels misunderstood in the Arab world on a range of issues which he addressed point by point. Along with a number of crucial assurances at the meetings and in the joint statement – including a strong reiteration of the American commitment to Gulf security formerly embodied in the 1980 “Carter Doctrine” and the insistence that Bashar Al Assad “has no role in Syria’s future” – this personal appeal by the American president appears to have struck a chord.

The two sides had been scheduled to hold another summit meeting in two years. The Gulf side must have initiated the new summit meeting for next year, having had to issue the invitation. So, rather than waiting out the rest of Mr Obama’s term, they would now rather continue to deal with him intensively and at the highest level. That’s the clearest indication of the summit’s success from both perspectives. An emerging area of convergence is the shared interest in developing self-reliant Gulf security capabilities. Americans want to draw down their direct military presence and commitments in the Middle East. Gulf and other Arab countries are working on a range of new individual and joint military capabilities.

In the context of the “unequivocal” American commitment in the joint statement “to deter and confront external aggression” aimed at its GCC partners, the parties can focus on building those capabilities. In December, Washington moved to allow arms sales to the GCC as an organisation, potentially greatly facilitating the development of badly-needed integration and interoperability.

As with all aspects of this vital and delicate relationship, developing and sustaining systematic American support for strengthened and integrated Gulf and Arab security capabilities will take years of sustained and focused effort. The “region-wide ballistic missile defence capability”, which is referred to in the joint statement annexe and being pursued actively by both sides, alone is a significant challenge. But it is precisely this kind of far-reaching strategic project that ought to characterise the “new era of cooperation” between the United States and its GCC partners that Mr Obama says was initiated at last week’s summit.

The Gulf and US need a reset – and each other–and-each-other#full

The Gulf and US need a reset – and each other


At this week’s summit at Camp David, both American and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders will be genuinely hoping for a reset in their recently frayed relations. The challenges are difficult, but hardly insurmountable.

The single most important issue is international nuclear negotiations with Iran. Washington initiated the meeting explicitly as a means of addressing the concerns of Gulf Arab states regarding the talks with Iran. The American side will try to explain what, precisely, Washington is trying to accomplish, and how all the states in the region will benefit from a nuclear agreement.

The Americans will undoubtedly point out that such negotiations are the only viable means short of a conflict to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. They will say that a conflict would be potentially devastating to all parties, including the Arab Gulf states. They will make the case that gaining leverage with Iran allows the United States to pursue a whole range of concerns in order to modify Tehran’s behaviour and curb its excesses.

The GCC states are a willing, but somewhat sceptical, audience on these points. Their concerns do not lie entirely, or even mainly, in the problem of whether or not Iran will eventually acquire a nuclear weapon. Instead, they tend to focus on the spread of Iran’s regional influence and its foothold in Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. And what they fear, above all, is that, for one reason or another, American policy is beginning to “tilt” towards Tehran and away from traditional US allies in the region.

Even if the United States and its negotiating partners secure an agreement with Iran that ultimately prevents the development of a “Persian bomb”, a nightmare scenario for the Arab states might still emerge. If, as part of an elaborate quid pro quo, the traditional American opposition to Iran’s expanded influence in the region were to be dropped or reduced in importance without a significant alteration of Iranian policies that would be a disaster from a GCC perspective.

As the United States insists that it’s not “tilting” towards Tehran, the GCC states will seek corroborative evidence through deeds rather than words. In particular, they will want to see how far the United States is willing to go in rolling back the influence of Iran and its allies in Syria, Iraq and/or Yemen. There is particular dissatisfaction with the increasingly ambiguous American stance towards Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, and the widespread impression, right or wrong, that Washington has discarded its former position that he must go. But in the Obama administration there is little appetite for a more assertive Syria policy, beyond the campaign against ISIL.

The Gulf states will also be looking for enhanced security arrangements and guarantees. Specifically, as the UAE ambassador to Washington Youssef Al Otaiba put it last week: “We need something in writing.” But the administration is not even going to try to sell Congress and the American public on new strategic treaty obligations towards the Gulf countries that would mandate a greater commitment in the Middle East. On the contrary, the dominant American political sentiment at almost all levels of society is to reduce rather than expand Middle East deployments, obligations and entanglements.

The Arab side may have to settle for a little less than what they hope for on multiple fronts.

Instead of a new formal security treaty, they might be able to secure, in writing, something like a reiteration of the 1980 Carter Doctrine, which pledged to defend Gulf security from any external threats. And they might be able to establish a consultative mechanism for urgent strategic threats, perhaps loosely modelled on Nato’s Article 4 process that allows signatories to convene emergency meetings.

