The US and the GCC: A Steep Learning Curve for President Trump

The Donald Trump Administration faces many challenges today in its relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The administration’s lack of experience in Gulf issues and readiness to deal with Gulf complexities and Middle Eastern dynamics is arguably only matched by the danger of the ongoing rift between the GCC states. Nonetheless, the Trump team cannot simply neglect its shortcomings or the uncertainties of intra-GCC relations as it approaches the end of its first year in power. Specifically, it has the dual responsibility of helping to safeguard the GCC’s unity as a strategic bloc vital to American national interests and to coax GCC states toward a more open domestic social and political environment without which they may not be able to tackle the vicissitudes of the twenty-first century.

A Brief Look at the State of Play

Long considered one of the strongest pillars of American security around the world, the GCC is currently going through an existential crisis pitting three of its members (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]) against a fourth (Qatar). Two others (Kuwait and Oman) remain neutral, the former shouldering the responsibility of devising an acceptable compromise with which all could be comfortable, and the latter declining any involvement. For all the actors, the United States continues to be the pivotal ally, arms supplier, and strategic partner as the bloc faces numerous social, economic, political, and security challenges emanating from within and without the Arabian Peninsula.

For the United States, the GCC has been an essential collective of friendly and wealthy states that coalesced to form the bloc in 1981 after three menacing developments: the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the start of the destructive Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Since then, Washington has striven in both its Democratic and Republican stripes to safeguard the entente by providing the military means for defense and the political and strategic cover for peace and prosperity. American relations with the Gulf Arabs have defined a prototypical relationship the likes of which may not be easy to emulate or repeat, despite some instances when long-term goals collided briefly with short-term objectives on either side of the equation.

During the past two administrations, differences surfaced as to how the United States presents itself to the GCC, what form its commitment to the bloc takes, or how far it can go in trying to change the status quo of the relationship. During the George W. Bush Administration (2001-2009), Washington provided strategic assistance and coordinated on important issues, but it ran afoul of the GCC’s consensus on the inadvisability of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Barack Obama Administration (2009-2017) looked to develop relations with East Asia, which were feared as coming at the expense of the Gulf states, and sought to accommodate Iran in a Gulf-wide environment without doing the preliminary work of subduing the Islamic Republic’s stridency in areas that threatened the GCC’s collective security. Both administrations––despite their declared commitment to the GCC’s wellbeing––did harm to the relationship and awoke fears of distrust among the Gulf allies, whose social-tribal ethos is built on the basis of trustworthy relations with allies and whose elites have grown to value the benefits of having close ties with the United States.

As an endowed collection of states that serves long-term US interests in the Middle East and around the world, the GCC is a strategic reality that presents many advantages to policymakers in the Trump Administration. And as heir to America’s leading role internationally, the administration would do well to harness whatever capabilities the bloc possesses to enhance bilateral relations and provide for mutual benefit from an old alliance. Most important are the GCC’s strategic advantages to the United States.

The GCC as a Strategic Asset

Abutting an area of many active military conflicts and a number of political and sectarian hot spots, a healthy GCC can be the anchor for a long-term, sustained, and easy-to-maintain American presence and role in the Middle East. In that sense, the United States has Defense Cooperation Agreements with Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, a Status of Forces Agreement with Kuwait, and a Facilities Access Agreement with Oman; it also uses Saudi Arabian bases for drone operations against areas in Yemen controlled by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The GCC hosts tens of thousands of American troops in different bases, the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, and the American Fifth Fleet. Between 2009 and 2016, GCC countries collectively imported about $200 billion worth of American weaponry. So far in 2017, the State Department has approved agreements for weapons with Bahrain worth almost $4 billion, Kuwait over $800 million, Qatar $12 billion, and the UAE $2 billion. Last May, President Trump signed an agreement with King Salman bin Abdulaziz to sell Saudi Arabia $110 billion worth of weapons and upgrades.

