Confusion over the Camp David Summit

13 May 2015
Following his visit to Riyadh, Secretary Kerry met with his Gulf counterparts in Paris on Friday, May 8th in preparation of this week’s summit at Camp David. After the meeting, Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubair held a joint press conference. This is what the Saudi Minister had to say on the summit:
“… We also spent another hour and a half on Camp David and the objectives of Camp David and the issues that will be discussed at Camp David. Don’t ask me to talk about it because I won’t; I can just tell you in general terms that they have to do with the intensifying and strengthening the security-military relationship between the United States of America and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as dealing with new challenges that we face in the region, foremost of which is the Iranian interference in the affairs of the countries of the region.
“We were very pleased with the discussions. I thought they were very – extremely productive, very useful…”
Only two days later Saudi Arabia announced that King Salman would not attend the Camp David summit. This triggered speculation about a “snub”. The situation was further complicated with the news that only Kuwait and Qatar will attend the summit at head-of-state level.

The picture may not be as bleak as some wish to present. UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sultan Qaboos of Oman were not expected to attend anyway because of health reasons. Bahrain has witnessed serious Arab Spring disturbances and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa may have found it wiser to stay home when his Gulf partners travel to Camp David with essentially Iran on their agenda. As for King Salman, he is rumored to have health problems also. The Saudis deny that his absence is a snub but cancelling an important visit just a few days before is not standard diplomatic practice. Probably the Saudis are happy with the ambiguity thus created. All things considered, the question of attendance could have been handled better by both sides.

More important is the question of what can reasonably be accomplished at Camp David.

Uncomfortable with Iran’s ascendancy and the prospect of a nuclear deal, the Gulf States appear to be looking for solid US security guarantees preferably in the form of a formal US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) alliance. Their main agenda item is the threat from Iran. The US would have political and legal problems with such an arrangement.

Firstly, President Obama told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in early April that Sunni Arab allies like Saudi Arabia face some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats — “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances”. So part of the job the President said is to work with these states and say, “How can we build your defense capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [the Islamic State, or ISIS to choose from. …”

The President thinks that the biggest threats that these countries face may not be coming from Iran invading but from the dissatisfaction inside. He said that this was a tough conversation to have, but one that the US had to have. One may conclude therefore that the US would not wish to commit itself formally to Gulf States’ security since it may prove difficult to define the threat and draw a distinction between external and internal threats.

Secondly, a formal alliance with Gulf States would require approval by the Congress. A NATO-like arrangement or the recognition of Israel’s privileged status to the Gulf States cannot be expected to win such approval.

Thirdly, while deeply worried about Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region the US has a broad array of other concerns and does not see its security cooperation with the Gulf States as a “one-country initiative” to use Secretary Kerry’s words. On the contrary, the Obama administration wishes to engage Tehran on regional issues beyond the nuclear deal and an alliance with Gulf States explicitly or implicitly aimed at Iran would render this difficult.

And fourthly, Gulf States have differences among themselves which need to be resolved if the group is to emerge as a solid bloc.

The 26th Arab League summit held in late March in Sharm al-Sheikh ended with a final communiqué announcing the establishment of a unified Arab force to address regional security challenges. This is not going to be an easy task given the multiple divisions and turmoil in the Middle East. If Gulf States can succeed in creating a joint security structure to be substantially supported by the US this would already be an achievement.

At this juncture, whether the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen would achieve its objective or not remains a question mark. Through this intervention Gulf States intended to show that they can flex their muscles and make a difference. Their handling of the prelude to the Camp David summit has weakened this message. Obviously they are not happy with Washington’s regional policies and they are looking for a more structured defense relationship. But somehow they have made themselves look like a group of countries in disarray, extremely wary of Iran’s growing power and desperate for US protection.

Very soon the world will once again witness the resumption Iran-P5+1 talks and Foreign Minister Zarif negotiating with the Ministers of world’s leading powers reflecting Iran’s self-confidence.

Such contrasting images do not serve Gulf States’ interests.

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