Just as the Gulf seeks a qualitative military edge over Iran, Israel seeks to maintain one over the Arab states, and this complicates GCC requests. So, instead of the very highest level of military technology transfer, such as F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets, they may get other forms of new technology such as the (initially unarmed) Predator drones due to be sold to the UAE. New high-tech weapons sales can be backed-up with greater intelligence sharing and coordination and joint military exercises.

And instead of being placed under a direct and automatic American “nuclear umbrella”, the Gulf states are reportedly likely to be offered American assistance in developing their own, joint missile-defence programme.

If the GCC states press the Americans too hard, and possibly even if they don’t, they could find themselves answering some pointed questions themselves. The American side might not only raise familiar concerns about intolerant rhetoric among clerics and others and financial support for extremists by wealthy individuals. They might also pursue Mr Obama’s idea that the “biggest threat” US Arab allies face is “dissatisfaction inside their own countries”.

But the frank airing of concerns by both sides at the meetings should pose no obstacle to a reset. There are ample grounds for significant progress because the US and GCC members have numerous shared vital interests.The summit should be just the beginning of a much longer, intensified dialogue between two parts of the world that, like it or not, still need each other as much as ever.

Stakes have rarely been higher for US-Gulf relations

The GCC summit sets the stage for US meetings next week

Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the Arab States of the Gulf, Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, Qatar

The 5th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Consultative Summit held yesterday in Saudi Arabia is one of the most significant and noteworthy ever. The stakes have rarely been higher in the Gulf region, or GCC policies more in play. Many key themes came together at the Riyadh meeting, showing where the Gulf states are in their strategic thinking and what their priorities are, in the run-up to the crucial summit meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington and Camp David later next week.

Indeed, one of the purposes of the Riyadh meeting was preparation for the upcoming summit with the United States. And that meant rallying all six states around the new, more assertive and interventionist regional policies that are being promoted most actively by Saudi Arabia. Indeed, King Salman’s overhaul of Saudi foreign policy was tacitly ratified at the Riyadh meeting. This policy has been most dramatically embodied in the intervention in Yemen, but also reflected in the national security-oriented reshuffle at the top of the Saudi government, with the key supporters of the more assertive Gulf stance now occupying the positions of Crown Prince, Deputy Crown Prince and Foreign Minister.

The most unusual feature of the meeting was the presence of French President Francois Hollande, who is the first Western leader to address a GCC summit. It’s probably overstating matters to suggest that his participation constitutes a “snub” to Washington by the Gulf, but it is an unmistakable signal that the Arab states do have allies other than Washington. France has said it plans to upgrade its security arrangements with Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks.

The GCC knows very well that France cannot substitute for the United States, and certainly not fully. Nonetheless, welcoming the French leader to Riyadh underscores the importance the Gulf states are placing on a new independence of action when it comes to their collective and individual national security issues. France is increasingly emerging as a major arms supplier to the GCC states and some of their allies, including Lebanon. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is a $7 billion contract for 24 French Rafael fighter jets to be sold to Qatar.

The Hollande invitation was prompted in large measure by the emergence of France as the most ‘hawkish’ of the Western states when it comes to power projection in the Middle East, beginning with the campaign in Libya which was driven by Britain and France, and France’s role as the toughest negotiator among the P5+1 with Iran. France, in other words, is seen as the Western state that is closest in thinking to the Gulf states, and especially Saudi Arabia, in implicit contrast to the Americans.

But the United States, even as the intended recipient of such a message, remains central to the strategic calculation of the Gulf states. The initial impulse of Saudi Arabia and most of its GCC partners was to look for a new strategic relationship—in the form of a full security treaty—with the United States that amounted to the provision of a nuclear shield or umbrella. Washington has subtly made it clear that this is not likely, so Gulf thinking has shifted to increased levels of military technology transfer.

They will be very interested in exploring the reported willingness of the Obama administration to help GCC states construct a missile-defense system, as well as potential enhanced security commitments, more arms sales and further joint military exercises with the United States. But American officials have suggested that, in order to secure American help in constructing a GCC missile-defense system, the Gulf states must demonstrate greater unity and cooperation and resolve internal splits, particularly those between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

American interest in such a program also requires greater GCC military integration. This dovetails with initiatives to create a joint military command for the GCC that was launched at the end of last year, and more recent proposals to create an Arab League joint military force that are currently being explored by the Arab military chiefs of staff.