Like others before it, the Trump Administration sees the GCC as a pillar in its increasingly belligerent stance toward the Islamic Republic of Iran—despite the fact that the ongoing intra-GCC crisis impedes cooperation on facing Iranian adventurism in the Gulf and along the Tehran-Beirut axis. In fact, the current crisis may help fracture whatever unity of purpose and action that the bloc had been able to offer American policy in the Gulf vis-à-vis Iran. It is likely that a decisive and forceful American intervention in the GCC crisis will lead to strengthening the GCC’s front, although not necessarily in a direction the Trump Administration might desire. Indeed, what the GCC could do is help tamp down the administration’s rhetoric and stridency on all things Iranian: from rolling back the nuclear agreement to threatening military action against Iran. Both issues are anathema to GCC interests because they will result in actual physical harm to the bloc’s members and to their economic wellbeing.

The GCC will furthermore always be a good asset for the American position on Yemen, both as a strategic location along the Mediterranean-Indian Ocean stretch and as home to AQAP and the so-called Islamic State (IS). While Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to control some developments in the Yemen war, their involvement cannot be separated from other GCC members who, while not as engaged, have a high stake in how things turn out. Eventually, and given the stalemate there after two and a half years of outside intervention, it should not be hard to fathom a change away from a military confrontation and toward a political solution based on an equitable compromise. Whatever the Trump Administration’s stance regarding Iran as fomenting the Houthi-Saleh challenge in Yemen, a GCC concord with Washington on such a solution is good for peace and security in the Arabian Peninsula and along the strategic corridor from the Suez Canal to the Bab al-Mandab waterway.

By the same token, the GCC can be the effective tool for fighting extremists and terrorists sheltering in eastern Yemen and threatening Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Arabian Sea coast. As it stands, UAE forces, American special operations personnel, US drones, and UAE-supported armed elements of the southern Yemeni secessionists are spearheading a drive to rid Yemen of AQAP and IS. What, however, would make this effort more fruitful in safeguarding Yemen’s unity and territorial integrity is for the UAE and the Trump Administration to work toward involving units of Yemen’s national army under the leadership of the legitimate president of the country, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Only a unified Yemen, run by a legitimate, internationally recognized government can assure security in the Arabian Peninsula and provide for the overall stability sought by the United States and all members of the GCC.

Another possible role for the GCC in the Trump Administration’s potential plans for the Middle East would be influencing the now-dormant process of reviving a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, remote as this appears at present. The GCC is currently the only entity that could surmount the Israeli government’s rejection of any reasonable plan to implement the hoped-for two-state solution––considered by multiple American administrations as the only alternative to the current stalemate or the breakout of violence. The GCC’s role is pivotal in pushing forward the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which represents the only equitable course of action between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab world at large.

Finally, a unified GCC is essential for the Trump Administration’s realization of America’s national interests in the Levant and Egypt and along the shores of the Red Sea. As a strategic partner with military and financial resources, the GCC can be a fulcrum of stability operations. After it ends its battles against the Islamic State, Iraq will need a new social contract that preserves its peace and assures true reconciliation, and the GCC could play a vital role. Syria will likely continue to be a bleeding ulcer for decades and the GCC may be the only bloc capable of helping its reconstruction. Yemen will likewise require a massive infusion of funds for its rehabilitation, and Egypt will always depend on GCC benefaction and economic investment.

The Trump-GCC Relationship Thus Far

During his election campaign, President Trump made pronouncements on Gulf issues and countries which betrayed his lack of adequate knowledge of GCC affairs, needs, and importance. In 2015, for example, he demanded that Saudi Arabia pay the United States for protection and warned the kingdom that it was in trouble and needed American help—he was probably unaware of the hundreds of billions of dollars Riyadh and other GCC members have spent on American military hardware for decades. Yet, in a presidential debate in April 2016, he did not object to Saudi Arabia (and Japan and South Korea) having a nuclear program, thus increasing anxieties at that time about nuclear proliferation during a possible Trump presidency. He also accused Saudi Arabia of responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Throughout his campaign Trump called for lifting all restrictions on developing American sources of energy so that imports from Saudi Arabia could be halted, prompting warnings from Saudi officials after his election.

