US-GCC Camp David Summit: An Overview

18 May 2015

US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit meeting at Camp David ended with a Joint Statement and an Annex which contains additional detail on future avenues of cooperation.

The Gulf States had four major expectations from the summit:
• Assurances that the Iran nuclear deal will not harm their interests,
• As strong a commitment as possible from Washington to their security,
• A further commitment to cooperate in countering Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, and
• Enhanced cooperation on regional issues.

Iran Nuclear Deal:
The Joint Statement says that the leaders “reviewed the status of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, and emphasized that 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.

This seems to reflect the position of the Obama administration rather than the Gulf States in view of the statements of doubt as to the terms of a final deal by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister al-Jubair as well as by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former chief of intelligence who said that “whatever the Iranians have, we will have too.”

There should be no question that at Camp David, the Gulf leaders and particular the Saudis were warned of the dangers of a regional nuclear arms race.

Security cooperation:
The Joint Statement says that “the United States is prepared to work jointly with the GCC states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state’s territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the UN Charter. In the event of such aggression or the threat of such aggression, the United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners.”

Since a NATO-like defense arrangement has not been in the cards, the language used here defines the limits of Washington’s commitment to Gulf States’ security. The words “inconsistent with the UN Charter” appear to have been put there to raise the “threat threshold”.

The Annex to the Joint Statement refers to the setting up of a senior working group to pursue the development of rapid response capabilities, taking into account the Arab League’s concept of a “unified Arab force” to mount or contribute in a coordinated way to counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and stabilization operations in the region. Although such an Arab force is regarded a distant dream by many observers the language used here puts it in a positive context.

The Annex also identifies GCC ballistic missile defense architecture, military exercises, training partnerships, maritime and cyber security, fast-tracking of arms transfers as fields for future cooperation. Modalities, however, will have to be discussed.

Joint Statement and the Annex say in identical language that “as with Operation Decisive Storm, GCC states will consult with the United States when planning to take military action beyond GCC borders, in particular when U.S. assistance is requested for such action.”

This gives the impression that the US was not informed or consulted on the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen as early as it would have liked.

Iran’s destabilizing activities:
The Joint Statement says 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.”

It also refers to United States’ and GCC’s willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security.

All of this must be compromise language sending a message to Iran. The Gulf States would surely have preferred stronger language.

Enhanced cooperation on regional issues:
In reflecting what is essentially the view of the Obama administration the leaders have “decided on a set of common principles, including a shared recognition that there is no military solution to the regions’ armed civil conflicts, which can only be resolved through political and peaceful means; 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.”

In my previous spot I had referred to what President Obama had told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in early April about the need for reform in Sunni Arab allies like Saudi Arabia. The President had concluded that part of the interview by saying “that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s the one that we have to have.”

How much of that tough conversation the President had with Gulf leaders behind closed doors understandably could not be reflected in the Joint Statement. But the reference both in the Joint Statement and the Annex to inclusive governance, protection of minorities and human rights gives the impression that the question of reform was raised.

The heavy emphasis put on the Joint Statement and the Annex on fighting ISIL, al Qaida and al Nusrah combines America’s regional priority with the concerns of Gulf States. The reference in the Syria paragraph of the Annex to the need to intensify efforts to prevent the financial flow or any form of assistance to ISIL and al Nusrah Front and the movement of foreign fighters constitutes a message to all those who are trying to bring down President Assad with a “ends justify the means” mentality.

All things considered, it may be said that the Camp David Summit has not fully met the expectations of either the Gulf States or the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the US has thus reiterated its commitment to Gulf States’ security and a number of avenues for future cooperation have been identified. It can also be said that Camp David consultations must have left all sides with a better understanding of their respective positions on a wide range of regional issues.

What the Gulf States now need to do is to start overcoming their own differences, set a regional example by finding a political solution to the Yemen conflict, increase their defense cooperation and thus create an opportunity for greater Arab unity. This remains a huge task in the face of the Arab Spring turmoil and the current political and sectarian divisions.

A nuclear deal will no doubt greatly enhance Iran’s regional and global standing. It will bring down barriers to Western investment. If all of this encourages some internal reform, no matter how slow the pace, that would also constitute a challenge for the Gulf States.

As for Turkey, we need to stop shows of bravado and focus first on improving our democratic performance and second on giving whole-hearted support to political solutions to regional conflicts. With ISIL, al Nusrah and other terrorist groups getting entrenched across our borders we have no other choice.

A final word: In my previous spot, in addressing the question of attendance to the summit, I said that 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. I admit being proven wrong. The King went instead to a horse show in Britain.

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