The Riyadh meeting will also focus heavily on the intervention in Yemen. While the intervention has not succeeded in its publicly-stated goal of restoring the former Yemeni government, it has succeeded in more minimal, unstated aims of degrading the military capability of the Houthi rebels, particularly with regard to missiles, and ensuring that the conflict in Yemen is contained in that country and does not spill over into Saudi Arabia. Despite a reported missile attack earlier this week across the border into Saudi Arabia, both those goals appear to been met.

But the intervention has prompted a great deal of international criticism and humanitarian concerns. The United Nations has been pressing Saudi Arabia and its allies to agree to various measures to facilitate aid to civilians, steps that were undoubtedly seriously considered at the summit. At the same time, the broader goal of continuing to roll back the Houthi militia without getting sucked into a quagmire will require new and innovative approaches.

The centrality of the GCC summit to relations with the United States and as a preparation for the summit meeting next week is underscored by the visit to Riyadh today, in the immediate aftermath of the meeting, by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Gulf expert David Ottaway of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told The Wall Street Journal: “I expect Obama will come up with a renewed version of the Carter Doctrine, declared in January 1980 and aimed at assuring America’s Arab Gulf allies and partners of U.S. protection against any outside threat or attack.”

Even if that happens—and that’s a big if—it’s unclear if such a declaration would suffice to fully allay the Gulf states concerns about the drift of US policy, the consequences of a nuclear agreement with Iran, and the future of their own national security strategies. For that, a real sense that the United States is willing to proactively engage with them to try to contain or even reverse the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East will probably be necessary. And to secure that, American doubts about the reliability and effectiveness of the GCC states as American allies, and their internal unity and coherence as a regional alliance, will have to be assuaged as well.

It’s a tall order. But it looks increasingly as if both sides are serious in trying to reset and recalibrate US-Gulf relations in a positive way, even as nuclear negotiations with Iran proceed towards a potential agreement. The meetings next week will be crucial, and perhaps the stakes have never been higher for relations between the United States and its Gulf allies.

A United Army for the Arab World?

WASHINGTON — When, at its March summit meeting, the Arab League announced that it intended to create a unified command for a joint Arab military force, eyes rolled. Given how divided the Arab states are, and how poorly most historical efforts at Arab military coordination have fared, this was widely assumed to be another empty rhetorical gesture.

Yet Arab governments are persisting in laying the foundation for this joint force. On April 22, the chiefs of staff of the Arab militaries met in Cairo to begin formalizing its precise makeup, rules of engagement and budget. Their proposals are to be ratified by the heads of state within three months.

Despite how ambitious this program is, and the numerous pitfalls that could derail it, the Arab states appear determined to make it work. If such a force emerges, even if it could be deployed only under limited circumstances, it would transform the regional strategic landscape and redefine relations between Arab nations.

The impulse to create a joint force originates in a yearning for greater Arab unity that has haunted Middle Eastern political culture since the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria was crushed by the French in 1920, in the aftermath of World War I. The idea of a united Arab force also promises to bring together the financial resources of the Persian Gulf states with the manpower of Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. This responds to traditional Arab frustrations about the separation of large populations from major oil revenues (except in Iraq).

There is a profound appeal to the prospect of the sophisticated air forces and high-tech weaponry of the gulf states being combined with Egyptian infantry and mechanized units, along with Jordanian special forces, to defend Arab interests. But the plan is primarily a response to specific recent developments.

The rise of the Islamic State and — perhaps even more alarming — the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Arab world through clients and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and beyond have created a rare consensus among Sunni Arab governments. They agree that they face an intolerable crisis and that it is no longer possible to rely on American intervention. The Arab states have apparently concluded that if they do not unite to meet these twin challenges, they could well find themselves at the mercy of jihadist radicals or Persian imperialists, or both.

The joint Arab force has been championed by Saudi Arabia, which has led an intervention in Yemen, and by Egypt, which is focused on Libya and the Sinai insurgency. The Associated Press reported in November that those two governments, along with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, were already discussing a plan. Both Riyadh and Cairo had separately expressed dissatisfaction with American policies and speculated about the need to move beyond a reliance on Washington’s protection.

Nevertheless, the United States defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, has called the proposal “a good thing.” As Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, put it, the force would undertake “quick and effective missions” with the permission of the relevant national government. So it seems primarily aimed at substate actors like the Islamic State or the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Yet the obstacles are enormous. Coordination and integration will be difficult, given disparities at every level in the communications systems, logistics, doctrines, procedures and even basic supplies and ammunition used by various Arab militaries. Nonetheless, Egypt and the gulf states have been trying to overcome this for more than a year through joint military exercises on the Saudi-Iraqi border and as part of the Saudi-led aerial and naval intervention in Yemen.