In December 2015, Trump called for halting the entry of Muslims to the United States, raising fears—should he win—about long-term relations with the Muslim world and the GCC. His “Muslim ban” is still a political issue in the United States, although many court decisions have delayed its full implementation. When he first advocated for it, relations between the Obama Administration and GCC states had run into disagreements regarding Iran, Syria, and human and civil rights issues. Later, President Obama’s accusations that GCC states (and Europeans) are free riders––relying on the United States to resolve international and regional conflicts without doing their part––did not help in settling fears of an American withdrawal from the Middle East to East Asia. The GCC was thus looking for an opportunity to right what they considered an American wrong, although they were not quite sure that Donald Trump was the one to rectify the situation—or if indeed he was likely to win the presidency.

When Trump won the election, all GCC leaders sent their congratulations and best wishes to the president-elect. After his inauguration in January 2017, two consequential visits by now-Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (in March 2017) and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and UAE putative president, Mohammed bin Zayed (the following May), proved that the GCC was ready for open relations with the new president. Trump’s previous declarations about Saudi Arabia and banning Muslims from the United States no longer appeared to be impediments to cordial relations. In fact, Mohammed bin Salman’s visit with the president was declared a “historic turning point” in the restoration of trust and confidence between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

It was not an insignificant development that after assuming office, President Trump made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia to convene an American-Arab-Muslim conference in May 2017. The meaning of that visit was not lost on GCC leaders, especially Saudi Arabia’s, who had been waiting to restore the GCC’s centrality to American foreign policy. At the conference, Trump spoke of driving out the extremists from Muslim places of worship and helped inaugurate the new Riyadh-based Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology. Even calls during his campaign and in his conference speech to fight “Islamic radical extremism” ––a moniker eschewed by the Obama Administration––did not affect the cordiality with which he was received in Riyadh.

Trump’s Unfortunate Magnum Opus: The GCC Crisis

If President Trump saw that a close relationship with the GCC was a net gain for the United States (considering continued military sales or fighting extremism, for instance), his early advocacy for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in the ongoing GCC crisis was ill-advised, shortsighted, and ultimately dangerous. By taking sides against another GCC member, Qatar, the president threatened both to undo decades of American foreign policy in the Gulf, the Arab world, and the Middle East and to collapse the very front he hoped to strengthen against Iran—a double calamity that remains possible. Lacking basic knowledge of the region and the intricacies of intra-GCC relations, Trump fell victim to his own bravado and the machinations of errant GCC leaders eager to weaken Qatar and strip it of its independent foreign policy.

Starting as a UAE-sponsored hacking of Qatari official websites to disseminate false reports attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the GCC spat quickly developed into an intra-GCC split when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain (along with Egypt) severed diplomatic relations with the peninsular nation on June 5, 2017. President Trump quickly took credit for the development, tweeting that when he was at the summit in Saudi Arabia, those in attendance pointed to Qatar as financing terrorism. He also wished that the severance of relations with Qatar would signal the beginning of the end of the despicable scourge of terrorism; he repeated this accusation over a period of a few weeks. Meanwhile, America’s diplomatic and military officialdom went into hyperdrive to prove Qatar’s cooperation in fighting terrorism and to prevent the deterioration of relations with the country that hosts 10,000 troops at the Al Udeid American air base, which houses CENTCOM and associated military installations.

Besides his initial, dangerous, and divisive intervention in the GCC crisis, Trump further boasted that the United States could move Al Udeid easily to other countries that would be happy to build a replacement facility “and pay for it.” This and other assertions were always contradicted by counter-pronouncements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and by officials in both departments who know the importance of the base to US military operations against the Islamic State and understand the significance of the GCC’s unity of mission and purpose. This situation did not only highlight the divisions within the administration and point to misdirection and confusion, but it also threatened three interconnected issues.

