TSG IntelBrief: Outcomes from a U.S.-Gulf Summit
April 22, 2016

Outcomes from a U.S.-Gulf Summit

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The April 20-21 summit meetings in Riyadh did not align the priorities of the United States and its Persian Gulf partners, although U.S.-Gulf defense cooperation continued to advance on several fronts

• President Obama did not alter the Gulf leaders’ commitment to or strategy for limiting Iran’s regional influence, nor did he persuade them that combatting the Islamic State should be their overriding regional priority 

• The Gulf leaders acceded to U.S. requests to encourage Iraq’s Sunni minority to support the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad and to accept U.S. help to diversify the Gulf economies away from dependence on oil revenues

• Operationally, the United States and the Gulf states agreed to jointly block Iranian seaborne weapons shipments to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and for the United States to train Gulf state special counterterrorism forces.

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A wide range of meetings took place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on April 20 and 21 between President Obama and other senior U.S. officials and their counterparts in the six Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman). The sessions included a meeting between President Obama and Saudi King Salman, which addressed strains in U.S.-Saudi relations—fed by the Saudi perception that the United States is retreating from the Middle East, is willing to accommodate the interests of Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, and is no longer dependent on imported Saudi oil. The Obama-Salman meeting also included a frank discussion of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including its January execution of dissident Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The Riyadh meetings culminated with the second U.S.-GCC summit, building on the Camp David summit of May 2015 that was organized to reassure the GCC leaders about the incipient nuclear deal with Iran.        

Official communiqués from the meetings demonstrate that President Obama did not succeed in his goal of persuading the GCC countries to put aside their ‘proxy war’ with Iran and adopt the main regional priority of the United States—the defeat of the so-called Islamic State. The GCC states did not specifically commit to resuming airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, which largely ended in late 2015 when the GCC states perceived that the United States was dropping the demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave office. Ousting Assad has been a much higher GCC priority than defeating the Islamic State in Syria, or in Iraq. However, the Gulf states accepted U.S. urgings to fund reconstruction of Sunni areas of Iraq recaptured from the Islamic State, and to try to persuade Iraqi Sunnis to work with the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The GCC states also accepted a U.S. proposal to help them diversify their economies and hopefully reduce their overwhelming dependence on oil revenues. Oil prices have fallen nearly 70% since mid-2014, rapidly depleting the reserve funds of the GCC countries and forcing them to enact severe budget cuts. 

Beyond a vague commitment to ‘broader dialogue to resolve the region’s conflict,’ the GCC leaders gave no ground on Iran, which the summit communiqué identified as continuing its ‘destabilizing’ actions in the region. They largely rebuffed President Obama’s urging to temper their military and covert efforts to roll back Iran’s regional influence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and to focus instead on diplomacy. The GCC leaders extracted a U.S. pledge to begin conducting joint naval patrols to stop any Iranian arms shipments from reaching the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen. The summit communiqué also stated that the United States and the GCC ‘pledged to increase information sharing on Iran and other asymmetric threats in the region.’ At the same time, the GCC leaders seemed to accept, to some extent, the U.S. argument that the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen was benefitting the Yemen-based affiliate of al-Qaeda—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—as well as Islamic State-affiliated factions there. 

Even though the summit meetings produced no major U.S.-GCC alignment of regional priorities, U.S.-GCC defense cooperation was not affected at all by the differences. All the defense and security agreements discussed at the 2015 Camp David summit were reaffirmed and expanded. The GCC countries agreed to allow the United States to train GCC Special Operations Forces in order to boost ‘interoperable counterterrorism capabilities.’ That appeared to represent a U.S. endorsement, at least indirectly, of the Saudi-announced 34-nation counterterrorism coalition announced in December 2015. The summit communiqué also reaffirmed U.S.-GCC plans to expand maritime security cooperation; to implement an integrated ballistic missile defense early warning system; and to undertake joint efforts to counter cyber-attacks—a clear reference to Iran’s growing cyber-warfare capability, which it has used to attack Saudi Aramco in recent years. It was also announced that the United States and the GCC countries would conduct combined military exercises in March 2017—the first of their kind. 

What the meetings lacked in the defense sphere was any announcement of new U.S. arms sales to the GCC countries. Such sales were the focus of the 2015 Camp David summit, and experts were expecting that President Obama would announce the approval of Kuwait’s request to buy new FA-18 combat aircraft and Qatar’s request for F-15s. The sales have been delayed by Israeli concerns that major additional weapon sales to the GCC would contradict the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s ‘Qualitative Military Edge,’ even though Israel and the GCC are aligned on Iran and many other issues. The lack of an announcement this week does not indicate that the sales are in jeopardy; defense experts expect formal approval in the coming days.   

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