Worse, the Arab states are divided on many core issues that might limit the effectiveness of such a force. Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not share a common position on the Syrian conflict. Oman and Qatar each have distinct views of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood that differ sharply from those of other Gulf Cooperation Council members. Arab states don’t even share a working definition of what constitutes terrorism (supposedly the primary target of the joint force): whether the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is a terrorist group or not.

Arab states will also have to overcome not just political differences but a fundamental lack of trust that has divided them for decades. Even at this early stage, Iraq, a Shiite-majority state with strong ties to Iran, has expressed deep unease about the proposal. One of the most significant and widespread objections is the fear that the force will inevitably be Sunni-dominated, exacerbating sectarian tensions in the region.

There will have to be a significant transformation of relations between Arab governments. Otherwise, as wags have already noted, the joint Arab force could be seen as a “triple oxymoron.” Not “joint,” because of divisions among its members. Not “Arab,” because of sectarian differences, as well as significant numbers of Pakistani, Turkish or other non-Arab troops. And not a “force,” because it either can’t be deployed or proves ineffective.

Even if the plan cannot immediately be implemented, however, the fact that key Arab states are pursuing it demonstrates how gravely they view their strategic situation. After becoming over-reliant on the United States, they fear the Middle East is entering a “post-American” period. So they must move quickly to try to defend their interests.

Several Arab commentators have concluded that since there is “no alternative,” military integration is “inevitable.” The members of the Arab League are clearly serious about trying. Whether they will prove capable of creating and deploying a joint military force remains to be seen.

Is the US really willing to use force to stop Iran nuke?

As the nuclear deal shows, the old order is changing


Is the United States really willing to use military action to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Under Barack Obama that has been the oft-repeated US policy, but several developments allowed the question to fade into the background.

Progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran, particularly the recently announced framework, has created an atmosphere of peaceful resolution and dimmed the prospect of conflict over them.

This has been compounded by the administration’s risk-averse attitude towards the use of force in the Middle East. Above all, the sudden reversal in 2013 on Syria’s use of chemical weapons calls into question the American willingness to use force, even when there is an explicit policy in a specific case to do precisely that.

This week, US vice president Joe Biden resurrected the question by insisting that “we’re prepared to use … force”, and “if required, it will happen. It is a risk that we may yet have to take should Iran rush to a bomb”. Ash Carter, the US defence secretary, and Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, both repeated the point.

How seriously should we take it? If negotiations collapsed and Iran began sprinting towards a bomb, the Obama administration would undoubtedly feel compelled to act. But that’s not likely to happen. Despite the many problems with the framework – for instance that it doesn’t really seem to exist on paper or that American and Iranian officials completely disagree on key provisions, including lifting sanctions – it’s likely some agreement will be reached.

If it isn’t, Iran’s response will almost certainly be cautious enough not to prompt an American attack.

Neither side relishes the idea of a conflict and they will certainly be able to avoid one, at least until the end of the Obama administration.

Even if there is an agreement, the question doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it then becomes the only real issue left.

Almost everyone agrees that if there is a deal, Iran would face few practical obstacles to progressing its nuclear programme in the not too distant future. Indeed, a central claim of the administration is that, as Mr Biden put it: “Iran could get there now if they walked away in two to three months without a deal.” An agreement, US officials insist, for 10 or 15 years would keep Iran at least one year away from nuclear power status.

But after that, it would appear that only American force would effectively prevent Iran from going nuclear, if even that would work.

The framework agreement’s main virtue, according to its advocates, is precisely that it buys time. They like to speculate about how different Iran might be in 10 or 15 years – and then perhaps either wouldn’t want a bomb or have become much more trustworthy – even though it hasn’t changed much in the past 35 years.

What they don’t say, but is nonetheless obvious, is that this will kick the can so far down the road that even Mr Obama’s first, and possibly his second, successor wouldn’t be confronted with the problem. So, in fact, there is really no way of knowing how seriously to take the idea that the United States is committed to using force if necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

From an American point of view, especially 10 years from now, containment could be preferable to conflict. After all, North Korea has been successfully contained. Why not Iran?

But America’s Arab allies don’t look at it that way. They aren’t that worried about Iran using nuclear weapons. They worry more about a dominant Iran using its nuclear status, or even a rapprochement with the United States, to flex its muscles in a new and assertive manner.

The American calculation and that of its Arab allies used to appear quite compatible. But they are looking increasingly divergent. Gulf Cooperation Council states will be going to a summit with the Americans in mid-May. At this stage, how much confidence do they retain that the United States would use force in a decade or more to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power – or even that a nuclear agreement wouldn’t greatly strengthen Iran’s regional hand right away?