The first was a concerted Kuwaiti effort to mediate in the intra-GCC crisis, one that was buttressed by a similar, supportive American effort at reconciliation led by Secretary Tillerson. Second, the president’s seeming nonchalance toward the severity of the crisis encouraged aberrant behavior by Saudi Arabia and its cohorts that increased the pressure on Qatar, which had exhibited great flexibility in accepting Kuwaiti and American mediation. Third, the slowness in effecting a reconciliation allowed for others to intervene, such as Iran, which offered badly needed goods and materials for besieged Qatar, and Turkey, which saw an opportunity to side with an aggrieved party and appear as a protector of Qatar’s independence and integrity. All these factors have both weakened the much-needed and vaunted GCC unity necessary for US national interests in the Gulf and emboldened Iran after its successes in Syria and Iraq over the last two years.

In the end, however, it appears that President Trump has finally realized that his unstudied and biased early position on the GCC crisis showed his administration as divided and threatened traditional American foreign policy in the Arabian Gulf. In early September, he welcomed the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to the White House, applauded the latter’s mediation initiative, and offered his own services to the effort. The administration had decided in August to send its own emissaries to help in Kuwait’s mediation: Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Timothy Lenderking and retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni. Immediately after the US president’s meetings with the Kuwaiti emir, Qatar’s ruler telephoned Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, following Trump’s encouragement, and the two agreed to start a dialogue to resolve the crisis. But this breakthrough soon collapsed as Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry issued a statement decrying Qatar’s purported “distortion…of facts.” Indeed, President Trump and his lieutenants are likely to continue to be busy trying to address the GCC’s difficulties for the foreseeable future.

Important Steps on the Road Forward

Whatever the failings of the Trump presidency and administration, and however discordant intra-GCC relations presently are, it is almost an article of faith that the US-GCC relationship will continue to be a defining aspect of international affairs. But as the current custodian of this old association, President Trump would do well to emphasize what American policymakers have long considered essential issues for the national security of the United States in the Arabian Gulf and the wider region.

First, the Trump Administration must redress the dangerous institutional shortage in pivotal personnel positions responsible for Gulf affairs at the Department of State. The recent appointment of veteran diplomat David Satterfield as Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs may provide some direction in the administration’s relations with the MENA region, but it falls short of addressing the dangerous limitations in able and experienced hands. Importantly for the GCC crisis, the administration must fill the position of US ambassador to Qatar, which was vacated last June when Dana Shell Smith resigned amid confusion about Washington’s position on the crisis.

Second, the administration, through the auspices of the White House and the Departments of State and Defense, is called upon to spare no effort in helping to mediate a resolution to the ongoing GCC crisis. Such a resolution is vital for GCC unity, stability, and prosperity and essential for safeguarding the collective and individual interests of GCC members vis-à-vis a strident and ascendant Iran. This, however, should not imply that the GCC or its members must have a confrontational policy toward the Islamic Republic. Rather, it should mean that in dealing with the Iranian challenge, positively or negatively, the GCC would do better if it is unified in purpose and action.

Third, the administration must end its declared policy of eschewing advocacy for democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech, thought, and association. The president told his hosts and audience at the American-Arab-Muslim conference in May that the United States is not interested in telling others how to live; however, continuing to ignore violations of basic rights in the GCC only encourages further abuse. The latest news about Saudi Arabia’s arrest of prominent religious figures and crackdown on dissent does not augur well for stability in the kingdom. Just as bad are Bahraini and Emirati prohibitions on dissent or on displays of sympathy for Qatar in the current GCC crisis.

Fourth, working on asserting GCC unity and stability should help in assuring American national interests in the Gulf and around the region. Thus, intervening in the GCC crisis to resolve it will buttress the American position on such issues as Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, the war against extremists in Yemen, reconciliation efforts in Iraq, redressing grievances against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate, and general stability in this vital region of the world.