Their original impulse to look for a new security arrangement involving an American nuclear umbrella has been nixed. They know they’re not going to get that. So instead they’ll be looking for extensive weapons sales and a new level of military technology transfer to give them a qualitative military edge. They will also be looking for the United States to act to help counter Iran’s growing influence in the Arab world through proxies in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

But it’s unclear what, if anything, they will get, besides tea and sympathy. They may merely be offered promises that the United States will remain willing to use force to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and reassurances that Washington remains opposed to an expanded Iranian role in the Middle East. If so, their determination to look beyond simply relying on an alliance with the United States for their security will surely be intensified.

King’s Gambit

All key Saudi positions are now held by Sudairis or non-royals

King Salman. (AFP)


King Salman’s dramatic shake-up of the Saudi cabinet ensures that his branch of the royal family controls the Kingdom into the foreseeable future. But the move is risky as there is now no one to share the blame if things go badly.

Those political junkies who miss the “good old days” of the cold war, and especially the obscure and dark art of Kremlinology—the study of how the closed system of committees that ruled the Soviet Union functioned behind its very firmly closed doors—are once again reminded that present-day Saudi Arabian politics can more than feed their need for mystery and intrigue.

The process of Saudi decision-making at the highest level has been slightly clarified by the creation of the “Allegiance Council,” a committee of senior royals, a few years ago. But still, for the most part, those who say they know how Saudi decision-making works are plainly guessing at best, and those who actually do know won’t say.

But every now and then there are far-reaching and sudden changes that can be explained and interpreted with a fair degree of confidence. The royal reshuffle just engineered by the new King Salman is a useful case-in-point. His dramatic shakeup at the top of the Saudi pecking order has a strong, overriding significance and signification that are impossible to miss. He has placed his own Sudairi branch of the royal family in total control of the key posts at the apex of Saudi governance and, more important still, succession.

Unless there are further changes, which seems very unlikely at present, he has ensured Sudairi dominance in the Kingdom for countless decades into the future. This bold move has an obvious pay-off in terms of power and control. But it is also risky and, if things go badly, such a concentration of power could potentially risk the future power of that wing of the royal family rather than consolidating it.

King Salman has appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the post of deputy crown prince, having earlier elevated him to defense minister. This young man—estimates of his age run from 29 to 34—was previously unknown outside of royal circles and has enjoyed a meteoric rise since his father’s accession to the throne a few months ago.

He did not have much of a political or administrative career before becoming defense minister and does not seem to have been educated, or spent much time, in the West, or anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia for that matter.

He is, therefore, an unknown quantity to most observers and concerns about his sudden elevation to a key position in charge of the Saudi defense establishment at a very young age and without much experience were exacerbated by fears that he might have had a parochial upbringing without much exposure to the wider world. All of these concerns are naturally heightened now that he is second-in-line to the throne.

The fretting about Mohammed bin Salman was most evident in recently regarding the Saudi-led Arab intervention in Yemen. Doubts about the strategic wisdom of the operation and/or the effectiveness of its operational tactics dovetailed with speculation about a youthful and enigmatic figure in charge of it all. Some observers were plainly imagining a young zealot making rash and inexplicable decisions in a high-tech war room, as if playing with the world’s most elaborate video game, while professional officers and experienced administrators bit their lips and balled their fists while mumbling pained affirmations to his majesty.

This attitude was totally unfair, given that it is baseless, but it illustrates the extent to which Mohammed bin Salman was and is a mysterious figure. We do not even know for sure how old he is, except that in the eyes of many in the West and beyond he is widely considered “too young” for the roles into which he has recent been catapulted. He will not remain an enigma for long, though, now that he represents the long-term future leadership of Saudi Arabia and the generation that will inherit the Kingdom soon enough.

There are, by contrast, no real questions or doubts about his cousin, the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. His age, for the record, is agreed by all to be 55. He replaces Prince Muqrin, who was widely considered to have been a “placeholder” for someone else all along. Many doubted that Muqrin would ever become king, and indeed he will not.

Mohammed bin Nayef is another Sudairi, and is very close to both the Americans and conservative factions in the Kingdom. He has made a practice out of being on good terms with as many constituencies as possible, which of course is the hallmark of any effective politician. The radical Islamists, though, do not like him since he was a tough and fairly effective Saudi counterterrorism czar. Indeed, they have made several efforts to assassinate him, especially a serious 2009 attempt on his life by al Qaeda.

Between them, Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman have been made leaders of the next two generations of Saudi royals and, barring mishap or misadventure, the next two kings. This means that Salman has arranged for many decades of Sudairi rule in the Kingdom. His wing of the family stands to dominate Saudi Arabia in an unprecedented manner—should all go well.

But the move is risky. There are many pressures that will confront the Saudi government in the coming years and decades that are obvious, and many more that we cannot now foresee. Terrorism and extremism, economic stress, uncertainty about the future of the oil market, sectarian tensions, chaotic borders with Iraq and Yemen, and much more are all going to take their toll on Saudi society.

If any or several of these stressors are seen as getting out of control, there is now no one, even within the royal family, to share the blame. And it will be possible for other royals, in the context of a crisis, to argue within the court and with the general public that the concentration of power in Sudairi hands was somehow the proximate cause of the crisis and that reversing that is the preferred solution. It’s possible that this will not impress those who might blame the system as a whole. But it’s also possible that this branch of the family might take the fall for the larger whole and find itself scapegoated and disempowered.

It’s also possible that Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman could find themselves at odds over various issues. Mohammed bin Nayef remains interior minister, which means he controls the National Guard, which is by far the most effective and professional of the Saudi armed forces. Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, has authority over the much larger, but usually reckoned to be much less competent, regular military forces.

In addition, the new crown prince had been the main player in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen policies, which is now no longer the case since the new deputy crown prince, as defense minister, is overseeing the ongoing intervention in that country. And, of course, since the crown prince is only 55, the deputy crown prince must be prepared for a long wait before he is likely to become king. This, too, could lead to some tensions and disputes.

Overall, King Salman’s move concentrates his own power and that of his Sudairi relatives for the foreseeable future. Other key positions—such as that of foreign minister, which will now be held by the long-serving ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir—are manned by non-royals who are much more easily controlled or overruled than some other royals might be. Some risks are obvious and others will no doubt emerge over time. But King Salman’s determination to stamp his authority on his new kingdom is striking and unmistakable.

Royal Reshuffle: Saudi Shakeup Consolidates King’s Power

Saudi Arabia's new King Salman attends a ceremony at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh on January 24, 2015, following the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Dignitaries and leaders from around the world were to arrive in Saudi Arabia today to offer their condolences to its new King Salman, a day after the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. AFP PHOTO / POOL / YOAN VALAT (Photo credit should read YOAN VALAT/AFP/Getty Images)

King Salman’s recent shakeup of the highest levels of government in Saudi Arabia has several clear and important themes. First, the new king is moving to further establish his authority and make an early mark on the administration of the kingdom through personnel and, indeed, policy changes. Moreover, he is ensuring that his own immediate relatives and branch of the royal family are firmly empowered. Second, the king’s new appointments reflect a continued focus on, and development of, Saudi Arabia’s security concerns as the highest priority of government policy. And, third, and not least, almost all of the new appointments bode well for the United States and for U.S.-Saudi relations.

Salman has named his nephew, the country’s Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new crown prince, replacing Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz. He has also appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is reportedly in his early 30s, deputy crown prince. And, also highly significantly, the long-serving Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal – who reportedly asked to be relieved of his post due to health problems – has been replaced by Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir. Some of the other Cabinet changes are harder to interpret, but these three major appointments each convey clear signals to the Saudi public and the world at large.

Salman’s shakeup ensures that the most important government posts in Saudi Arabia are now occupied by either his own Sudairi wing of the royal family or by non-royals who are more easily controlled or overruled than would likely be possible with other royals. This branch of the family was established by one of the wives of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, a scion of the prominent Al Sudairi clan of Najd, the same part of the Arabian Peninsula that the Al Sauds are from, had seven sons with King Abdulaziz. Among them is the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. These brothers collectively became known as the “Sudairi Seven,” and along with their sons and close relatives they constitute what traditionally has been, and currently is now, a very powerful wing of the royal family.

The promotion of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is one of the most dramatic moves by the new king to establish not only his own authority, but that of his nuclear family, on Saudi royal dynamics. Mohammed bin Salman is now effectively second in line for succession, at least in theory and to all appearances. The next generation of Saudi royals is now positioned to come to power in the foreseeable future and in an orderly manner. Mohammed bin Salman has been unequivocally placed at the forefront of this next generation of leadership in Saudi Arabia.

He had already been promoted at a strikingly young age to the post of defense minister shortly after the accession of his father to the throne. From that position, Mohammed bin Salman has been heavily involved in, and identified with, the Saudi-led intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen and a series of other moves designed to enhance the Saudi posture in the region such as plans to create a joint Arab League military force. He is therefore a symbol of, as well as a key player in, the new policies of more proactive and assertive Saudi leadership. His elevation to, in effect, the role of crown-prince-in-waiting strongly indicates that this new, more robust defense and security posture is being consolidated and can be expected to continue and quite possibly expand.

The elevation of Mohammed bin Nayef sends a similar message on the Saudi approach to national security. As the former Saudi counter-terrorism chief, he is widely credited with having led the fight against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. He will reportedly retain his position as interior minister, meaning that he will retain command over the most effective and competent of the Saudi security and armed forces. He was educated in the United States and is well-regarded in Washington, where he is seen as a very pragmatic and strategic thinker.

His accession to the role of crown prince also marks a significant generational change, although not one as dramatic as that of Mohammed bin Salman. At 55, Mohammed bin Nayef, should he become king as he is now poised to do, would be the first Saudi monarch who is a grandson, rather than a son, of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, King Abdulaziz, or Ibn Saud. Mohammed bin Nayef is noted for maintaining strong relations with most political factions in Saudi Arabia, including conservatives, while presiding over strong anti-extremist and anti-terrorism policies as counter-terrorism chief and interior minister. He was the subject of an attempted assassination by al-Qaeda in 2009 as a consequence of his crackdown on violent radicals, and several other attempts on his life by Islamist extremists.

These two key appointments, however, may lead to some tension between the new crown prince and deputy crown prince. Despite his youth, Mohammed bin Salman is reputed to have been ambitious for advancement within the Saudi system for some time. And while the deputy crown prince is young, the crown prince himself can also look forward to a long time as monarch, since he is only 55. Ambition, if it remains strong in the younger prince, may therefore be tempered by the need for a considerable period as the anointed successor. On the other hand, the new crown prince has been a key player on a number of policy fronts – for example, Yemen – that are now much more in the domain of the new deputy crown prince. This again raises the prospect for some competition, or even tension, between the second and third highest-ranking figures in the Saudi government.

Finally, the promotion of Adel al-Jubeir to the post of foreign minister further solidifies the national security and U.S.-oriented aspects of the new Saudi shakeup. He is only the second non-royal to serve as foreign minister, after representing the kingdom in Washington since 2007. Among other things, Jubeir’s non-royal status suggests a further consolidation of power by King Salman, as he will not have the same degree of influence or independence of action on foreign affairs as did Faisal, or likely would any royal family member. In future policy disputes, it is likely that Foreign Minister Jubeir could be fairly easily overruled by the king, or even the crown prince or deputy crown prince.

Jubeir is noted as a strong proponent of the intervention in Yemen and other aspects of the more assertive approach to Saudi national security initiated by Salman. But even more, his promotion reflects a clear desire on the part of Riyadh to have at the helm of its diplomatic corps someone who is highly qualified to present Saudi policies and perspectives to an American audience. Jubeir was educated in the United States and spent most of his diplomatic career dealing closely with Americans in one capacity or another. He is well-liked and respected in Washington and has been a frequent and effective spokesman for Saudi Arabia on U.S. television and other media. He was allegedly the target of a plot by Iranian agents to assassinate him by bombing a restaurant in Washington in 2011.

Jubeir can therefore communicate Saudi views to Western, particularly U.S., officials in a manner that to many will be familiar and, hence, reassuring, even when views may diverge. Even more than the other changes, his new role suggests a strong desire to communicate effectively with the United States, and that relations with Washington are being given a new emphasis in Saudi national security and diplomatic strategy.

At a time of stress in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and in the run-up to the Camp David U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in May, this emphasis is welcome indeed and should prompt serious reflection in U.S. policy circles. The changes at the top in Saudi Arabia also came on the same day that Saudi security reported that it arrested some 93 suspects who were allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Embassy on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Little else is known about the alleged conspiracy.

The timing of the announcement, however, could be linked to a broader effort to send a clear message to Washington and the rest of the world: Saudi Arabia is more proactive in its own defense, both at home and regionally, than ever before, but that it values its allies, especially the United States, and will defend their interests as well. The threat of terrorism is one of the clearest and most important of the common interests shared between the two countries. But there are other shared concerns, including containing Iranian hegemony; ensuring the freedom of shipping in the Gulf and other key regional waterways; managing the petroleum and other energy markets; and ensuring Middle Eastern regional stability and security, which involves preventing new conflicts from erupting and finding political solutions to existing ones.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance is decades old and time-tested. It arises from these concrete, irreducible shared interests that have not changed for decades and are highly unlikely to for the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia and the United States have needed each other in the past and they will certainly need each other, for the self-same reasons, in the future.

This does not mean that there are not real differences or disputes that need to be resolved. There are valid U.S. concerns about intolerant discourse among Saudi clerics and others, support for extremism by private citizens, women’s and other human rights issues, and more. Saudi Arabia joins others in the Arab world in wondering about the U.S. commitment to its regional allies, concern about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran, and dissatisfaction with U.S. policies toward Israel and the Palestinians that have failed to resolve the conflict.

Nonetheless, the Saudi-U.S. relationship remains vital to both states, and to the stability and security of the Middle East in general and the Gulf region in particular. That the recent changes in the Saudi government seem to be sending, loudly and clearly, very positive messages on regional security, the fight against extremism, and the importance that Saudi Arabia places on its relationship with the United States can only be a welcome development. While Washington cannot precisely reciprocate these gestures, the United States should receive these messages warmly and, in its own interests, provide Saudi Arabia with appropriate – and timely – reassurances.

US boycott law will further damage the peace process

US boycott law will further damage the peace process

Israel and its allies are playing a dangerous game regarding settlements and the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. It stands to backfire on them very badly.

This miscalculation could force individuals, organisations and even states to take positions more hostile to Israel than they would prefer. But Israel’s government and its allies are leaving them no choice. And in the process, further damage is being done to the prospects for peace and a two-state solution, which is the only viable means of ending the conflict.

Legislation is moving through the US Congress that conflates Israel with the occupied territories, and attempts to penalise states and other entities that refuse to do business with settlements. Worse still, the legislation as it is currently phrased proposes a legal definition of the BDS movement that is inaccurate and exceptionally dangerous.

The relevant language of the pending legislation is worth considering in full: “The term ‘boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel’ means actions by states, non-member states of the United Nations, international organisations, or affiliated agencies of international organisations that are politically motivated and are intended to penalise or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.”

Under this formula, American law will define BDS as including, without distinction, measures that attempt to boycott and sanction Israel and Israelis in general and those that carefully target only Israel’s illegal and illegitimate settlement activities.

The self-defined BDS movement is very much focused on the first of these approaches. It is mainly supported by those who view a two-state solution as inadequate and insist on a one-state agenda that seeks to eliminate Israel altogether. This movement is almost entirely rhetorical and has met with very little success because there is not much of a constituency in the West for boycotting, let alone eliminating, Israel in its internationally recognised borders.

The real target of the legislation is the boycott project that actually exists and is having an impact. Led by the European Union, this strategy seeks to defend the prospects for peace and the two-state solution by carefully targeting Israel’s settlements and refusing to trade with, or invest in, them.

The European approach meticulously distinguishes between Israel in its internationally recognised boundaries, which is a legitimate UN member state, and Israel’s settlement project which is illegal and illegitimate, and is a human rights violation against the occupied Palestinian people. This approach is gaining ground throughout Europe and is even starting to make inroads in the US.

The European approach highlights the distinction between Israel and the occupation, whereas the BDS agenda conflates them. The pending American legislation, along with official Israeli rhetoric on the topic, complains bitterly about the “delegitimisation” of Israel.

Settlement boycotts do not “delegitimise” Israel at all. On the contrary, they insist on the legitimacy of Israel but also on the illegitimacy of the settlements. The irony is that, following the lead of the Israeli government, actions such as the pending American legislation do, in fact, delegitimise Israel by collapsing the distinction between the legitimate Israeli state and the illegal settlement programme.

By attempting to force, under penalty of law, the same attitude towards Israel and its settlements in occupied territories, this legislation is effectively saying there is no distinction. But if there is no distinction, it will not be the case that Israel’s legitimacy legitimizes the settlements. To the contrary, the illegitimate settlements will undermine the legitimacy of Israel.

The logic of the Israeli manoeuvre is obvious. It seeks to block the European approach of challenging settlement activity by confusing it with the BDS approach. The hope is that because there is little appetite in most of the West at the moment for a generalised boycott of Israel, boycotts of settlements can be undermined and possibly blocked altogether.

There is every likelihood this will backfire. If those who seek to defend the only viable prospect for peace – a two-state solution – are told what they are doing is no different from boycotting Israel, are they really likely to just give up? Or, instead, and especially over time, are they not more likely to, however reluctantly, boycott this undifferentiated greater Israel?

Whose bluff is really being called here?

A few years ago, two Italian supermarket chains, COOP and Nordiconad, decided they no longer wanted to help subsidise Israel’s settlements and asked for labelling of settlement produce. Israel would not comply, so the stores no longer sell any Israeli produce at all.

In the long run, the most plausible paradigm is a widespread repetition of this same pattern. And, amazingly enough, it will be Israel that has not only, and yet again, damaged the prospects for peace, but actually led the delegitimisation, boycott and sanctions campaign against itself.